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