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Another challenge to the Nicaragua Canal: indigenous community refuses to turn over their territories

  • “The indigenous group says the Nicaraguan government has failed to uphold the principle of “free, prior, and informed consent.”
  • The Canal has drawn much criticism from scientists around the world over its likely impacts on Lake Nicaragua and delicate coastal ecosystems.
  • Concerns about the transoceanic Canal have only intensified since it was approved in 2013.
Approximate canal route across southern Nicaragua, including Lake Nicaragua. Image from Global Forest Watch.

The much-awaited Nicaragua Canal –linking the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea– has been mired in controversy and on hold since November. Now, indigenous communities in its path say they’re being pressured to approve the project, without having been given enough information about the consequences of doing so.

The company behind the $50 billion project, China-based HKND Co., had simply issued a statement back in November saying that “the construction of locks and the big excavations will start toward the end of 2016. The canal’s design is currently being fine-tuned.” HKND has yet to break ground on the waterway.

But according to recent reports, the real reason for the halting of the project may have more to do with financial losses. Wang Jing, the financial backer of the 50-year exclusive lease to build the canal, has allegedly lost nearly 85 percent of his personal wealth, due to the Chinese stock market decline.

At the same time, the project has drawn much criticism from scientists around the world over its likely impacts on Lake Nicaragua and delicate coastal ecosystems. In their report, “Nicaragua’s Mega Canal Could Become a Mega Mistake,” experts from Florida International University, Universidad Centroamericana, Rice University, and the University of Georgia raised their concerns about the scientific evidence presented in the project’s 11,000-page Environmental and Social Impact Assessment.

“Data on biodiversity were limited to the Canal’s 278 kilometer-long footprint, while the project’s impact will inevitably spill over to a huge swath of Nicaragua’s tropical forests,” explained the report. “The draft presented scanty information on the geology of the planned canal, which is expected to displace enough soil to fill 53 million semi-trailer trucks; and, most troublingly, few data were provided on water quality, flow, and currents for a canal passing through Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest source of fresh water.”

“For a project of this magnitude with so much at stake, it seems that very careful and thorough consideration is a must,” said Todd Crowl, director of Florida International University’s Southeast Environmental Research Center. “The time frame was simply too short to fully understand the potential ramifications and likely outcome.”

Concerns about the transoceanic Canal have only intensified since it was approved in 2013. Local communities worried losing their farmland, and policy experts raised doubts about its longterm financial viability. Meanwhile, president Daniel Ortega described the Canal as the “second phase of the Nicaraguan Revolution,” claiming the massive infrastructure project would pull the Central American country out of poverty and lead to the creation of 250,000 jobs.

This week, a different stakeholder is raising the alarm: the indigenous leadership of the Rama y Kriol Territorial Government (GTR-K). They say they are being pressured to sign a “perpetual lease” contract and turn over 263 square kilometers of land and sea territories; a contract that allegedly claims the company had asked for their “free, prior, and informed consent” (FPIC), when in fact, it did not. 

HKND Group, on the other hand, defends itself, saying that from October 13 to 31, 2014, they conducted a “series of activities [informative meetings and characterization workshops] for direct dialogue with the nine indigenous communities represented by the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government (GTR-K), including six Rama communities (Sumu Kaat, Tiktik Kaanu, Rama Cay, Wiring Cay, Indian River and Bangkukuk) and three Kriol communities (Graytown, Corn River and Monkey Point).” According to HKND Group, 720 and more indigenous people participated in these activities.

Nicaragua’s Law 445 says, “The State recognizes the Rights of Indigenous and Ethnic Communities over the territories they traditionally occupy… and recognizes and guarantees their inalienable, non seizable e imprescriptible qualities.” The FPIC principle is clearly stated in Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), to which Nicaragua is a signatory.

According to María Luisa Acosta, coordinator of Nicaragua’s Center of Legal Assistance for Indigenous Peoples (Calpi), Law 445 does not allow for the perpetual lease or sale of indigenous lands, regardless of the proposed infrastructure project.

“There are various violations to the free, prior, and informed consent process going on right now,” said Acosta, speaking to Nicaragua’s La Prensa newspaper. “But above all, the state should act in good faith, to respect the rights of these indigenous groups.”

Members of the GTR-K, who asked to remain anonymous, told Mongabay they are afraid to give up large areas of their territories in exchange for very vague promises of jobs. They say the government has not specified the monetary amounts in exchange for the lease they propose, either.

If the Canal goes on as planned, a deep water port will be built close to GTR-K territories, jeopardizing their way of life and local biodiversity. By the time it is completed, an estimated 27,000 Nicaraguans will have to be relocated in order to make way for the operation, which will see an average of 3,500 cargo ships passing through every year.