Nicaragua broke ground yesterday on a much contested $50 billion transoceanic waterway predicted to rival the Panama Canal. President Daniel Ortega, with the president of Chinese contracting firm HKND Group, said the canal will change the economy of Nicaragua, one of Latin America's poorest countries, as well as the rest of the hemisphere. He promised minimal environmental impact and that farmers will receive a just price for their land. "The farmers know very well that they live begging us for roads, and that these projects will give greater riches to them and their families," Ortega said. The groundbreaking marked the start of ancillary projects in Brito, a city about 3 miles from Nicaragua's Pacific coast where the first port will be built. Officials say the canal, projected to span 173 miles between the Caribbean and the Pacific, will be fully operational by 2019.
Last year, Ortega's allies in Congress fast-tracked legislation granting HKND a 50-year concession, renewable for another 50, to build and operate a canal in return for $10 million a year once it's up and running. The law lets HKND develop ancillary projects—ports, an airport, roads, a railway—even if the canal doesn't get built. Thousands of Nicaraguans have protested. "We're ready to die before we give our property to the Chinese," said the leader of a farmers group. Environmentalists, meanwhile, accuse the government of ignoring the threat they say cargo traffic will pose to Lake Nicaragua, the country's main source of fresh water, and of breaking ground without environmental and social impact reports. HKND's consulting firm ERM yesterday said environmental studies are ongoing and it would be premature to discuss them; HKND said last month they were complete. (Read more Nicaragua stories.)