The Nicaragua Canal: A Sad Example Of How Narrow Our Vision Of Economy Is

You’ve probably heard about the pharaonic trans-oceanic canal a Chinese company plans to build in Nicaragua.

Recently as I was talking to a friend, I asked about his opinion on this project. He firmly said: “I believe it’s a great project; it’s a unique opportunity for a whole nation to grow economically and beat poverty.”

I’ve seen many individuals sharing similar opinions as my friend’s. If you read my blog frequently, you probably imagine that these answers feel wrong to me and I’d like to detail my thoughts in this article. I’m convinced that this project isn’t a nicaraguan problem but a matter of concern for every citizen of this planet.

As a reminder, I was living in Nicaragua for several months last year. I visited most of the region and spent days living with tribes like the Miskito and Garifuna on the east coast where the canal will pass through. Now I travel the globe with my partner Ruth who’s from that beautiful part of the world.

Coming back to my friend’s words, what does “growing economically” mean?

The etymology of “economy” comes from the Greek “oikonomia” which means “household management”. In other words, it means that the purpose of economy is to manage the production and exchange of goods and services to preserve life without damaging our house; that is, the biosphere (thus the prefix “eco”). When we hear that a solution is “economically” profitable but we see that it’s going to negatively impacting the local environment and communities, the fundamental notion of “preserving life without damaging the biosphere” seems totally missing. This isn’t “economy”.

In the western way of thinking, we’ve become used to believing that economy means “creating jobs” and “producing money”. We created indicators to track employment rates and income generation and we gradually started to believe they measure what makes life worthwhile, thus, we have built our whole civilization on making these indicators progress. We believe that economy, society and environment are separate activities that can’t grow unless one is compromised. After two centuries of “modern economics” based on these principles, we feel we can preach about development to “under-civilized” communities when in fact we are trapped by an outdated vision of the world; stuck by an outdated reasoning coming from the industrial age that makes us believe economy exists to serve rational individuals that operate separated from their communities and land.

Thankfully, local tribes are aware of the delusion and I believe some of their leaders could teach us a lesson or two about life and humility. In Pearl Lagoon, the atlantic coast of Nicaragua, I clearly remember a mindful conversation with a chief of a Miskito community. Within these rural areas, the fundamental way of seeing life and thus economy is drastically different. As well explained in this beautiful video, locals have a strong connection to their environment and are very appreciative of their communities. In these tribes, the vision of life is based on the principle of oneness: According to them, there’s no separation between the self, other living things and Mother Earth, they are part of the whole and the whole is part of them.

I was pleasantly surprised to understand how aware locals were about the myth of money and globalisation. Being forced to leave their land and move to urban areas to work is the opposite of what they call “development”. The “job creation” touted by the government is seen as a threat to their fundamental connection with the biosphere and the community. Accepting the canal project also means letting the global monoculture overcome the rich local culture of these tribes. The canal represents the destruction of their roots, history and souls. In addition, locals are aware that accepting the canal project means letting the future of their community be controlled by external institutions: They much prefer to stay “under-developed” (according to western criteria) than trying to grow using solutions decided by third parties.

I send them positive energy from Europe to find the courage to never give up the fight and not become trapped by propaganda and smokescreen that highlight the merits of “job creation” and “producing money”. Communities are founded on principles such as transparency, mutual-help, sharing, co-creation, while national currencies facilitate nationalism, colonialism, control, repetitive individual work and competition: Both worlds are fundamentally based on antagonistic values. Like all countries in the world, I argue that what Nicaragua needs right now is the opposite: balancing its globalisation with the growth of resilient communities. Thankfully permaculture farm projects on island Ometepe are leading the way to create sustainable solutions in Nicaragua that aim at helping locals while truly respecting their community and land.

The country can also find inspiration by looking at initiatives in neighboring countries where mindful projects are bringing back cohesion and strength within communities. Hundreds of kilometers up north, in Honduras, a project called Gota Verde started in 2007 in the disadvantaged region of Yoro. Honduras imported 100% of its fuel, making local communities whose activities depend on fuel extremely vulnerable to external changes. Aware of this problem, the Yoro community — supported by a Dutch NGO called STRO — started to experiment the production and use of a biofuel coming from locally grown jatropha seeds. As locals wanted to avoid local wealth to flow outside their region, they decided to create a community currency called Peces, which was backed by 1 liter of biofuel. Biofuel had to be bought in local currencies, which means that you had to exchange first some Lempiras, the national currency in Honduras, for Peces. The biofuel producers could then spend their Peces within the community businesses, to buy food or get a haircut for example. These business owners could in turn buy biofuel with the Peces received.

1 Pez, a local currency in the region of Yoro, Honduras

Locals in Nicaragua would be pleased to have some of the community problems fixed and see the local area thrive, but as explained previously, developments could never be done at the expense of their land nor the community. The Gota Verde project in Honduras is a great example of how to develop simple and resilient economic circles that strengthen community on a social and economic aspect, while co-creating with the local environment.

If institutions want to truly give Nicaragua’s most disadvantaged community a hand, they should follow the Dutch NGO STRO’s framework: Engaging in a first round of observations and conversations with locals to understand deeply the local context, then share ideas, co-create and test solutions that could fix the community’s problems.

Beyond the production of biofuel which is in itself an excellent initiative, the example in Honduras also highlights that thriving and strong communities can be re-created via the introduction of local currencies focused on a specific mission. After all, currencies are simply collective conventions that aim at engaging everyone in building a common future, even if the western world tends to forget this fundamental principle too.

I hope these lines will bring more awareness about the role of an economy, the inevitable negative consequences of globalization driven by conventional currencies as well as the sustainable solutions that already exist and that local communities can adopt in order to foster resilience. I took the example of the Nicaragua canal project because it’s a hot topic today and I feel a special connection with this country and its inhabitants. However, the same thinking process can be applied to countless issues our world is facing nowadays. Think about the chinese high-speed train in Laos. Think about the new airport in Nantes, France. Have a look at how palm oil production in Borneo, Malaysia or intensive fishing in Lake Victoria, Tanzania has already damaged local life. Each time you hear about a new project that is “economically” profitable, please investigate how it truly aims at creating sustainable solutions for local community’s problems and not simply “creating jobs” and “bringing more money” that will only perpetuate the old story. It’s our mission, you and I, to highlight the truth and stop the myth of endless growth on our finite planet that irreversibly ruins local life and local environment. It’s time for humanity to switch to a new story. You are a true actor of the change. Harness each opportunity to help trapped individuals evolve and be confident that there will be more ripple effects that you think.

Feel free to write down a comment if you’d like to share your opinion about these topics and glad to see you join the community newsletter if you haven’t yet. I’d like to finish with this beautiful quote:

“I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man.” — Sun Bear of the Chippewa Tribe


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