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Protests against Nicaragua’s ambitious canal

The Nicaraguan government, with Chinese aid, is about to begin a historic project : the construction of a new inter-oceanic Canal. But sections of the Nicaraguan population are discontent and protesting against this grand scheme. While Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega remains fairly popular, citizen restlessness over the Canal may cost him dearly.

Ortega has been labeled as a “vende patria” (“beytrayer of the homeland”) and that is not a nickname any head of state wants.

Growing discontent

In June 2013, Nicaragua’s National Assembly approved a deal with an obscure Hong Kong-based firm, the HKND Group, to build an inter-oceanic Canal that would rival Panama. A year later, Managua announced that construction will begin this December. The specifications of the proposed maritime corridor are : 278 kilometers in length, across the Great Lake of Nicaragua (also known as Lake Cocibolca), between 230 to 530 meters of width, and some 30 meters of depth.

This analysis will not discuss international concerns with this project (which are numerous) but rather focus on recent developments within Nicaragua. There are two major domestic concerns that are the sources of protests :

First of all, former presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquin claims that recent protests are due to governmental secrecy. Managua argues that the country’s economy will grow by 15% annually from the second year of construction onwards and it will generate between five to 50 thousand jobs. Nevertheless the government has not provided specific details about the project, such as construction timelines and potential environmental impacts.

The second reason is that Nicaraguans that live in the Canal’s proposed path will have to move. Case in point, there have been reports that HKND representatives, with Nicaraguan police officers and soldiers acting as guards, have appeared in various homes, taking measures and informing homeowners that their households will be purchased by the company.

Protests on the rise

A couple of the most recent protests occurred in early October around La Unión, located in the Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur, RAAS, in Eastern Nicaragua. Some three thousand inhabitants marched with signs that read “The land is not for sale… Nicaragua will not give up !” as well as “Ortega : betrayer of the homeland !”

The people demanded that the construction of the Canal must not pass through their lands. In fact, an indigenous representative, Brooklyn Rivera Bryan, highlighted that the Canal’s current plan passes through a community of the Rama indigenous people, which the government should protect instead of evict.

The indigenous and afro-descendant inhabitants of the Rama y Kriol territorial government (GTR-K), located in the RAAS, are similarly concerned. A July press release in the GTR-K’s government website declares that a deep water port will be built as part of the Canal ; it will be located close to the current homeland of the aforementioned Rama community, known as Bang kukuk/Punta del Aguila – the proposed construction will jeopardize the lifestyle of local inhabitants as it will destroy the local environment and biodiversity. The GTR-K press release declares that Managua has not discussed with them the potential environmental, cultural or archaeological impacts caused by construction.

Similarly, in late September some 250 inhabitants of a community in the department of Rivas carried out a peaceful march protesting the likely evictions that the Canal will cause. “We are fishermen and we have livestock, we cannot live in the city, we cannot take the lake and the livestock [when we move]” one local leader declared.

These protests can be tied to the aforementioned points made that Managua has not engaged in an open dialogue with citizens about the true costs of the Canal. This promotes distrust and anger.

Meanwhile, the government has generally minimized protests. When the aforementioned manifestation in Rivas was announced, a government spokesman said “we respect the people but we know that the population will end up supporting the Canal.” The government has also hinted that the population is being “manipulated” by political groups that are against the project.

Overtly ambitious dreams ?

In July, Managua and HKND Group announced that the Canal will be completed by 2019. In other words, it will take half the time the U.S needed to construct the 77km-long Panama Canal (1904-1914). This is a very ambitious timeframe that may not be feasible. Some high-level Nicaraguan policymakers claim that the country is not ready to begin construction in December, as preliminary projects like building temporary housing for workers and engineers must begin first. There is also a deficit of qualified workers, including electricians and carpenters.

President Ortega currently enjoys positive approval ratings. However his popularity is being affected by opposition to the Canal by inhabitants of regions through which it will pass. Hence, he cannot afford that the Canal suffers major delays.

Nicaragua will have elections in 2016, when the Canal’s construction will be well underway. In other words, Ortega’s legacy, as well as the future of his presidency (if he runs for another re-election), is now firmly tied to the Canal.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.