China, a plan, a canal... Nicaragua

BRITO, Nicaragua — Fisherman Pedro Luis Gutierrez gazed from his porch on the Pacific Ocean and conjured up a vision: Someday, mammoth oceangoing vessels will sail in from afar and vanish into a canal piercing the jungle.

"The ships will cross over there in the middle of the beach," Gutierrez said with the cocky assurance of someone who'd heard a lot about a plan to build a rival to the Panama Canal in Nicaragua.

For now, it's a mirage. But while few outside Nicaragua took seriously the announcement last year that a Chinese company had won a 50-year renewable concession to build a canal, the plan is moving quickly. Scores of Chinese engineers have mapped the topography here, and deal-makers are scouring the globe for investors from an office in faraway Hong Kong.

Sometime later this year, President Daniel Ortega and Chinese telecom tycoon Wang Jing will decide whether to give the project the green light, possibly unleashing earthmovers on one of the largest engineering challenges the world has ever seen, comparable even to China's enormous Three Gorges Dam.

The stakes are high: If the transoceanic canal gets the go-ahead, it might take a decade to build, gobble $60 billion and slice through vast stretches of tropical forest. At 180 miles, it would be more than three times the length of the U.S.-built Panama Canal. It also would accommodate supertankers and giant container ships that are far bigger than those the Panama Canal will accept when its expansion is complete next year.

For Nicaragua, a poor nation of 5 million people, the project may punch its ticket out of poverty, creating jobs and prosperity.

For China, the plan would mean easier access to crude oil from Venezuela and a greater foothold in the Western Hemisphere. Such geopolitical considerations may weigh more for China than the price tag.

"In the initial scenarios we looked at, you can see that up to a million people could be employed within the 10-year span of construction," said Manuel Coronel Kautz, an engineer who heads the Transoceanic Grand Canal Authority of Nicaragua.

Coronel said that 300 to 400 professionals — including teams of Chinese geologists, British environmental experts and other foreign technicians and trade experts — were working on a gamut of financial, environmental and commercial feasibility studies.

Much of what they're finding is cloaked in secrecy. Questions include: Who will finance the project? Is the Chinese government behind it? Will the public see an environmental impact study? Can natural rainfall and massive Lake Nicaragua sustain the water-operated locks of such a large canal?

The secrecy exasperates scientists, who warn that Ortega may be making a devil's pact, swapping priceless environmental heritage and national sovereignty for speedy development.

"It's not easy to analyze the problem because there is so little public documentation about the canal. The route isn't known and feasibility studies haven't been made public," said Jorge Huete-Perez, a molecular biologist who's the president of the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences.

The list of worries is long: hurricanes, earthquakes, endless mounds of mud, saltwater filtration into Lake Nicaragua, angry displaced Rama and Miskito Indians, and a massive influx of Chinese workers among them. But there's also anticipation, even euphoria, among some Nicaraguans.

"It is said that without the canal, we'll grow at 4.5 percent a year until 2020," said Kamilo Lara, an environmentalist and supporter of Ortega. "But with the canal, growth could be as high as 15 percent."

Carving a canal across Nicaragua is a long-standing dream.

"There have been 23 attempts through history to build the canal. And in every single case, the interest has been of a foreign power," Huete-Perez said.

Among six possible routes that HKND Group is exploring, all use Brito Inlet as the Pacific outlet, and all traverse Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater body in Central America. The lake is shallow — its average depth is about 30 feet — so a channel would need to be dredged through parts of the lake bed, in some places as deep or 50 or 60 feet.

The ancient lake embodies some of the environmental and safety concerns the project faces. Some 38 species of fish, three or four of them unique to the lake, dwell in the 3,166-square-mile body of water.

The lake's waters are turbid, a sign of massive silt erosion from the surrounding watershed. Thousands of tons of runoff spill into the lake each day, which would require constant dredging.

Whether the canal is built may hinge on factors other than the difficulty of construction, the expense or the environmental impact. Rather, experts said it might depend on China's reaction to Washington's military "pivot" toward the Far East, and whether China sees an imperative to open a trade route to the Americas for Venezuelan crude and other raw materials that isn't dependent on access to the Panama Canal, which it sees as under Washington's domination.

China has never believed that the Panama Canal and the Panama Canal Authority are independent of U.S. influence, said R. Evan Ellis, the author of the 2009 book "China in Latin America." "There's a certain value to having their own canal," he said.

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