The idea of using Nicaragua as a location for a trans-oceanic canal has been around since the French made the first proposals in 1786. Since then, the Spanish, Danish, and the United States have all expressed interest in building a canal across the country. Since the United States abandoned its commission to build a canal in the early 1900’s, all other interest seemed to be brushed aside as well. Until now.
With the new century came new interest in the impoverished and easily exploited Central American country. In recent years, Chinese investors began looking into building a canal. Before long documents were signed, laws, were passed, and the idea of a canal was quickly becoming a reality for the Nicaraguan people. However, just as the country will be divided if or when the canal is actually built, Nicaraguan opinion on the channel is as opposite as north and south. Throughout my travels in Nicaragua, I have had the opportunity to meet with several organizations and talk with local individuals from varying backgrounds about their stance on the matter.
Coming into Nicaragua three weeks ago, I had a pre-formed bias on the canal from what I had learned about it while in the states. By my third day in the country, after having a conversation with my Spanish professor in San Juan del Sur, Lucia, I was already hearing new information and opinions that backed what I knew. My GLI focus being clean water, I was fascinated with what she had to say.
According to Lucia, most people in the coastal town can afford to buy purified drinking water and only use tap water for cleaning. However, the poor cannot and suffer from kidney problems as a result. The canal, which will come out a mere 11 km from San Juan if built, will endanger and add additional pollutants to the region’s water table. To counter this, extra chlorine will be put in the tap water. For the poor who drink the tap water, this will mean increased occurrence of kidney stones and renal diseases.
The next week in Managua my class met with a representative from the Humbolt Center at the University of Central America. The Center, which runs several environmental projects throughout Nicaragua, has been studying the potential impacts of the canal since 2013. It was during this meeting that I learned the depth of the environmental and social injustices that have been and will be inflicted as a result of the canal.
For starters, in regards to social injustice, every Nicaraguan has had their constitutional rights exploited by the signing of the concession document which gave China the right to build the canal. The document was passed into law, law 840, over the period of seven days (most laws take between two and three years to be passed in Nicaragua) without consulting the people in any way. One of its clauses states that any new law passed against the canal will be overturned, which basically places law 840 above the constitution. On top of being constitutionally exploited, those living in the direct path of the canal will be the recipients of additional injustices. They will be forced from their homes with minor compensation for their land and property. (A mere 300-500 cordobas a hectare or about $4.50-$7.50 an acre). Also, as of right now, the government has no plan for the relocation of people displaced by the canal.
To top off the wrongs being committed to Nicaraguans by their leaders, when made public the 200+ page concession document was only printed in English. A vast majority of the Nicaraguan people speak and read only Spanish, leaving them unaware of the realities of the future canal. Unable to do their own research, they are left vulnerable to the press, which releases only what they government wants people to hear. They believe the rumors that the canal will produce jobs and increase economic growth. As for the latter, perhaps the economy will grow. But it is likely any introduced commerce will be in the form of foreign investment and tourism, both of which only take away from the cultural integrity of a people. Regarding jobs, the belief that the canal project will raise the poor out of poverty by creating thousands of jobs is completely and utterly false. China has announced it will only be hiring Asian workers and, unlike Panama who gained complete control and benefit of its canal after 100 years, the Nicaraguan canal will indefinitely belong to China.
When it comes to the environment, the injustices begin to multiply. While studies performed by the Nicaraguan and Chinese governments insist the canal will not cause any extensive damage, the Humbolt Center believes differently. Starting at the most basic level, the proposed canal will be a 278 km trench dug across an entire country. It will divide the country into a north Nicaragua and a south, creating a physical barrier for both people and animals. Families will be separated from their loved ones and employees from their employers. And while the government’s scientists insist animals will be able to swim across the canal, this is simply not feasible. With the building of the canal, one of the largest animal corridors in the world which stretches from Panama to southern Mexico, will be cut in half.
Just as all people were exploited in the passing of law 840, all regions of Nicaragua will be degraded in the building of the canal. The canal will go through the rainforest of the east, Lake Nicaragua, and the lowlands of the west. In addition to the land being dug up to build the canal, there will be an impact zone stretching several dozen kilometers on either side of the canal for its entire zone which will be subject to erosion, deforestation, and pollution resulting from the building, operation of , and any new infrastructure related to the canal. A lake will be made to feed water to the canal’s system of locks which will flood a massive portion of eastern Nicaragua and displace an enormous number of families from their homes. When it comes to building the canal, Nicaragua has given China the right to any resources within in the country that they may need. They have given them the right to access all lakes, rivers, and seas within and around the country as well as complete control over the land, sea, and air associated with building the canal. To sum matters up, Nicaragua no longer owns its natural resources, China does. And while the government would like people to believe otherwise, you can’t dig a trench across a country without inflicting serious environmental damage.
Many Nicaraguans views on the canal fall in line with that of the Humbolt Center. They fear for the environmental health of their country and see through the government’s lies related to the creation of jobs. Nevertheless, many Nicaraguans share an opposite viewpoint. They believe the canal is harmless and that it is the solution to all the countries economic problems. We spoke with one women who owned an eco-lodge in the Solentiname Islands who firmly believed the canal would make Nicaragua prosper. She informed our group that a company independent of the government had come in and done a study of Lake Nicaragua, her island’s host lake, and concluded that the lake would not see any environmental impacts. Personally, I find this hard to believe as the canal will introduce both salt water pollution and chemical/gas pollution from the passage of ships. Seeing as the lake is home to a unique species of freshwater sharks, this could be a very serious threat indeed. However, her economic argument had more validity. Following the proposed canal have come the proposals for several resorts and the prediction of a significant increase in tourism. While it’s true that this will create many new jobs, it won’t necessarily eliminate poverty completely.
The proposed canal has divided the Nicaraguan people. Nicaraguans are either for it or against it. They either believe it will harm the environment or it won’t. They think it will revolutionize the economy or ruin it. Maybe the canal will be a God send to the people. Or maybe they are about to lose all but their sovereignty to a foreign nation. Maybe the environment will see minimal damage, or maybe, as seen time and time again when humankind tries to alter nature, they are only setting themselves up for disaster. Unfortunately its situations like these where all you can do is watch and wait and hope that somehow, through all these injustices and divisions and perhaps also by spreading information as I have just done, people are brought together to experience a more just future.