Article Place & Self

Now that they start digging the canal

The construction of an interoceanic canal in Nicaragua has started. The government promises wealth, but the people fear eviction from their land and environmental issues.

Photo by Eline van Nes

San Carlos is the first border town when you enter Nicaragua by boat. It is a sleepy little town with a nondescript immigration office, on the south-eastern end of Lake Nicaragua. From the many rooftop restaurants you can see the volcanoes of Ometepe on the horizon and enjoy the sunset while watching a canoe drift by on the lake. The biggest excitement of the year is the rodeo festivals, when drunk youngsters try to ride bulls while the elderly watch and drink copious amounts of the Nicaraguan-brewed rum, Flor de Caña.

But on the horizon a different future is looming. A Chinese-owned company wants to dig a canal right through the lake to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. It is meant to be a serious competitor for the canal in Panama. The idea is not new; before the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, investors had their eye on Nicaragua as a possible route. The plan has always remained an idea. Actual construction of the canal officially started on 23 December 2014.

“In a few years, this will be all jet skis and tourism, with big cruise ships making a stopover while they cross the canal,” says Giovanni, who recently turned his elderly home with lake view into a restaurant. “A Chinese guy offered me $80,000 dollars for my place. I told him to pay $350,000 - non-negotiable. He was surprised. ‘You Nicaraguans need money, don’t you?’ he asked. But I know this place will be worth a lot in a few years with all the changes that are coming.”

You Nicaraguans need money, don’t you?

It is a recurring theme in the little communities by the side of the lake. Everybody is anxious about the development the government promised. Not only in the form of tourism, but also the 2.5m jobs the canal is supposed to create for the Nicaraguans. The Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group (HKND group), a company created for this project, promises two new ports, cement factories and holiday resorts surrounding the canal. Furthermore, on its website it says they believe the 278 km long, 30m deep and 200-500m wide canal will be finished within five years. The image of a luxurious Panama City with all its skyscrapers and modernity is what the people in those communities dream about when they talk about the canal.

That law is garbage

Despite this promise of a golden future, there have been a lot of riots, the most exemplary being the one in December in El Tule, when farmers blocked the main road between San Carlos and the capital Managua. The farmers fear eviction from their land without proper payment. The riots turned sour when the protesters threatened to burn an oil truck, to which the police responded by firing rubber bullets. Many protesters were wounded and some of them were arrested and jailed for a few days. On the same day, a Belgian journalist was deported for taking pictures of the protest.

A law passed in 2013, law number 840, basically states that people living on the route of the canal will have to leave their land for the sake of the community of Nicaragua and will be paid compensation based on the lowest market price.

“That law is garbage,” says 45-year-old José Bonilla while sitting on the front porch of his house in the little community of Obrajuelo. On the brick wall is spray-painted “Chinese get out”, as on most houses in Obrajuelo. “The government just gives away our best land to the Chinese, while we can wait and see if we get any compensation at all. My family lived on this land for generations, fishing and tending a little farm. Suddenly we have to move.”

A political thing

In the town of San Miguelito, some people share a different story about the protests. Delascar Ballades and his family say they saw truckloads of people coming on the day of the riots. “It’s a political thing,” says Ballades. “These were people from the Nicaraguan Liberal Party, who are against the government. They came here to provoke the farmers; to make the government look bad.”

Ballades and his family also own land on the route of the canal, but because they are a wealthy and important family in San Miguelito, it doesn’t matter as much for them to sell their land for a low price. Says Ballades: “My father thinks it is more important to invest in development and jobs for his grandchildren.”

In Nicaragua, politics have been divided for a long time between two leading parties: the left-wing Sandinista socialists and the right-wing liberals. Current president Daniel Ortega belongs to the Sandinistas, who have based their ideology on the Marxist-inspired philosophy of Augusto Cezár Sandino (1895-1934).

In 1927 Sandino told the people in a speech: “The world would be an unbalanced place if it allowed the United States of America to rule alone over our canal, because this would mean placing us at the mercy of the Colossus of the North, forcing us into a dependent and tributary role to persons of bad faith who would be our masters without justifying such pretensions in any way. Civilisation requires that a Nicaraguan canal be built, but that it be done with capital from the whole world, and not exclusively from the United States.”

So it seems that president Daniel Ortega is fulfilling this almost century-old Sandinista dream by bringing in the Chinese. For some people, though, it seems that he is just selling off their country to another superpower.

If they would just give us the facts

“There are a lot of environmental issues involved in this project,” says Eng. Victor Manuel Campos from the Centro Humboldt. For instance, the wetlands surrounding the island of Ometepe in the middle of the lake fall under the protection of the UNESCO heritage. Their existence will be seriously threatened by the big ocean ships that pass by.

This is just one of many examples of the way nature will be affected by the canal. There are more protected wetlands on the east side of the lake, through which the canal will cross. There are protected coasts on both sides of Nicaragua that could be ruined by the big ships. Furthermore, the oceanic salt water combined with the sweet water of the lake will affect the environment in and out of the water.

“The biggest problem about all of this,” says Campos, “is all the secrecy around the project. The government does not publish the technical and environmental reports, so the people cannot see the actual impact the project will have. If they would just give the people the facts, they can decide for themselves if they want the canal or not.”

The biggest problem is all the secrecy around the project.

For one of the researches the government did publish, on the changes the canal will have on the chemical composition of the water in the lake, which is currently still used as a drinking water reservoir, the Centro Humboldt took the same measuring methods and repeated the research themselves. Campos: “The results were shockingly completely different.”

Overflowing gutters

Unfortunately, HKND never responded to our questions about all the mystery in relation to the building of the canal. What is sure, though, is that there is still a long way to go before the canal is actually finished, if it ever will be. Many people believe the Nicaraguan government took on a too-onerous project to ever be able to carry it out. Adalaide Sanchez, working for the human rights organisation Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH), which has been involved in protecting the protesters, says in the end after all this fuss, the project will just disappear.

“When it rains, all the canals in our capital city flood over, so the streets transform into one big river. We have been complaining about this for ages, but nothing ever changes. If the government is incapable of solving this, I wonder how they think to complete this canal.”

Anxiety of the bustling world

In 1866, Mark Twain took almost the same route as the canal, cutting through the country from west to east. When taking the steamboat on Lake Nicaragua, Twain was mesmerised by the two volcanoes on the island of Ometepe, which he described in his book, Travels with Mr Brown: “They look so isolated from the world and its turmoil - so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose. What a home one might make among their shady forests […] after he had grown weary of the toil, anxiety and unrest of the bustling, driving world.”

And what a change it will be when the project is indeed finished by 2020. The tranquillity disturbed by enormous ships transporting part of the world’s estimated $35tn of merchandise exports, as stated on HKND’s website.

Finally the bustling, driving world has also reached this tranquil corner of the earth.

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