PEARL LAGOON CAYS
Nothing gets my blood boiling more than places like the Pearl Lagoon Cays. The series of events become a can of worms that focus on wrongdoing, corruption, illogical thinking and crimes against humanity. I think the worst part is it happens in one of the more beautiful backwater spots on earth.
Indian tribes have lived in the sparsely populated eastern side of Nicaragua for many, many generations. As is the case with the modern world, human tendencies prevail no matter what your culture or ethnicity. Such is the case here. The islands were owned by the leading families of the tribes in the region. As the modern world began to influence the region, the traditional culture adopted, in part, the western influence. Even so, the area was terribly impoverished.
To add to the misfortune of the area, by 1900 big American companies had discovered the agricultural value of the area. American owned plantations of sorts began springing up. Many Black Americans struggling to build lives for their families, especially in spots like Louisiana, were hired to work these large plots of land in this area of Nicaragua. The opportunities were simply better there than here in the USA for many of the families that settled there. However, a couple of decades later, the American companies determined the region was just not as profitable as it had been. The companies quickly left Nicaragua leaving their workers stranded.
There was little to do for these migrants but to attempt to carve out a life where they were. The Indians had figured this out in generations prior as they didn’t need jobs. The Black population was left rather helpless.
The eastern end of Nicaragua was not politically important to the Nicaraguan Government. There was no infrastructure, few people and terrain not conductive to development. There simply were too few voters to demand the attention the area needed. Unemployment was chronically 50% or greater.
As the years went by, western ideals became more and more entrenched. Sure the native tribes still adhered to some of their traditional ways, but this was due more to economic reasons than a quest to hold on to the ‘tried and true’ old ways of life.
When a person of Greek heritage showed up with a realtor and began buying the tiny island gems for amounts that represented what could very well be a lifetime’s earnings in the economically depressed region, the families of the native leaders likely had few qualms about signing on the dotted line. They did hold the title and they did sell. They did get the sale recorded at the Government Office, they did get the money and all parties seemed to find this perfectly fine.
Soon the buyer started selling the islands at ten times what he paid to obviously well-moneyed families seeking a tropical island paradise far from the touristy traps that were once unspoiled. Even at those prices, when compared to the other tropical island offerings, these islands were only a tiny fraction of a typical price tag.
The islands offered quite a lure. If I had the money I’d own one! One of the attractions is the lack of tourists. There is not a Club Med, a Starbucks or McDonalds for hundreds of miles! The little town closest to the islands, Pearl Lagoon, only had about 1,000 people then. There were no roads to Pearl Lagoon and streets were sidewalks in the town with plentiful vegetation between store entrances and the sidewalk in much the same way an American home enjoys a front yard and back yard. Many of the people speak English. Tropical storms might form in the region but a devastating hurricane is something one reads about striking at some distant location. Labor is plentiful so you can hire a maid and groundskeeper plus a handyman for nothing, when compared to European or North American wages. Construction costs are so low, you can build a nice place for much, much less than anyone might suspect. You can get to Bluefields in a couple of hours and hop a plane back home anytime you’d like. The area is just, well, perfect, if you’re looking for your own piece of tropical island paradise.
Needless to say, the fellow found some buyers and in a short time houses were built with homes for the hired help. A couple of owners operated tiny resorts much more like a tropical bed and breakfast operation than hotel. Everything seemed fine but there was an ugly undercurrent churning up the tranquil waters.
The native groups still viewed the islands as a part of their traditional fishing grounds. They might come ashore on one of the islands, gut and clean their fish, leaving the remains on the shore. Owners didn’t like trespassers and didn’t care for what was left behind because the entrails were a perfect breeding ground for sand flies, a pesky stinging little fellow about as well liked as fire ants in places like Texas.
This spat caused the can of worms to open. Questions over whether the families of the native population had the right to sell the islands surfaced. There were reports the real estate agent was possibly not on the up and up in his dealings and that rumor quickly spread to the buyer with some calling him a criminal. There were claims the deeds held by the native families were never good in the first place as they belonged to the tribe with the family being the designated caretaker, so to speak. Then there were claims the deeds were transferred by Government officials after bribes were paid to push through what was called an illegal transfer of ownership. Next the national government claimed land of traditional people could not be sold. If it sounds like a nightmare, you are indeed correct.
Jumping on board are now the illogical thinking foreigners who claim it is another attempt by the world’s rich to exploit the poor natives. I think those folks are wrong-headed in their thinking. The facts clearly show legitimately issued deeds being transferred according to Nicaraguan law on all aspects. The native families did indeed sell. The government had issued the original deed and approved the sale. If blame needs to be laid, it would be well centered on the native families and corrupt government who has taken a knee-jerk approach to cover their ‘so-called’ blunder. If greed is involved, point directly at the native families. If fault must be identified, it must be laid on the government should any of these claims have any legitimacy. The current island owners are merely victims in this play of events.
Clearly it is comparable to buying an old house that has earned a ‘historic‘ designation. Everything checks out, the sale goes through and you make the mortgage payment and get the title. Then a distant relative demands to live in the house you now own. You balk at the idea, but are told the original deed was likely no good, was transferred illegally via bribe or oversight, that you can no longer own it because it was never permitted to be sold and the government now claims homes with ‘historic’ designation, by law cannot be sold. Who is the victim here and who is the bad guy?
This is where the situation stands in Pearl Lagoon Cays. Where will all of this go? Only time will tell the complete story, but for now not much has changed. For the most part the biggest difference has been in the island owners trying to embrace the people of the region. I would think the matter will settle down and nothing will change. It has been said in Pearl Lagoon that a good settlement would be for the island owners to leave the island they own for one year, then pay a small lease per year when they return. It sounds fairly reasonable as the lease, in essence, is not so different from a property tax applied by a local government in the United States. As for leaving for one year, I’d be asking about what sort of security the Government would provide for the unattended island. For the government to act, it must admit wrongdoing. For the families that initially sold the islands to act, they must admit they sold out their people in a fit of greed and are the lowest of the low. Meanwhile, the islands offer much needed employment opportunities and a step up in lifestyle from the typical. So what if you cannot gut fish on an island! Is that really that big of a deal? The local people claim their traditional life will end if they can’t come ashore on the private islands. Really? They can’t be serious! So, let me see if I understand this: they can come ashore anytime on 11 of the 18 islands but if they cannot come ashore on the other seven then life as they know it ends. Is this a joke?
THE AREA AND ISLANDS
The region centers around Nicaragua’s largest lagoon. At it’s base is the sleepy backwater town of Pearl Lagoon, some 25 miles from Bluefields, a small city and hub of the region. Pearl Lagoon along with the other smaller settlements have a population of mostly Creoles and Miskitos numbering around 8,500 to 9,000. The town of Pearl Lagoon is slow paced and friendly. Most of the people earn a meager living by fishing. There is electricity from 9am to 1am and a recent cell phone tower connects the area with the outside world. There are no roads to the town. English is a common language and we understand the local radio broadcasts feature mainly reggae music with English speaking announcers. Certainly this is an oddity for Nicaragua.
The Pearl Lagoon Cays, which number 18, cover about 250-260 acres in land area and the estimated population is about 14. The islands are covered with lush green vegetation, lined with white sandy beaches and the waters have the typical Caribbean breathtaking beauty.
We understand 7 of the islands are inhabited at least part of the time with the remaining islands either still for sale through real estate brokers who specialize in private islands or simply uninhabited.
While there is some tourism, there is little for the tourist aside from fishing, some snorkeling or diving. Just doing nothing under the tropical sun is offered everywhere. It is easy to hire a boat to head out to the islands in Pearl Lagoon and day trips are offered although more by chance than a scheduled activity. Dining on lobster, shrimp and local cuisine is a plus. One might time their visit to see the nesting of Hawksbill Turtles. It is not unusual to spot dolphins on the excursion to the cays. Hiring a boat with captain might run around $250 US per day and a fresh seafood lunch around $5 US per person. These prices are much lower than the touristy locales.
The islands range in size from about 2 or 3 acres to upwards of 25 to 30 acres. Coconuts and tropical fruits grow on these islands. The islands, for the most part, are not affected by the human activity. The eighteen jewels are located fairly close to one another (usually one or two neighboring islands are in sight either on the horizon or perhaps almost a kilometer or so distant. The islands are about 20 to 25 miles from the town of Pearl Lagoon.
PEARL LAGOON MONEY
Certainly Nicaraguan currency is used in the region but the US Dollar is equally accepted. On the islands, however, the private owners as a security measure, decided to create a local currency for the Pearl Lagoon Cays for the hired help. The thinking is the scrip and coins would be safer than actual currency as the small population of the regions allows everyone to be known to one another. A person, for example, known not to be associated with the islands and not associated with a Pearl Lagoon merchant presenting a Pearl Lagoon Cays coin or scrip would me met with suspicion but would not if they presented Nicaraguan or US currency. As the merchants have first hand knowledge of the financial security of the island owners, we understand, the merchants will accept the local Pearl Lagoon Cays scrip and coinage for purchases, gaining reimbursement from the island owners in much the same way a personal check is converted to cash.
It is thought the total sum of scrip and coinage identified as Pearl Lagoon Cays coins and scrip totals around 1,000 to 2,000 in total.