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For Environment and Indigenous Communities, Inter-Oceanic Canal = Total Catastrophe

Group of scientists says massive earth-moving project already underway threatens irreversible harm

Lake Cocibolca, which faces potentially irreparable harm from the massive canal project.  (Photo:   Ary Chst/flickr/cc)

Urgent measures need to be taken to address the human rights violations and potentially irreparable harm to biodiversity a controversial inter-oceanic canal portends, a group of scientists from the U.S. and Latin America state.

The group raises their concerns regarding the massive project, which would cut across Nicaragua to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in an article published this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology stemming from a workshop in November held by the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua.

The $50 billion canal, which would rival the one Panama, has already faced a series of protests over the high costs that come with the canal and related infrastructure through the biodiversity hotspot. Despite the lack of an independent environmental impact assessment and no prior consent of the affected indigenous communities, related construction already began in December

The project, which the scientists describe as "one the largest civil earth-moving operations in history," was granted to the Hong Kong-based Hong Kong Nicaragua Development (HKND).

"The biggest environmental challenge is to build and operate the canal without catastrophic impacts to this sensitive ecosystem," Rice University environmental engineer Pedro Alvarez, co-corresponding author of the article, said in a media statement.

In the path of disaster is the vast Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua), as it would be bisected by the canal. It provides drinking water, and sustains vital marine life, agriculture and "interconnected ecosystems." These benefits could be drastically damaged with project-related dredging, which could introduce toxic substances, as well as increased salinity and shipping traffic. The project further threatens to reduce the water available, a point of particular concern as the country is among those particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which will make water an even more precious resource.

"Significant impacts to the lake could result from incidental or accidental spills from 5,100 ships passing through every year; invasive species brought by transoceanic ships, which could threaten the extinction of aquatic plants and fish, such as the cichlids that have been evolving since the lake’s formation; and frequent dredging, impacting aquatic life through alterations in turbidity and hypoxia, triggered by resuspension of nutrients and organic matter that exert a relatively high biochemical oxygen demand," Alvarez added.

Another key part of the project is the expropriation of land, and that has tremendous human rights implications, the scientists write. "A likely outcome is forcing indigenous people off their land and the displacement of at least 277 communities and more than a hundred thousand people." There are also legal questions, as state law prevents seizure of communal indigenous lands and the canal is slated to pass through such areas.

But full examination of the project's impacts are difficult to weigh, the scientists write, as a result of a lack of publicly available information.

They outline three actions of immediate concern: full disclosure of the financial viability of the canal; an independent evaluation of its environmental impacts; and compliance with law with regards to the need for indigenous communities' consent.

Maria Mercelin, a fisherman's wife, says one canal-related project under construction, a tourist site, is already causing problems.

"Right now they're just getting started and the fish are already beginning to disappear," she told Deutsche Welle. "Imagine what will happen when they start building? Everything is going to go away completely and that's our way of life."

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