Nicaragua’s Canal, shallow science and phony environmentalism

Tortilla con Sal, December 6th 2014

Western media coverage of Nicaragua’s interoceanic canal has been almost uniformly hostile and often woefully ill-informed since the project was announced in 2013. The most recent attacks have focused on the alleged disaster the canal represents for Nicaragua’s natural environment, mixed in with largely gratuitous attacks on the Nicaraguan government and the Canal’s Chinese main contractor, HKND. A casual reader could be forgiven for concluding that the project is hopelessly misconceived and highly likely to ruin an untouched natural environment.

For example, the Smithsonian magazine has published critical articles by Matthew Shaer and Rachel Nuwer very similar to other reports, for example by James Griffith in the Global Post or in the mainstream corporate media. These consistently inaccurate reports attack the Canal based on superficially authoritative, allegedly science-based arguments. One group, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation has produced a resolution against the Canal, while other scientists have published criticism in environmentalist publications, for example in Nature magazine.

Some specific criticisms by environmentalists have already been accepted and incorporated into the Canal’s still developing planning stages. But the wider general arguments are often confused, flawed on matters of fact, generally unscientific and blatantly biased in what they argue and almost without exception downright dishonest in terms of what they omit. The article by Matthew Shaer is a good place to start.

Nicaragua’s Canal, shallow science and phony environmentalism | nacional y región centroamericana.

This is sort of “the other side of the story” of the planned Interoceanic Canal, an article by Tortilla con Sal, who is a writer using a pseudonym. He or she writes on a Sandinista propaganda website, http://tortillaconsal.com, which features articles on the latest messages from first compañera Rosario Murillo, letters written by Daniel Ortega to Russian president Vladimir Putin and vice versa, and images of the Daniel and Rosario along with Blanca and Sandino, early Nicaraguan revolutionaries.

blanca_sandinorosario_danielPutting that aside for the moment, when we look at the argument being made in the linked article, it is good to hear the other side of the story, as most reporting by western media has been negative about the canal; its environmental problems, taking of poor peasant’s land, lack of transparency, who will be funding construction, etc.

The facts are that no environmental impact reports have been released. The writer says it is because they have not be completed. Also, that the construction set to begin this month (December 2014) is not to begin dredging the canal, but to begin work on two large ports, one on the Pacific and the other on the Caribbean.

The writer then goes on to state that it is extremely unlikely that the canal work will begin before the environmental impact reports are released. Well, I should hope so! But even if this were true, logically there are environmental impacts for deepwater ports, airports, tourism projects, and commercial and manufacturing area, etc.

Where the author does make a good point is that the deforestation of the eastern part of the country is already well underway and that there is very little pristine forests to be ruined through the construction of the canal, and that in fact they will have to plant hundreds of thousands of trees to keep the watershed intact, which will a net plus as far as number of trees goes.

What I don’t see is how there can be complete mitigation of the damages that will be done to Lake Nicaragua. The waste silt from yearly dredging of Lake Nicaragua alone is an issue, much less the oil spills that will inevitably come.

There is a point to be made that if Nicaragua has the money, it will be able to help the environment that much more by treating dirty water, preventing toxic runoff, etc. whereas now they have squat as far as funds to help maintain natural areas.

The other area where I have to admit the author has a point is the political aspect of these anti-Canal articles. Certainly the United States would rather that the Chinese do not control a canal that is wider then the Panama canal, where the largest ships ever built can pass through, and where the location saves a thousand kilometers of distance between major ports such as New York and Los Angeles, saving millions of dollars in shipping costs. So many publications, organizations, and writers take their cues from these geopolitical issues and put a definite slant to their findings, articles, and positions.

So, to sum up, this article is well worth reading and while I don’t agree completely with the statements made, there are some good points that most of the mainstream press articles do not address. I am a believer that technology and engineering can mitigate much of the damages that will be incurred, but there needs to be a commitment on the part of HKND and the investors to see this thing through, to really dedicate significant resources in mitigating the environmental damages, and to treat the people whose lands will be expropriated with decency and fairness. That, to me all remains to be seen!

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