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Nicaragua commission gives go-ahead for canal project

Nicaragua's canal commission has approved an environmental impact study that lets the $50B project proceed

The Nicaraguan government's canal commission formally approved an environmental impact study Thursday that opens the way for a Chinese company's $50 billion inter-ocean project to move ahead.

Environmentalist Jaime Incer Barquero said the lack of transparency and the government's refusal to submit the project to independent, outside review makes Thursday's decision suspect. Incer Barquero said, “there will always be doubts about its validity.”

Canal commission representative Manuel Coronel Kautz said the commission's decision authorizes China's HKND Company to start structural and construction design work.

Authorities have already approved the proposed 172-mile route for the Nicaragua canal, a mega-project — widely reported as the world’s largest civil engineering enterprise — that has outraged farmers, indigenous communities and citizens around the country. 

The canal, scheduled for completion in December 2019, will cut across the middle of the country and bisect Lake Nicaragua, known locally as Lake Colcibolca — the second-largest lake in Latin America and the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region. The canal will also cut through the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve.

Crews broke ground on access roads related to the canal in December, but have yet to start digging the waterway itself. Some experts doubt it will ultimately be built due to financial, environmental and social concerns.

If it is constructed, the canal would be the realization of a dream that has been studied and discarded multiple times since the early 1800s. Backers say it will lift many out of poverty in Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

The canal is an example of China’s growing influence in Latin America. HKND is a Chinese infrastructure development firm registered in Hong Kong. CEO and chairman Wang Jing is a successful but virtually unknown telecoms executive with no experience in large-scale civil engineering projects like building a canal.

Environmental activists, Nicaraguans who stand to be displaced and President Daniel Ortega's political opponents have criticized the project, including what they say has been a lack of transparency since it was first announced.

Monica Lopez Baltodano, a legal adviser for the canal opponents, said Thursday that the government appeared prepared to push the project through, noting “the only path left for us Nicaraguans is international appeals and demonstrations across the entire country.”

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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