San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

President Touts Benefits of Canal Project

If an ambitious, centuries-old proposal to build an Inter-oceanic canal across Nicaragua is to finally come to fruition under President Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader says he will see to it that LakeCocibolca – Central America’s largest freshwater reserve – is preserved in the process.

“With the great canal project, I’m open to listen to proposals that show me – that guarantee –the lake isn’t put at risk,” Ortega said, adding that he will consider proposals that involve conservation of the lake as well as its expansive basin.

For years, there have been four different proposals to build either a wet or “dry” canal in Nicaragua.

The United States abandoned the original proposal to build an inter-oceanic canal across Nicaragua more than a century ago, but Russia’s recent interest in the aging dream has reignited the Sandinista leader’s zeal for the grand project. Ortega said he will expand on the details of his canal proposal during his scheduled Jan. 10 State of the Nation address to the National Assembly.

Ortega, who has been promising to thaw the inter-oceanic canal project since his 2006 campaign, visited Moscow in December and met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to discuss his canal plans along with an array of other ambitious cooperation proposals – including plans for a joint space program with Nicaragua.

Ortega said a canal here would cost about $30 billion, though early advocates of the Panama Canal notoriously underestimated costs of that project, which took 44 years to complete, according to author David McCullough’s epic on the birth of the Panama Canal, “Path Between the Seas.”

Ortega said his plans to carve a new path between the seas would create income to support Nicaraguan farmers and help protect the country’s threatened lakes and forests by expanding public lands and creating alternative income. In a Dec. 29 speech in Juigalpa, Ortega said he has been inspired by the success of the Panama Canal, which the U.S. government turned over to the Panamanian government in 2000.

Ortega noted that income generated by the Panama Canal has fueled “immense development” for Panama, Central America’s fastestgrowing economy. Ortega said the canal has also allowed Panama to conserve its natural resources.

“There are forests everywhere in Panama because they have the resources to invest and people aren’t obligated to cut down trees,” he said. “They can cook with gas stoves and not wood-fired stoves.”

Ortega said the ideal path for the canal would run along the same route U.S. expansionists took across Nicaragua during the 19th century as an alternative to the unforgiving land route across the U.S. West, where migrants in wagon trains faced hostile indigenous tribes, perilous river crossings, drought and starvation.

On ships headed from cities on the U.S. Atlantic coast, seagoing travelers headed south to Nicaragua’s southern Caribbean port of Graytown, then up the San Juan River and into Lake Nicaragua. In a voyage that Mark Twain once chronicled, travelers would then be ushered onto stagecoaches that would traverse 20 kilometers across the Rivas isthmus to make a connection to a boat waiting in San Juan bay, which would then take them back up the Pacific coast to California.

At the time, U.S. advocates of a NicaraguanCanal proposed dredging and expanding the San Juan River and building a canal across the Rivas isthmus.

Ortega said that route is the proposal he “knows,” and former rebel commander Edén Pastora has already been put in charge of a government project to dredge the mouth of San Juan River, which is currently impassable by ship.

Ortega briefly acknowledged a proposal for a canal that would enter Lake Nicaragua through Rio Escondido beginning at Bluefields, a proposal known as the “Grand Canal” project.

Ortega also mentioned plans for a possible Iranian-Venezuelan funded “dry canal” corridor of a high-speed freight line, pipelines and roadways that would ship goods from a proposed $350 million deep water port at Monkey point to the Pacific port of Corinto.

The fourth proposal calls for a shallowdraft “eco canal” that would use flat-bottom boats to ship containers up the Rio San Juan to Granada and then truck them to the Pacific Ocean.

Yet of all the canal proposals that have long been “in study” in Nicaragua, Ortega said, “first, they have to persuade me that Lake Nicaragua won’t be affected.”

A recent government agency study found that Lake Cocibolca’s water levels per decade have dropped by 27 centimeters since the 1970s (NT, Nov. 7, 2008).

“The canal Project is a possibility, and the only thing we have to be careful of is that it doesn’t affect the Great Lake of Nicaragua, our immense resource, our grand reserve,” Ortega said.

However, the president added, the canal project “allows us to invest in cleaning it, to care for it, to reforest the basin that feeds the great lake of Nicaragua. If we don’t reforest those basins, the Lake of Managua as well as the Lake of Granada will keep drying up.”


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