At least 21 injured and 33 arrested as protesters opposing the construction of a shipping canal clash with police.
Rivas, Nicaragua – The tiny town of La Junta, located near Rivas in southwestern Nicaragua, is home to nearly 100 families, most of whom have farmed their land here for generations.
Soon that will change. The community will be swarming with construction workers, and if all goes to plan, cargo ships float over what used to be cow pastures in a few years.
La Junta will be one of the first towns demolished to make way for a 300km transoceanic canal that will bisect Nicaragua.
The project’s backer, Chinese telecommunications mogul Wang Jing, expects to complete the $40bn project within five years.
Canal supporters claim that the project could lift Nicaragua – the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti – out of poverty, but opponents point to the potential for environmental and human rights abuses.
Though La Junta and nearby towns have been surveyed for construction, no one has come to tell the residents where they will go when the canal comes.
The people in La Junta say they woke up one day to a fleet of police and Chinese engineers in their backyards.
We believe in development, but we don't see how this is going to bring benefits to Nicaragua. We are a country based on the agrarian movement and this project will violate that.
“They came and started taking measurements of everything,” said Jenny Gutiérrez, 33, a lifetime La Junta resident. “They didn’t say a word to anyone.”
In the last 450 years, this is the 73rd plan to build a canal through Nicaragua. For many, the waterway’s completion would fulfil a national dream.
The government says that by 2018, the canal will pull 403,583 people from poverty and 353,935 people from extreme poverty, double the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and triple the employment rate.
Though the government has not cited a source for the oddly specific statistics, Nicaraguan officials maintain that the canal will bring benefits to the Central American nation.
“The canal will not pass through an area with intense agricultural activity, it will not pass through critical coffee growing or ranching zones,” Telemaco Talavera, the spokesman for the Nicaraguan government’s canal commission has said publicly.
“It will only affect a small part of the country and will reinvigorate the rest.”
It is not only the government that backs the canal. A CID-Gallup poll from September 2014 revealed that 41 percent of Nicaraguans support the canal and 21 percent are somewhat in favour.
The majority of supporters believe the canal will help the country financially, but 55 percent of respondents admitted that they know very little about the project. Even the Sandinista government sometimes seems confused about the canal’s details.
In a recent trip to Spain, Talavera implied that he was uncertain about the canal’s final route after a Nicaraguan student asked him to address complaints from the 60,000 people she claimed would be displaced.
Talavera refuted her numbers, but offered few facts to assuage her concerns.
“That means someone has the route more clearly defined than we do,” he said.
So far, there is no official tally of how many will be displaced by the canal. Based on the route released by the canal’s development company, Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment (HKND), various groups estimate that anywhere from 29,000 to upwards of 60,000 people will need to relocate.
Where these people will be sent or how they will be compensated still remains unclear.
Nicaragua’s Law 840, passed in June 2013, grants HKND the right to expropriate land anywhere in Nicaragua.
The company is required to compensate residents the tax-assessed value of their land, but residents say this is usually lower than the market price.
Relocation has not been addressed, and even if residents are compensated fairly for their land, many of those in the canal zone are farmers and worry that they may have to give up their crops and livestock to live in a city.
“The canal isn’t going to help any of the poor people at all. The benefits will all go to the rich,” José Franciso Espinoza, a 43-year-old farmer, told me as he scooped clay from the Río Brito, near the canal’s destined start point, to build a wall on his farm.
“To build yourself a home here, it is hard. To build up a farm here, it takes a lifetime.”
For many of these small landowners – the poor campesinos that made up the base of support for Nicaragua’s socialist president, Daniel Ortega – the Sandinista’s decision to grant the canal concession was seen as a betrayal.
“Here, in the pueblo, we don’t see him as the president, we see Ortega as a dictator,” Jenny Gutiérrez told Al Jazeera.
“He’s in power now and doesn’t think about the poor people any more.”
These sentiments have spurred continued protests throughout Nicaragua, with the most violent unrest in El Tule, on Lake Nicaragua’s eastern side.
The protests come with support from Nicaragua’s opposition parties, which also do not support the canal project.
“We believe in development, but we don’t see how this is going to bring benefits to Nicaragua,” said Silvia Gutiérrez, a politician with the Sandinista Renovation Movement, a party founded by Sandinista dissidents.
“We are a country based on the agrarian movement and this project will violate that.” According to Gutiérrez, it will also violate constitutional rights of indigenous groups.
HKND has already confirmed that the canal will affect the protected Bangkukuk Rama indigenous community in Nicaragua’s east.
One of the only Rama-speaking communities remaining, Bangkukuk will be fragmented and at least part of the village’s people will need to relocate.
Forced relocation violates the protections given to the Rama territory in 2009, and though the group has been in near daily contact with HKND, an agreement has not been reached.
“Indigenous land has no value and cannot be sold by law so there is no requirement for the company to compensate or relocate the people,” Claus Kjaerby, the Central American representative for Danish NGO Forests of the World, told Al Jazeera.
Aside from being protected, the Rama territory is also located in one of the most biodiverse parts of Central America. The nearly untouched forest serves as an important biological corridor for migrating animals.
Based on the route announced by HKND, the canal will slice through more than 405 hectares of protected rainforest and wetlands as well as Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking water reservoir in Central America.
Despite the potential ecological damage from the project, HKND has yet to release environmental impact studies for the canal.
According to Axel Meyer, a German biologist with more than 30 years of fieldwork in Nicaragua, the canal project has the potential to drastically damage Nicaragua’s biodiversity.
Scientists with the Nicaragua Academy of Sciences are also concerned by the project, warning that dredging Lake Nicaragua could turn the lake into an aquatic dead zone. But without proper studies no one can be sure.
“One would hope they at least considered the environmental and social impact of this, but no study was ever published,” Meyer said.
“One thing is for sure, this would undoubtedly change Nicaragua forever.”
But back in La Junta, residents haven’t fully accepted these changes as inevitable. They still hold out hope that the canal will somehow bypass their small community.
“We’ve been here for generations and generations,” said 41-year-old La Junta resident Armando Ruíz.
“We are just trusting in the lord that it won’t end up passing through here.”