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.

Mexico: Reform Promises Boost in Energy

By Amy Ruddle

Photo credit: Wonderlane / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Wonderlane / Foter / CC BY

Landmark reforms passed by the Mexican Congress last month – amendments to three articles of the Constitution – allow private investment in the country’s energy industry for the first time in 75 years. They open the door for international companies to enter into joint ventures with Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), with the first round of contract bidding slated for 2016 – and increased oil and gas production as soon as 2018. PEMEX will remain state-owned and all hydrocarbons in the ground will continue to belong to Mexico, but private companies will gain rights to oil at the wellhead and be permitted to participate in site exploration, gas and oil production, seismic analyses, and the transportation, marketing and refining of these resources. They will also be allowed to bid for rights to conduct offshore and shale exploration.

Although the oil industry is expected to attract billions of investment dollars – PEMEX signed a cooperation contract with Russia’s Lukoil last week for an undisclosed amount – Mexican officials say they’re not rushing into deals. Undersecretary of Hydrocarbons Enrique Ochoa Reza recently said that the government is proceeding carefully, taking cues from Brazil and Norway as examples of how energy reform can be executed successfully. “In order to do it right – and we are committed to doing this – we need to do it one step at a time,” he said. The Mexican government’s hope is to return oil production (roughly 3 million barrels per day in 2012) to its 2000 levels (3.5 million) by 2025, and possibly 4 million barrels in the distant future.  In addition to creating jobs, the government projects the reforms will increase GDP by 1 percent by 2018, and by 2 percent by 2025. Increased revenues should stabilize budgets, fund a long-term savings mechanism, and eventually support long-term projects including the universal pensions system, scholarships, and science and technology research.

The next hurdle in energy reform will be passage of secondary legislation over the next five months — and faithful implementation. The transparency mechanisms written into the constitutional reforms, including public bidding rounds, transparency clauses in energy contracts, external industry audits, and the full disclosure of all payments related to oil and gas contracts are essential to success, but overcoming the corruption and inefficiency that have plagued PEMEX will require sustained effort. In addition, President Peña Nieto still has to sell these changes to the Mexican people. Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest the changes in early December, and opinion polls show that many, if not most, Mexicans are not in favor of them. Polls conducted by Vianovo in September (still deemed to be among the most accurate) show that only 33 percent of respondents favor profit-sharing contracts between the government and private companies to explore and produce hydrocarbons, although 53 percent were at least somewhat in favor of the energy reforms overall. Unions are upset too, as the union representing PEMEX’s 140,000 employees has now been eliminated from the company’s board, and private firms benefiting from the reforms may create labor contracts without union involvement.