The Nicaragua Canal

You probably didn’t know there was a proposal to build a transoceanic canal through this beautiful Central American country. I am only aware of the Nicaragua Canal because I recently visited the country, and was told by countless people there that they worried for the future of their environment and tourism. It’s path is to run from near Punta Gorda in the east, through Lake Nicaragua, and ending near San Juan del Sur in the west. The canal is set to begin construction in 2016, though no one will have heard a whisper of it in any mainstream media, which is much more occupied with the threat of terrorism than it is with the destruction of our planet.

When Chinese companies start sniffing around, you can expect bad things: the Serengeti Highway, countless hydroelectric dams in Africa and South America, and now the Nicaragua Canal. All of these projects have enormous implications for the local people and the environment, with opposition by biologists and indigenous tribes. Chinese development corporations have gained notoriety as destructive forces; ploughing through natural resources, polluting the landscape, and depleting biodiversity wherever they go. They promise to improve the lives of the local people, while cunningly lining their own pockets.

This canal could not be in a worse place, in my opinion. It is set to cut right through one of the largest protected areas in Central America, the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. This lowland rainforest is home to hundreds of species of birds, reptiles and mammals, including many listed as endangered. It runs along the northern banks of the Rio San Juan to the Atlantic coast, and spreads north. Notable species include jaguar, Geoffrey’s spider monkey, white-headed capuchin, scarlet macaw, West Indian manatee, Baird’s tapir, spectacled caiman and Hoffman’s two-toed sloth. The reserve is a stronghold for many species that require larger ranges, as much of Central America is now fragmented due to deforestation.

Lake Nicaragua is a true freshwater lake, home to a unique ecosystem but mostly famous for its sharks, bull sharks that swam upstream from the Atlantic coast and populated the lake. It is an important source of freshwater for the Nicaraguan people, and supports a wide array of wetland birds and freshwater fish. The beaches on the Pacific coast, at the western site of the canal include popular surf beaches, attracting most of the country’s tourism and a major area of commercial development. This area also includes key nesting sites for five of the seven species of sea turtle, all listed as critically endangered due to egg poaching, by-catch and plastic pollution.

The creation of a transoceanic canal will wreak havoc on these fragile ecosystems. The lake and connecting Rio San Juan will become salinated, and ships will introduce alien species, killing many native species and causing a massive collapse and loss of diversity. Fragmentation of the reserve will disrupt sensitive and wide ranging species such as jaguar and spider monkeys, and noise and chemical pollution from the ships will harm bird and amphibian populations. Access to the heart of the dense jungle will most certainly lead to increased poaching, and species such as the scarlet macaw, whose numbers have already dropped dramatically due to the wildlife trade, will lose their last haven. Turtles nesting on both coasts will suffer from increased chemical pollution and poaching. This is the sort of thing we can’t afford to ignore. These remaining biodiversity hotspots need to be protected, not squandered. Environmental issues such as the Brazilian mining disaster and the fires in Southeast Asia need to be in the media, or our last areas of forest and clean water will disappear and we will wonder what happened.

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Stephanie Higgins

Stephanie Higgins

I am a professional ecologist, and hold degrees in both photography and zoology. I grew up in Canada, and have worked on research projects in Madagascar, South Africa and Scotland. I have worked in zoos as well and for consultancies, as well as on conservation projects.
Stephanie Higgins

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