Canal through Nicaragua promises social, ecological mess

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Trees and heritage alike uprooted, water poisoned, people displaced from their homes and animals disappearing from existence; these are the most pressing consequences of modern progress.

The Nicaraguan government plans to build a canal bisecting the country starting this year, linking the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. A maritime shortcut of this magnitude is a frightening idea that would have disastrous ecological, social and political impacts if the project is implemented. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced these plans in the middle of last year, but not much has been done to evaluate the level of destruction such a canal would bring. Opponents must be more vocal about the need for proper research and transparency before the project can be pursued. Otherwise, the negative impacts are inevitable.

While the canal is a monetarily beneficial plan for Nicaragua, the project is much wider in scope than the Panama canal constructed a century ago. The Nicaraguan government claims research is being done to investigate potential impacts on indigenous tribes and natural areas, but no evidence has been published. And even if studies are conducted in the next few months, the Nicaraguan government will have little time to amend the canal plans before December.

The Ortega administration cited that the proposed deal will benefit Nicaragua by creating jobs and initiating infrastructure construction along the canal’s path, boosting the national GDP. But Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in Latin America after Haiti, could not pursue this $40–60 billion project without the help of a major world power.

In essence, the administration is handing the whole construction and operation of the canal to a foreign company for 50–100 years. By doing so, the socialist Ortega administration is contradicting its own platform of anti-privatization.

When the Panama Canal was constructed in the early 1900s, its construction and operation was under the supervision of the United States with the concession that it would be controlled by the U.S. afterward. The current plan for the Nicaraguan canal is similar, but this time with the help of Chinese telecommunications billionaire Wang Jing. The Nicaraguan government gave the Chinese firm Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. (HKND-Group) a renewable 50-year contract to design, build and operate the Nicaragua Canal megaproject.

The canal could potentially be a set up for China to gain a strong foothold in the Western Hemisphere. Despite multiple claims by Wang that HKND-Group is not affiliated with the Chinese government, it is still very likely that the organization is a proxy. Several premiers and Politburo members in China have already had extensive contact with Wang and it seems likely that those connections are playing a role in this business transaction. Many Nicaraguan officials have noted that it is very likely either the Chinese government or its military is looking to benefit heavily from the deal.

Geopolitics aside, the idea of a private company controlling nearly one-third of the nation, possibly for a century, is ridiculous in itself, especially since the Ortega administration has done little to consult the people of Nicaragua on the project. The plan itself has been rushed through the ruling party-controlled Congress despite the lack of details on the costly project.

More than 30 appeals that sought to halt construction plans have been rejected by Nicaragua’s Supreme Court, and many Nicaraguans are unhappy with Ortega’s disregard for the peoples’ voices.

The proposal for the Nicaraguan canal is favored by the current Nicaraguan, Sandinista-dominated government. It was strictly upon party lines that the law was passed. One member of Ortega’s party voted against the law and after 10 days resigned from his position with no explanation.

In carrying out this project there are several issues not currently under discussion that must be considered.

First, the canal would create a biological barrier severing migration routes of land species in the area. Nearly 1 million acres of rain forests and wetlands would be unearthed if this canal is built. It would bisect major nature reserves where endangered species live, as well as disturb species that dwell in Lake Nicaragua when water from the Caribbean and the Pacific filter in through the canal. Furthermore, tourism in Nicaragua would initially decline due to large-scale construction projects disturbing the serene, natural beauty of Nicaragua’s rainforests.

Second, this project would displace many indigenous groups. The expropriation of communal territories of indigenous peoples has upset many in the region and is a clear violation of their rights. According to “The Nicaragua Dispatch,” an independent news website, the territories of both the Rama people and the people of Laguna de Perlas are in the path of five of the six proposed canal routes, but neither group has been consulted on its construction.

“The indigenous people are not opposed to development, but development has to include our communities,” indigenous congressman Brooklyn Rivera said in an article in “The Nicaragua Dispatch.”

The idea of constructing a trans-isthmian canal across Nicaragua is no longer taken seriously because it has been tossed around among nations and private investors for the past few hundred years. So far, little concern has been given to the matter by international conservation groups or other nations in the Western Hemisphere who would also be affected by this installation. The absence of opposition is only allowing Ortega to work more freely and swiftly behind closed doors without pressure from any outside sources. The lack of opposition is only speeding up the process of carrying out the project and could result in serious problems from insufficient research or transparency on the subject.

Neo-colonialism could appear in the form of a canal through the heart of Nicaragua. Despite the beneficial claims of this canal regarding job creation and economic growth, this project is moving too fast and without the proper research or effective transparency to be made truly beneficial to everyone living in Nicaragua. The world’s nations must come together and demand further investigation into the disastrous social and ecological effects the canal will bring in order to delay the project before December.

Stephen Nemeth is an undeclared first-year. He can be reached at snemeth@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklySNemeth.