Francisca Ramírez—known affectionately as “Doña Francisca,” or “Doña Chica”—was born in 1976 in La Fonseca, Nicaragua. When she was growing up, she witnessed deadly battles between the Sandinistas, the ruling government, and the Contras, right-wing rebellion groups. During this time, her father left her mother and Francisca helped support her nine younger siblings by selling fruit and vegetables at local markets.

She grew up to become a proud landowner with trucks she and her family of six use to transport and sell local crops throughout the country.   

In 2013, her land and life came under threat when the Nicaraguan government agreed to allow a Chinese industrialist build an interoceanic canal that would rival the Panama Canal to the north.  The wide, deep canal would slice through 173 miles of land and engulf massive Lake Nicaragua.

If realized, the Grand Interoceanic Canal would break world records: more than twice the length of the Panama Canal, and wide enough for massive, 400,000 ton container ships—the size of skyscrapers. It came with a $40 billion price tag and would generate an estimated $5 million in revenue each year.

However, the project would also lead to environmental devastation and hardship for those communities that would be displaced or impacted by the canal construction.

A law to complete the canal,  written quickly, behind closed doors, without respecting the right of prior consultation, stipulated that authorities were allowed to take over property or land in the area needed to construct the project, which would impact some 100,000 rural and indigenous families.

Francisca’s was one of these families.

According to Francisca, soon, Chinese surveyors entered her land without permission to measure the size of her farm.

To defend her land rights and those of her fellow farmers, Francisca founded Consejo por la Defensa de la Tierra, Lago y Soberanía (Council for the Defence of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty).

“In 2013,” she said. “I dedicated myself to defending human rights, rights to private property, the right to live, the right to have our rights respected, the right to a life with dignity, the right to not allow one person to decide the future of many, the right to protect the environment from those who continue to destroy our earth and fauna.”

Their first task was to create study circles to memorize and understand the canal law  so they could know their rights and keep the government accountable.

While the canal project was eventually put on hold, Francisca and others sought to repeal the canal law to protect their land rights from potential future threats. They also took on other causes, such as educating communities on their land rights, and launching campaigns for the repeal of laws permitting takeover of lands.

To protest the canal law, the Council organized dozens of peaceful marches across the country, demanding its repeal. As a result of these protests, Francisca and her family have faced violence and threats.

But she is not afraid.

She told El Pais: “The truth is that the fear that I feel most is to stop talking or fighting for fear of what they can do to me. Then I say to myself: ‘If nobody is going to make a rock in this world, we’re all going to die.’ And something that we peasants have talked about is that it is better to die fighting than to die begging and out of the lands that belong to us.”  

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