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  Number 398 | Septiembre 2014
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Nicaragua

The canal will affect ecosystems, species and even genes

Between August and November 2013, Nicaragua’s Academy of Sciences held three forums to publicly discuss the interoceanic canal project. A book with a selection of papers based on the talks was subsequently published by several of the experts who shared their knowledge in those forums. Jean-Michel Maes, who participated in the third forum, emphasizes the possible effects the canal will have on our country’s complex biodiversity. The chosen canal route won’t include the Río San Juan, eliminating a few of the author’s concerns at the time, but the other negative aspects he describes remain valid.

Jean-Michel Maes

Before talking about the impact the interoceanic canal will have on the environment and biodiversity, we would like to touch on some points that, although they may seem unrelated to the issue, end up being of the greatest importance.

A “rigged” project

Following information coming from outside the project—as most Nicaraguans have been doing—the first element to be considered is that the whole project seems to have been “rigged.”

The idea of the canal, considered a Nicaraguan dream that has floated in the air for several centuries, was suddenly taken up by the government of Nicaragua, presented to the National Assembly as a bill and passed and promulgated in extremely short order for a law of this importance. And the concession to build the canal was given to an allegedly Chinese company without it being put to tender.

The law conflicts with many aspects of Nicaragua’s Political Constitution. Its wording, as published in La Gaceta Diario Oficial, contains no serious section on the canal’s environmental aspects. Furthermore, one section proposes amending existing laws, including environmental ones, to facilitate the canal’s construction. This makes us seriously doubt whether the government of Nicaragua and the owner of the canal concession have any interest in the environment. Let’s hope we are mistaken, but the law itself gives the impression of being more concerned about economic development than the nation’s natural heritage.

The canal project is antagonistic to other projects that would perhaps be more profitable for Nicaragua in the long term because it will cut the tourist route on the Pacific in two, including the coast highway. The development of tourism, especially ecotourism, must be environmentally friendly for its own survival and must also involve activities that create a significant number of jobs.

The canal project is also antagonistic to the availability of drinking water from Lake Cocibolca. Economists and sociologists agree that available drinking water is diminishing worldwide and that it’s a resource in growing demand that will be highly prized in the medium term. Projects using the water from the Nicaragua’s Great Lake to supply the population of Chontales are already in operation. The possibility of using this water for these communities and for others will vanish if those big ships pass through the lake.

The speed with which the law for the concession was passed, the arbitrary decision to assign it to a single pre-designated company and the omission of the environment from the law’s wording raise serious doubts that, even if a serious environmental impact study were done, it would be taken into account.

There are other possible canal routes

The canal route through the Great Lake of Nicaragua is a relic of the glorious age of sail and steam ships that made it the Transit Route in the days of Commodore Vanderbilt. In those days the ships’ captains needed more skill, experience and daring but less water because their ships’ draft was much less. Nowadays it isn’t imperative to dig a canal across Lake Cocibolca; it would be much easier to open a trench on dry land of the size needed for ships with a deep draft.

Ever since the days when French engineers (Belly, 1858) studied the case, a route was proposed starting from the western port of El Realejo. More recently, one of the proponents for building a dry canal—an interoceanic railroad—proposed to construct this work northeast of Lake Cocibolca and east of Lake Xolotlán, coming out close to the port of Corinto.

This is still a possible solution for the interoceanic canal, following a route that starts at Monkey Point going close to but avoiding the northeastern coast of Lake Cocibolca, veering northwards, east of Lake Xolotlán, passing through the lowest point of the Maribios mountain range and coming out by Corinto or an extension of its port. That route would have the advantage of allowing for the construction of the interoceanic canal and, at the same time, retaining Lake Cocibolca as a source of drinking water. The lake would supply water for the canal without the ships having to pass through it. The canal could be supplied with water from both lakes via several canals with locks.

The environmental impact
won’t only be in Nicaragua

Not all the interoceanic canal’s environmental impacts will be limited to Nicaragua’s national territory. Marine and coastal-marine impacts will be regional because of the ocean currents, potentially affecting countries from Mexico to Colombia as well as those in the Caribbean Sea. The canal’s impact on freshwater will also be regional, potentially affecting Costa Rica through changing the navigability and the quality of water in the Río San Juan. Soil impact, through erosion and changes to that river, could also affect Costa Rica and even the canal itself by depositing sediment in both oceans potentially reaching to several neighboring countries.

The impact on biodiversity, especially on species and ecosystems, will be more national. However, at the genetic level it will impact countries with the same wildlife species as Nicaragua, since it will cut off latitudinal gene flow. Climate change, making synergy with several of these and other problems, will also be of regional interest.

Studies of the marine impact caused by the canal will require international support because Nicaragua has very limited capacity in this field. Ocean currents on the Atlantic side of the country mostly come from along the northern coast of South America, impacting the central section of Nicaragua’s coast almost perpendicularly then veering northward, hitting the southern Yucatan coast then continuing north between the Yucatan and the island of Cuba. Other currents veer southward after impacting Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast then form a circular movement that turns back towards the coast of Colombia. These currents will carry any kind of contamination towards all those countries.

Impacts on Lake Cocibolca,
rivers and watersheds

The impact on freshwater resources is twofold: the quality of freshwater available in Nicaragua and the quantity of water needed to operate the canal. The quality of freshwater from the lake, increasingly needed to supply the population, may be directly affected by the transit of ships. Sediments trapped in the system and the locks slowing down the course of rivers involved in the canal will affect the quality and quantity of the lake’s water. It should also be borne in mind that several fishing communities live off this important freshwater resource.

The quantity of available freshwater is vital to the operation of the canal. The different routes studied by the canal’s concessionaire include the Río Brito watershed on the Pacific side of the country; the watershed of the Xolotlán and Cocibolca lakes, which drain into the Río San Juan; and on the Atlantic side, the watersheds of the Escondido, Kukra and Punta Gorda rivers. The most extensive watershed and the one most affected by the project is that of the Río San Juan, encompassing the two great lakes, into which several rivers from northern Nicaragua drain. The watersheds of the Atlantic receive vast quantities of rain and should have enough water for the South Atlantic area, but the watershed of the two great lakes depends on rivers coming down from dry areas of northern Nicaragua. Massive reforestation is needed in that northern part of the watershed in order to maintain enough water to operate the canal.

Soils are also an important factor for the canal. Changing the course of rivers with locks stimulates sedimentation, which will clog up the canal and increase its operating costs due to continual dredging. In addition to the problems of supplying water to reduce the quantity of sediments, it will be crucial to promote perennial vegetation cover. Polluting the aquifers in the subsoil is also an issue for concern, as increasing the depth of rivers, making channels through them and opening such a deep trench in Lake Cocibolca could increase the penetration of polluted water into the groundwater.

Three impacts on biodiversity

The direct impact on biodiversity will take place on three levels: ecosystems, species and genes. Impact at the ecosystem level will be the most visible. The potential loss of forest cover through changes in soil use will be able to be seen on maps or satellite photos but the loss of species will be less visible and will only be noted by the presence or absence of certain species. It will be even more difficult to appreciate the genetic impact, where gaps caused by losses of gene flow will only be seen in DNA analyses among populations of the same species.

Ecosystems will change

Looking at maps of Nicaragua’s forest cover over different time periods clearly shows a gap opening from Managua towards the Atlantic over time, after clearing away tropical dry forests of the Pacific to use the land for agriculture. It’s estimated that deforestation had advanced to cover the western half of the department of Chontales in 1950. By 1970 it had opened an arrowhead towards El Rama, increasing considerably in the following decades and opening another deforestation route towards the Siuna and Bonanza mining region, leaving the major part of the center of the country deforested.

According to data from the National Forestry Institute in 2004 and from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 2008, the “agricultural frontier” was shaped like a boomerang by the end of the 1990s, with the central part hovering over the Bluefields region and the two blades pressing down on the country’s two largest natural reserves: Bosawas and Indio Maíz. In the region we’re interested in—the northern part of the Indio Maíz reserve—the area west of Monkey Point appeared as an enormous patch of forest in 2002, but studies by Poveda and Hernández in 2012 showed this same area reduced to numerous small fragments of forest, with settlers advancing southward toward the Río San Juan.

The construction of the interoceanic canal opens the possibility of massively reforesting the watersheds in order to ensure water supplies for the canal. The canal project would necessarily have to find the financial resources to do this. But the agricultural frontier’s advance towards the south might accelerate, since those evicted from their lands by the canal could push displaced people to look for new lands further south, or north towards the Bosawás reserve.

Species will disappear

The impact on both flora and fauna will be proportional to the destruction of the vegetation cover. A large part of the potential damage in the area where the canal will be built has already been done. We can only assume this will worsen, both through destruction of the remnants of the forests in the area directly affected by the canal and through extraction of fauna with the greater numbers of new settlers attracted by the canal, looking for and finding an extra source of income by hunting, fishing or trafficking in wildlife.

The potential migration of evicted inhabitants towards the Indio Maíz reserve will cause a continuous extraction of wildlife from the reserve to the canal area. As for the flora, the construction of many houses at various social levels will create a growing demand for lumber in the area and the selective extraction of timber species. The population increase will also cause an increase in the demand for and extraction of firewood.

Genetic variety will diminish

Many animal species have populations distributed through several countries in the region. The opening of previously large barriers to transiting the forests, such as the one already opened between Managua and El Rama, reduces the gene flow of species living in the forests.

Despite such barriers, animals will continue to find ways to move by passing over pasture lands, crossing between forest fragments, even using the roads. But constructing a canal will seal off the barrier for animals that have no way across such a huge obstacle. The result will be two distinct populations, north and south of the canal, with genetic differences that will grow over time. The reduction of genetic variety through inbreeding creates populations less able to adapt and defend themselves against adverse environmental elements.

The canal’s latitudinal location makes it antagonistic to the somewhat utopian idea of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC) and the Atlantic Corridor, once projects widely financed and supported by Nicaragua’s Environmental Ministry. In 2002, the Central American Commission of the Environment and Development described the MBC as “a platform for sustainable regional development” and in 2011 the World Bank made an independent assessment of it, valuing it. The canal is also antagonistic to the emblematic Panther Pass Project, a project to protect jaguars, a mythical animal of the Central American region now in danger of extinction.

Last but not least,
climate change

Climate change will have the effect of accelerating all these processes because there will be less rainfall on the Pacific side of the country and more on the Atlantic side. The decrease in rainfall on the Pacific side will cause a shortage of water in this part of the canal, which is critical if Lake Cocibolca is to supply it with water. On the Atlantic side, where the canal will require less water, it will be the opposite: the increased and more irregular pattern of rainfall will increase the amount of sediment that will have to be dealt with. Reforestation could mitigate both effects.

This project is more negative than positive

On balance, the only positive aspect of the canal, in addition to a possible activation of the economy during the construction phase, would be the large-scale reforestation needed for proper operation of the canal. On the other hand, there are numerous negative aspects:

 Little assurance that even if the environmental impact study is done rigorously and seriously it will be taken into account.
 The absence of the environmental aspect in the law, which could remain at the discretion of the concessionaire.
 The loss of a legal framework for the government of the Republic to act as the representative of the people of Nicaragua and defender of the nation’s natural heritage.
 A marine impact with potential pollution problems to other countries in the region as well as the coastal marine impact in Nicaragua.
 A drastic impact on Lake Cocibolca, a valuable freshwater resource, knowing that the importance of this resource will grow enormously with the passage of time.
 Change in the course of the rivers affected by the canal that would increase the amount of sedimentation, both in the rivers and the lake.
 The canal’s exit point on the Pacific coast conflicts with plans for developing tourism.

Jean Michel Maes, an expert on entomology with a doctorate in ecology, was born in Belgium but has lived in Nicaragua since 1983. He is a founding member of the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua. This text, edited by envío, is a summary of his talk given in the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua’s third forum on the Interoceanic Canal Project.

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