Even as the chorus of scientific and indigenous complaints grows louder, the earth movers and other equipment have started digging the largest canal in the Americas, one that Nicaraguan officials assert will help ease the dire poverty of the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
However, scientists are warning against the project, and an indigenous community is suing the government of Nicaragua regarding construction of the massive canal that will connect the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, which, according to a growing number of experts, could cause severe environmental damage. Moreover, it was allegedly authorized without prior consultation with affected indigenous communities.
Construction began on the Grand Canal in December. The $50 billion plan entails digging a 90-foot-deep, 1,1710-foot-wide, 170-mile-long trench that will skirt rainforests and cut through Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking water reservoir in the region.
Along with growing scientific concerns regarding the canal are lawsuits filed by the indigenous communities of Mískitu of Tasbapouni, Kriol, Monkey Point and of the Black Indigenous Creole communities of Bluefields of the Autonomous Region of the Southern Caribbean (ARSC). The indigenous and Afro Nicaraguan peoples who live in the region first filed suit in 2013 in Nicaragua's Supreme Court to contest Law 840, which allowed the government to award the canal contract to the HKND Group of Hong Kong without consulting the affected communities or issuing environmental impact studies that normally are required for any construction project in Nicaragua. In December 2013 the court ruled the law to be constitutional. The indigenous communities then took their fight to the Inter American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). In November 2014 the IACHR agreed to consider the affected communities’ petition for protective measures.
"The Territorial Rama and Kriol Government has presented a petition for protective measures to the IACHR, but it also petitions the Nicaraguan State to not initiate construction until the State complies with its international obligation to engage in a free, previous and informed consent with the Indigenous Rama and Kriol communities,” the Territorial Rama and Kriol Government said in a statement in January.
Indigenous Peoples are joined by numerous scientists in their concern over possible environmental and cultural impacts. Many scientists wonder what will become of the lake, given that its 50-foot-deep bed will be dredged to accommodate the 90-foot depth needed for the canal, which would basically bisect the 56-mile-wide body of water. In December, scientists Jorge Huete-Perez, president of Nicaragua’s Academy of Science, and Axel Meyer, a professor of zoology and evolutionary biology in Germany, wrote about potential affects on the lake from the canal project.
“The extensive dredging required would dump millions of tons of sludge either into other parts of the lake or onto nearby land,” the scientists stated. “Either way, the sludge will probably end up as damaging sedimentation.”
Further, the project entails constructing dams “in an area of frequent seismic activity, which would increase the risk of local water shortages and flooding,” Perez and Meyer wrote. “The lake would probably suffer from salt infiltration in the lock zones, as in locks of the Panama Canal. This would transform a free-flowing freshwater ecosystem into an artificial slack-water reservoir combined with salt water. Declining populations of native aquatic fauna…could also suffer.”
The result would be probable environmental catastrophe, they warned.
"In our view, this canal could create an environmental disaster in Nicaragua and beyond," the scientists wrote, citing the destruction of 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands. "The accompanying development could imperil surrounding ecosystems.”
For instance, they said, a mere 150 miles north of the most likely route of the canal lies the 7,722-square-mile Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, “tropical forest that is the last refuge of many disappearing species.”
Perez and Meyer were also part of a team of 21 scholars from the U.S. and Latin America who co-authored an article explaining potentially negative consequences of the canal.
"The biggest environmental challenge is to build and operate the canal without catastrophic impacts to this sensitive ecosystem," said environmental engineer Pedro Alvarez of Rice University in Texas, adding that even with the best of intentions, it would be hard to avoid wide-scale environmental destruction. "Significant impacts to the lake could result from incidental or accidental spills from 5,100 ships passing through every year; invasive species brought by transoceanic ships, which could threaten the extinction of aquatic plants and fish, such as the cichlids that have been evolving since the lake's formation; and frequent dredging, impacting aquatic life through alterations in turbidity and hypoxia, triggered by re-suspension of nutrients and organic matter that exert a relatively high biochemical oxygen demand."