Nicaragua Canal Project Met With Continued Opposition

Despite public outcry and no environmental assessment, construction continues on the waterway scheduled to slice the country in two.

There’s no official count on the number of people who want to halt construction on the proposed 800-foot wide, 173-mile long Nicaragua Canal that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. But recent events suggest it’s a lot.

Two weeks before construction started in late December, thousands of protestors traveled to the nation’s capital to march in protest of the canal, and present a petition with 60,000 signatures to the head of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. The day that workers began to pave access roads, citizens expressed their frustration by blocking roads with flaming tires. A delegation of dozens of environmental and human rights groups and political parties is currently working to send 1 million signatures to Pope Francis demanding the public’s concerns about the canal be heard.

The canal will cost $50 billion and take five years to complete. Bankrolled and run by Chinese company Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group (HKND), the project has been marked by a lack of transparency from the start, Audubon magazine previously reported (see our feature story “A Very Bad Plan” in the January-February issue or watch a video on the topic). The canal would cut through biologically rich forests and essential wetlands, in addition to cutting into Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.

HKND broke ground on December 22, before an official report on the potential environmental and social impacts of the canal was even available. The report, prepared by an external consultancy group, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), was impossible to complete by December given the scope of the project, says David Blaha, principal partner at ERM. The company now expects to release the report in April, but  “it could slide further,” Blaha says.

Some damage to ecosystems may be inevitable, says Blaha. “Economic benefits will come at the cost of environmental and social impacts,” he says. Still, Blaha is quick to stress that the goal is to minimize and offset environmental degradation.

John Myers, senior Latin American program manager for Audubon, isn’t convinced.

”[ERM will] give a slick power point, and answer questions with talking points,” says Myers. He’s concerned the company’s report will simply gloss over the serious environmental issues. (“We’re not against the canal,” he clarifies. “We’re against any kind of huge massive infrastructure project that does not have an thorough environmental impact assessment.”)

For example, Myers cited a recent report from a Colombian news outlet, Semana , which stated that dredging the area will produce 81 million tons of mud and sediment residue. While some of this byproduct will be used to build a bridge, Semana reports that the rest will be dumped off Colombia's coast in the Carribbean, likely hurting the already suffering coral reefs in the area. 

"That’s one of about 100 important questions that nobody is answering," says Myers. "Up until now, there’s no guarantee that 'some impact' doesn’t mean destroying the largest lake in Central America and that 'economic development' wont be concentrated among Chinese companies and elite businessmen."

Because HKND commissioned the assessment, rather than the Nicaraguan government, it’s possible that the Nicaraguan public won’t receive access to the full findings. 

Two weeks ago, the Nicaraguan government invited a delegation representing Ramsar, an intergovernmental wetland protection organization, to assess the effect the canal could have on San Miguelito, a Ramsar-recognized wildlife refuge. The canal was originally slated to cross the wetlands, but last fall HKND adjusted its proposed canal route slightly south to minimize impact. Blaha says the canal is currently slated to cut through 1 percent of the 100,000-acre protected area. He maintains that ERM will take the Ramsar delegation’s findings into account in its report.

But work on building access roads for canal construction has already begun, making reversal of the project based on an environmental assessment seem all the more challenging and unlikely.

In the meantime, opposition from civilians is being met with inaction. A few weeks ago, a group of 12 young protesters went to President Ortega’s offices to deliver these letters, according to Nicaragua environmental lawyer Mónica López Baltodano. Police officers turned the children away.

“Nobody from the President’s office wanted to receive it,” she says.