The Nicaragua Canal

November 5, 2015, probably passed as any typical Thursday. Same morning coffee and back again to the same job. But one thing happened that will set November 5th in stone as an infamous day in Earth’s history.

On November 5, 2015, the brainchild of Chinese billionaire Wang Jing and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was issued an Environmental Permit. The brainchild’s name: The Nicaragua Canal. Or, in the words of Ortega himself, “the greatest construction project in the history of mankind.”

What Is It?

The Nicaragua Canal is almost an exact duplicate of the Panama Canal, but wider, deeper, and three times as long. One canal segment connects Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific, the other connects Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea. The two canal segments will total 95 miles in length, or about 1400 football fields.nicaragua canal

The logic seems to be that pouring $40 to 50 billion into cutting through the heart of Nicaragua will eventually double the nation’s economic output. This seems, of course, incredibly far-fetched. According to the most optimistic reports, the canal will receive a mere 40% of the traffic the Panama Canal gets by 2050. The proposed economic draw may even be eliminated if Panama follows through on a $17 billion renovation to their canal, which would render the Nicaragua Canal useless.

Financial Issues

The kicker is that Wang Jing recently lost 84% of his net worth in the recent Chinese Stock Market Crash – from $10.2 billion to $1.1 billion. According to Bloomberg, he is the worst performing billionaire of 2015.

In a recent press conference, in fact, Jing and Ortega failed to answer some basic financial questions. According to McClatchy DC, “what went completely unanswered were two basic questions: Who’s going to pay for a canal with an estimated cost of $50 billion? Is China’s hidden hand at play?”

Panama Canal administrator Jorge Luis Quintano’s answer to the second question was, “I just returned from China, and builders there told me that no state company has any interest in financing the [Nicaragua canal] project”.

Aside from Jing’s $500 million downpayment (amounting to just 1% of the project’s cost), the effort may rely solely on an outrageously idealistic $50 billion in private investment (in Jing’s words, “putting into play our imagination and creativity”). Surely, minimal funding will come from Nicaragua’s government, which has a GDP of $20 billion and is the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

But somehow, despite all of this, the plan is currently being pushed forward, at a rapid pace.
The People
52% of the route would pass through land reserved for the Rama and Kriol tribes. In a country where 80% of the indigenous population lives on less than $1 a day, these people would have no defense against the canal’s corporate power.
Thousands of people will be displaced from their homes.
The Rama-Kriol peoples are, by Nicaraguan and International law, entitled to the right to approve or deny any project that could affect them. Fair system, right?
Wrong. Wang Jing has been granted use of Nicaragua’s military personnel. In 2013, Jing’s company sent soldiers armed with guns to indigenous villages. The villages were in pure fear and terror. Their only way out of the situation was to comply, to give approval for the canal.
Campesinos in Tule, San Miguelito, part of the Chinese canal route, surround a military truck on Sunday (courtesy La Prensa)
The result of this morally disgusting act, the forcing of people to comply, is that 30,000 to 100,000 people will have to leave their homelands.

The Environment

In the past, Daniel Ortega was a Sandinista, a leftist, a Marxist in support of Fidel Castro. In recent years, though, Ortega has dramatically shifted, and is now emulating the exact free market capitalist system he fought in the past. He is shifting Nicaragua in an incredibly pro-business direction.

Pro-business values and the environment seem to have trouble coexisting everywhere you go. The Nicaragua Canal is no exception.

First, the canal (and the associated rail, road, oil pipeline, and airports) would tear down a whopping 1500 square miles of rainforest and wetland. 1500 square miles is a huge amount of land; the District of Columbia is only 68 square miles.

The effect on the species and ecosystems of the area cannot be overestimated. On the coast, construction would severely threaten the eggs of endangered sea turtles. On the mainland, the canal would cut through the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which serves as a vital land bridge for the migration of species such as jaguars and monkeys. The construction of the canal would make countless essential migrations impossible.

The segment of the canal that passes through Lake Nicaragua may seem to be the least damaging to the environment, but in reality it’s not. The lake is only 40 feet deep, but for the canal to suit large ships the depth needs to be at least 91 feet. To dig this far, an entire cubic mile of silt must be displaced. The sheer amount of silt (as well as the byproducts of toxins and heavy metals like mercury) that would pollute the lake would have enough volume to fill every NFL and NCAA (Division I) football stadium from the bottom to the top…10 times over.

As a result of this water pollution, most of the indigenous species of fish would die out. But even more importantly, the water in the lake would become too dangerous to drink. How big of a deal is this? It is a really big deal. In Nicaragua, two hundred thousand people rely on Lake Nicaragua as their primary source of fresh water. That means that a population the size of Salt Lake City would be left waterless.

So how, how in the world was the Environmental Permit for the Nicaragua Canal ever approved? Well, here’s the thing. The Nicaraguan government didn’t conduct the study at all. The entirety of environmental research responsibility was handed to Wang Jing and his company.


Let’s Recap:

  1. The Nicaragua Canal is an investment that might not even pay itself off
  2. The funding sources are up for grabs
  3. Thousands of innocent people will be unlawfully displaced
  4. Millions of animal migrations will be prevented; species endangerment would rise
  5. The pollution to Lake Nicaragua could leave 200,000 people without water
  6. Countless violations have been made to environmental code, human rights, and International Law

Clearly, this desperately needs to be stopped, and fast.

Over the past two years, there have been various protests numbering in the thousands all across Nicaragua. Only by uniting together against the big corporate power do we have a chance to stop the Nicaragua Canal.

Protesters in Nicaragua against a planned canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans


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