nicaragua’s canal – more than one way of being right

On our recent visit to Nicaragua we organised a series of meetings to try to gauge opinion and gather information about the Interoceanic Canal. We also brought up the issue with many we met, both formally and informally, to try to get as broad a picture as possible.  The canal has received a lot of attention in the international press. Most of this has been unrelentingly negative. The worst example was in the Daily Beast (see here), which gave the impression that Nicaragua is on the verge of a civil war. The Guardian’s recent longform piece (see here) was more wide-ranging, but no less hostile for that. For a more balanced view, the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign has recently updated it’s factsheet about the canal (see here). There  is also a collection of articles, including many official documents, to be found ar Tortilla Con Sal (see here).

The Government View – an end to poverty

During our visit we met with several government officials and Ministers. One of these was Telemaco Televera, spokesperson for the canal project. He told us that the canal is part of the National Development Plan (NDP), which includes infrastructure, energy, communications and production. “We have the national and international conditions for the canal,” he said. “Internationally there is no cold war. Geo-economics are more important than geo-politics. Nationally we have the NDP, the highest growth in the region, and macro-economic stability, low inflation, flexible exchange, the safest country in the region, and a close relationship between workers and employers. We are part of CAFTA, the ALBA and CELAC, and the first country to sign the EU Association of Agreement.”

“A civil work like the canal will have an impact, but we think the net effect will be positive. That’s why we had two criteria: i) minimum social impact affecting the least population and ii) minimal environmental impact. We have already made adjustments to the route, including moving the Caribbean Coast outlet to minimise the impact on indigenous people.” “The Caribbean Coast has a rich culture but serious poverty. There is no access to water, electricity, education or health, and the agricultural frontier keeps moving. We are working hard to take into consideration the indigenous rights of the 9 communities. We will not be buying their land but renting it. We are in the process of getting the free consent of the communities.”

The Caribbean Coast – Indigenous People and Communal Land

We had hoped, as part of the trip, to meet up with Johnny Hodgson, the Representative of the President’s Office, and Michael Campbell, Director of CEDEHCA, a human rights organisation on the Coast. Both are long-standing friends of Wales NSC, and passionate advocates of autonomy and land demarcation. Both were away from Bluefields, as part of the canal consultation. Instead we had a series of informal conversations with people active in different communities. The 9 communities most impacted by the canal (mentioned by Telemaco Talavera) are all part of the Rama Kriol Terroritial Government, 6 Rama (Sumu Kaat, Tik Tik Kaanu, Bangkukuk Taik, Indian River, Wiring Cay and Rama Cay) and 3 Kriol (Monkey Point, Corn River, Greytown). It is estimated that there are between 1,800 and 1,900 Rama (800-900 of which live in Rama Cay), and 700 Kriol. The figures for Rama are not exact, given that some will have a home both on the mainland and the island of Rama Cay.

Rama Cay has already seen recent development, with building work beginning on a housing programme of 100 houses, though not traditional, and a new badly needed water system. Once completed this project should also improve the water quality in the bay, which currently receives sewage direct from the island. There were some problems with the consultation, and opposition to the felling of community trees. Some of the deficiencies in this mirror the criticisms of the canal consultation. The Territorial Govenment (GTRK) is one of the areas of communal land ownership on the Coast.

Over the past ten years, especially under the Sandinistas, the issue of communal land has looked to be settled. In a slow but thorough process, indigenous land was mapped, demarcated (with disputes between adjoining communities settled), and titled. The final step in the process (and perhaps the hardest) is dealing with the ‘settlers’ from the Pacific, who have moved in as part of the advance of the agricultural frontier. In total, 22 out of 23 communities have received their titles – there has been a split with the Bluefields Communal Government which has delayed the process. However, one worrying sign is since the announcement of the canal the number of settlers has increased.

Consulting with the GTRK

Last year the GTRK received funding from Danish NGO IBIS to put together guidelines for the consultation by the government. It was a very detailed proposal, with international observers, over several months, conforming to Article 6 of ILO Convention 169 (to which Nicaragua is a signatory – see here). The government made a counter proposal, with the Bluefields Moravian bishop and others drawn from the community, substituting for international observers, with one day spent in each community. Some members agreed to this, and to take part in the delegation. The regional government, the RAAS, have already supported the canal plan, and RAAS leaders were accompanying the consultation. Apart from the perceived loss of land, there are concerns about the final route, the impact of the proposed artificial lake, and the impact on rivers (and people’s fishing livelihoods).

Most of the press, in Nicaragua and beyond, have given the impression that the Rama and Kriol populations are overwhelmingly against the canal. However the reality is far more complex. Opinion seems to be divided, with the northern communities more in favour than southern communities (which are nearer the route). They were also divided on the form of consultation proposed by the government. Some were willing to consider it. Others were more skeptical, particularly in Monkey Point, who were in favour of strong consultation.

The Government has offered to rent land from the indigenous communities, instead of outright purchase, to keep within the spirit of communal land ownership. However there is little information on whether other revenues from the canal will be shared, and on what basis. The Autonomy Law is clear that any revenues generated in the RAAS should be split between the indigenous communities, and the municipal and regional governments.

Longer term effects for the Coast

Several people raised concerns with us about the effect of Law 840, which authorises the canal. It was written to take precedence over other laws, which include Law 28 (the Autonomy Law), and Law 445 (the Demarcation Law). There is talk of the Autonomy Law being reviewed this year. The question is whether it will be strengthened or not? Running alongside the Autonomy Law is the issue of lanaguage and cultural rights. The Rama language is only spoken by a few dozen people at most. It is doubtful that it will survive the impact of the canal, unless its recovery becomes a priority within the plan.

Meanwhile, on the Pacific

The uncertainty created by the mega-project (worth $50 billion), has led to much disquiet among communities in Rivas and Nueva Guinea. These ‘erupted’ into violent protests just before Christmas, which again received many column inches (see here). Though we did not have the chance to travel to the area, we did talk to someone who had been carrying out his own research and interviews with those involved in the protests (and whose sympathies were more with the local communities than with the government). The violent protests came from one community, and most of those arrested were connected with one extended family. Although this does not undermine whether their cause was justified or not, it is another example of the press extrapolating regional or national opposition from the comments of individuals, or single families or communities.

The same person travelled to Ometepe to witness the protest on Feb 7 (see here). Whilst 1,000 were expected, his estimate was around 300. Like many of the protests, they had been organised by the political opposition to the Sandinistas, including the parties of the Right and some NGOs.

Anti-Ortega, Anti-China

One of the aspects of the protests on the Pacific is the recurrence of slogans against the government and against China. Some of the latter border on racism, but many stem from uncertainty. Indeed, some of those who protest do not believe the canal will happen, but is part of some ‘land-grab’ by the Chinese government to secure their future food supply. Given that China has successfully negotiated massive agricultural supplies with other Latin American countries (not in itself a good thing), and Nicaragua’s positive experience of supplying agricultural produce to Venezuela through the ALBA, it is unlikely that either government would resort to an inter-oceanic canal as a means of acquiring land.

The Sandinistas explain that the opposition is for other reasons. “Most economists say Nicaragua has to have growth of 9% per annum for ten years to climb out of poverty,”(as happened in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China) said Jacinto Suarez, who is head of the Sandinista’s Department for International Relations . “Technically this is almost impossible. Only one project can achieve this, and that is the canal. The difference between us and the Right is that they want the canal built by the United States.” Re-enforcing this point,

Valdrack Jaentsche, Nicaragua’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, told us “Behind the canal there is fundamental and ideological positioning. It has economic implications, but also implications for world politics. The question is, why does everything have to be owned by either the United States or Europe?”

Economic impact

Since coming back to power in 2007 the successive Sandinista governments have managed a stable and steadily growing economy. Growth has been a respectable 4-5%, even in the face of the world economic downturn. There has been large investments in infrastructure, including the latest, a joint project with Brazil to build the Tumarin hydro-electric project (which, incidently, will see Nicaragua produce more than 90% of its electricity through renewables by 2017). But the scale of the Inter-oceanic Canal is beyond anything Nicaragua, or indeed most countries in the world, has seen. Nicaragua is bigging up the project, claiming 50,000 jobs will be provided.

Whilst we were there, La Prensa, one of Nicaragua’s two daily papers (and very anti-Sandinista), ran an update on the canal. Out of the predicted 50,000 jobs directly created, it will include 12,500 for Chinese nationals, 12,500 for other internationals, and 25,000 for Nicaraguans. These figures chime with a meeting we held with Domingo Perez, General Secretary of UNE, the public workers union. He has been part of the FNT delegation (Nicaragua’s TUC) which has met with representatives of HKND, the Chinese company building the canal. “There’s a commitment by HKND to bring people to train Nicaraguans to fill as many posts as possible,” said Domingo. “We are not sure whether the posts will be in the private or public sectors yet, so we don’t know what the opportunities will be for us. We need to work on a database of these opportunities, and what the recruitment potential is for us.”

Some of this was made clearer in more of the La Prensa article. Sergio Arguello, President of INDE (Instituto Nicaraguense de Desarollo) said that professionally and technically Nicaragua is not ready, but there is time to develop the capacity to take advantage of the jobs on offer. But Jaime Matus, President of the ANIA (Associacion Nicaraguense de Ingenieros y Arquitectos) disagreed, saying he believed the capacity already exists. La Prensa says that 15,000 certificated workers will be needed during the construction phase, and discussions have already started with the unions about this. This is less than the 25,000 headline claim. Indeed, the final job total may be less than 50,000. Most mega-projects tend to over-state the job opportunities as part of gaining support for the project. La Prensa quoted the example of the recently up-graded Panama Canal. There, 30,000 jobs were promised, but only 10,000 delivered. Despite this, preparations are well under way.

Telémaco Talavera announced in October the intention to create the academic framework for the professional training, though detailed proposals are still awaited. Initial estimates are for 98 courses for continuing education; 70 diplomas; 7 technicos superiores; 14 licenciaturas; 55 especialades, 62 maestrías and 9 doctorates.

Environmental Impact

It is fair to say the greatest concerns about the canal are the environmental impacts. We tried to organise a meeting with Centro Humboldt, one of the main participants in Grupo Cocibolca, the main environmental network studying the impact of the canal. Coincidentally, representatives were in Nueva Guinea, talking to local people about the canal. A project of this size creates a host of environmental problems and impacts, large and small, something acknowledged by everyone we met. The question was, would the gains (in terms of poverty reduction and the environment) outweigh the losses? Three main impacts were raised with us – de-forestation; loss of bio-diversity; and the affect on the huge water resource of Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua).

De-forestation, or re-forestation?

Government minsters have repeatedly told us that the enviromental benefits will outweigh the costs. Flying from Managua to Bluefields, the scale of de-forestation related to the advance of the agricultural frontier is plain to see. Those who say that the route of the canal is already degraded have a lot of supporting evidence – back in the 1980s the Nueva Guinea region was on the frontline of de-forestation in Nicaragua, and things have not improved since then. Despite the presence of an environmental battalion in the Nicaraguan Army, the country continues to have one of the highest rates of de-forestation in the region (roughly 2% a year). A massive re-forestation programme is included as part of the Canal development. So it is probably fair to say that if it is managed and policed properly, this will be a major environmental benefit. It will also be necessary to the success of the canal. One of the components of the canal will be an artificial lake, needed to maintain the levels in the locks. A similar artificial lake, Lake Gatun in Panama, has faced problems because de-forestation has decreased controlled run-off into the lake.

Loss of Bio-diversity?

Nicaragua is incredibly rich in bio-diversity. It is estimated that 8 per cent of the world’s bio-diversity exist in its rainforests (and rainforests in neighbouring countries). Together they form part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Despite the threat that de-forestation has posed to this green landbridge, it is still seen as one of the most important riches of the Americas. The canal contains proposals for two ‘bio-diversity bridges’ along the route, but some environmentalists have raised doubts about their effectiveness. This is one of the questions that will be pored over when the environmental consultants, ERM, finally publish their studies. Another related concern is what impact the canal will have on the  Indio Maiz reserve, to the south of the route.


Cocibolca, or Lake Nicaragua, is the largest lake in Central America, and one of the most important sources of freshwater on the globe. It has attracted the most attention about the potential impact of the canal. The plans envisage creating a channel within the lake, to take the biggest ships in the world (which cannot pass through Panama because of their size). Environmentalists have attacked the plans, because of their effect on life in the lake (caused by the raising and churning of sediments), and the potential for accidents to pollute the canal (which is far from pristine, but in which oil and chemical spills would make it undrinkable and unusable). They argue that the economic benefit from clean water for human and agricultural use outweigh the potential economic gains from the canal in the long term. This will only increase, and become a regional asset, as climate change places further stress on water resources in Central America (see here for further arguments). This is undoubtedly the biggest problem the canal faces, and more than one person told us they suspected that this was why the ERM reports were late, as they struggled to come up with solutions to these major challenges.


Seen from afar, there is a lot to be against with the canal. Mega-projects have not got a great reputation. Seen from Nicaragua things are a bit more complicated. Around 70% of the population are in favour of the canal. Even in those areas immediately affected it looks more like 50-50, in sharp contrast to the outright hostility portayed in the media. As one community worker on the Coast, who is also studying sustainable development, told us, with the canal “there’s more than one way of being right about it.” A $50 billion project is a huge risk for a small country like Nicaragua. It should also be remembered that despite the real gains made by ordinary people since 2007, it’s still the 2nd poorest country in Latin America. That’s not likely to change without an economic launchpad. The canal would provide it. But the risks are obvious.

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