Nicaragua Canal will destroy rainforests, communities and wildlife

| 21st February 2014
Sunset over Lake Nicaragua as seen from Merida, across from the Hotel Omaja. Photo: eric molina via
Sunset over Lake Nicaragua as seen from Merida, across from the Hotel Omaja. Photo: eric molina via
A mysterious Hong Kong company has won the concession to build a $40 billion canal through Nicaragua, duplicating the Panama Canal. Jorge Huete-Perez warns that it threatens human and ecological devastation, all for scant benefit to the country.
The project threatens some of the most fragile ecosystems in the country, on land, at sea, and in the lake, causing potentially irreversible damage.

The Nicaraguan government has granted a concession to a mysterious Chinese company owned by Jing Wang, a little-known Hong-Kong based businessman, to build an inter-oceanic canal.

This would provide an alternative to the Panama Canal that, 99 years after it first opened, is struggling to cope with shipping.

Despite being one of the most important decisions in Nicaragua’s history, the legislative bill in question appeared virtually overnight and was approved as law only three days after it was sent to the Parliament.

There was no serious national consultation, and no opportunity to hear the opposition from some of the country’s leading scientists.

How does Nicaragua benefit?

The company is the Hong Kong Nicaraguan Development Group (HKND), which has no experience with major construction projects. With an estimated cost of US$40 billion, the canal was slated to start in June 2014, but has been delayed to the end of the year

The Nicaraguan government claims the project will pull the country - in which 45% of the population live on less than US$2 day - out of poverty.

But so far no feasibility studies have been revealed, and serious economists have expressed their concern that the canal will just be another 'enclave economy' as it was for Panama.

Because this private canal will not be a property of Nicaragua for 100 years, and since it will not be linked to the rest of the economy, their fear is that it will not create wealth for Nicaragua, nor will it improve country's economy.

All routes will traverse Lake Nicaragua

Around 300km of excavations will be required to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean - three times the length of the Panama Canal.

Although the final route has not been announced, it is clear that all possible routes will traverse Lake Nicaragua (also known by its indigenous name, Cocibolca) - the largest drinking water reservoir in the region - and cut through rainforests and ecologically valuable swamps.

It is the lake and adjacent waterways, together with the area’s rich biodiversity, that are the most pressing environmental concerns.

No environmental impact assessment (EIA) was carried out as required by law before the canal concession was granted. The Bill appears not to require an EIA to be carried out before construction. Any 'after the fact' EIAs would be conducted at the company's discretion - an obvious conflict of interest.

Fragile ecosystems

The project threatens some of the most fragile ecosystems in the country, on land, at sea, and in the lake, causing potentially irreversible damage.

We fear that, should the plans proceed, there may be devastating impacts on the region’s ecology, such as the chemical and biological properties of the watercourses, due to the major excavation, dredging, sedimentation that construction will bring.

Once built, there will a whole second wave of impacts, including the inevitable pollution and invasive species that marine shipping brings.

This could ultimately lead to the extinction of many fish species important to surrounding fishing communities. Characteristic aquatic fauna such as freshwater bull sharks, sawfish and tarpon could also be affected.

Oil pipelines, industrial zones, airports ...

In addition to the canal infrastructure itself, other related projects include oil pipelines, airports, and industrial zones, which will negatively affect the migration patterns and biological dynamics of terrestrial animals.

Direct and indirect damage to natural reserves such as the Indio-Maiz reserve and others will threaten Nicaragua’s endangered species.

Drastic changes in land use and the displacement of indigenous communities will put even greater pressures on natural protected areas as villages are relocated and begin clearing rainforest for food and shelter.

Social and economic concerns

Dozens of villages and indigenous communities will have to be moved out of their ancestral homes, a serious concern for indigenous groups with a deep religious connection to their ancestral lands.

Communities, facing a loss of land and food insecurity, have filed lawsuits asserting that they were not consulted and that it violates their legitimate territorial rights.

The Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua along with other civil organisations has organised a series of forums to promote a better-informed debate on the possible threats posed by the canal, and alternatives.

A document of all the scientific and technical forum presentations has been prepared and will be published soon (in Spanish).

International action is needed

The Academy has called for an independent and external evaluation of the canal, in particular an EIA, and is seeking help from the international community. It is surprising, given the magnitude of the project, how little attention it has been given abroad.

As it stands the project is neither environmentally sustainable nor scientifically sound, but will proceed no matter what.

International action is needed to provide expert advice to local scientists to prevent the tragic destruction of biodiversity and precious ecosystems in Central America.



Petition: Stop Plans to Build Canal That Would Destroy Environment (Force Change).

Jorge Huete-Perez is Professor, Director of Center for Molecular Biology at the University of Central America and the Founding President of the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences.

He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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