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The Nicaraguan Canal Problem: Growth, Sustainability, and Construction Woes

For over a century Nicaragua has envisaged the construction of an inter-oceanic canal in hopes of achieving both economic independence and international recognition of Nicaragua as a focal point for international trade. In June 2013, a majority vote lead by President Daniel Ortega and the heavily socialist political party, the Sandinistas, passed a bill in Nicaragua’s National Assembly granting Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Company (HKND) the rights to the construction of this canal, reviving the hopes and dreams of many Nicaraguans. However, the passage of the bill brought to light the sacrifice Nicaragua would have to endure and the rights in addition to freedoms they would be forced to surrender in exchange for their vision. Bill 35 grants the company a renewable 50 year concession to build and operate the canal; limiting Nicaraguans to the rights to  only 10% of the profits of the project for the next 100 years, should it be realized. The bill also gives the company rights to tax-free side projects such as a cargo rail way and two free trade zones. Astoundingly, nowhere in the contract is the company even obligated to build the  canal, while utilizing the benefit of tax free operations; and Nicaragua only receives money when the project ensues.

Yet, Sandinista rhetoric is certainly convincing. A project of this size and potential would certainly provide Nicaragua – the poorest country in Central America – with the means for development and a wealth of much needed job creation. Fittingly, trends in global shipping are demanding a larger and more sophisticated water way to increase sales that not even the new set of locks being constructed in Panama can facilitate. In comparison, the proposed canal in Nicaragua would be the largest and most sophisticated water way in the region with the ability to carry the top 10% of the world’s largest merchant ships. Unfortunately, the pretty and neat picture President Ortega paints disguises the messy reality.

In addition to the loss and injustice Nicaraguan society would suffer at the hands of the profiteering HKND, improved economic independence, growth and stability would come at a potentially devastating ecological cost. The chosen trade route for the canal cuts right across Lake Nicaragua; the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and an important resource for various ecological systems and drinking water within the region. Although this route was more expensive and less eco-friendly, it was chosen among four alternatives with little explanation from HKND. Moreover, Bill 35 grants HKND the rights to the lake, 16 water sheds and 15 protected areas wherein 25% of the rainforest in Nicaragua is concentrated.

Internationally, scientists and environmentalists are sounding the alarm to forewarn the dangers of using Lake Nicaragua as the trade route for the canal. In an interview with Tierramerica, Jaime Barquero, a scientist who advises President Ortega on environmental issues, warns that any small leak, an earthquake, or the strong winds that frequently blow in the region could cause an ecological catastrophe that would forever put an end to human consumption from the lake and possibly from surrounding water sheds. He advises that there is still enough time to rectify this and we do not need to make the mistake of endangering the biggest source of water in the country and Central America. In his opinion, no canal is worth as much as that lake. For now, it would seem that Ortega is putting some of Barquero’s research to good use. On the 4th of January, the head of the canal authority, Manuel Coronel Kautz announced that the construction of the canal will be delayed until 2015- citing that more needs to be done in the way of feasibility studies and the designation of an appropriate route. However, it still remains to be understood how the government will decide what constitutes value and thereby decide what may be sacrificed if there is no alternative. For instance; is the lake worth more than the canal, when it concerns the future of thousands of Nicaraguans who live on less than a dollar a day? Or is the improved economic future of Nicaragua worth more than the sovereignty of its lands and the rights of its people?

There is no question that, if a foreseeably stable and safe option exists for the construction of the canal -away from Lake Nicaragua- then tremendous value lies in the canal and the assurance of stability and economic growth that it represents for the people. However, if a new trade route outside of Lake Nicaragua cannot be found and agreed upon for the proposed canal; the waters muddy further and the answers to these questions is not so clear. What is clear is that President Ortega seems resolute in his conviction to begin construction in 2015 and this means that international presence and solidarity will be needed to support the environmental scientists in their struggle against the deep pockets of the Chinese conglomerate. After all, in 2010 President Ortega gave the Magna Carta a Sandinista makeover; re-writing 39 articles and making it constitutional for him to enjoy unlimited successive presidencies. Nicaraguans do not have the luxury of stalling the project for a change of presidency in 2016. Unfortunately, it is very likely that Ortega and his ambitions for Lake Nicaragua are not going anywhere.

– M’Lisa Colbert

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