Plantation Palimpsests in Urban Nicaragua

From the Series: Plantationocene

Paul Klee (1879-1940). Der Dampfer fährt am botanischen Garten vorbei, 1921, 199. (The Steamboat Passes by the Botanical Garden, 1921, 199). Pen on paper on cardboard. a) 11,9 x 28,9 cm b) 10.4 x 28.8 cm. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Image credits: Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Image archive. Image contrast has been edited from the original.

In 2017, we organized a community photo-mapping exercise in Ciudad Sandino, a working-class city located to the west of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Small teams of participants walked through different parts of the urban environment and took pictures of the good, the bad, and the interesting.

Josh’s team toured the neighborhood of Villa Soberana, which included a relatively wealthy residential neighborhood, a semi-legal slaughterhouse, and the fence-line of Central America’s largest zona franca, or free trade zone, a massive 130,000 square meter facility completed in 2009. Along the fence-line, growing between some broken pieces of concrete was a cluster of cotton plants, not planted or wild exactly, but volunteered. To the group, the spindly plants, juxtaposed with a massive garment production facility, told an interesting story: this city used to be a plantation, and in some lingering sense still is (McKittrick 2013).

City as Palimpsest, Plantation as Present

Palimpsests are recycled manuscripts—documents in which traces of the past writing tended to reappear so that a single text would reflect a multiplicity. In urban landscapes, palimpsests name how matter can be both absent and present, virtual and actual, timely and untimely (Harvey 1990, 66).

In Ciudad Sandino, those past presences are evident in the footprints left by generations of extractive and racialized modes of petrochemical-driven production. In the 1960s, Managua was a shining modern hub in Central America, replete with high-rises and leafy promenades. Along the shoreline of Lake Managua in poor communities like Los Pescadores, La Tejera, and Miralagos, Nicaragua’s de facto ruler and president-for-life Anastasio Somoza Debayle dreamt of building a boardwalk resembling Miami Beach. He seized his chance in in 1972 when a powerful earthquake, centered directly under the city, leveled 600 city blocks in the city center, killing more than 10,000, and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The disaster was a convenient pretext for the boardwalk designs. Thus, for the second time in a few years, tens of thousands were resettled to an unpopulated tract of land to the west.

The plan was hatched in conversations between Somoza’s inner circle and the dictator’s family friends, including Julio Blandón García, Héctor Argüello, and Róger Riguero (see Barreto 2001). Their families owned haciendas in the area since at least the 1850s, but by the early 1970s cotton markets were in freefall. They eventually warmed to selling plots to the state, paid for by earthquake relief funds from the international community.

Tens of thousands were relocated. Most of the plots were parceled out from Blandón’s land and measured a meager fifteen by thirty meters apiece, with no infrastructure for water, waste, electricity, or roads, masses of laborers relocated from the inner city to the urban margins, ready to pick cotton to its last bloom.

Somoza, Blandón, and their allies fled the country after the 1979 popular revolution. The new Sandinista government parceled the remaining land out to those displaced by the subsequent Contra War, giving preference to Sandinista soldiers. Meanwhile, others’ swaths were reorganized as state-supported cooperatives.

By 1990, the national economy was decimated by war, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (in Spanish: Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN) lost at the polls. A neoliberal government led by Violetta Chamorro turned its focus to foreign investment, and state-supported cooperatives found themselves insolvent overnight. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch added the next layer to Ciudad Sandino’s brief but storied past. The storm dropped almost two meters of water over four days, displacing yet another generation from the same neighborhoods along Lake Managua to small plots of pastureland on the edge of Ciudad Sandino, becoming the neighborhood of Nueva Vida. Meanwhile, the national government shifted focus to export processing and built almost a dozen zonas francas, including the one in Ciudad Sandino.

Traces of Land, Labor, and Capital

In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx calls attention to the generative powers of the nonhuman, the human, and social, captured by the forces of land, labor-power, and capital. “It’s an enchanted, topsy-turvy world,” Marx writes, in which specters of land and capital “ghost-walk” through socially-produced environs.

Ciudad Sandino’s history is often told as if punctuated by disaster: a flood, an earthquake, a war, and a hurricane. As ethnographers, we have drawn upon this narrative not because those events are distant points on a timeline leading toward to present, but to remind ourselves that today’s Ciudad Sandino always contains yesterday’s, and yesterday’s the day before.

The pasts that resurface in the soil, the water, or the air, aren’t ghosts or echoes but real and vibrant elements of recursively and socially produced surrounds. We talked about Ciudad Sandino’s plantation past with several of our participants over the years, and each one of them recalled how those memories are fully present, albeit in different ways.

Don Nicho lives on the the outskirts of Ciudad Sandino. Since he acquired the land in return for his service as a Sandinista soldier, Don Nicho has been cultivating his own small garden, planting avocado, lime, nancite, mango, sour orange, and plantain, alongside other intercroppings of flowers and vegetables. Despite Don Nicho’s care and attention, however, sometimes the plants just shrivel up and die for no apparent reason. “It’s the earth,” he explains, exasperated. “It’s contaminated, and it affects everything.”

A health worker called Ysidra added her own analysis. “Every year the wet season is wetter,” she said, “and the dry season is dustier, and I worry about that happens when breathe in that contamination.” She continued, “I always say, we’re inhaling the sins of our past, and it’s hurting us.”

Hector, a mid-level bureaucrat who participated in our NSF workshop series, took an opportunity in one of our group discussions to expound upon the implications of what he called “light industry” setting up shop in a primarily residential environment. He pointed out that the garment factories continue to dump their wastewater into the city’s storm sewers—ditches originally dug to irrigate the Blandón cotton operation. That water still moved around the landscape as if it were a plantation. Cotton is a water-thirsty crop, but cotton processing is a toxic one. Hector now wondered what was leeching back into the aquifer below.

Memories of cities are composed of fragments and stitched together as narrative. Sometimes they burst up through the ground itself, between cracks in crumbling concrete. When they are overlain in superposition, as the geological frame of the Plantationocene suggests, they should be understood as co-presences that interact, in the present tense, with a past has been passed into durational present. The Plantationocene needs not appeal to geological terminology. It may rather be one of those “nicks in time” (Grosz 2004) that may put conversations about the past, the present, and critical outlooks on the future into conversation.


The material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1648667.


Barreto, Pablo Emilio. 2001. Ciudad Sandino: 31 Años. Managua, Nicaragua: Alcaldía de Managua.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 2004. The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Harvey, David. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Conditions of Cultural Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.

Marx, Karl. 1992. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 3. Translated by David Fernbach. New York: Penguin.

McKittrick, Katherine. 2013. “Plantation Futures.Small Axe 17, no. 3 (42): 1–15.