Nicaragua: Where’s the Canal?

By Fulton Armstrong

Canal Nicaragua

Coming soon to Nicaragua? Photo Credit: tryangulation / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Nicaraguan government and Chinese investment group leading the Nicaragua Grand Canal project continue to claim enthusiasm for their dream, but enough fundamental problems remain unresolved to suggest that prospects for its eventual construction are dimming – and the principals are maneuvering to avoid picking up the tab for the expenditures made so far.  In a year-end statement last December, President Ortega’s office said the canal project would be one of his government’s top 25 priorities this year and emphasized its benefits to the Nicaraguan people.  Hong Kong-based HKND Group had announced in November that it was “fine-tuning” the canal design to address problems raised in an environmental impact study, which would delay the beginning of major excavations and lock-building until the end of 2016.  Company officials have since said, however, that construction of a fuel terminal and wharf on the Pacific coast –necessary to bring in the massive equipment the project requires – could start as early as this August.  The company still claims that it will complete the canal in 2020 – a prediction that few, if any, outside experts see as feasible.

The project faces massive obstacles, with no solutions in sight.

  • The estimated US$50 billion in financing is nowhere to be seen. Chinese investor Wang Jing, who has already spent US$500 million of his own money on the project, lost some 85 percent of his US$10 billion personal fortune in last year’s Chinese stock market correction.  (Bloomberg named him the worst performing billionaire of 2015.)  Observers believe his losses as well as the problematic environmental impact study have cooled his and other private investors’ support.  An initial public offering of shares has been postponed indefinitely.
  • Project managers have yet to demonstrate the need for the canal and propose solutions to significant engineering challenges, such the need for construction able to withstand earthquakes made likely because of seismic faults along the route. HKND says the canal will handle 3,500 cargo ships a year, including ones bigger than those transiting the Panama Canal, but industry experts say there’s no demand for more than will be accommodated by the expansion of the existing canal – and that the United States has no ports capable of receiving the larger vessels.  Global warming, moreover, could soon open a faster and cheaper route north of Canada.
  • Public protests have diminished during the hiatus in canal-related news and activities, but opponents remain strident and are gaining international support. Detractors’ resolve to fight has been strengthened by the environmental report, by a credible UK firm, determining that the project will “have significant environmental and social impacts,” including dislocation of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans.  Indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan groups on the Atlantic Coast are upset about disruptions to traditional territories, including cemeteries and holy places.  Amnesty International has condemned the treatment of affected persons as “outrageous” and “reckless.”

The “biggest earth-moving project in history” is still looking like one of the biggest boondoggles in history – yet another in a long series of chimera canals in Nicaragua since early last century.  The government says that popular support for the project remains about 81 percent, but a survey by Cid Gallup, published in the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidencial in January, showed that 34 percent of 1,000-plus respondents consider the canal to be “pure propaganda.”  One quarter believe technical studies have been inadequate and that funding will not materialize.  Those sentiments could be reversed somewhat by the appearance of massive excavation equipment and creation of related construction jobs, but support will still be tempered by concerns about persons whose lives are disrupted by the project – and by perennial and profound suspicions that corruption will take the lion’s share of benefits.  Some opposition leaders believe HKND’s big push to appear optimistic is to build a case for collapse of the project to be Nicaragua’s fault, so that the company can demand that Managua repay the $500 million that Wang has reportedly spent.  The lack of transparency surrounding the project only fuels such speculation. 

April 4, 2016

Nicaragua’s “Great Canal” Draws Opposition

By Fulton Armstrong

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Protestors opposing the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal confront police / Jorge Mejía Peralta / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although questions continue to swirl around whether the Chinese-Nicaraguan canal – which its main investor called the “most important [project] in the history of humanity” – will be built or not, its opponents are taking it all very seriously.  A CID-Gallup poll in January showed that 41 percent of Nicaraguans interviewed strongly support the project, while another 21 percent and 17 percent back it somewhat and a little, respectively.  But another poll by the same firm suggested ambivalence:  asked if they supported the National Assembly vote giving the Chinese firm leading the project, HKND, a concession for the 278-km right of way for up to 100 years, some 39 percent of respondents said no.  Some political voices are growing more sharply opposed as well.  The powerful business group COSEP, for example, has gone from agnosticism about the project to a position of open disapproval.

Groups concerned about the project’s impact on the environment and rural residents have already held protests involving up to several thousand participants, and – despite the government’s promise that the canal will bring prosperity throughout the country – organizing efforts appear unlikely to fade.  Skepticism about HKND and the government’s commitment to protecting the environment, fueled by their off-the-cuff dismissal of concerns, is so deep that even a balanced comprehensive impact study by the British Environmental Resources Management, due next month, may fail to calm nerves.  Environmentalists cite studies warning that dredging Lake Nicaragua from its current depth of nine meters to the 27 meters necessary for cargo ships will stir up many layers of toxic materials, with catastrophic consequences for marine life and surrounding agricultural areas.  Other groups are rallying behind the 29,000 residents who are to be evicted from properties along the canal route.  Demonstrations have turned violent, with protestors injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.  Graffiti and banners demanding “fuera chinos” are common.

In the hemisphere’s second poorest country, the promise of growth spurred by the $40-50 billion project is still a powerful card in the government’s hand.  Many skeptics still wonder, however, if the whole scheme is a ruse to fleece the Chinese investors, who’ll bring in a couple billion dollars before realizing that the project will get bogged down in Nicaraguan political quicksand.  But opposition to the canal goes far beyond the usual Managua political game of fighting over corruption dollars and obstructing each other’s priorities.  President Ortega’s endorsement of the canal contradicts his own statements years ago that he wouldn’t compromise the lake’s eco-system “for all the gold in the world.”  According to The Guardian newspaper, the dredging will move enough silt to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building – which no one is prepared to deny will have serious environmental implications.  China’s Three Gorges Dam, completed five years ago, displaced 1.2 million inhabitants – proportionally twice as many Nicaraguans displaced by the canal – but Nicaragua’s ability to resettle them, give them jobs, and suppress their dissent is small compared to China’s.  The project may not be the greatest in the history of mankind as HKND claims, but it may provoke a crisis as great as any in Nicaragua.  For starters, if COSEP’s opposition persists, it threatens to unravel the modus vivendi under which Daniel Ortega has stayed in power, and could portend much deeper tensions.

March 5, 2015

Click here to see our previous article about the canal.