Chinese-planned canal would displace many in Nicaragua, sparking anger, anxiety

Churches. Cemeteries. Stockyards. Everything in the path of the proposed trans-oceanic canal in Nicaragua would have to be relocated.

As many as 28,000 people scattered in villages and towns face the likelihood that their lands would be expropriated. The government pledges they will be better off, living in new settlements with a bit of cash in their pockets. But skepticism abounds. Ranchers are angry. They’ve held 44 marches and rallies in the past nine months. A few events have turned violent.

The ruling conference of Roman Catholic bishops has voiced concern. In March, it issued a statement warning that people along the path of the canal feel “anxiety and uncertainty,” and that the project must be carried out with an eye to the environment and to the benefit of all Nicaraguans. Otherwise, the bishops warned, it “could trigger unwanted armed conflict” as well as expose Nicaraguans to “the massive presence of people outside our culture, history, traditions and religious beliefs” – a reference to the expected influx of Chinese workers.

Nicaragua’s proposed trans-oceanic canal promises to link the Atlantic and the Pacific, but it also is dividing the angry people living near its proposed route from the majority in the nation who support the canal.

One day in this ranch town in eastern Nicaragua, Medardo Mairena Sequeira climbed into the bed of a silver pickup truck. He grabbed a microphone hooked up to a small amplifier and spoke to a few dozen people, some on horseback and others on foot. Most wore baseball caps or broad-brimmed cowboy hats. Mairena railed against the 50-year concession granted to HKND Group, the company controlled by a Chinese telecom billionaire that is to build the canal.

Mairena declared that the concession violated Nicaraguan law, and that the Chinese company would not look out for the interests of Nicaraguans.

“They’ve come here because they want to make money. They are not here to help us Nicaraguans,” Mairena said.

“Our sovereignty is being handed away.”

The pickup pulled onto the town’s main street, unpaved and rock-strewn, passing by beer joints, pools halls and wooden stores selling dry goods to residents arriving from outlying areas. About 100 people trailed behind. Within 45 minutes, the march was over.

Mairena, a 36-year-old farmer from Punta Gorda near the Atlantic coast, is an activist in the National Council for the Defense of the Land, Lake and Sovereignty, a citizens’ group that has organized marches opposing the canal.

The group’s protests have gathered some headlines but do not appear a serious threat to the project. Support for the canal is broad in other areas of Nicaragua, recent polls show.

Still, the protests tap into the combative spirit that lingers from the wars that gripped Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s. Opposition does not fall clearly along political lines, although opponents to President Daniel Ortega, a former leftist Sandinista guerrilla, seem to be stoking some unrest.

“What the farmers believe is that this will be a confiscation. They’ve just heard too many lies,” said Manfredo Hidalgo Benavides, a rancher, as he gazed at cattle penned in a local stockyard.

The concession allows HKND Group to expropriate and control up to 6.2 miles of land on either side of the 170-mile-long canal route, a fat ribbon across the country’s midsection. While some farmers would be allowed back in to cultivate vast flattened mounds of excavated material, most would be relocated away from the protected canal zone.

A spokeswoman for the company, Liliana Li, said the 6.2-mile corridor on either side of the canal “is larger than the land actually required, because it gives us more flexibility in fine tuning the canal route during detailed design.” In the end, she added, the company is likely to need “far less” territory “on both sides of the canal.”

The chief spokesman for the canal project, Telémaco Talavera Siles, said he understood the anxiety of those facing expropriation.

“I don’t blame them. They don’t know if they will receive fair compensation. They don’t know if they will have a job or not,” Talavera said. Fears will abate, he said, “when they realize the political will of the government . . . that they end up in a better situation than if the canal were never built.”

For the time being, officials are preparing to begin negotiations with individual landowners later this year, Talavera said.

“If someone wants to be paid, he will be paid. But if someone says, ‘No, what I want is another ranch,’ there is the possibility that an exchange will take place,” he said.

Talavera said government agents, acting on behalf of the Chinese concessionaire, would try to accommodate the wishes of landowners. “There are people who like to live close together. Other people prefer to live a little more spread out. There are different types of housing,” he said. “Whatever the case, it will be superior to their current housing. We will discuss it with each one of them.”

Most of those who would require relocation are living in the rolling hills east of Lake Nicaragua, an area that only a few decades ago was largely wilderness, with only scattered clearings and treacherous dirt roads. Many settlers were uprooted during the wars in the 1970s and 1980s, fleeing from enemies and carving out a new existence in the jungle. Now, after decades here, many say they fear they being uprooted for a second time.

“My uncle was killed by the Sandinistas. We were young, so we decided to come down here. No one knew us here,” said Edgar Suárez Garcia, a cattle broker and grain dealer.

Locals have heard the arguments in favor of the canal – that it will bring jobs and sharply spur the national economy. But they fear they will suffer personally. Some do not have deeds to their land. Others carved their homesteads out of jungle or bought their land in exchange for documents of dubious legal value.

The arrival of government surveyors has distressed them, even though no precise map of the canal route has been made public.

“They came and they put in stakes and they measured,” said Francisca Tercero Orozco, 65, who arrived with her clan 35 years ago from Leon, Nicaragua’s second-largest city, where combat had raged. She now has 10 grown children and double that number of grandchildren living on her 100-acre ranch.

Surveyors also showed up at Los Laureles, a small ranch owned by Marcial Velazquez Espinoza in the hamlet of Chacalicito.

“I was out in the fields. My wife asked why they were measuring. They said that it was an order from the government. She was quite nervous,” Velazquez recalled. He fears the couple and their two grown sons and a daughter will be forced off their 200-acre spread. “If they give us only a little money, what will be able to buy? We’ll just have to curl up somewhere and die,” he said.

Moving would bring other hardships. One of the couple’s daughters, Holga Nubia, died in childbirth several decades ago. She is buried on the ranch.

“She is going to have to stay here. How am I going to move her?” he asked.

One of his sons, Roger Velazquez Lagos, 38, said his neighbors unanimously oppose the canal project. “They would prefer to be killed on their farms,” he said.

In a March 8 pastoral letter to Nicaraguan Catholics, the episcopal conference of bishops offered concern for “those living with anxiety and uncertainty for their future.”

“They have no certainty that they will receive a fair price for their land; they know they can be victims of forced displacement; they don’t know where to go because a land use plan that ensures them work and social dignity is not known,” the bishops wrote.

The bishops called on the government to proceed with the canal project only if solid scientific evidence showed that it would not harm the environment and that its benefits would flow to all Nicaraguans.

With expropriations in the offing, some residents say a decent payoff would help in dissolving resistance.

“If they pay me a fat bundle, I’ll buy another farm,” said Suárez, the cattle dealer in La Union.

The residents of another town, Puerto Principe, fear not only expropriation but also the prospect that a man-made lake will leave some of their township underwater. HKND Group plans to dam the Punta Gorda River and create a 152-square-mile reservoir named Lake Atlanta to ensure sufficient water for the Atlantic-side locks. Yet anti-canal sentiment is far weaker there. Indeed, one town leader voiced enthusiasm at the potential compensation for properties.

“Ninety percent of people around here support the grand canal,” said Franklin Espinoza Cortez, a town founder. “As a Nicaraguan, I feel pride at this grand public works project.”

Wearing a white tank top, Espinoza sat on the porch of his rustic home of crudely cut planks and regaled visitors with his seemingly wild-eyed expectations of compensation. He said he owns a big cement-floored bar next door, covered by a corrugated metal roof, and three other houses.

“I won’t take any less than $400,000 for them,” Espinosa said. He looked perplexed when a visitor blanched at hearing the price.

“This is a negotiating position. Maybe it’s worth more, maybe less,” he said.

Told that such a price would fetch a beautiful home in many U.S. cities, and that his crude buildings were hardly comparable, Espinoza said the concessionaire must look at other factors and take into consideration the natural beauty of the town, despite its muddy dirt roads and spotty electricity service.

“We breathe pure air here in Puerto Principe,” he said. “It’s not like Miami, which is contaminated by huge industry.”

Another resident dropped by, Yira Morales Jackson. When queried on the price she would ask for her four-bedroom wood home, she said $30,000, a far more realistic assessment.

In fact, it’s not even sure their property would be subject to expropriation. Maps of this region are crude, and HKND Group has not released anything except broad details of the route.

Even so, Espinoza and five other leaders of Puerto Principe have drawn up conditions for resettlement, clinging to the hope that it will be like winning the lottery. They want the new town to be called Nuevo Puerto Principe, and demand that it have paved roads, a recreational center, schools, a bullring, a slaughterhouse, a bus terminal and 24-hour electrical service.

The document listing the demands, dated Feb. 25, calls for “a small, well-equipped hospital with physicians and sufficient medicine for all the people, and a permanent ambulance.”

In the document, the committee said that residents will only negotiate with agents of the Nicaraguan government, not Chinese, and that they must received market value, not the lower property value listed on tax rolls.

“They must pay us immediately, in full and in cash,” Espinoza said, offering a broad smile. “No installments.”