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Canals, Bridges & Chinese footprints.

    Mark Twain once described the island of Ometepe as being so isolated from the world and its turmoil- so tranquil, so dreamy, so steeped in slumber and eternal response. You can still get that very feeling wandering along its isolated beaches as the morning mist shrouds ancient volcanic peaks or while watching spirited colts toying with the surf on the shores of a lake that seems mightier than the ocean. But almost a century and half after Twain's visit, there is fear that the image the author portrayed might not endure for much longer. The threat is not from the glowering twin volcanoes that loom over the island, but rather, from a controversial canal that is to slice through Nicaragua, connecting the Caribbean with the Pacific.

 Scenes from Ometepe, 2015.

Scenes from Ometepe, 2015.

Work has already begun on this 175 mile long Chinese-backed interoceanic canal which would be a colossal engineering project mainly planned to supply Brazilian iron ore, in ships too large for the century old Panama Canal, to ever hungry industries back in China. While proponents of the canal push economic prosperity and alleviation of poverty as their promise, many fear the environmental and social impact of the canal would be catastrophic. The deal was allegedly sealed by President Ortega, giving the company the “right to possess, occupy, use, or perform any activities upon all government owned and privately owned real property which may be reasonably necessary or desirable” for the canal. This was done with no consultation with the local communities nor much compensation promised for the loss of agricultural land or fishing grounds, and even prior to any environmental and economic feasibility studies.

People around here have depended on the lake for centuries for their livelihoods and the lake, being the largest in Central America, supplies drinking water to over 200,000 people. It’s not just a way of life, but survival that is under threat, as the lake becomes brackish and invasive fauna are introduced. One could wait and see if political pledges of riches and employment would be fulfilled and if its reaps would ever trickle down to the greater public. It is hard not to be cynical when the Chinese company have already refrained from employing Nicaraguan locals for the project due to their apparent “lack of civil-engineering knowhow”. Yet more so, the ecological impact of the canal is undeniable as it cuts through two natural/biosphere reserves with some of the richest biodiversity in the Americas.

I returned from Nicaragua disheartened, but only to realise that the same story echoes much closer to to my heart, at home in the Maldives. In the midst of failing public trust, the current government of the Maldives has formed a liaison with the Chinese, to construct a bridge connecting the capital island of Male’ to the nearby island of Hulhule', thus paving a link to the growing population on the artificially reclaimed island of Hulhumale’further north. Many critics claim that this is just a move by the government to hastily fulfil quixotic election promises, when the money could be put to better use elsewhere.

Further controversy lies in the location of the bridge itself, where it threatens to destroy one of the most popular and consistent surf breaks in the country. Although an environmental impact assessment was done in this instance, it had no mention of the effects it could have on the surf at the proposed location despite two of the boreholes being directly within the surf zone and the anchorage for the future bridge to be centred around them. The assessment was merely for the possible impact of the test boreholes, not the long-term impact of an inter-island bridge. The report stated that, “there is also a possibility that drilling may influence fluid flows…(but) in the absence of detailed studies of hydraulic circulation in subsurface areas of the reef, these impacts cannot be conclusively stated.” Yet the current administration seems hell-bent on making sure the bridge is built and work on it is underway before the next round of general elections.

 Surfers and bodyboarders at Male' Raalhugandu, Maldives, 2009-2014.

Surfers and bodyboarders at Male' Raalhugandu, Maldives, 2009-2014.

Once again, what is striking is the bothersome fact that those who would be most affected were not consulted, alternatives were not suggested and their concerns were not even given any consideration. Unlike Polynesia, the Maldives doesn’t claim to have a long tradition of surfing; nonetheless for the past few decades surfing has defined a generation, especially in the capital Male’. It is a culture in its adolescence that has already produced some true guardians of the environment, remarkable internationally acclaimed sportsmen/women and great role models for Maldivian youth in a society otherwise torn apart by religious fundamentalism, gang violence and dependency on hard drugs. In a stifling urban jungle, it remains one of the few recreational activities some youth can truly dedicate themselves to. Therefore in addition to the environmental impact, the social ramifications of compromising the surf culture in Male’ could be significant enough.

These stories beg the question of what the benefits of such mega-engineering projects are actually worth. The answers become more apparent, when the benefits could fail to seep down to those who need it most at the same time causing great ecological hurt as in the case of Nicaragua, or when it endangers a fledging culture which could in turn have considerable social consequences as in the case of the Maldives. Finally, as the sleeping giant awakens and increasingly relies on commodities and resources from all around the globe, more transparency in these 'investment agreements' between China and other nations are critical, for their respective citizens to truly understand and weigh out what in reality is being exchanged. We need the informed opportunity to ask ourselves, if the risks are truly worth the gain.