Nicaragua's Canal, shallow science and phony environmentalism
By Tortilla con Sal
Tortilla con Sal
Monday, Dec 8, 2014
Western media coverage of Nicaragua's inter-oceanic 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.
The article's first couple of paragraphs set the tone and include a couple of subtle, misleading falsehoods. Shaer begins by complaining that the environmental studies of the Canal have yet to be released. This is true, because they are not yet finished. Shaer ignores that fact, eliding his text quickly into the falsehood that work on the excavation of the Canal is scheduled to begin in December. That is not true.
In fact, work will begin in December on two of the Canal's auxiliary projects, a deep-water port on Nicaragua's Pacific Coast and related highway infrastructure. Both projects are necessary to receive the massive machinery expected, much later, to excavate the Canal. The other auxiliary projects are, on Nicaragua's Pacific Coast, an international airport, a manufacturing and commercial zone, a tourism complex, and, on Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast, a second deep-water port.
The Nicaraguan government and HKND, the Chinese company managing this huge set of projects, have consistently repeated and demonstrated their commitment to listen to criticisms so as to minimize environmental and social impacts. This means it is extremely unlikely that work on the Canal itself will begin before the environmental and social studies are complete. Shaer thus begins his article by misleading his readers over the environmental studies and then falsely claiming that work excavating the Canal will go ahead in any case.
Shaer compounds that false intellectual sleight of hand by unfairly stating that the Nicaraguan government has “dodged neighboring Costa Rica’s request to share disaster plans”. On the contrary, a true and fair account of the matter would explain that Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been involved for years in a bitter legal dispute over Nicaragua's Rio San Juan, currently before the International Court of Justice. Throughout that time Costa Rica has resolutely and repeatedly refused persistent requests from the Nicaraguan government to negotiate the two countries' respective concerns.
The countries' differences include complaints from Costa Rica about alleged Nicaraguan infringement of a few hectares of territory in the Rio San Juan delta, claimed by Costa Rica. That claim is rejected by Nicaragua, hence the litigation. Nicaragua cites long term environmental depredation resulting from Costa Rican government policies and irresponsible practices by mining companies and farmers in Costa Rican territory close to Nicaragua's Rio San Juan.
Rather than negotiate a settlement, the Costa Rican authorities deliberately provoked further environmental damage to the Rio San Juan. They recklessly built a poorly conceived and badly implemented highway along the Costa Rican side of the river. That project ended in a notorious corruption scandal much to the discredit of the government of then President Laura Chinchilla.
Nicaragua has presented that grievance as well to the International Court of Justice. Self-evidently, the Nicaraguan government has decided to take its time considering Costa Rica's complaints in relation to the Canal. From a Nicaraguan point of view, Shaer's language that Nicaragua has “dodged” a request from its homely “neighbour” effectively whitewashes Costa Rica's disgraceful environmentally damaging behaviour in relation to the Rio San Juan over the last decade and more.
Shaer then summarizes complaints by critics relating to the Canal's overall economic benefits. “The canal’s true costs/benefits can’t be calculated as long as the costs to Nicaragua’s forests, waterways and wildlife remain hidden.” For anyone familiar with Nicaragua's environmental problems and genuinely concerned about them that statement is deeply disingenuous. Nicaragua's fundamental environmental problems are intimately and inextricably bound up with its problems of economic development.
Contrary to Shaer's assertion, Nicaragua is not a pristine paradise about to be violated by a poorly planned Canal. Nicaragua already suffers chronic and accelerating deforestation.
Also, Nicaragua's major water resources, Lake Nicaragua and the Rio San Juan already suffer chronic, steadily worsening problems of sedimentation and contamination.
In that pressingly urgent context, a more correct and honest formulation of Shaer's complaint would be very different. The Canal's true cost/benefits can only be calculated by factoring in the costs of the massive irreparable damage that will undoubtedly occur if the Canal is not, in fact, built. Shaer's premise, derived from other foreign and Nicaraguan critics of the Canal, is completely false because he deliberately omits Nicaragua's already tremendously depressing existing environmental reality. Neither Shaer nor any other of the Canal's environmental opponents have engaged the positive environmental arguments for the Canal.
By the end of 2014, studies of the Canal project will have lasted two years. The Dutch Ecorys company conducted pre-feasibility studies from December 2012 until June 2013. On the basis of those studies, HKND has funded more detailed studies, still to be completed, costing well over US$100 million over eighteen months. That two year process contradicts critics who complain that the Canal project has been rushed and poorly conceived. Those critics invariably omit the participation throughout that period of appraisal and evaluation of some of the world's most successful engineering construction and consultancy companies.
Nicaragua's government argues that the final route of the Canal, announced in July this year, is a more costly route chosen precisely so as to minimize environmental damage and social disruption. Even so, Shaer sceptically skims over the government's economic arguments for the Canal without stating what they are and what they mean for Nicaragua's natural environment. In fact, based on the experience gained from the widening of Panama's canal, the Nicaraguan government argues that over a ten year period the overall Canal project will at the very least double Nicaragua's gross domestic product.
From an environmental point of view, that fact is significant for two main reasons. Firstly, if Nicaragua doubles its GDP over the next ten years, the government's current and future redistributive policies will enable it to eliminate extreme poverty in Nicaragua. Extreme poverty is one of the main causes forcing rural families to migrate eastwards, advancing the agricultural frontier into very important protected areas like Bosawas and Indio Maíz, with all that implies for Nicaragua's woodlands and water resources. Secondly, the likely increased revenue for the government will finally enable the Nicaraguan authorities to reverse current deforestation and improve decades-long inadequate and under-funded water resource management.
Water resource management has been problematic for the Nicaraguan authorities for decades. Efficient and responsible water resource management is vital for the operation of the Canal's reservoirs and locks. The issue of water management is a theme on which critics of the Canal are perhaps even more dishonest than in relation to the issue of deforestation. Schaer makes the inaccurate claim that Lake Nicaragua “provides most Nicaraguans with drinking water”.
This is just silly. Almost a third of Nicaragua's population live in Managua and get their water from lakes and reservoirs around the capital. The population around Lake Nicaragua is barely 240,000 out of Nicaragua's total population of six million. As well as this kind of inaccuracy, Shaer's article offers hypothetical disaster scenarios suggesting the Nicaraguan Canal is at risk from catastrophic damage by a massive hurricane or earthquake. That is true. It is also true of population centres and infrastructure around the world in innumerable areas at risk from natural phenomena, from San Francisco to Venice to Dhaka to Tohoku. The job of the engineers and actuaries working on the Canal projects is to manage and minimize those risks the same as their global counterparts do in other vulnerable areas around the world.
Shaer also states that the Nicaraguan Canal is being built for boats that could not currently dock at ports in the US. He seems to be unaware of major new port infrastructure developments to receive post-Panamax container ships and tankers all along the US Atlantic coast. New York, Baltimore, Miami, Savannah and Charleston are all either now completing, shortly will complete or contemplate completing port development to accommodate those ships. By 2020, when the Nicaraguan Canal should be in full operation, port authorities in North America and Europe will have had six years to develop the necessary infrastructure.
If Shaer's article is generally inaccurate and tendentious, Rachel Nuwer's latest article and an earlier article attacking the Canal are even more so. Unlike Matthew Shaer, Rachel Nuwer correctly notes that the final environmental and social feasibility studies are unlikely to be completed for another four months. Even so, in her latest article, she goes ahead and states as fact, presumably on the basis of clairvoyance, the outcomes these uncompleted studies may have to acknowledge.
Nuwer sources much of her reports on a resolution of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation. This document, currently dated October 2014, purports to be based on scientific criteria. But its authors betray their clear political ideological bias when they state, “The development of the Canal violates the Nicaraguan Constitution and its fundamental principles, including Law 28 of 1987 and Law 445 of 2003, which recognize and guarantee the inalienability of indigenous’ and afro-descendants’ lands, which cannot be sold, donated nor leased.”
Nicaragua is a sovereign country whose laws and constitution are interpreted by its Supreme Court, not by a relatively obscure foreign organization claiming to be scientific. In Nicaragua, various legal challenges to the Canal were made through the second half of 2013 and all were rejected by the country's Supreme Court. Not to acknowledge that fact in a document dated October 2014 suggests that the authors are politically biased because their arguments mirror those of Nicaragua's tiny minority political opposition, currently with under 10% support nationally.
That political bias is clear too in the rest of the Association's document. Despite knowing the true route of the Canal, the resolution displays a graphic with a false route that would indeed result in very serious environmental damage and social disruption of indigenous communities.
But that is not the route that has been chosen, as was made clear in July 2014. This is :
The language the Association chooses is deliberately jaundiced and hostile. The map of the fake route the Association publishes is entitled “Nicaragua Carve-Up”, remarkably unscientific language, clearly implying, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that the Canal project is corrupt.
Rachel Nuwer reproduces the numerous inaccuracies and hyperbole in the Association's report. Like Shaer and other critics of the Canal, for example, the authors of the article in Nature magazine, Nuwer too seems to start from the false premise that Nicaragua's natural environment is currently pristine and is under threat from the Canal and its auxiliary projects. Nuwer apparently accepts as gospel truth the Association's assertion that :
“The canal development is estimated to impact some 4,000 km2 of forest, coastline and wetlands that include the San Miguelito Wetland (a site protected by the Ramsar Convention, of which Nicaragua is a signatory), the Cerro Silva Natural Reserve, the Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve, which comprises 7 protected areas, including the Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, and the Solentiname Archipelago.”·This assertion is grossly false.
In fact ,the final route of the Canal has been deliberately sited so as to avoid precisely the Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve, the Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve and the Solentiname Archipelago. The Cerro Silva Natural Reserve is already at grave risk, as the Nicaraguan government's Natural Resources Ministry management plan for that protected area indicates. The Cerro Silva reserve's main problems are, encroachment by cattle farming, local population growth, erosion and sedimentation affecting water resources, clandestine logging and hunting, poor environmental awareness among the population, and inadequate resources to implement conservation policies. The report states :
"The institutional and civil capacity of the region to address these macro-problems is very limited. The lack of national capital and external capital interest in sustainable exploitation of the area's natural resources is self-evident. The regional institutional framework lacks resources to do more than work on planning and the major part of those resources are used in never-ending reconstruction of institutional administrative infrastructure in a still very weak legal framework that leads to lack of attention to specific cases of, for example, logging, agricultural fires, and contamination from chemical waste."
When complete, the Canal project will in fact protect the Cerro Silva conservation area by improving woodland and water resource management and reducing encroachment by rural families engaged in subsistence farming and relentless piecemeal logging. It may be true that the San Miguelito wetlands will be marginally affected by the Canal, but those effects are likely to be enormously outweighed by the protection from the advance of the agricultural frontier driven by poverty the Canal will finally afford to Cerro Silva, the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve and the Rio San Juan area.
One looks in vain among the environmentalist attacks on the Canal for an acknowledgment of the substantial and important arguments in favour of the Canal. Likewise, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation suggest in their resolution that Nicaragua is water impoverished. It states “The Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy Environmental Performance Index (EPI) has identified Nicaragua as a country with “water stress”, meaning that the volume of water available to the population is inadequate and ranks Nicaragua 136 out of 163 countries surveyed for water scarcity.”
This disinformation is insanely counterfactual. Nicaragua's water resources are among the most abundant between the Great Lakes of North America and the Guarani Aquifer in South America. It may indeed be true, for reasons relating to historically inadequate, underfunded water resource management, that Nicaragua makes poor use of its water resources. But that is very different from saying that Nicaragua suffers from a lack of water.
For example, the Wikipedia entry on Nicaragua's water resources states, “Nicaragua has ample water supplies in rivers, groundwater, lagoons, and significant rainfall. Distribution of rainfall is uneven though with more rain falling on an annual basis in the Caribbean lowlands and much lower amounts falling in the inland areas. Significant water resources management challenges include contaminated surface water from untreated domestic and industrial wastewater, and poor overall management of the available water resources.”
What that view of Nicaragua's water resources clearly implies is that the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation's phony science deliberately cherry picked available information to favour its biased point of view. The Nicaraguan government and the proponents of the Canal argue that the Canal will fundamentally improve Nicaragua's water resource management. That fact and the fact of water abundance in Nicaragua are ruthlessly omitted from both the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation's resolution and from Rachel Nuwer's article.
Nuwer repeats the falsehood that Lake Nicaragua is where “most of the country’s drinking water comes from”. She repeats the spurious accusation by Jorge A. Huete-Perez, and Axel Meyer, in their Nature magazine article that the Canal will affect the Bosawas biosphere reserve, even though the Canal will pass hundreds of kilometres to the south of that reserve. Nuwer reports as fact the outrageous lie in relation to indigenous communities that “No proof has emerged that their rights have been taken into consideration or allocations have been made to make up for disruptions to their lives,”
In fact, the Canal's 2013 legislation explicitly guarantees in its Article 12 the indemnity process for any communities displaced by the Canal. The Canal project has been coordinated with both the relevant indigenous governing institutions and local communities. Hundreds of government and HKND personnel have spent months conducting a population census, measuring properties, gathering concerns and criticisms along the likely final route of the Canal. The government and HKND presentation of November 20th 2014 explicitly stated this, confirming the final route of the Canal has been altered as a result of the census and associated consultations.
While Nuwer's poor reporting is clear, that does not mean opposition to the Canal does not exist. It would be surprising if it did not. But it remains to be seen whether the minority grass roots opposition to the Canal survives the process associated with indemnification negotiations. Both the Nicaraguan government and HKND have explicitly stated that their commitment is to ensure that no community affected will be worse off economically as a result of the Canal.
That information is glaringly absent from Rachel Nuwer's report. Nuwer does raise legitimate concerns about the potential for creeping salination of the lake and the possible appearance of invasive foreign species. Another concern relates to the migration of wildlife across the Canal. Those concerns may well be addressed in the final environmental impact studies, the conclusions of which her article preempts in a most prejudicial way.
Shifting from the environmental angle, Nuwer repeats the view by critics of the Canal that the HKND company and its owner Wang Jing are unproven. She cites extremely hostile articles from pro-US Asian media outlets like the the South China Morning Post and the Bangkok Post questioning Wang Jing's track record and the success of his Xinwei multinational telecommunications company. But the conclusion of any critically minded interpretation of those articles is that Xinwei operates with mixed success in a number of countries, has an extensive, solid domestic base in China and has good relations with the Chinese government.
This is a typical profile of many multinational businesses around the world. If the Canal's opponents have set out to dig up dirt and scandal in relation to HKND and its boss Wang Jing, they have signally failed. Similarly to James Griffith's Global Post report slighting Wang Jing's business record, all Rachel Nuwer and her pro-US sources have discovered is that Xinwei is a domestically strong company struggling to do well in cut-throat foreign communications markets.
Similarly, Nuwer quotes the hostile opinion against the Canal by one shipping analyst but omits the positive opinion of one of the biggest shipping companies in the world, Maersk. It may indeed be true that Wang Jing's Xinwei company has hit a brick wall in terms of its business model overseas. But Xinwei is not HKND. Nuwer seems oblivious to the self-evident fact that the Nicaraguan Canal marks a diversification of Wang Jing's businesses away from telecommunications.
She ignores that the HKND team of contractors includes some of the biggest, most successful engineering construction companies in the world. On commercial and economic grounds, her arguments against the Canal are either trivial speculation, or tautological non sequiturs. On environmental grounds, her sources are inaccurate or prejudiced and she evades opposing environmental arguments in favour of the Canal by omitting them.
Nuwer writes, “at worst, Nicaragua will get a massive canal that might bring environmental devastation to the country and could perhaps even 'reignite the civil violence that has long blighted the region,' the Nature authors write. At best, on the other hand, plans will simply fall through, like many of Wang’s other ventures.” Apart from yet another gratuitous slight against Wang Jing, belittling his proven successes, that summary ignores the integral economic nature of the Canal and its auxiliary projects, two deep water ports, an international airport, a major tourism complex and an industrial and commercial zone.
The articles published recently by the Smithsonian magazine attacking Nicaragua's Canal have been overtaken by events. While critics of the Canal may well continue their negative sniping campaign, HKND and it sub-contractors have already incorporated legitimate criticisms into their planning, for example in relation to protecting vulnerable mangrove areas and re-siting port infrastructure. In coordination with the Nicaraguan government's National Canal Commission which is overseeing the whole project, work will start on a couple of the Canal's auxiliary projects in December.
Almost all critics of Nicaragua's Canal have overlooked the Canal's urgent strategic importance for global trading interests. For the Chinese government and its allies - Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa – the Nicaraguan Canal dramatically increases options for their international commerce. Likewise, for the Atlantic elites of North America and Europe, the Canal will facilitate their vision of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership should those far-reaching corporate welfare schemes every come to fruition.
On a regional level, the Canal enhances Nicaragua's strategic location and role as part of ALBA's - the Venezuelan and Cuban led Bolivarian Alliance cooperation and development bloc - planning for Central America and the Caribbean. The Nicaraguan Canal will transform not just Nicaragua's economy but that of the whole Central American and Caribbean region. The Canal itself is just one part of a complex set of global infrastructure initiatives by various countries
Elsewhere, plans are advanced for another Suez Canal running parallel to the existing one. In South America, China is planning a transcontinental rail link with Peru and Brazil and, possibly, Bolivia. China plans similar far-reaching infrastructure projects across Africa and Central Asia and is also undertaking major projects with Russia and some of the ASEAN countries. All this is relevant to discussion around Nicaragua's Canal, contradicting Rachel Nuwer's uncritical recycling of criticism by Canal opponents that it will be an economic white elephant.
However, the truly damning argument against the intellectual integrity of opponents of the Canal is that they deliberately omit discussion of the urgent current threats to Nicaragua's natural environment and refuse to engage the environmental arguments of the Canal's proponents. Matthew Shaer, Rachel Nuwer and the opponents of the Nicaraguan Canal, whose arguments they repeat, propose next to nothing worth serious consideration in defence of Nicaragua's chronically deteriorating natural environment. Still less have they any viable proposal to reduce the country's persistent intractable poverty.
By contrast, the track record of Nicaragua's Sandinista government is one of outstanding economic success, demonstrated concern for the country's natural environment and indigenous peoples and overwhelming international recognition for its redistributive poverty reduction programs. President Daniel Ortega and his colleagues have kept every important promise they have made to the people of Nicaragua. Defending Nicaragua's natural environment and reducing poverty in the country are ultimately the same thing. If Nicaragua's Canal can be built, it will do both.
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