Last year, Nicaragua awarded a Chinese firm a 100-year concession to construct a channel to rival the Panama Canal. Construction for the proposed 178-mile waterway is expected to begin in December, with $50 billion in funding from the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company, or HKND.
However, Danish NGO Forests of the World has criticized both the Nicaraguan government and the HKND for failing to involve the indigenous residents of the region in the planning process, especially considering in the devastation of the forests and in the mass displacement the project will cause.
According to Forests of the World, the proposed canal will fragment the Rama and Kriol territory, dividing the region into two parts, and will plough through two UNESCO biosphere reserves that include a number of endangered species, including jaguars, great green macaws, tapirs and sea turtles.
Claus Kjaerby, the Central American representative for Forests of the World, has stated that the canal will cause negative impacts on “protected wetlands vital to migratory birds, the Central American biological corridor, destruction of freshwater habitat, deterioration of drinking water reserves and the inevitable pollution of Lake Nicaragua.”
Environmentalists are particularly worried about the traffic that the canal could inevitably bring to Lake Cocibolca. As the largest body of freshwater in Central America, Lake Cocibolca is at high risk of salinization as well as the added maintenance of disposing of excavated dirt. Moreover, the potential seismic activity from nearby active volcanoes is a further concern for the canal.
In addition to hundreds of Nicaraguan farmers protesting the construction, Nicaragua’s indigenous groups have contacted the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights for legal advice, arguing that they will be forced to relocate with little support from the government, which violates Nicaraguan law and international labor standards.
The Nicaraguan government stated that while it did inform the indigenous people of the canal, it did not have any formal discussion regarding the project. The company managing the canal, the Great Inter-Oceanic Canal Commission, has said it would provide landowners with fair compensation.
The government has also alleged that businesses and political leaders considered five different routes before settling on the current route, which they consider to be the least damaging route. Paul Oquist Kelley, executive secretary of the Nicaraguan Grand Canal Commission, stated that the route, despite it not being the cheapest option, was chosen because the path has the lowest environmental and social cost.
The NGO has urged Danish firm Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies, to influence the canal construction to prevent environmental damage and protect indigenous rights.
On the other hand, President Daniel Ortega has indicated that the project would provide enough work to help alleviate poverty in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where poverty affects more than half of the population.
The Panama Canal generates approximately $1 billion in revenue annually to Panama, and a Nicaraguan Canal could generate a similar stream of revenue.
A Nicaraguan Canal would also have several benefits comparable to the Panama Canal, such as in reducing the length of trips. For example, a journey from Los Angeles to New York would have approximately 800 km less to travel. The canal would also be able to accommodate ships up to 250,000 tons, more than double the freight limit of the Panama Canal.
Nonetheless, the lack of discourse between the government and the indigenous people residing in the proposed canal land reveals a troubling lack of transparency and agreement regarding the project.
– William Ying