On the hard red road: As a road cuts into their rainforest home, the Mayagna people consider how much modernity they really want
October 21, 2012
The road through the jungle from the gold-rush town of Bonanza to the tiny Mayagna settlement of Sunawas is dead straight. If you know Nicaragua at all this would strike you as very odd. Another striking thing about this particular highway is its colour. Here, where it rains 340 days a year and the eye is bombarded by a primal tangle of every kind of green, the Bonanza-Sunawas road is defiantly red.
When I travelled along it eight years ago the first phase of construction was underway. The road promised to tunnel 8.3km through an antique vegetal tumult of lianas and granadilla, ceiba and mahogany trees into one of the last surviving tracts of lowland rainforest in Central America. A second phase was planned to extend the route another 10km or so from Sunawas to Musawas, on the fringes of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve — an area about the size of El Salvador, home to about 15,000 Mayagna Indians and, excepting the Amazon, the largest expanse of pristine rainforest on the planet.
Phase one was to cost 4.5 million córdobas, just under $200,000 (or around £120,000). It was an unfeasible sum for the Nicaraguan government, so 95 per cent of the funds were provided by the Danish government’s development organisation, DANIDA, with the remaining $10,000 raised by the local municipality. Both the national transport ministry and the local authorities were in favour of the project, which would open up a previously remote area, halving the journey time from Musawas to Bonanza, and making it easier for locals to take their goods to market and ferry the sick, elderly and pregnant to the nearest clinic. Mayagna community leaders were also broadly positive. But there were those who worried that the road might change their lives in unpredictable ways.
That the money had gone through and construction began is itself a minor miracle. It’s hard to get anything off the ground in Nicaragua. I moved to the country in 2002, seduced by its spectacular landscape and tortured history but, above all, drawn to the place by a love affair with Rigoberto Sampson Davila, a Nicaraguan doctor.
It is June 2004 and Rigo and I are making our way along the new road with the aim of exorcising some old ghosts. Rigo came this way in the late ’80s, as a 19-year-old Sandinista conscript. His family had returned to Nicaragua 10 years before, from a comfortable exile in New York City — where Rigo’s father, Rigo Snr, was training to be a cardiac surgeon — to join in the revolution against the dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Rigo Snr soon found himself in charge of medical services for the Sandinista guerrillas. For two years the family hid out in a remote hut in the forest, hoping Somoza’s death squads wouldn’t find them. Rigo Snr would often be away for weeks at a time, the first news of his return coming only when the door creaked open late one night and the familiar, loved, face appeared, only to disappear again into the forest before the sun came up.
Until now the only alternative to machete-ing a path through the forest has been to paddle along the crocodile- and snake-infested rivers in dug-out pirogues
The camp to which the teenaged Rigo had been conscripted lay just north of where we are now, on the border with Honduras. For months, his life consisted of long spells of crazed, anxious boredom interspersed with sudden, terrifying engagements with an ‘enemy’ he could neither see clearly through curtains of mist, nor bring himself to hate. War exacts an inescapable price on all those touched by it. The Revolution and the subsequent Sandinista-Contra war had left Rigo tormented by guilt, and a feeling of powerlessness. As a teenager, he had been forced to use his AK47 or face death. He had no idea how many lives he had taken, though he did know that some of them were likely to have been Mayagna Indians, whom the counter-revolutionary Contras employed as jungle guides.
After the war, Rigo followed his father into medicine. But, over the years, the spirits of the fallen had come to haunt him all the more for their numberlessness, the blanks of their faces. How to grieve for the lives of those you have taken when you cannot count them? How to atone?
This is where the new road comes in. Or, rather, the journey we are making, of which the road is part. Rigo is hoping that the completion of the road in a few years time will make further trips here unnecessary. But until then, many of the 15,000 Mayagna Indians who live in and around the Biosphere have no access to the clinic in Bonanza, so we are hoping to bring a rudimentary health service to the four Mayagna settlements of Sunawas, Musawas, Nazareth and Bethlehem. We’ll begin walking on the road, travelling the remainder by dug-out pirogue. We have allowed four days for the trip, but time is elastic here and the only predictable element of the journey is the rain.
Even by the standards of Nicaragua, bested only by Haiti in the Latin American poverty rankings, the Mayagna are poor. For the most part they do not speak Spanish, and with burgeoning and vocal Mestizo and Carib populations on the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts to deal with, successive Nicaraguan governments have found it very easy to ignore them. Their infant mortality rates compare with those in most impoverished parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Their average lifespan is 47. Most live by growing corn, rice and bananas in tiny gardens cleared from the jungle, and supplement their diet with fish, birds and forest animals. It’s a subsistence living, though it is now threatened by newcomers to the area who understand that while the region is remote, unmapped, and largely inaccessible, it is also potentially rich: these incomers stand to gain as much from the road as the Mayagna themselves. Yet the Mayagna rightly see themselves as the custodians of the last surviving primary rainforest in Central America, an area more biodiverse than the US, Canada and Mexico combined.
The Danish development agency DANIDA daily makes difficult decisions about where to direct resources, but its agents have decided that the road will be a lifeline investment. Until now the only alternative to machete-ing a path through the forest has been to paddle along the crocodile- and snake-infested waters of the Coco, Waspuk and Pis Pis rivers in dug-out pirogues. The road, this bright artery, is a kind of miracle, an antidote to the slow and serpentine progress imposed by nature in these parts: a straight red road to progress. If Mayagna leaders hadn’t been generally in favour of the project, DANIDA would not have begun to build it…