A Canal of a Disaster



Just past the boat railing in this photo is an important piece of the Nicaraguan coastline: a low elevation stretch of land pressing inwards all the way to the Lake of Nicaragua. This land has recently come under intense scrutiny due to recent plans to destroy it (or dredge it, to be exact).

On June 13, 2013, the Nicaraguan Assembly signed an agreement with a Chinese company called HK Nicaragua Canal Development (HKND), handing over the company the land and the rights to build the (long considered) “Nicaraguan Canal”. Dredging out land from the port of Brita to Rio Punta Gorda (a route crossing Lake Nicaragua), HKND hopes to create a massive passageway spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic capable of rivaling, if not outcompeting, the Panama Canal.

HKND seeks to build a canal not matching the size of the Panama Canal, but far surpassing it. At 186 meters long, the planned Nicaraguan Canal will stretch nearly three times longer than the Panama Canal, will be nearly twice as deep, and will sustain a breadth of between 230 to 520 meters. With a canal of such size, HKND hopes to be able to facilitate the movement of even larger transport ships than what the Panama Canal can currently accomodate.

President Ortega of Nicaragua signed the contract between Nicaragua and HKND (giving the official go-ahead for the project) without a vote among the Nicaraguan people, leading to widespread protest.[1] In this contract, HKND has been handed the rights to expatriate land and natural resources required for the project, a right extending for the next 50 years. The endeavor is estimated to cost nearly $40 billion. Alarmingly, in going ahead with such a massive construction project, HKND and the Nicaraguan government have bypassed the completion of independent environmental reviews.[2]

In fact, the project will destroy forests, mangroves, wetlands, cut off animal populations, threaten species including jaguars, the great green macaw, and sea turtles, pollute the Nicaraguan Lake (and likely introduce saltwater, forever destroying its essential role in providing water to the local people), and slice autonomous indigenous land.[3],[4] Its construction will necessitate hundreds of new roads, two airports, and many other “secondary projects”, that will change this once wild corner of the world forever.



The project is estimated to displace some 30,000 people.[5]

Traveling through Nicaragua, I became utterly dismayed the more and more I learned about the project.

The alteration (if not near destruction) of the Nicaraguan Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, would be an astounding cultural, economic, and environmental loss. The lake is unbelievably beautiful, and home to the island of Ometepe, regarded by many as the spiritual center of Nicaragua. Ometepe (really the result of two stunning volcanoes) rises from the water like some kind of wild and mystical beacon. It was recently listed as UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and currently draws thousands of tourists to its shores each year.[6] The waters surrounding the island are a treasure in their own right, supporting hundreds of species (perhaps most notably the world’s only freshwater sharks).

Traveling east from Managua (Nicaragua’s capital), I at last arrived to stand on the banks of this great lake that I had read so much about. Gazing out across the black waves lapping the shore, my eyes slowly scanned up one of the volcanoes, following its contour until its top became lost in the clouds.

The place is powerful. You can feel it from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head. The strangeness of seeing these two volcanoes rise out of such a freshwater sea is so captivating it is almost all you can do not to leap in and begin swimming to the island. It’s beauty is astounding.

I could spend hours, I thought, trying to quantify the loss of this place in economic terms, but its value alone as Nicaragua’s greatest source of freshwater alone already seems nearly incalculable.

Beyond money, there is something else more disturbing here. Of course the project will create jobs for many people in Nicaragua, but at what cost? What happens when we alter such a place forever? When we dismiss its rich cultural history, when we shrug aside its astounding beauty?

There is a feeling of awe this place gives anyone lucky enough to find themselves on its shores…when did that begin to mean nothing to this world?

What happens when we allow a project to destroy families? When we destroy the very land and water that we so desperately depend on? When we risk sources of freshwater in the face of climate change and drought? When one country buys another for monetary gain? What happens when we stop thinking about our future generations?

This is a terrible and sad story that I feel will have an even more terrible, perhaps even devastating, ending.

It is, for me ultimately, a reminder that the world needs people who care. It is a reminder that we need the kinds of people who think beyond the lure of greed and power, and we need them to speak out. This is a reminder that there is always a fight to be fought—even for those places far away from where we live.

If I have learned anything from these four months of travel…it is that we are more connected than we think, always.

Please, speak out against this. Please shipping companies, boycott this canal (and make it known ahead of time that you will do so). Please everyone, think about the kind of world that is, and then begin create the kind of world that can be.




[1] http://firstpeoples.org/wp/indigenous-people-in-danger-of-displacement-the-nicaraguan-canal-and-its-drastic-effects/

[2] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140220-nicaraguan-canal-environment-conservation/

[3] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140220-nicaraguan-canal-environment-conservation/

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/30/nicaragua-canal-forest-displace-people

[5] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/04/travel/lake-nicaragua-tour/

[6] http://www.conoceometepe.com/en/tourism_en.html