Farmers submit 28,000 signatures opposing canal project in Nicaragua

Farmers opposed to the construction of Nicaragua's transoceanic canal in Juigalpa, Nicaragua. File 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Over the last two years, farmers and conservationists have been fighting against plans by the Nicaraguan government and a Chinese company to cut Nicaragua in half with the creation of an interoceanic canal. Last Thursday, the farmers from the Nicaraguan group National Council in Defense of our Land, Lake and Sovereignty turned in 28,000 signatures in opposition to the law that grants concession for the project, according to Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial.

A Nicaraguan scientist leading the opposition to the project, Jorge Huete-Pérez, spoke about the challenges in preventing the creation of the canal during his visit to Seattle in December.

“A lot of people think this is not going to happen, that this project is so stupid, it doesn’t make any sense, that it’s not going to happen,” he said at the time.

The opposition believes that it has a real chance at stopping the project.

“It’s a great triumph, representing two years of struggle. … It embodies the joy of reaching a goal that we never thought was reachable.  It doesn’t mean that the law has been repealed, but we’ve made our proposal,” said Nemesio Mejia, a farmer from Punta Gorda, near the Atlantic coast of the Central American country.

The 171-mile canal, proposed by Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, would be three times the size of world’s largest the Panama Canal and is estimated to cost at least $50 billion.

Some say the canal may be a geopolitical move to allow Jing and other Chinese companies to take advantage of cheaper production potential in Nicaragua, as well as easier access to Mexico, the U.S. and South America.

(Credit: http://cronkite.asu.edu/buffett/nicaragua/)

(Credit: http://cronkite.asu.edu/buffett/nicaragua/)

The canal would bisect the country, running directly through Lake Nicaragua. Known locally as Lake Cocibolca, Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America (5095 square miles) and the region’s main freshwater reservoir.

Opposition has predominantly come from farmers, conservationists and scientists, who fear that the project would cause irreparable damage to Lake Nicaragua, threaten populations of jaguars, the endangered Baird’s tapir and other animals, and displace more than a hundred thousand people, including those from protected indigenous territories.

If the project is carried out, scientists have an alternate plan in place to mitigate the damage the canal would have on the region’s ecosystem. The plan recommends five adjustments to the canal design that would make it easier for large mammals to move through the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a thin strip of forest from the eastern edge of what will be known as Lake Atlanta, a manmade body of water near the Caribbean coast.

Without this strip of land, the researchers say, the animals would be cut off from the habitat south of the canal and would struggle to find others for breeding.

Whether the government of Nicaragua will move forward with the proposed project remains to be seen. The National Council has done what it can with the submission of their proposed bill, which meets all necessary legal requirements, according to Mejia. The approval of the bill is now “in the hands of the Ortega machine.”

Daniel Ortega became president of Nicaragua in 2007.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com