Nicaragua Canal: Rights groups protest project that may have already failed

If completed, the proposed inter-oceanic canal in Nicaragua would be three times the length of the Panama Canal (above), and twice as deep. (Credit: Bernal Saborio/flickr)

Rights groups continue to protest a controversial project to build an inter-oceanic canal in Nicaragua, but some experts say the canal’s investors may not even have the funds to carry out the project.

If completed, the proposed canal will slice through southern Nicaragua, joining the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea. The canal will be three times the length of the Panama Canal and twice as deep.

Farmers and conservationists have been fighting the project since its announcement in 2014. Earlier this year, a coalition of farmers turned in 28,000 signatures opposing the law that grants concession for the project. More recently, two human rights groups – the Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (Cenidh) and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) – released a report urging the Nicaraguan government to scrap the project.

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

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

The report argues that the delayed $50 billion canal deal breaches Nicaragua’s own constitution and denies its people’s rights to property, adequate housing, water and food. The report also expressed concerns over Cocibolca Lake, which it said is the “main fresh water reserve for all of Central America.” The construction of a massive waterway “will surely affect the 80,000 people who use the lake’s water,” the report stated, “and the 40 different varieties of fish living in it.”

The canal would also uproot some 120,000 farmers, according to the report, who have no means of relocating and have received insufficient compensation from the government.

“Respecting nature and the rights of rural communities is not a luxury. It’s a duty,” said FIDH’s president, Dimitris Christopoulos, in a statement. “These projects will have a dramatic impact on the environment and on human rights. It is unimaginable to sell off territory as such. The government must back out.”

But the mega-project may not even be built. Nicaragua’s geography has posed enormous barriers for the project’s planners, and as maritime transport changes, the Panama Canal still seems to be the best option for shipping vessels.

“The Nicaraguan canal is at this point a gigantic white elephant,” Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a Canadian transport geographer at Hofstra University, told the Havana Times earlier this year. “Most people in the industry think there is not, within a foreseeable future, enough demand.”

Several experts have also said the project is probably dead for lack of funds; just last month, a senior U.S. State Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Juan Gonzalez, told Congress he has doubts on the prospects of the project.

“I’m skeptical,” Gonzalez said in a congressional foreign affairs hearing on the Nicaraguan elections. “We have not seen a single shovel being used on the Nicaragua canal. The position we’ll take is ‘we’ll believe it when we see it.’”

For now, spokespeople for the project maintain that the project is going forward “according to plan,” and the government, which has not responded to FIDH’s report, is still lured by the prospect of desperately needed investment in the impoverished country. The forecasted revenue from the canal project amounts to almost five times Nicaragua’s GDP, and officials have argued that the canal is essential to allow for the increasing size of shipping tankers that are too large even for the recently expanded Panama Canal.

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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