“Vendepatria!”: an epithet for one who sells his own homeland, was shouted at the Nicaraguan government by protesters during the groundbreaking of the Nicaraguan Canal.
The Indigenous people of Nicaragua, known as campesinos, gathered by the thousands in early October to protest the plan for the interoceanic canal to cut across the country. Protesters held up banners reading “Chinese go home!” and “Our land is not for sale!” The march organizer herself, Francis Ramirez, said in response to the projected canal plan that she “would rather die than hand over [her] property,” as quoted by the Huffington Post.
President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega gave a 50 year concession (with the flexibility to make it 100 years) to Chinese businessman Wang Jing to head the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development (HKND) in December 2014. The canal project is estimated to cost $40-$50 billion. It will measure 278 kilometers, compared to the Panama Canal which is currently the longest in the world at 77 kilometers. It will be twice as deep as the Panama Canal requiring the excavation of more than 4.5billion cubic meters of earth. The Nicaraguan Canal’s projected width is estimated to be around 230 to 520 meters.
Yet the project is aimed to take only five years, compared to the ten it took for the Panama Canal.
These numbers have been a huge cause for concern for environmentalists, scientists and Indigenous Nicaraguans since the plan’s announcement.
President Ortega and other supporters of the HKND profess its necessity, claiming that the initial 50,000 jobs created during construction and 200,000 upon its completion will be the driving force to raising Nicaragua out of severe poverty. The leader of Nicaragua’s National Agrarian University, Francisco Telemaco Talavera, supports the canal because of its potential to follow in the path of the Panama Canal by making Nicaragua into “the region’s powerhouse, with economic growth rates as high as 14% per year.”
However, the number of negative ramifications from the canal are vast and drastic.
Due to the range of the route and the immense amount of land it will cover, there is an outcry of injustice from the Indigenous communities that would be displaced by its construction. Many of the communities have been living on the land since before the Spanish conquest, and include Rama and Kriol people. The canal would bisect the two territories causing fragmentation, which at minimum could induce a loss of culture and belonging.
Before the HKND was decided upon and put on the table, there were no conversations held with the Indigenous communities, no Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC), no thought to include them in the process, and there appears to be no sign that their rights will be taken into account.
Many of the affected Indigenous groups have presented their case to the Inter-American Commission Human Rights, with strong evidences of violations to Nicaraguan law, as well as international labor standards. Yet as the months progress, nothing seems to be in action to prevent these violations from taking place once canal construction starts.
What has been made clear by the Nicaraguan government is that anyone who is displaced by the canal construction will be compensated for their property based on its value as of June 2013. It seems that the most Indigenous communities can hope for in terms of justice is for higher rates of compensation – no movement is being considered for allowing them to stay on their land and not build the disastrous canal.
President of a Rama community, Carlos Billis, expressed his strong opposition for the canal: “It will destroy the nature that we are as much a part of as the trees that grow here and spread their seeds. The government wants to move us for a project that has nothing to do with us. There’s been no consultation, but they are going ahead regardless. This is discrimination against Indians, the same discrimination that’s been seen all over the world for so long.”
Other Indigenous leaders, such as Alan Claire of the Kriol Community, express the same opinion citing the legal and moral injustices of the plan. “This is an Indigenous area. By law, the government is supposed to ensure prior, free and informed consultation, but we haven’t been asked anything,” he tell Watts.
The government has claimed it feels secure against any campesino uprising once they learn of the generous compensations given to them. However, for many Indigenous people, the displacement itself is the heartbreak, not just the monetary concerns of having to adjust elsewhere.
Elizabeth Del Carmen is one such individual, whose family has seen generations live on the land and recently was told to shut down their project of building a chapel due to the canal development.
“I’ve been worrying about this because I don’t want to move to another place,” said Del Carmen. “We don’t agree with this bad treatment. They are making poor people feel uncomfortable. This place is safe. We all know each other here. Who knows where they are going to move us…We don’t want to leave.”
Indigenous peoples, as well as environmentalists all around the globe, are also greatly lamenting the ecological destruction the construction would wreak. The canal is planned to cut through nature reserves, significant wetlands that contribute to the biodiversity of the globe, Lake Nicaragua which is the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and the scenic beauty that is characteristic of the country.
Environmental assessments have been made by organizations such as the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation and the International Society of Limnology, all citing the major negative effects the canal will have.
The lake will be compromised as the significant source of freshwater for irrigation, with harmful effects to the ecosystem due to pollution, traffic, noise, salinity, higher levels of torpidity and oxygen depletion.There is also the constant risk of oil spills from cargo-carrying ships.
Other important wetlands and ecosystems will be upheaved as a result of the canal construction, and given the sheer size of the project, scientists are not hopeful for them to ever return to their original states.
The destruction of pristine land, displacement of peoples who have called the land home for centuries, and ecological depletion are some of the major reasons why the development for
the Nicaraguan Canal is a global catastrophe and warrants global awareness. With economic ambitions and major influential government powers driving this project into fruition, it is hard to see a way of halting the plan, but in order to protect Indigenous rights and culture, a ceasing of the canal’s construction is vital.