Measuring the Real Impact of a $50 Billion Engineering Marvel

How the Nicaragua Canal pits indigenous tribes against shadowy corporate interests.

Image via Twitter user @ProtestaNica

Last December, an enigmatic Chinese billionaire named Wang Jing, CEO of Hong Kong Nicaraguan Canal Development Group (HKND), broke ground on the $50 billion Grand Nicaragua Canal, a proposed behemoth that would connect the Pacific and the Atlantic. The groundbreaking was a ceremonial procession, celebrating the start of a remote access road, and the definitive beginning of a controversial megaproject that’s been met with vigorous opposition. Although Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, has claimed the canal will generate jobs and help secure a more independent Nicaragua, opponents see the project as a direct menace to indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities, as well as the health of Nicaragua’s vast nonrenewable ecosystems.

Severing Nicaragua with a canal has been a national and international ambition since at least the 19th century, but the epic scale of the current project is unprecedented in its potential for environmental and social devastation. Construction will begin at the mouth of the Brito River on the Pacific Ocean and work inland to Lake Nicaragua. From there, the canal will proceed west along a number of possible routes, destroying an estimated 400,000 hectares of rainforest and wetlands before letting out into the Caribbean. Designs call for a canal capacious enough to accomodate modern cargo supertankers, some of which can stretch longer than the height of the Empire State Building. As a result, the canal’s path through the lake will have to be deepened from 40 to 90 feet. In the process, millions of tons of sediment along the bottom of the lake would have to be dredged up and deposited elsewhere.

Image by Hansg2608 via Wikimedia Commons

Both local and international environmentalists have warned of the huge environmental costs associated with building the canal, but an independent environmental assessment has yet to be published. Curiously, HKND was allowed to contract its own consulting firm to assess the possible damage, and the results are to be handled confidentially, without public input. Lake Nicaragua is a specific area of concern for many scientists. The lake is host to a number of fish unique to the region. The sixteen cichlid species in the lake have been important for evolutionary, ecological, and genetic research, and have been devastated by the invasive African tilapia. With the possible introduction of briny water or bilge water loaded with invasive species, the entire chemical composition of the lake could change.

“It’s almost a complete concession of sovereignty to this Hong Kong based company,” said Thomas Antkowiak, a law professor and director of International Human Rights Clinic of Seattle University School of Law. According to Antkowiak, 52 percent of the route cuts through the Southern Autonomous region (RACCS) of the Caribbean. Rather than consulting the local indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities, as required by national and international law, the government has reportedly offered money to communities to make them sign papers, set up power point presentations about the canal’s benefits, or simply told them next to nothing, merely marking the canal’s route. Forced relocation of people along the route may be inevitable, and many fear that the Rama language, spoken by only a handful of people, would be totally eradicated were the Rama people forced off their constitutionally guaranteed lands.

Protesters march against the canal. Image via Twitter user @NOALCANAL

In response, the clinic and the Nicaraguan-based Center for Legal Assistance to Indigenous Peoples (CALPI), along with indigenous and Afro-Caribbean leaders, filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). They requested an injunction from the IACHR to halt the canal until all the communities involved were duly consulted. IACHR is currently considering the petition.

“We are trying to make the government understand they have to comply with indigenous rights, according to international law,” said Dr. María Luisa Acosta, founder of CALPI and a lawyer for the Rama y Kriol people and Creoles of Bluefield communities. Acosta is one of the most respected and well-known human rights lawyers in Nicaragua, and has extensive history working on indigenous rights. “They’re supposed to have meetings with indigenous peoples as well as the indigenous technical and legal advisors, which they’re not doing. [This isn’t] the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous communities”

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Image by Fernanda LeMarie - Cancillería del Ecuador via Wikimedia Commons

No one’s quite sure who’ll be fronting the projected $50 billion needed to complete the canal, although many suspect the Chinese government may have a hand in funding, especially if the five-year timeline has any basis in reality. The Nicaraguan government granted lavish concessions to HKND, who owns the lease for 50 years, with the possibility to renew for another 50. Some legal experts claim the lease actually exists without a limit. The concession allows the group to build a number of subprojects as well, including free trade zones, an oil pipeline, a railway, a cement plant, airports, and telecommunication infrastructure. Others believe that these subprojects may be HKND’s real ambition.

If there haven’t been any international groups yet making waves to prevent the canal’s construction, that’s because many believed it simply wouldn’t be started, let alone finished. “I cannot let this project become an international joke,” Jing told the BBC in a rare interview. But it was never a joke to most Nicaraguans, who see Ortega’s backing of the project as a wholesale betrayal of the revolutionary Sandinista ideals underlying their government. While indigenous communities have challenged the canal in court, campesinos and farm workers have taken to the streets to air their grievances. Groups resisting the canal have rallied in over 40 anti-canal protests involving tens of thousands of protesters, sometimes leaving protest leaders bloodied and jailed. If Daniel Ortega has, in fact, betrayed Sandinista principles, pushback against the canal may very well revive them.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less