National Geographic News
A ferry boat awaits tourists on the Cocibolca Lake with the Concepcion Volcano in the background at Ometepe Island May 22, 2012.

A ferry boat awaits tourists at Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua on May 22, 2012.


Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published February 20, 2014

A Nicaraguan canal? A China-backed plan to cut a new canal across Central America threatens vital wildlife and wetlands, warn experts.

Nicaraguan officials in June granted 50-year rights to build and oversee the $40 billion canal to a Hong Kong-based firm, bypassing environmental reviews in the process. The 186-mile-long (300-kilometer-long) canal would connect the Pacific to the Caribbean, creating a rival to the Panama Canal. (See: "Panama Canal: Intro.")

In the current edition of the journal Nature, two prominent environmental scientists warn that the project threatens "environmental disaster" for Nicaragua. At risk are "some of the most fragile, pristine and scientifically important" regions of Central America, they warn.

A locator map of Nicaragua.
NG Staff

National Geographic spoke with comment co-author Jorge A. Huete-Pérez, director of the Centro de Biología Molecular at the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nicaragua. Huete-Pérez is also the president of the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences.

Huete-Pérez wrote the piece with Axel Meyer, a professor of zoology and evolutionary biology at the University of Konstanz, Germany.

Is it unusual that Nicaragua will not conduct its own environmental impact statement for the proposed canal, instead relying on the building company itself to do that? What limitations might that pose?

It would be prudent for any government to conduct its own feasibility studies and environmental impact assessment (EIA) on the local, national, and regional impact of constructing an interoceanic megacanal well in advance of opening up the bidding on such a project to national and international bidders, and prior to granting a concession to any firm, foreign or national. Nicaragua's national assembly has, however, granted a concession to [Hong Kong-based company] HKND to build and operate the canal and its many subprojects, without a bidding process and without any current EIA studies.

It is unusual that any government that has the best interests of the nation and its citizens as its top priorities would not unilaterally undertake the necessary groundwork for such a massive project to ensure that the results of such studies would be thorough and transparent on all levels.

Your paper mentions the canal could destroy 400,000 hectares of rain forest and wetlands. What specifically would be lost, and what is the value of that?

Although the concession has already been granted to HKND, and the Nicaraguan Constitution and Law 800 have been amended to accommodate this agreement, the final route and dimensions of HKND's interoceanic canal have yet to be determined. Government sources have revealed several possible routes, one of which appears to be the most likely [from Bluefields Lagoon on the east coast to the town of Brito on the west coast].

Based on this route, scientists and environmentalists have estimated the amount of hectares that will be incorporated into HKND's canal zone and its subprojects. These hectares extend through forests, reserves, wetlands, and land designated as autonomous and belonging to the traditional indigenous populations of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.

The effects of construction, major roadways, a coast-to-coast railway system and oil pipeline, neighboring industrial free-trade zones, and two international airports will transform wetlands into dry zones, remove hardwood forests, and destroy the habitats of animals including those of the coastal, air, land, and freshwater zones.

If the canal is built, how serious a threat could it pose to the nearby Bosawas Biosphere Reserve and Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, as well as the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve that it would cut through?

Whether the canal is completed in the anticipated 10-year time frame or not, the construction and industrialization process of HKND's canal and all of the subprojects pose a very serious threat not only to Lake Nicaragua and the Atlantic Autonomous Regions, but also to the rivers to be used for transit or to be dammed to raise and maintain the level of the lake; to the Island of Ometepe, declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO; and of course, to the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor, which incorporates the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, and the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve.

Migration routes for animals through this corridor would be truncated. Forests would be cut to make way for the rail line, the canal, the oil pipeline. Wetlands would most likely be drained or filled for the international airports and the planned industrial zones.

The concession allows HKND to make use of any natural resources and to declare any national territory to be necessary for the purpose of the project. This could be interpreted in many ways, to Nicaragua's detriment.

How specifically could indigenous peoples be impacted?

Many of the communities in Nicaragua's Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region are indigenous and have histories dating back to well before the Spanish conquest. While the process of land registration is not fully up to date, the Nicaraguan Constitution of 1987 states that this land is autonomous and belongs to the resident indigenous communities.

The new constitution, amended in December of last year to accommodate the concession of the canal, along with [the new] Canal Law 840, grants HKND the right to expropriate land and natural resources as it sees fit for the success of the project and subprojects. Those who suddenly find themselves landless will be reimbursed for their ancestral lands based on the assessment of the lands' value for tax purposes, as of June 2013. These individuals can register a complaint about the amount of compensation being offered to them, but they cannot register complaints about the land being taken from them.

Since the law clearly states how much they will be reimbursed for the seizure of their ancestral lands, there is little hope for success in lodging any complaints. And lodging complaints, moving, and purchasing new land requires resources that most of these communities lack.

It is also important to note that recent discoveries of ancient remains in the Angi shell mound in the area of Monkey Point on the Caribbean coast are thought to reveal the oldest human remains to be found in Central America, dating back possibly 4,000 years or more. Carbon dating being conducted on the remains will soon determine if this is true.

How will the construction of a deep-water port next door affect future discoveries?

How serious are the threats to Lake Nicaragua itself?

The threats to Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in the region, and its two-peaked volcanic island of Ometepe are quite serious. The lake is too shallow for the draught of the ships anticipated for this megacanal. Dredging will be compulsory and, in all likelihood, dams on the river that drains from the lake to the Caribbean Sea will also be needed.

The lake is well above sea level, necessitating the construction of locks on both sides of the lake. Pollution in lock zones from seawater, diesel, and other waste products from the industrialization of the zones is well documented elsewhere and will have a negative impact on the lake, at a time when freshwater is becoming scarcer, the climate is warming, and Nicaragua's population is growing.

There are native fish populations in the lake that are fragile and already under threat from invasive species. Even with new technologies for the cleansing and sterilization of bilge water, there remains the threat of introduction of new species and pathogens from bilge discharge.

And perhaps most alarmingly, the most likely route across the lake has been shown to skirt just offshore of Ometepe Island, a small gem of pristine forests, volcanoes, archeological remains from distant ancestors, unique biodiversity, and newly awakening ecotourism possibilities. It is difficult to reconcile the passage of 400,000-ton oceangoing cargo ships just offshore of this UNESCO reserve.

Are there ways the canal could bring benefits?

According to some government advisers, the canal has the potential to increase Nicaragua's annual growth from 4.5 percent to as much as 15 percent in 2016, and then back down to 8 percent per year. These are certainly heady figures for a developing nation. And according to the concession agreement, in 50 years, Nicaragua will own 51 percent of the shares in the enterprise. If HKND continues the concession for another 50 years, then Nicaragua will own all of the shares after a total of 100 years.

We are also being told that there will be a substantial increase in the level of employment, and some universities are beginning to offer courses related to the shipping and canal industry. If the increase in full-time and well-compensated employment is indeed substantial, then this too would be beneficial, although there are no guarantees that this will occur. As stipulated in the concession, the preference for new hires for the canal project will be Nicaraguans first, the region second, and Chinese nationals third.

The kinds of jobs for which local populations will be hired remains to be seen. Nicaraguan government websites along with HKND's website list other benefits envisioned as a result of the building and operation of the canal.

The Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences (of which you are president) is coordinating efforts with the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences to carry out an independent impact assessment. What do you hope to accomplish with that?

There is no way of knowing if any research carried out by the global scientific community might have an impact on the construction of the HKND canal or to even halt construction. It seems most unlikely that the project would be halted.

However, we would hope that our combined expertise, research, and genuine concern for the protection and best sustainable use of the region's environment and natural resources would be considered by the Nicaraguan government, by HKND, and by the designers of the canal and its subprojects in order to determine the least destructive route and least harmful impact on such a fragile and necessary ecosystem as is found in Nicaragua.

What do you hope the international community will do?

We are asking the international community to join us in providing funding for and conducting research into all possible impacts—negative and positive—of the construction of HKND's canal and subprojects and to share this information with the Nicaraguan government, peoples, and world community. We see an urgent need for independent environmental and social impact studies, completely indifferent to the potential long-term financial success of the canal project.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.




Chalo Jr
Chalo Jr

I'm more worried for Nicaraguan People

Rather than arguing with fools on this subject who will bring me down to their level of foolishness and beat me with their experience let me give you a quick 5 minute overview.

Wealthy Chinese investors, incentivised with tax exemptions will buy up over 80% of the countries real estate making it impossible for Nicaraguans to own their own home or to successfully operate a business due to high level of competition from overseas investors who are financially backed and bypass paying tax.

The Canal will leave Nicaragua with additional debt of over $40 billion in future money, the Canals structural integrity will likely reach half-life in 50 years and full life within 100 years and will likely require a complete rebuild which will also impact earnings. If a the Chinese construction company
uses sub-standard products and lacks the attention to detail needed (which is often seen across Chinese construction sites) the Canals half-life would be much shorter and as Nicaragua’s ownership in the project increases the profits will be absorbed by repairs and operational costs which will likely be paid to Chinese operations. 

Nicaraguans will get screwed by the Chinese, by the time they realise it will be too late to reverse as the country will be financially dependent, the Chinese will practically own 80% of Nicaraguan industries and Nicaraguans will be modern day slaves. Nicaraguan politics will be influenced by 99% of the wealth placing unrealistic tax prices on the labour force whilst taxes are reduced for businesses. Barriers to owning and operating a business successfully will be hard for Nicaraguans as they will likely make up 99% of the workforce on a minimum wage with the most qualified earning merely $450 a month, if lucky. The overpriced entry to real estate ownership and high real estate rental prices and a steady CPI on GDP will lead the future of Nicaraguan constituents to complete obliteration. Did I forget the most obvious, the racial subdivide that will see Nicaragua controlled by a Chinese president and all Nicaraguan Natives (Afro-Native Americans and Native Americans) racially subdivided and placed into the lower class of Nicaraguan society that’s purely based on racial features.

Are those involved in the decision to build the Canal through Nicaragua truly representing their constituents, NO!

Chalo Jr 2014

Ed Guice
Ed Guice

The Chinese must have their oil for their growing population; always thinking long-term.

Katherine Hoyt
Katherine Hoyt

Huete-Perez is correct that the government did not do its own environmental impact study but the British based ERM company is apparently doing an extensive one right now.  It would have been more useful for the reader if Huete-Perez would have given his impressions about how complete and impartial that study is likely to be.

jagr rio
jagr rio

people of the world, rise up, take back control.

EG Chan
EG Chan

seems like one likes exploiting another's resources. sabotaging a UNESCO site?

richard Cohen
richard Cohen

I hope the Panama Co. is taking Good care of the Scientists. A canal would kill them


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