MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua’s $50 billion canal has generated a great deal of controversy. The plan is to build a canal through Lake Nicaragua and connect the Pacific and Caribbean coasts to provide passage for ships too big to fit through the Panama Canal. The project is financed by a wealthy Chinese businessman, Wang Jing. Supporters of the project say it will boost Nicaragua’s economy and provide much needed revenue. Critics say the project will harm communities in the path of the canal and could have serious environmental consequences.
The government claims the canal will double Nicaragua’s GDP and predicts that five percent of all commerce will pass through it. The construction of the canal is expected to create 50,000 jobs and it is estimated that 200,000 more workers will be needed to operate it once it is finished.
This would be a huge boost for Nicaragua’s economy and would significantly reduce unemployment. Since Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere after Haiti, this project has a lot of potential to lift the country out of poverty.
On the down side, the project threatens to displace at least 120,000 people. Entire communities will be forced to relocate. Many of the areas in the path of the canal are populated by the indigenous Rama people, who are strongly opposed to the project. They fear their culture and traditional way of life will be seriously harmed if they are forced to leave their traditional homeland.
Environmentalists say the project will have a disastrous impact on Lake Nicaragua, the country’s largest source of drinking water. The shores of Lake Nicaragua are undeveloped and home to many delicate ecosystems and endangered species. The water is shallow and in order to allow for large container ships to pass through a lot of the lake floor will need to be dug up. Environmentalists fear the project and the increased ship traffic that will result from it will contaminate the lake. In addition to the ecological consequences this would have, it would also contaminate the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people.
The project also threatens the livelihoods of people living in its path. Many farmers are worried about losing their land. Many local construction projects have been halted because of the canal. Local fishermen are also being displaced as fishing shacks will need to be cleared. The environmental threat to Lake Nicaragua threatens local fisheries. Tour operators are also worried that tourists will stop coming if the lake is spoiled. This would destroy the two main sources of revenue for lakeside communities.
There have been many protests against the canal, some of them violent. Opponents of the project have also filed legal challenges. Locals in the path of the canal are angered by the government’s failure to consult with them and the lack of transparency surrounding the project.
Critics also question whether the figures put forth by the government are accurate and some fear there may not actually be enough demand to sustain the canal. There are also fears that the company building the canal has little experience undertaking such endeavors and may not be able to finish the project. Some fear it will end up being abandoned mid-way through.
Other Nicaraguans are more optimistic about the project and see new opportunities. Many local business owners say it would help their businesses develop and expand. Given the country’s high levels of poverty and underdeveloped economy, most Nicaraguans would be happy to have a major canal to help their country develop. But for many, the costs outweigh the benefits.
– Matt Lesso