A Chinese Man, A $50 Billion Plan And A Canal To Reshape Nicaragua : Parallels Groundbreaking for the 173-mile canal is set for December, but critics warn the waterway will cause irreparable environmental and social damage. The government has withheld outside firms' assessments.

A Chinese Man, A $50 Billion Plan And A Canal To Reshape Nicaragua

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A hundred years ago today, the first ship passed through the brand-new Panama Canal. It was 1914.


That U.S.-built canal was a leap for American commerce.

GREENE: It was an engineering triumph that became a big part of the American identity.

INSKEEP: And it was a major step in American Empire. As we'll hear in a moment, the U.S. actually worked to alter national borders to get the job done.

GREENE: It was such a classic imperial project that it is hard not to pay attention when another rising nation makes plans to build its own canal across Central America. A Chinese billionaire plans just such a project across Nicaragua. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Francisco Telemaco Talavera is perfect as the government's pitch man for the proposed Grand Canal, as it's referred to, in Nicaragua. He's the rector of one of the country's most prestigious universities and delivers a rapid-fire two-hour presentation full of jokes and impressive slides.

FRANCISCO TELEMACO TALAVERA: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: The canal will bring prosperity to all, says Telemaco. It will be built in five years and create up to 200,000 jobs, he tells a group of farmers.

TALAVERA: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: But, he adds, it won't be easy. If it were easy, he says, others would've already done it. Others have tried. Throughout the past century and a half, a whole host of foreigners have signed contracts and drawn routes cutting through the Central American nation. But none have materialized.

The latest to put Nicaragua's canal dream on the map is 41-year-old Chinese billionaire Wang Jing. He declined an interview with NPR, but in public comments, insists he can raise the needed $40 billion to $50 billion for construction. And since winning the no-bid 50 year renewable concession last summer, Wang Jing has put the project on the fast track - too fast for some in Nicaragua.

JORGE HUETE: This whole thing has been rushed.

KAHN: Jorge Huete is a research biologist at the University of Central America in Managua.

HUETE: There was no consultations. There was no debate. There should be someone defending Nicaragua.

KAHN: Huete is most worried about the environmental consequences of dredging tons of earth, ripping through Lake Nicaragua - the country's fresh water source - and plowing under indigenous communities in the path of the canal.

A group of leading national scientists wrote a letter to Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega, demanding to see environmental studies supporting the project which also includes two deep-water ports - one on each coast - an international airport and free trade zones. None of the studies, all paid for by Wang Jing's development company, have been made public.

What was publicized last month was the canal's finalized route. And it looks like it'll run right through Ligda Bol's small farm she shares with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. The farm is not far from the Brito River, which starts the Pacific Ocean, but is bone-dry now. Nicaragua is in its third year of a drought. Bol stirs rice over an open fire in her outdoor kitchen hut. She says no one has told them when they would have to leave or how they'll be compensated for their land.

LIGDA BOL: (Speaking foreign language).

KAHN: She says people are also worried about the area's beaches. And what happens if the diggers dig too deep and disturb the active volcanoes? They could erupt, and we will all be gone, she says. Canal proponents say all risks are being studied by internationally acclaimed companies, none of which would respond to request for comment. The government insists a new canal is economically feasible and often cites generous shipping projections. But global trade experts say such claims are exaggerated.

Meanwhile, opponents fear the financing won't have to come from investors but is coming directly from the Chinese government - a claim billionaire Wang Jing denies. Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institution says a transoceanic canal would clearly be a major geopolitical thrust forward for China.

RICHARD FEINBERG: It would be the Chinese planting their flag right in the heart of the Western Hemisphere.

KAHN: Some in Nicaragua have come to call the canal a cuento chino - a Chinese tale.

MAUEL CORONEL KAUTZ: No. It is a Nicaraguan dream.

KAHN: Manuel Coronel Kautz heads the Nicaraguan Canal Authority. He's 81-years-old, a long-time member of the ruling party and one of a handful of advisers still close to President Daniel Ortega. He insists the canal is a reality and shrugs off the critics.

KAUTZ: There will be a lot of criticism for this. We know that. But we also are revolutionaries. We are optimistic.

KAHN: Kautz says all studies will be made public sometime between now and December. That's when groundbreaking of the Grand Inter-Oceanic Canal is set to begin. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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