The interoceanic canal – comment by John Perry

John Perry

August 2017

For her recent trip to Nicaragua, Bianca Jagger probably didn’t pack her favourite shoes (Miu Miu boots with diamanté heels). She joined a protest march against the interoceanic canal planned to cross the south of the country, calling it ‘an insane project.’ Amnesty International claims Nicaragua’s government ‘secretly sold the country’s future to the highest bidder.’ The Guardian says the canal has ‘provoked a mix of anger, fear and defiance not witnessed since the civil war between the Sandinista government and US-backed Contra rebels ended in 1988.’ Global Witness has declared Nicaragua the world’s most dangerous place per capita for environmental activists. Francisca Ramírez, leader of the anti-canal protests, told them: ‘The only response we have had is the bullet.’ (Global Witness’s report mixes coverage of the canal protests with reports on deaths in land disputes in an entirely different part of Nicaragua.)

Despite being one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Nicaragua is also one of the safest. An opinion polls show more than 70% support for the canal. It would create 50,000 jobs in a country which will add over 350,000 to its working-age population in the next five years. Nicaragua’s growth rate is 4-5%, but the government believes it needs to be 8-10% if extreme poverty is to end.

The environmental challenges are enormous. They focus on the use of Lake Nicaragua as part of the canal’s route. It’s a large but shallow inland sea, which will have to be dredged to create a wide shipping channel, with uncertain effects on its ecology. On the other hand, the canal’s need to capture rainfall will require a massive tree-planting programme. The government argues that only the canal will provide the resources needed to protect the country’s vanishing forests. ERM, the British firm that did the environmental impact study, concludes that the project could ‘create lasting benefits for biodiversity.’

It’s also estimated that 30,000 people will lose their land (Amnesty says the real figure is 119,000). About 100 of these accompanied Jagger and Ramírez as they led the latest protest march. Organisers say it would have been bigger but for police holding up those intending to join in. Ramírez says her family is constantly threatened. Nevertheless, she’s managed to organise 91 marches so far, fully reported by the opposition media.

The irony is that the canal might never go ahead. It’s a direct competitor to the recently widened Panama Canal, 1,000 kilometres to the south-east. But it will be almost four times its length, requiring ships to lay up overnight or navigate in the dark. The transit costs will be a lot higher than the $450,000 a large ship might pay for a two-way crossing of Panama. The government says that HKND, the Chinese firm which holds the concession, is still carrying out 26 follow-up studies recommended by ERM, hence the delay. But the press in China thinks the project has already been ditched in favour of a massive new container port in Panama. None of the investors required to fund the $50 billion projected cost have yet been named.

The sudden international interest in a scheme that seems to be stalled is a mystery, and comes at a worrying time for Daniel Ortega’s government. Despite its excellent record on drugs and crime, it was excluded from the June conference on prosperity and security in Central America, addressed by the US vice-president. The US ambassador warns that sanctions are in prospect because of Ortega’s support for Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, ignoring the fact that Venezuela funds many of the country’s anti-poverty programmes. In the US senate, the right-wing Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is sponsoring the NICA Act, which would oblige the US to oppose funding for Nicaragua by international institutions. Even though the US now provides very little direct aid, it would be forced to block international loans and even World Bank projects that improve access to health services and strengthen land rights. Vanity Fair says Bianca Jagger is devoted to social justice. The danger is that reports from international NGOs and their attendant hype encourage the Trump administration to take action that worsens social justice in Nicaragua, rather than imp