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Human-Rights Lawyer Brings Nicaraguan Struggle To Cincinnati

By Maria Rogers · November 2nd, 2000 · Burning Questions
What's a human-rights lawyer from Nicaragua doing in Cincinnati?

Educating people, says Maria Luisa Acosta, an attorney helping to preserve the land rights of Nicaragua's indigenous people.

"I want to show the relationship between the indigenous and the environment, so the people of the Nicaraguan Network thought it was a good idea to get it out to more people in different places," she says.

Nicaraguan Network, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., is sponsoring Acosta's visit to the United States, including two days in Cincinnati last weekend. At a potluck dinner at the Su Casa Hispanic Community Center, Acosta says spreading her message outside Nicaragua is new to her.

The Nicaraguan Network has produced a documentary, Our Land and Our Future, about Acosta's efforts to expose the exploitative interests of multinational corporations overshadowing the constitutional rights of indigenous people. The film focuses on Acosta's fight against a proposed "dry canal" to span the width of the nation, destroying two indigenous communities in the process. The Nicaraguan government wants to develop a cross-country route to compete with the Panama Canal for international shipping.

Two proposals for a dry canal are under consideration. Both proposals involve rail lines that would cut through the Cerro Silva Reserve in the southeastern part of the country. The reserve encompasses part of the 3 million to 4 million hectares of rainforest in Nicaragua.

The dry canal would cut in half the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor -- set aside by the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility as land to remain untouched, allowing animals to migrate freely during climate changes.

More important to Acosta's cause, though, is the fact that the railroad cuts through indigenous territory. Under the 1987 Nicaraguan Constitution, indigenous lands cannot be either bought or sold. The two communities it affects have legal rights to the land.

"There is no legal or government department that the indigenous communities can go to and ask for a better commission off the land," Acosta says.

Nicaragua, like most Latin American countries, depends on the exporting of its natural resources to survive, she says. The country attracts multinational companies because they can benefit from financial incentives and cheap labor. And the land is cheap, Acosta says.

A year ago, when President Arnoldo Alemán proposed a contract with one of the dry-canal groups in a bill before the National Assembly, the communities filed suit in the Nicaraguan Supreme Court. Acosta represents the indigenous communities. A ruling is pending.

Acosta worries that unless there are guaranteed protections, multinational corporations will destroy the environment and indigenous communities for profit at a huge cost to the land and people.

Acosta got her start in 1995, when she began putting together a team of lawyers to help indigenous communities. At that time, she was fighting a government contract that allowed a logging company to log 62,000 acres of indigenous territory.

Acosta filed a complaint with the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the indigenous communities. But the government has yet to recognize the decision. Between 1997 and 1998, Acosta tried to negotiate with the government, to no avail.

Acosta then filed a complaint with the International Commission of Human Rights in Washington, D. C. The Nicaraguan government was hard pressed to explain to the commission why it did not honor the Supreme Court's decision, she says.

"It was very important that the commission took the case, because it was the first time an indigenous-land case was used to show a violation of human and environmental rights," Acosta says.

She hopes for a ruling that will set a significant precedent later this month.

Acosta has been to 13 states in 15 days, consulting with attorneys, political officials and environmental think tanks. She hopes she can simultaneously educate people in power and raise funds.

"We need to network," Acosta says. "We don't have a budget, but we know what we need."

Acosta works pro-bono for every case she accepts.

"The people lack legal assistance," she says. "We manage to find someone to pay."

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.


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