An 'Eco-Canal' across Nicaragua
By Néfer Muñoz *
Tensions with Costa Rica will build as Nicaragua incorporates the border-marking San Juan River into its barge canal project, predict experts, because questions about its potential environmental impact have not been answered.
GRANADA, Nicaragua - One of Latin America's poorest countries, Nicaragua, is planning to spend 40 to 50 million dollars to open a shallow-draft barge canal extending from a point near the Pacific coast to the shipping routes of the Atlantic.
The canal is to be constructed based on a waterway used during the colonial era, according to an initiative drawn up by the Nicaraguan government and a group of entrepreneurs - and already approved by congress.
''We want to recover the commercial wealth of Nicaragua's past, but with an environmental approach,'' Gabriel Pasos, president of the EcoCanal S.A. company and of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Industries, told Tierramérica.
The project consists of utilizing the naturally existing waterways of Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River, which borders Costa Rica, to open a merchandise-shipping route to the Atlantic, one that could be used by small vessels from any country.
This ''ecological'' canal would be 360 km long and is to connect the city of Granada, located at an extreme of Lake Nicaragua near the Pacific and just 45 km south of Managua, with the Caribbean Sea, and thus the Atlantic. This route was used by international mercantilists from 1540 to 1890, but then was completely abandoned for this purpose in 1914 when the Panama Canal opened.
The Nicaraguan government and the local business community believe that reviving the route will attract new investment to the area and will resolve some of the country's export problems.
Nicaragua does not have any ports on the Atlantic, though 75 percent of its exports, which total some 600 million dollars annually, are destined for Europe and the eastern seaboard of the United States.
Its shipments go out through the Caribbean via Puerto Cortés, in northern Honduras, or Puerto Limón, in Costa Rica.
''The eco-canal is going to include a vast number of environmental measures in order to prevent ecological damage,'' Pasos stated. The San Juan River is 200 to 300 meters wide, but the plan approved by the Nicaraguan congress limits the navigational route to 25 meters from the riverbanks.
Along a 50-km stretch, EcoCanal S.A. will be authorized to dredge up to two meters deep to remove sand bars. The canal is slated for completion in 2006, and the concession-holding firm will hold use rights for 30 years from that time.
Experts consulted by Tierramérica expressed doubts about the project and predicted that it will feed tensions with Costa Rica, given that the San Juan River serves as a natural border between the two countries.
Though Nicaragua holds absolute sovereignty over the river, bilateral accords grant Costa Rica the right to free navigation on the waterway. What’s more, in 1999, Nicaragua's President Arnoldo Alemán prohibited Costa Rican police from traveling armed on the San Juan waterway, a decision that triggered diplomatic friction.
''I am very concerned about what could happen to the aquatic ecosystems of the San Juan River,'' Adolfo Chaves, of the Costa Rican Technological Institute, told Tierramérica.
Dredging of the river, even if limited to the two-meter depth decided by the Nicaraguan congress, could harm the small invertebrate organisms that form the first fauna link in that ecosystem's food chain, Chaves explained.
Costa Rica's Minister of Environment, Fausto Alfaro, expressed similar concerns, and stressed that a broad-based environmental impact study must be performed before the project gets underway.
''What they do to the San Juan River will affect Nicaragua and Costa Rica alike - both sides of this natural border have tributaries that could suffer,'' Alfaro said.
* Néfer Muñoz is an IPS correspondent