Monday, September 05, 2016

The Grandest Canal ... or None At All

When I made my first visit to Nicaragua in January of 2006, I had the intention of teaching my coffee travel course there just once before moving on to other countries. Little did I know that I would return almost every year, mostly at exactly the same time of the year. The regular rhythm of my visits has allowed me to develop friendships, to observe the perils of an unraveling climate, and to notice evolving stories at the national level.

It was just before my 2011 visit that I learned of a dispute about the portrayal of the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border in Google's mapping of the Rio San Juan area. Troops were actually deployed to defend against the encroachment on Nicaragua that the government saw in Google's cartography. During my 2011 visit, I learned of the importance of this dispute for Nicaraguans living far from the contested area. For its part, Costa Rica was determined to protect the ecological integrity of the river, in part because it is an important component in Costa Rica's ecotourism development model.

Two years after that, we had learned more details about what made the territory so sensitive for Nicaragua -- especially for President Daniel Ortega and business interests associated with him: a new canal to compete with the Panama Canal. Various routes across Nicaragua were considered when the Panama project was being contemplated; today growing ship traffic has renewed interest in those alternatives. In 2013, I wrote about plans to open just such a route, and the environmental concerns raised by these plans.
The canal would involve substantial dredging in Lake Nicaragua.
Image: Meridith Kohut, New York Times
In early 2015, work on the canal actually began, with a much-publicized ground-breaking ceremony. Tensions rose as the idea of a canal began to become a reality. I had assumed that the transit of Lake Nicaragua would be the easy part of the project, but the size of the ships envisioned would require deep channels to be cut and maintained, creating permanent turbidity throughout much of the largest lake in Central America.

In an April 2016 article, New York Times writer Suzanne Daley provides a cogent description of the political and economic context in which this project has unfolded, and explains why it may never happen after all. A single wealthy investor from China has led the project, and his personal fortunes have since declined. It is not at all clear whether the Chinese government is directly involved or interested enough to finance what would be the largest excavation project ever attempted. Meanwhile, land and water rights along the proposed route remain uncertain.

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