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China-Backed Nicaragua Canal Project Is Undemocratic, Unpopular And Environmentally Devastating

04/14/2015 03:50 EDT | Updated 06/14/2015 05:59 EDT

When the French tried to build a canal through Panama in 1880, malaria, yellow fever and other tropical nastiness wiped out 20,000 people and the project went bankrupt. It was a project of superlatives; the largest-ever earthen dam, the most massive canal locks ever envisioned and the largest gates ever swung. At the same time, the United States was looking at Nicaragua as a more feasible location than Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific but gave up on the idea when they bought the Panama Canal in 1902.

The concept of a Nicaraguan canal was given new life in 2013 when a Chinese company was granted a 50-year lease to dig a monstrous canal to rival the Panama Canal. The Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal, as it is known, has a neat price tag of $50 billion -- a billion for every year of construction. The canal project was rammed through in three days and done "in total secrecy," according to critics. President Daniel Ortega has refused to release any but the most bare-bones details on the scheme and the route has yet to be finalized.

Legislators complained that congressional committees had only two days to review a bill that will irrevocably re-shape the destiny of the country and almost surely destroy an environmental treasure. Ortega's Sandanista government has grown increasingly authoritarian and secretive since he slid into power in 2007 with a narrow victory over a divided opposition. Ortega recently steam-rollered a constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits and strengthened the role of the military in government.

The bill gives Hong Kong-based HKND Group a 50-year concession to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific. Nicaragua would be paid a paltry $10 million a year. HKND was founded three years ago by an enigmatic billionaire named Wang Jing, whose telecos company, Xinwei Telecom Technology, has strong connections to the military -- twice a day Wang plays People's Liberation songs in the company's Beijing headquarters. Speculation is rife that China's government is a backer of the project. Political analysts say the canal would achieve Beijing's goals of broadening China's footprint in Latin America and deflating the economic importance of Hong Kong as the primary entry point to China.

Nicaraguan opposition lawmakers are predictably furious, saying preferential treatment for foreign investors in such a momentous project amounts to a violation of nation sovereignty. If built, the new canal will likely be more than 250 kilometres long, three times longer than the Panama Canal and be much wider to allow passage by the next-generation 15,000-container ships. But, construction to widen the Panama Canal to handle these massive ships is expected to be finished in 2015, and the widened canal to re-open in early 2016--three years before Nicaragua's canal is scheduled to be open, seemingly making it redundant. In a tragic irony, Nicaragua currently gets half of its electricity from renewables and that figure is predicted to rise to 80 per cent in a few years. Unfortunately, all that green energy won't be nearly enough to offset the canal project's gargantuan carbon footprint.

It will probably bisect ecologically sensitive Lake Nicaragua, which is nicknamed mar dulce, or "sweet sea." The lake is Central America's largest and the source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands. Canal construction would destroy around 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands. Jaime Incer is the silverback of conservation efforts in Nicaragua. "There are alternatives for linking one ocean to the other, but there are no alternatives for cleaning a lake after a disaster has happened," he told Nicaragua's Confidencial newspaper. "We don't have another Lake Nicaragua." A Chinese business analyst said that Wang's project is "absurd" in its lack of environmental feasibility.

Indigenous groups also say they have not been adequately consulted. They have called on the country's Supreme Court to repeal the law allowing the construction of the canal. Protests have quickly grown violent. On Christmas Eve 2014, about 50 peasants were injured and a policeman was shot in a protest in the village of Rivas, where construction has begun. Police and soldiers are joining Joint Chinese-Nicaraguan teams in assessing properties along the canal's route. "There is intimidation towards the owners of the houses. They feel as if they were terrorists," one municipal official said.

The narrative of the canal project closely tracks that of Canada's controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, especially warnings from critics that the plan is being rushed through "...without adequate scrutiny of the environmental impact, business viability and public wellbeing."

Of course, the employment/economic benefit drum is being beaten by the government; "This will be the largest project in Latin America in 100 years," project executive Ronald Maclean said. Wang has promised that half of the 50,000 jobs per year during the five-year construction period will go to Nicaraguans, with 25 per cent to Chinese workers and 25 per cent from other countries. However, the Nicaraguan workforce is mostly illiterate and untrained and would be unqualified for any but the lowest-paid labourer jobs. "In the first place, it's not a Nicaragua canal, it's a Chinese canal," said a prominent Nicaraguan economist. "The biggest Chinese banks are going to finance it and the biggest Chinese businesses will build it--otherwise there won't be a canal." Others are resigned to the realities of decision-making in a one-party state. "You know the Comandante -- he's the boss," a shopowner said, referring to Ortega. "If he says it's going to go, it's going to happen."

Former Sandanista guerilla leader Ortega toppled hated dictator Anastasio Somoza 30 years ago and implemented liberal policies on literacy, gender equality and health care. He looks on the canal as the second phase of the Sandanista revolution. By ramming through this ruinous canal, Ortega has come full circle to reinvent the brutal regime he destroyed and is on the verge of committing a heinous crime against the environment.

This is an excerpt from Capt. Trevor Greene's new co-authored book, There Is No Planet B; Promise And Peril On Our Warming World