Monday, October 27, 2014

Is the Proposed Nicaragua Canal Scientifcally Sound?

You've heard the expression "the devil is in the details." Details about President Daniel Ortega's ambitious cross-country canal have been scarce, even though Nicaragua's Asamblea Nacional approved the project two years ago and HKND (Hong Kong Nicaraguan Canal Development Investment Company) was chosen as the developer in mid-2013.  

While there was skepticism, opponents--and supporters--did not know how to react to the waterway--known as the Gran Canal Interoceánico de Nicaragua (GCIN)--except in the vaguest of terms. The Ortega administration did offer some information about the project nearly a year before the actual route was released by HKND. But hen the government was confronted with the question of why officials failed on such a high level to consult with any of the communities involved, they explained that because the route was yet unknown, they could not consult with any communities in particular.

This fall,  HKND  released details of the project,including the exact route is for the waterway that will connect the Caribbean to the Pacific Oceans. This information has allowed  scientists and environmental researchersto publish their first informed assessments of the project. Both the Academia de Ciencas de Nicaragua  (ACN) and Centro Humboldt, a leading non-government environmental research center based in Managua, have highlighted the immense environmental, and socioeconomic repercussions that will inevitably result from the construction of the Gran Canal Interoceánico de Nicaragua (GCIN).

The ACN report argues that the project will cause incredible damage to biodiversity and natural and  aquifers as well infringe as the collective rights and well-being of many communities, including some that reside within protected, semi-autonomous regions. There is a “Message to the Nation” in the final section, which explains that the ACN “applauds all efforts for national economic development,” but also also urgently recommends “that such national projects should always pay close attention to all possible unintended consequences… and to follow the suggestions of relevant environmental, social and economic studies of impact.”

Without explicitly opposing the concept of the canal, the ACN report directs its criticisms at the specific plan proposed by HKND and brings the Chinese firm and the Nicaraguan government to task for failing to heed suggestions from environmental experts and community leaders.

A separate  report published by Víctor Campos, sub-director of Centro Humboldt, provides further information about the obvious and prolonged impacts that the canal will inevitably have on the fresh water supply in Lago de Nicaragua as well as the fragile biodiversity in the Cerro Silva Natural Reserve, an area that is also home to indigenous communities. These communities were not consulted despite the plan’s stipulations for the right to acquire whatever land HKND finds necessary.

At the end of Campos’ response, he too makes no explicit opposition to the idea of a canal in general, but leaves the nation with a list of suggestions and conclusions that include,”1. The best route will not pass through the Lago de Nicaragua; 2. That there has been a decision made at the National level to systemically ignore the voices of qualified scientists and experts; and 3. Eventually, Nicaraguans will be able to influence the decisions of the nation, but as of now, they will not be able to influence the decisions of this company and their enterprise.”

Both reports, which come from science-based entities, made the point that, aside from the proven and inevitable environmental and socioeconomic repercussions of the construction, much of the current problem lies outside the realm of science and environmental research itself. Both reports suggest the problem lies in the lack of transparency in the process. The national government and HKND failed to  make crucial information available to the public, failed to consult with the communities that will be directly displaced and affected, and ignored loud opposition from experts in scientific research.

-Jake Sandler

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