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Plan for Nicaraguan Canal Reborn
By Lidia Hunter

A feasibility study for an inter-ocean route "bigger than the Panama Canal" will be ready by the end of the year, say Nicaraguan officials.

MANAGUA, (Tierramérica).- Nicaragua is once again dreaming of building an inter-ocean route that would make the Panama Canal look tiny. But such a mega-project, which would take 10 years to build and cost more than 25 times the national budget, could be catastrophic for the environment, say ecologists.

There are four projects on the table for connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via different routes across Nicaragua. The intention is to be able to transport volumes of cargo that the Panama Canal cannot handle.

To date, only the government has proposed a water-only route. If approved, the canal must guarantee "absolute control over sovereignty and ecology," Arturo Harding, Nicaragua's environment minister, told Tierramérica.

Harding is a member of a governmental commission that is drawing up a preliminary study to determine whether canal construction would be feasible.

Jorge Huezo, also on the commission, told Tierramérica that the studies should be ready by the end of the year, and then a legislative bill would be sent to congress "in order to give the country a legal framework for negotiating mega-projects, particularly the canal."

The route "would be much bigger than the Panama Canal, if it is built," said Harding.

According to government sources, of the six billion tons of merchandise transported internationally by various means each year, only 200 million tons pass through the Panama Canal, suggesting that a new route in Nicaragua would be appropriate.

The Nicaraguan canal would serve "a different type of market than Panama's," as the new route could handle 250,000-ton ships, compared to the 50,000-ton vessels that make the Panamanian crossing, Harding explained.

According to a profile drawn up in 2000 by Nicaraguan experts, a canal that is one kilometer wide and 400 km long would cost 20 to 25 billion dollars. Nicaragua's national budget does not surpass one billion dollars annually.

Construction would take place through contracts granted in an international bidding process.

The canal would begin in Brito, in the southwestern department of Rivas, on the Pacific coast, and end on the Caribbean coast, in the department of Atlántico Sur (See infograph).

The study includes a project to reforest 40,000 square km, which would require an annual budget of 150 million dollars.

"It is not enough to reforest" the areas affected by canal construction, says Anfer López, head of campaigns at the non-governmental conservationist Humboldt Center.

The canal could introduce transmissible disease and would create a physical barrier to movement throughout Nicaraguan territory, which would be divided by the water route.

The center also warns that the mega-project would alter the ecosystems that support the lifestyles of indigenous communities and would violate international environmental treaties.

The investors "are interested in having their canal, but who is going to take responsibility for curbing the collateral impacts it produces? Who is going to make sure that the construction companies are held accountable?" asks López.

A project of this magnitude will have major environmental impacts, and the aim to build the canal is like "putting a sword to the neck", because the country does not have a legal framework for water use, said activist Kamilo Lara, of the non-governmental Soluciones Ambientales (Environmental Solutions).

Responding to criticisms, Harding said that "poverty is the leading cause of environmental destruction" in Nicaragua. And if things continue as they are, with 45 percent of the population of 5.4 million living in poverty, in 15 years the environmental degradation produced by poverty could be much worse than that caused by the canal, he said.

In addition to the government's plan for a canal, there are two proposals for building an inter-ocean railroad.

The Intermodal System for Global Transport (SIT Global), involving Nicaraguan and Canadian entrepreneurs, proposes a railway with an oil pipeline and fiber optic cable running parallel. Environmental impact studies for this project will begin this year.

Another group, the Inter-Ocean Canal of Nicaragua, proposes building two ports, one on the Atlantic, the other on the Pacific, united by 400 km of railroad.

The consortium is working on the design and geo-engineering studies of the two port terminals, its promoters said in August.

The fourth plan is the Eco Canal, a small project compared with the others, to consist of an internal route for smaller ships to carry merchandise containers along the San Juan River and Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua).

Minister Harding says the three private initiatives could complement the government's canal plans.

* Lidia Hunter is a Tierramérica contributor.

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