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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.

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