On the windy shore of Lake Nicaragua, farmer Dayton Guzman surveys the vast expanse of water his family relies on for irrigation.
“If something affects the lake,” he says, “it affects us.”
The lake’s future is in doubt since a massive Chinese-backed canal project was inaugurated late last year. The multibillion-dollar “Grand Canal” is slated to stretch 170 miles from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and some 60 miles of it will cross through this lake.
The government argues the project will create tens of thousands of jobs and boost GDP by up to 12 percent – a critical point in a country where nearly three-quarters of the population lives on less than $4 a day.
But the canal has encountered both careful criticism and fierce opposition from Nicaraguans. And the lake has become a potent symbol of what’s at stake. The 3,000 square mile lake is Central America’s largest; home to endangered species and a water source for hundreds of thousands of people.
Scientists warn the dredging required for the canal would result in irrevocable damage. Concerns about land expropriation and pollution are spreading, with tens of thousands of demonstrators marching in more than 35 protests to date. The Nicaraguan Conference of Bishops has called on the government of President Daniel Ortega for open debate and increased transparency, saying it’s “worried” about the project.
President Ortega has been the target of protests before, but this time may be different. In recent years, public criticism has followed party lines. But as pressure mounts on the government to respond to concerns about the environmental and economic risks of building the canal, today’s calls for debate present a new challenge to Ortega’s power.
The protests now include “many who are sympathetic to the government,” says Manuel Ortega Hegg, a Nicaraguan sociologist. “What’s new is they involve a wider range of groups, like campesinos,” traditionally a Sandinista party base, courted during elections with gifts of tin roofs and livestock. Dissent goes “beyond political parties,” he says.
Farm to five-star hotel?
As the afternoon sun turns amber on the island of Ometepe, a white egret stalks in the lake shallows and a woman washes clothes on a broad detergent-stained rock. A mother and her son fish from the shore, throwing in their lines again and again as the sun sets.
Home to two volcanoes in the middle of the lake, Ometepe is expected to be heavily impacted if the canal project moves forward. The canal would pass within three miles of its black sand beaches. The island is also the site of a planned resort, one of several “subprojects" of the canal, including two deepwater ports and a free-trade zone.
Some doubt the ambitious canal plan will go through. No significant construction has happened, though the government has started widening an access road on the Pacific coast.
But for Dayton and Luvys Guzman, the possibility can’t be ignored. The lakefront land where they farm tobacco and plantains has been in their family for generations. Mrs. Guzman says a few months ago Chinese and Nicaraguan engineers came to survey their property without asking permission. “They measured everything,” she says, “including the laundry, houses, and sheds.”
“They said they wanted the farm for a five-star hotel,” Mr. Guzman adds.
The Guzmans say they won’t sell. “We have our life here, where would we go?” he asks, adding that his 12 employees would also be without work if the land were expropriated.
In 2013, Nicaragua passed a law that granted the canal concession after just three hours of debate. The hundred-year concession to Hong Kong firm HKND allows the company to claim any property it needs, even outside the canal zone. The firm is headed by billionaire Wang Jing, a telecommunications magnate.
Some Ometepe residents complain the government hasn’t given them any information. “If the canal is going to hurt us fishermen, we need to know how it will affect us,” says Santos Lopes, who’s been fishing on the lake for 30 years. He says he would give up his nets to earn a wage working on the canal. But he doesn’t know if that tradeoff is even possible.
'People have a right to speak'
Given the lack of debate on the part of the government, civil society groups have stepped in. In November Jorge Huete-Pérez, a biologist and vice president of the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua, hosted a conference about the canal, inviting dozens of international scientists. The government and HKND’s environmental consultants declined invitations, but the gathering offered an opportunity for scientists to voice their concerns.
“We know they’re going to damage the lake, because there’s no technology they can use that’s not going to be invasive and create damage,” Mr. Huete-Pérez says.
The scientists called for an independent environmental assessment. Again, the government hasn’t responded, Huete-Pérez says. “All of these questions need to be discussed transparently. After all, Nicaragua is a democracy, where people have a right to speak.”
But some say Nicaragua’s democracy is an illusion.
As president during the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s, Ortega supported leftist policies such as land reform and nationalizing industries. On his return to power in 2006, he promised to help the poor and ensure access to free education and health care. He was re-elected to a third term in 2011, after a widely criticized constitutional change that allowed him to stay in office.
Critics say Ortega has traded his political vision for the consolidation of power: In 2006, he formed a strategic alliance with the conservative Catholic Church. Since then, his government has consolidated independent media into state-controlled channels, enforced party loyalty by state employees, and restricted access to information, all seen as signs of growing authoritarianism. Civil society groups say their voices are suppressed, and legal efforts to modify the canal law have been blocked.
Despite their erstwhile alliance, the Conference of Bishops condemned the government’s “political practice” in its latest missive, accusing it of “abandonment of the common good” and calling its treatment of the conversation around the canal a sign of “ambition, authoritarianism … and corruption, a grave sin.”
The Conference also warned that communities on the canal route are determined in their opposition, which could lead to “armed conflict” if the government doesn’t address dissent in an open, democratic manner.
'Their only recourse'
Ometepe has been the site of several recent protests. In January, residents of one community met a government medical brigade with a bonfire and a banner reading, “Traitor Ortega, no more lies.” Activists here and elsewhere on the canal route claim that the real mission of the brigade and other visits like it aren’t medical.
“You give them your identification number, your name, and once you’ve done that, you read a document that says you’re in favor of the canal,” says activist Jairo Carrion.
Although these demonstrations ended peacefully, dozens of protesters were arrested and foreign journalists were harassed while reporting from the canal zone in December.
There’s more subtle suppression of speech, too. Maria, a secondary school teacher on Ometepe, says teachers were required to attend a canal presentation by a Sandinista representative. They were told to teach their students that the canal has “no negative environmental impacts, and would create jobs,” she says.
While many teachers are critical of the project, Maria fears losing her job if she speaks out. She asked that only her first name be used in this article. If you’re a state employee, she says, “you have to be in agreement” with the party.
The government is pushing forward with its plan, opening canal commission offices in communities slated for expropriation. Meanwhile protests continue, with a national march scheduled in the capital, Managua, next month.
Even though the protests have yet to lead to concrete changes, Mr. Hegg, the sociologist, says they’re important because they “break through the fear of the public to freely protest.”
Since Nicaraguans were shut out of any dialogue, he says, “their only recourse is to take to the streets.”