Nicaragua: opposition mounts to canal scheme

The Nicaraguan government and Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. (HKND) will soon publish the "exact and definitive map” of the interoceanic canal, with construction slated for begin by year's end. In televised statement, project spokesperson Telemaco Talavera said details will also follow on feasibility and environmental impact studies, which involved a census of 29,000 people in the catchment area of 1,500 square kilometers. The canal will join the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean through a 278-kilometer trench, including 105 kilometers through the southern part of Lake Nicaragua, or Cocibolca (Sweetwater) as it is known in the local indigenous language. (TeleSUR, Nov. 12)

As work is about to commence on the mega-project, protests are mounting. In early October, some thousand residents of La Unión, in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), marched with signs reading "The land is not for sale… Nicaragua will not give up!" and "Ortega: betrayer of the homeland!" Indigenous leader Brooklyn Rivera Bryan highlighted that the canal is slated to pass through a Rama indigenous community, which faces eviction.

The indigenous and Afro-descendant residents of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government (GTR-K), issued a statement protesting that construction of a deep-water port near the Rama community of Punta del Aguila (Bang Kukuk) threatens the inhabitants' traditional way of life. The GTR-K press release charged that the government of President Daniel Ortega has not discussed potential impacts with them, or sought their consent for the project.

At the other end of Nicaragua, some 250 inhabitants of fishing communities along the banks of Lago Cocibolca in Rivas department held a peaceful march protesting the likely evictions that the canal will cause. "We are fishermen and we have livestock, we cannot live in the city, we cannot take the lake and the livestock [when we move]," one local leader declared. (VOXXI, Oct. 26)

'There is going to be a massacre'
On Oct. 26 The Telegraph reported that some 20 residents of Cruz Verde hamlet, on the banks of the lake, took up their machetes to block access by a Chinese census team that attempted to enter the community to conduct a survey for the canal project. One resident of nearby Quebrada Seca said: "This is one of the most fertile regions in Nicaragua, and the government has sold it behind our backs to the Chinese, they've sold our heritage, our sovereignty. There is going to be a massacre because we are not leaving our land, our lives, and we'll fight for it until death."

Quebrada Seca residents told The Telegraph that they had been tricked or intimidated into allowing the census teams from Beijing's parastatal Chinese Institute into their homes. The teams, which include Nicaraguan officials and soldiers carrying AK-47s, are valuing each home. HKND and Telemaco said the allegations were "groundless." But Quebrada Seca community leader Hector Enriquez said: "We are all Sandinistas here, we voted for Daniel, we fought in the revolution, but we feel tricked and disappointed. We fish in the lake and farm the land, that's our life, that's all we have to leave to our children and he [Ortega] wants to give it away to the Chinese."

The canal route will skirt around Concepción and Maderas volcanoes on the lake's Ometepe* Island—a UNESCO biosphere reserve. This is galvanizing environmentalist opposition to the project across Nicaragua. In Juigalpa, academics and activists have formed the group Save Lake Cocibolca. The town (in Chontales department, on the east side of the lake) is one of five urban centers wholly reliant on the lake for water. Until 2006, it only had running water for two hours every fortnight due to chronic shortages caused by contaminated wells. A water treatment plant built with Japanese aid money changed that, but locals now fear a new threat to their water. Said Roger García Ríos, 69, a retired biology professor working with Save Lake Cocibolca: "I'm not against the canal or development, but this project is brutal. It's inhumane and unpatriotic. Any risk to our lake is unacceptable and we will do everything humanly possible to protect it. Without water, there is no life."

Managua's deal with HKND exempts the company and its subsidiaries and subcontractors from taxes, and allows it to operate outside the Nicaraguan legal system. Under a new Canal Law, displaced Nicaraguans will only be compensated the cadastral value of their property, which is usually a fraction of the market value, with no right to appeal. Attorney Mónica López Baltodano launched a legal challenge to the project citing this and 40 other constitutional violations in the concession, but it was rejected by the Supreme Court, which is widely criticized for lacking independence from the executive. The government afterwards amended the constitution to put the canal project beyond legal challenge.

The concession indemnifies HKND against delays due to protests or legal challenges, but contains no language about compensation to Nicaragua if the canal is not completed. Victor Campos of Nicaragua's Centro Humboldt ecology group told The Telegraph: "The big worry is that the canal isn’t built, and the seized land ends up in the hands of private companies."

Sinophobia in Solentiname?
A voice of moral authority was raised against the project when Ernesto Cardenal denounced it as a "monstrosity" in a guest editorial in Spain's El País Nov. 7. The poet and Catholic priest, who served as Nicaragua's culture minister after the 1979 Sandinista revolution, founded a spiritual retreat and arts colony on the Solentiname Islands at the remote southeast end of Lago Cocibolca. His most famous work is El Evangelio de Solentiname (The Gospel of Solentiname). In the editorial, he decries that the project—which is to include airports and free-trade zones at either end—was undertaken without democratic input, and is a bad deal for Nicaragua. He charges that the Islets of Granada, a small archipelago in the lake's northwest, could disappear as the canal's giant locks raise the water levels.

Cardenal protests that the concession "only grants rights to" HKND CEO Wang Jing, "but imposes no obligations." In terms that could be seen as xenophobic, Cardenal repeatedly refers to Wang Jing as the "chino," as in this line: "All our waters, surface and subterranean, have been handed over to a chino."

Regional 'disaster' seen
In February, Nature magazine ran a commentary strongly opposing the project by Axel Meyer, a biologist with Germany's University of Konstanz, and Jorge Huete-Pérez, president of the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences. While the Nicaraguan government claims the mega-scheme will more than triple economic growth while it is under construction, the authors argued that it may cause environmental ruin. "In our view, this canal could create an environmental disaster in Nicaragua and beyond," they wrote. "The excavation of hundreds of kilometers from coast to coast, traversing Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region, will destroy around 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands."

They also warned that "[t]he accompanying development could imperil surrounding ecosystems," especially citing the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve some 240 kilometers to the north of the direct impact zone, and the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, just 115 kilometers to the south. They also said that the probable canal route cuts through the northern sector of the Cerro Silva Natural Reserve.

Meyer and Huete-Pérez noted that the project could result in Lake Nicaragua being infiltrated with salt water, potentially affecting its native species. Bilge water from ships would introduce invasive species to Nicaragua's ecosystems. "This would transform a free-flowing freshwater ecosystem into an artificial slack-water reservoir combined with salt water," they wrote. "Declining populations of native aquatic fauna such as euryhaline bull sharks, sawfish and tarpon, important for sport fishing and tourism, could also suffer."

The writers concluded: "Swift and decisive international action is called for. We need more conservation groups and social organizations to lend their expertise and funds if we are to prevent the tragic devastation of indigenous communities along with terrestrial, marine and freshwater biodiversity and resources in Central America." (Mongabay, Feb. 20)

Isthmus becomes strategic —again
The Chinese role in the project has revived Cold War-era fears about strategic control of the Central American isthmus. The mega-project comes as Russia has a resurgent military presence in the Caribbean, with the approval of the Ortega government. AP reported Nov. 12 that Moscow's long-range bombers are to begin conducting regular patrol missions in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that "in the current situation we have to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico."

Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers made regular patrols across the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans during the Cold War. These were suspended after the Soviet collapse, but have resumed under President Vladimir Putin. In recent weeks, Russian and NATO warplanes have played chicken over the Black and Baltic seas.

In July, Putin became the first Russian president to visit Nicaragua on his tour through Latin America. In his opening remarks at his meeting with Putin, Ortega hailed the visit as a "ray of light, like a flash of lightning." Earlier in the year, Defense Minister Shoigu said that Russia was in talks with Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba to allow its navy ships to dock at their ports. (Moscow Times, July 13)

* Note that The Telegraph incorrectly renders Ometepe as "Omotepe."