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Nicaragua’s Grand Canal - The other side of the story

Nicaragua’s Grand Canal - The other side of the story
Mark Burton and Chuck Kaufman

Enviado por tortilla en Mar, 30/12/2014 - 07:31

December 26th 2014

Nicaragua is on the verge of beginning construction of a trans-isthmus canal, a dream that goes back to the colonial era. The canal will supplement the Panama Canal and will handle the largest ships which can’t fit in Panama’s locks. Nicaragua has made a sovereign decision on how it is going to develop and it is now under attack.  Just like many people in the US supported Nicaragua's sovereign right to defend its territory in the 1980s, and to decide who is going to be their president (President Ortega remains quite popular in his third term), solidarity activists should support the sovereign right of Nicaraguans to develop their country as they see fit.

We are sensitive to important environmental issues raised by the construction of a megaproject such as a new canal connecting the Pacific to the Caribbean.  However, much of the environmental criticism seems to be coming from the United States, and some from Europe. It is more than a little ironic that North Americans, who have hardly 2% of their original forest cover left, and produce more pollution per capita than any other country on earth, are lecturing Nicaraguans on the environment.  It is also true that quite a number of the people marching in Nicaragua against the project are from the opposition which opposes everything that the democratically-elected government of the FSLN tries to do. Opposition parties, including those of former Sandinistas, are scared to death that the FSLN will continue to increase employment and decrease poverty. They are concerned that development spurred by the canal will increase the FSLN’s popularity and further marginalize their own electoral ambitions.

The Nicaragua loses 70,000 hectares of forest per year to slash and burn agriculture by people who are desperately poor and just eke out a living in the countryside, or due to large-scale agriculture and ranching interests. Better enforcement and decreasing levels of poverty, thanks to government programs, did reduce forest loss to 63,000 hectares in 2013. However, Nicaragua has long been the poorest country, after Haiti, in Latin America and it simply doesn’t have the money to sustain Nicaragua’s forests. Some economic indicators now indicate Nicaragua has risen above Honduras in the ranking of poorest countries, but regardless, Nicaragua is still a poor country. With its budget, the Nicaraguan government can only afford to reforest 15,000 hectares per year. Presidential advisor Paul Oquist says that the only conceivable source of money for more reforestation is revenue from the canal. If the US would pay Nicaragua the $17 billion (plus nearly 29 years of interest) that it was ordered by the World Court to pay as reparations in 1986 for the damage caused by its illegal Contra War, Nicaragua wouldn’t need the canal in order to achieve sustainable development. But, critics aren’t even working on that issue.

As Panama learned, a canal is absolutely dependent on a healthy watershed, which requires unbroken expanses of healthy forest. So construction of the canal will actually improve that important environmental health factor. The Nicaraguan government also points out correctly that poverty is the greatest destructive force on their environment. Jobs created by construction and operation of the canal will reduce poverty and increase revenue. The government of President Daniel Ortega has a proven record as one of the foremost governments in the world working to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Last year Nicaragua passed 50% of electricity production by renewable sources, and government policies have opened the way to 90% green energy production by 2020. We only wish we had a government in the US as concerned about the environment as Nicaraguans do. Those who argue against the canal treat the areas that the canal will go through as if they are pristine rainforest and wetlands. This is simply not true. Anyone flying from West to East over what once were vast and impenetrable forests will see that decades of agricultural frontier advancement and illegal clear cut logging have left hollow shells of trees around nearly adjoining squares of bare earth.

The wetlands too have been highly degraded by pesticide run-off and commercial shrimp farming. As a result of public comments about the need to protect an important wetland area, canal planners added a long bridge to the plan to reduce impact. Indeed, many changes to the plan, including the route itself, have been made as a result of an ongoing environmental impact study and consultations with the communities the canal will affect. The argument by canal opponents that the process has been opaque and that people have not been consulted rings hollow and smells of political opportunism.

There are good and sincere reasons to be concerned about the environmental impact of the canal, especially pertaining to threats to water quality in Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua). The “great lake” is the largest reservoir of fresh water in Central American. The canal will cross it and the plan calls for serious dredging. Supporters of the canal point to the dredged topsoil as a resource to recover land denuded by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Whether the dredged soil will be free enough of heavy metals and other pollutants, we don’t know, but neither do the canal’s opponents.

However, we are suspicious that opponents of the canal are playing right into the narrative of forces that care nothing about the environment and everything about the maintenance of US hegemony over the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean basin.   This is credible because the canal will be a big blow to US imperialism and hegemony.  Apart from making Nicaragua wealthier and more independent, it is also punches a hole in the strategic value of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

The TTP is an attempt by the US and transnational corporations to create dependent countries that are beholden to the United States and which also agree to isolate China. Critics call it “NAFTA on steroids.” Chile, Peru, Panama, Colombia, Mexico are all in the TPP treaty that will likely be a rare point of agreement between the Republican Congress and President Obama when it is voted on early next year.  The canal bypasses this attempt to isolate China as the large ships carrying Chinese goods will be able to trade efficiently with Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and other countries. 

China is one of these countries’ largest foreign trade partners. The canal will also save mega-barrels of oil burned up because the biggest ships must travel thousands of miles around the tip of South America since they are too big for the Panama Canal. It does no good to argue that those ships should never have been built. We agree. However, they were, and they are plying the world’s oceans at this very moment. Indeed, China and Cuba just completed talks during a visit to the island by Chinese President Xi Jinping that will include a Chinese investment of $100 million to upgrade the port at Santiago de Cuba to handle ships exceeding 40,000 tons. Venezuela, as well, has plans to build an oil refinery in Cuba.

China is now the third largest foreign investor in Latin America, (the first in Brazil) and often makes trade and aid deals on better terms and without the strings attached by the US and Europe. China has given financial, technological, and diplomatic support to the cooperative trade group, ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our Americas) which includes Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and several Caribbean island nations. 

An example of China’s support for Latin American countries is its offer to support Argentina when a New York judge declared Argentina in default of its international debt payments. So-called vulture funds had bought up Argentine debt for pennies on the dollar, but sought court approval to collect the full face value of the debt. As a result, Argentina was in danger of having its foreign credit supply cut off. An official of China visited Argentina the day after the New York court ruling and offered Argentina credit on favorable terms. 

The United States, with its hegemonic Monroe Doctrine, has never been able to accept that Latin American countries may develop as they wish and have relations with whomever they wish. Since 1999, with the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Latin America has increasingly freed itself of US hegemony. US imperialists, including Obama, do not accept that changed reality and are using tools like sanctions against Venezuela and even darker schemes by USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the CIA to attempt to bring Latin America back into the fold.  

Our job as solidarity activists is to expose and oppose US intervention in the sovereign affairs of Nicaragua, Latin America, and indeed the world. It is not our job to criticize or lecture other countries on the sovereign decisions they choose to pursue in the interest of economic and social justice. To do so makes us little better than our government or of interventionist groups like Human Rights Watch. As residents of a country that cut down its own great hardwood forests and continues to poison its, and the world’s, water and air, we should show a bit of humility before hectoring other countries on environmental issues.

Besides, we find the claims that the canal will have positive environmental impacts to be at least as persuasive as the arguments for its negative impact. In the final analysis, we argue that it is up to Nicaraguans to decide whether or not the benefits outweigh the risks.

Mark Burton is an NLG criminal defense attorney and board member of the Alliance for Global Justice. Chuck Kaufman is AfGJ National Co-Coordinator. The views expressed in this article are their own. The Alliance for Global Justice has a policy of neutrality on the canal and its project, the Nicaragua Network, is committed to objectively reporting both sides of the issue.



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