Scientists are appalled at Nicaragua's plan to build a massive canal

Illustration for article titled Scientists are appalled at Nicaraguas plan to build a massive canal

The Nicaraguan government has approved a plan that would see the country cut in half by a 177-mile-long canal. The new route would boost the country's economy and rival the one in Panama — but scientists say it would be an environmental and social catastrophe.

Construction on the $40 billion canal is scheduled to begin in December. It's being built by a Chinese company called the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company (HKND). The Nicaraguan government and the HKND say it'll boost the country's GDP by 11% annually and provide up to a million new jobs in the years following the canal's construction. They also claim that it'll expedite global trade — but some experts say there's no justification for a new canal and that the Panama Canal "works pretty well."

Moreover, the environmental impact of the canal would be quite staggering. A scathing new paper published in Nature points out the various problems, including the fact that no independent environmental assessment of the canal's potential impact has yet to be conducted.


For starters, it'll cut a swath through Lake Nicaragua, which is where most of the country's drinking water comes from. The new channel will be lined with industrial centers, airports, new railways, oil pipelines — and the rights to any natural resources in the area.

Writing in Smithsonian, Rachel Nuwer tells us more:

The canal as planned...would destroy around 400,000 hectares (nearly one million acres) of rainforest and wetlands. The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is located just north of proposed canal route and houses numerous endangered species such as Baird's tapirs, spider monkeys, jaguars and harpy eagles, while the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve is situated just to the south holds a similar assembly of endangered species.

The canal doesn't even bother to skirt around the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve—home to the oldest oak trees in central America, numerous types of monkeys and populations of bright green quetzals—the authors point out. Plans have the waterway cutting straight through that park's northern section.

The canal and its accompanying ports would also bulldoze over endangered sea turtle nesting beaches on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as impact or destroy coral reefs and mangroves, which—in addition to their importance for biodiversity—help buffer inland Nicaragua from tropical storms. As for land animals, those that cannot fly could no longer migrate north to south, cutting species populations off from one another like a watery Berlin Wall.

In addition to impacts on wildlife, indigenous communities—including the Rama, Garifuna, Mayangna, Miskitu and Ulwa—depend on the areas where the proposed canal will be located. No proof has emerged that their rights have been taken into consideration or allocations have been made to make up for disruptions to their lives, the authors note. "Hundreds of villages will have to be evacuated and the indigenous inhabitants relocated," they write. This disruption might even be enough to trigger civil strife.

Other issues include the construction of dams and the possible arrival of invasive species. And as a company, HKND looks a bit sketchy.

There's much more to this story, so read more at Smithsonian, National Geographic, and CS Monitor.


Image: Hofstra.

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Ron Miller

Why all the excitement? A canal through Nicaragua was first suggested in the mid 19th century and has come within an inch of being authorized many times right up until the present. At least as an idea it is hardly anything new.