Potential fallout from a Nicaraguan canal

The project could change the fortunes of the Nicaragua or ruin the country's most environmentally sensitive areas.

TechKnow’s, Phil Torres traveled to Nicaragua recently to learn about the proposed $50-billion dollar Nicaraguan Canal project and how local people and the environment will be impacted. 

Torres speaks with Monica Lopez Baltodano who is an environmental attorney and director of the Popol Na Foundation, an organization which looks after local civil rights. Lopez Baltodano speaks about what she sees as the biggest threat to local communities. She warns of the dangers of how the fallout for local resources will impact Nicaraguans.

The following was adapted from an interview with “TechKnow.” It has been edited for length and clarity.

TechKnow:  How does that project fit into Nicaraguan law in general?

Monica Lopez Baltodano: In my legal opinion, it’s the completely evident that the canal law is against the constitution, but also in the past two years, it has proven that it’s violating human rights along the canal route. Not just because all the confrontation that has happened against the police and the army that were sent by the government to try to limit the protest against the canal, but that the canal concession is putting at risk basic human rights in Nicaragua such as access to water, not just for drinking but also for production.

You say 119,000 people will be impacted?

We think that’s a low number because it’s based on official information that was taken in 2005…The consequences that are coming out of destroying our main water resource which is Lake Cocibolca. Currently more than 200,000 people are drinking water out of that lake, and all of the cities around Nicaragua’s lake are going to drink water out of it. We are saying; it’s clearly that without access to water, none of the other human rights are going to be able to be implemented in the country because that’s such a basic need.  

So it seems like the Chinese investors would benefit hugely (from the canal project). How could Nicaragua benefit from those projects?

First off what we are clearly saying is that the negotiations that weren’t led by the (Nicaraguan) President are not representing Nicaragua’s peoples’ interest. It’s completely clear that in any of the future scenarios, anything that can happen in the scope of this canal concession, it’s not benefiting the country because in first place, all of the legal terms that they agree are completely against Nicaraguan people. Why for instance Nicaraguan legislation cannot be applied in any of the areas of the project so what would happen with the workers there, what would happen with public health, what will happen with environmental rights?  According to the canal law, we have no right to claim this private investor that he complies with our legislation.

So this seems like there is promise for a boost in the economy, jobs for Nicaraguans, what is the reality of that?

Well, the reality is they have been publically lying to people. When they approved the canal law two years ago, what the President said is the canal is going to generate one million jobs. A few months later the investor published a document with his plan in terms of employment and what he said is the canal project will generate 25,000 jobs to Nicaraguan people during the construction period which is of course the only moment in the whole process of a canal that actually requires a lot workers, but (they are) just temporary jobs and low quality jobs for Nicaraguan people for a short period of time…In fact, what we are saying is that one of the problems of the canal is that the resources that are going to be allocated for the canal, particularly water resources, are the ones that are more demanded in the country for what we actually do which is product food.  So the normal activities of economic activities for Nicaragua will be substituted by the prioritization of using water for the canal.  That is going to generate huge consequences. 

What is the general reaction when you tell the public about this type of information?

They are completely surprised because all you can hear in media is that the canal is good, is going to give benefits but people don’t know what is in the documents that the company has published. They don’t know what is in the documents that the country has signed. In fact, all the authorities in Nicaragua never talk about the canal law, never talk about the documents they have signed because it’s so evident that they have negotiated…against the people that they have to try to hide those documents because it’s completely evident that the deal they have done, it’s not going to bring the benefits they are publically saying it’s going to bring.

So how big is the disparity between the rich of this country and the poor of this country? How does the average person get along?

It’s absolutely amazing. In Nicaragua, you have more than 70 percent of the people that have no form of jobs. You have more than 60 percent living in different levels of poverty…I’m pretty confident when I say that the current government (is) pushing for privatization of our most valuable resources. The canal concession actually means that forest resources have been privatized. Water resources have been privatized…It’s just a small groups of family with huge power in Nicaragua that think that no one is Nicaragua is going to oppose to this. The good news is there are several organizations and thousands of people that are protesting and manifesting against it.

Do you think a lot of people are being told the canal is the big fix for the country?

That’s actually what the government is saying, but this is not just something that has been made up by this government….In the case of Nicaragua, the way that the deal was done, it is going to determine the way the project is going to happen and clearly there are not benefits for Nicaraguan people there. 

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