Nicaraguan Canal….connections and questions by Paulette Goudge

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Homosapiens is the only species to be progressively destroying its home, the planet, not only through climate change, pollution, deforestation, poisoning our oceans and soils but also through our addiction to the big project.  We now know, beyond doubt, that such a toxic combination could very easily render the planet uninhabitable within the lifetime of our grandchildren and yet we continue with our addiction to the grandiose, the fast, and the “glamorous” without apparently making any connections! The human race is increasingly addicted to big projects….wherever one looks …the mining industry, the agriculture industry, the building industry, methods of communication and even the food on our plate – it is all about doing things on a bigger and bigger scale and as fast as possible. Transport, both of people and things, is no exception. This all takes a huge toll on the planet, using ever scarcer resources and adding accumulatively to the forces of destruction.

I, for one, have a lot more questions than answers about the proposed canal in Nicaragua. Most of the scientists, economists, politicians, commentators seem to have answers but they also have their own agendas. That is the way of the world; no one is “objective”. The problem is they are mostly less than honest about what those agendas are. I will come clean about mine. I would like to preserve as much of the environment as possible for the sake of future generations and because I hate to see Nicaragua taking the same destructive path that my own country of origin (the UK; I am now a Nicaraguan citizen. I have not left Nicaragua in nearly 10 years) has long since embarked upon. Also these issues are global issues. We all have a responsibility as global citizens to think them through and act. I also care about poverty; a quick glance at our website will offer plenty of evidence of how La Mariposa has struggled to provide local people with sustainable employment as well as looking for other ways to help the poor. For the record, I am a long term supporter of the Sandinista government though not uncritical.

Nicaragua is obviously not alone in its developing obsession with big projects. We are just going along with the rest of the world. Nicaragua does not need a canal. But apparently the rest of the world “needs” one. Why? Because ships are being built that cannot go through the existing one.  Hold on a minute!  Why do we “need” such enormous (and presumably faster) ships? The answer is that we not need them. Some of us want them – to carry essentially two things – oil and plastic things from one side of the world to the other. How can this be justified, in the era of climate change and destruction of the oceans? How many people really “need” more plastic baubles and cheap T shirts (now also mostly made of plastic)?

The redundancy of oil is particularly acute in the case of Nicaragua as the majority of its energy is already being produced by renewable sources. So why on earth are we currently building, and at the most incredible speed (working round the clock), the biggest oil refinery in Central America? The practical answer is to process Venezuelan oil but there is no answer to the moral question …..why an oil refinery when Nicaragua plainly does not need the oil, except to fuel the increasing number of outsize vehicles,  and the world in general needs to be moving away from dependency on oil?

What part the canal will play in the Chinese challenge to US world hegemony remains to be seen.  I do not know if there is any agreement on whose navy gets to use the canal, maybe I just missed it.  Protestations of Nicaraguan “sovereignty” ring hollow when one considers how little effect Nicaraguan laws, especially in relation to the environment, have on the operation of internationally controlled zona francas. Mucho menos, even less will they be in control, I suspect in the case of the canal. Who, it must be asked, will be policing the inevitable secure zone alongside the canal? Again maybe I just missed this information.

The major promised benefit for ordinary Nicaraguans focuses on jobs as the main route to poverty alleviation. However, Xang Jing is undoubtedly a good businessman (at least one assumes he is or he would not be where he is now) and good businessmen, in this capitalist world of ours, do not get to be rich and successful worrying themselves about poverty or environmental issues. On the contrary. Big projects do not, globally speaking, have a good track record in alleviating poverty. Of course there will be jobs on the construction though I imagine, as any good capitalist would, Xang Jing will keep costs, including wages, as low as possible. Construction work is, by definition, short-lived – though I accept there is bound to be another big project following on for some workers to move on to! How many jobs is also an interesting question…I would guess that the most intensive phase will be at the beginning (building the camps and road access) but surely the bulk of the excavation will be done by massive machines and not by people. Further I suspect that the top best paid jobs will not go to Nicaraguans at all. Any more than is the case with any foreign run outfit, anywhere in the world.

There are two aspects to reducing poverty. The first is a sustainable, reasonable income, which the canal will not provide. The second factor is how that income is spent. A family may have a “reasonable” income, say, with a member employed in a zona franca. But if she suffers from cancer as a result of working in a place where she is constantly breathing in small textile fibers that float in the air – then most of that income has to be spent on medicines (most are not covered by social security). Industrialized agriculture, mining, construction – especially in impoverished countries – all take their toll largely because “good businessmen” put profits before the lives and health of their workers.  This adds to poverty.

Poverty is not just about money. The basics that we need (need as opposed to want) to live are air, water and food. Nicaraguans will not be helped to access any of these by a canal. But they may all be adversely affected. I imagine a fair amount of cement will be used in the construction – cement is Nicaragua’s single most polluting industry.  Plus the loss of trees (it is not relevant whether they are in a national park or someone’s back yard) will both add to the carbon dioxide in the air (increasing global warming) and reduce the amount of oxygen.

Water….where is the water in the canal going to come from?  And the damage to the potential drinking water of Lago Cocibolca is incalculable. I live in the meseta of La Concepcioñ, our water comes from an underground aquifer. We also supply much of the new (big) constructions along the Carreterra Masaya.  I asked an ENACAL official what happens when it runs out, as it will. I have not received an answer.

The issue of food security in Nicaragua is a disgrace. An incredibly fertile country, we should be able to produce all our food requirements easily. But instead it is easier to buy US rice in the local markets than home grown. Why? Partly because of unfair subsidies to US farmers but also because so much of the land here is used (again by good businessmen) to grow export crops for profit.  A large percentage of land is given over to coffee, sugar, tobacco which (when you think about it) are simply drugs for Western consumers. These products, together with the zona franca output (mostly clothes in the case of Nicaragua), are sold as cheaply as possible to maintain demand. So profits have to be at the expense of paying the workers low wages, often just above “extreme poverty” level.  More and more land is being used and forests felled to supply the hamburger market with beef. Cows, incidentally, also contribute their fair share to global warming just by existing as they emit so much methane gas! The canal will aggravate this dire situation by encouraging the export of more and more, faster and faster!

Importing more and more plastic baubles and cheap T shirts is not the answer to poverty. People are increasingly pressured to buy trash (just go look see what is on sale in your local market) which is deliberately designed to last for the shortest possible time. So people have to buy more. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty but, of course, ensures good profits.

Furthermore, the talk about poverty reduction through job creation also ignores the jobs and productive land that will be lost. Outside Brito, the first eviction notices have been served and people are not being offered the market value of their land. I think many of us would resist being thrown out of our houses and lands for the sake of the greater good! But it is always so much easier to bully the poor. And where are the dispossessed to go?

The effect of the canal on the existing tourist industry can only be imagined.  It will take just one oil spill (and please do not tell me this cannot happen…human error is always a factor even in the grandest projects) to ruin the southern shores of Omatepe (what value then being an international biosphere reserve?) and the shores of Lago Cocibolca. Should the oil reach the islands and beach of Granada??….that is the direction the current flows and that is where most of the trash ends up. The southern part of the Pacific coast will no longer offer amazing sunset views and surfing paradises as it will become a traffic jam for barges and ships waiting their turn to enter the canal. Plus more oil spills – most oil spills at sea are not the major Exxon disasters but merely ships cleaning out their tanks and dumping their waste whist waiting about. This will accumulatively have a dire impact on Nicaragua’s reputation as a relatively unspoiled tourist destination. Precisely what attracts most visitors. Many community and environmental based tourist organizations could be hit hard. With the loss of more jobs! Building a major tourist complex alongside the canal (another splendidly grand project for sure!!) will not address these problems.  Especially as the probability is that such a complex would be largely foreign owned and when that happens the profits (for example of the Hilton hotels) do not stay to be invested in Nicaragua……and tourist complexes do not in general have  a strong record of concern for the community or environment .

I have personally been “informed” by an INTUR official that the number of tourists in Nicaragua will go up exponentially thanks to the canal. I just do not see this and I have been working in tourism for the past 10 years. Why would anyone come to see a sea level canal? The Panama Canal is surely more interesting with its lock systems. Maybe just because it is bigger….but this has limited attraction I would argue.

So far I have considered the environment in terms of how it is essential just to ensure human existence. But of course there is a much deeper significance. Biodiversity keeps us healthy. So do clean air, soils and water. But to my mind at least we are not the only species that has a god given right to live on the planet, though I have heard government officials argue that what is put on this planet is here just for our use. The fact that nature (in its many forms…trees, plants, wild animals, birds insects) has been ruined does not mean that we should go on trashing it!! This too is an argument I have heard several times….well, Nicaragua is now so deforested that what does it matter if we fell more  trees and replace them with various designs of concrete! This is OUR HOME!!! If your home has a leaking roof does that mean you trash the rest of it? The usual response would be to repair it…….and repairing at least some of our environmental damage would provide jobs…..

A final point on poverty reduction and environmental protection.  One of the most impressive aspects of the current government has been precisely its poverty reduction strategies which have had an observable impact on extreme, especially rural, poverty. How did they do this. With small, local schemes…such as micro loans to small businesses (bicycle repair shops and the like) and producers, housing and roofing projects, ensuring every schoolchild gets a daily meal. That is what works. This approach has worked in the experience of creating and sustaining jobs at La Mariposa.

But the most important change towards reducing poverty and, at the same time, helping the environment is for Westerners especially to consume less (the USA has 5% of the world population but consumes 25% of its resources) and pay a fair price, incorporating the true cost of the product, whether it be a pair of jeans made in Nicaragua, coffee or rum.

A couple of last points….something that was apparently not thought about before work started on the Panama Canal. Where will all the excavated soil go? I cannot even contemplate what might happen should there be a major earthquake….it would be good to see the disaster plans.

The risks of this project are too enormous, both for Nicaraguans and in the context of what is happening globally. I, for one, will be doing whatever possible to oppose it.

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One thought on “Nicaraguan Canal….connections and questions by Paulette Goudge

  1. Thank you for writing about this and putting it into a global context and acknowledging poverty as a significant part of the equation in Nicaragua. It feels like nobody can see the VAST contrast and irony with this multibillion dollar mega project to “develop” the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere next to over 50 percent of the population living in the fragile an raw conditions at or below the poverty line (re lacking basics, ie access to water, shelter, electricity, food, healthcare, education). Many people fail to put that into perspective in conversations about the canal. As you mention and I have observed, the canal supporters are those who believe it will create jobs and develop Nicaragua. What is not adressed, as you pointed out is exactly how many jobs? For how long? What type of jobs? I would like those three questions to be adressed thoroughly by canal supports and put it into relative terms. Do most supporters even consider poor people as a significant part of the equation? In the very middle-upper class Nicaraguan (but can just as easily be expats and foreigners included in this) circles I’ve been exposed to recently, I can say the answer is 90% no. They know poverty exists, they see it but they have never been personally exposed to it on a meaningful level enough to really be affected by it. Poverty in every dynamic sense of the word, is something that is largely forgeign to them. In fact this socio-economic class both consciously and subconsciously avoids and tries to distinguish and remove themselves from poor people as much as possible. “That’s them, at a distance, over there. I’m here and trying to move up and away from that.” They are Nicaraguan, they care about their country but there is a sure disconnect between socio-economic clases as is common anywhere in the world. It is also this class that largely dominates much of the rhetoric and discourse on the canal and is one of the challenges in gaining momentum for the opposition. We need more people not only invested in long term solutions for reducing poverty (on a national level at least) but have a comprehensive global perspective prioritizing the environment and balancing environmental responsibilities as global citizens with healthy profits for businesses. I would like to elaborate and clarify certain points better but it’s late and I’m running out of combustible as Guillermina might say. Talk soon. Thanks for sharing this blog.

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