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Opposition Grows To Nicaragua Canal Connecting Atlantic And Pacific


In Nicaragua, preliminary work has begun on a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This canal will be three times the length of Panama's and will cut through forests, wetlands and a giant inland lake. Backers say the project will create 50,000 jobs and double the size of Nicaragua's economy. But opposition to the waterway is growing, as John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Just off the Pacific Coast, graders and rollers put the finishing touches on an access road that will be used to bring in heavy equipment to build the Nicaraguan canal. Deeper, wider and longer than the Panama Canal, it's designed to handle ships that are more than four football fields in length. The $50 billion project will require a lot of digging. The builder is Hong Kong-based HKND Group, which is headed by Chinese entrepreneur Wang Jing. He says it will be the largest earthmoving project in human history. According to one newspaper estimate, enough dirt will be removed to cover Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building. Engineers will also flood a vast section of jungle to form an artificial lake.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting) No al canal, no al canal.

OTIS: But as Nicaraguans begin to grasp the true size and scope of the project, protests are springing up. Demonstrators here are marching across Ometepe, a volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua that lies along the canal's proposed route. Along the way they listen to an anti-canal anthem that blares from speakers on the back of a truck.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

OTIS: One of the protesters is Alex Cheves, who owns a grocery store on the island.

ALEX CHEVES: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: Cheves points out that under a new law, the Nicaraguan government could seize his property or any others deemed necessary for the canal and its related projects that include ports, free trade zones and golf resorts. Government officials say that these properties will be purchased at fair prices, but the demonstrators here say they don't want to leave their homes.

MENARDO MAIRENA: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "We are accustomed to living off the land," says yucca farmer Menardo Mairena, "but if we are expropriated, we would end up in the streets."

OTIS: Then there's the issue of the water surrounding Ometepe Island. Lake Nicaragua is Central America's largest and provides drinking water to dozens of towns. But to make way for supersized oil tankers and container ships, blueprints call for part of the lake bottom to be dredged to create a shipping lane. The soil, rocks and muck dug up from the bottom will be used to create three more islands.

JORGE HUETE: It doesn't make sense for us to lose all of that water for the purpose of the canal.

OTIS: Biologist Jorge Huete is vice president of the Nicaraguan Science Academy. He says the dredging could kick up so much sediment that it would discolor the water, lower its oxygen content and kill-off marine life. For now, the canal is moving ahead even though an environmental impact study of the project has yet to be completed. HKND refused NPR's request for comment. Manuel Coronel, who heads the Nicaraguan Canal Authority, argues that the canal will be good for the environment. He says the government will use profits from the waterway to strictly enforce green laws.

MANUEL CORONEL: The environmental situation will be much better than it is today because today, actually, the environmental situation is deteriorating all the time because nobody takes care of it. So we will be able to protect all that with the money.

OTIS: Polls show that most Nicaraguans support the project.

OCTAVIO ORTEGA: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: But the protesters are persistent. At the Ometepe march, I meet Octavio Ortega, who was attacked by anti-riot police in December. His face is full of scars and his arm is still in a sling, but his voice is firm.

ORTEGA: (Foreign language spoken).

OTIS: "My doctors have ordered me to rest," he says, "but I am recovering by organizing more and more protests across Nicaragua." For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Ometepe, Nicaragua. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.