The Rama population has shrunk very considerably but is again increasing. The 2005 Census estimated that there were 4,185 Rama in the country, while other estimates now put them at around 2,000. Most are settled on Rama Cay, which is a small densely populated island in the Bay of Bluefields. Another very small group of Rama live in communities spread along the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACS).
Despite language loss, the Rama maintain a very distinct cultural identity based on traditional self-sufficient subsistence strategies and a shared history. Mutual assistance remains an important cultural/economic factor in activities such as agriculture and home building. The traditional Rama lifestyle is based on detailed knowledge of the region’s flora, fauna and marine life. The Rama build small boats or dories and are skilful navigators. Their in-depth knowledge of marine conditions has long earned them recognition as being the best seafarers on the coast.
In earlier periods the Rama were known to occupy the entire Caribbean coast down to the present–day border with Costa Rica including hinterland areas. Studies place the Rama in the Chibcha language group, making them related to coastal indigenous peoples in Honduras (Paya), Costa Rica (Guatuso, Talamanca), Panama (Kuna, Waimi), Colombia (Chibcha), as well as their Mayangna neighbours.
After several generations of colonial contact the Rama language entered into severe decline. A 1988 study indicated that only 58 mostly older people still knew the language. Today the Rama primarily speak Rama-Creole, a language very similar to the Creole English spoken by other coast populations. Since the 1980s, the community has been working to revitalize use of Rama through the Rama Language Project.
One of the main challenges currently facing Rama and other indigenous peoples is the possible construction of the Grand Nicaragua Canal. The canal is a highly controversial US$50 billion programme involving the government and a Chinese company to construct what would be the world’s largest canal between the Pacific and the eastern coast. Though the project has struggled to get off the ground, due to financing problems, the concession to build it (Law 840) has already been approved by Nicaragua’s National Assembly in June 2013.
Rama are especially concerned that they will lose all their land, much of which has already affected by mestizo migration and settlement. The proposed route of the canal would cleave Rama territory in two, making it much harder to travel between northern and southern parts. It would also destroy their current source of fish and greatly reduce available farmland.
Current plans are for the Caribbean terminus to be built just south of Monkey Point at Bangkukuk Taik. The mouth of the canal would be at Punta Gorda, just south of Bangkukuk Taik while Bangkukuk would be the site of a deep-water port, leading to the displacement of a Rama community living there. It is one of the very few places left with residents who are fluent in the endangered Rama language.
A key issue for the Rama has been the lack of meaningful consultation leading to their free, prior and informed consent. While the Attorney-General wrote a letter to community leaders in January 2015, promising to adhere to international standards concerning indigenous peoples’ rights, Law 840 was rushed through without any participation by affected local communities. In 2014, community leaders had drafted a protocol outlining the steps that needed to be taken to ensure that the consultation on the canal is meaningful, including that all their members can take part, and that all necessary information is provided in a culturally and linguistically appropriate way – they feel that this protocol has been completely ignored.