The final five miles more resemble a dried-up river following an avalanche than a road. Even with four-wheel drive and an extremely loose suspension, the boulders, troughs, and tree roots punish the underside of the bonnet, leaving vehicles rocking like fishing boats trapped in a tempest. Two brave buses ply the route each day to take local children to school.
Construction of the canal, billed by HKND as “the largest civil earthmoving operation in history,” has not yet begun due to funding issues and environmental concerns. Indeed, the excavation of hundreds of miles of land will destroy about 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands, including parts of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which acts as a natural land bridge from South to North America for wandering animals such as ocelots and jaguars.
The dredging of Lake Nicaragua—the largest freshwater basin in the Central American isthmus—is another controversial issue. Scientists believe that attempts to deepen the lake for large tankers could bring up enough mud and dirt to cover the entire state of Connecticut. The dredging could threaten the existence of many indigenous fish including a rare species of freshwater shark. Campaigners are still waiting for an environmental impact report to be published.
Despite these concerns a new smooth dirt road has already been built in preparation to connect a tiny settlement at the mouth of the river Brito to the rest of the country.
One thing you quickly realize in Nicaragua is that everything can be bought. The laws are malleable. Caught drunk driving out of a nightclub in the capital Managua with a beer in your hand? Pay the security guard $1. Want to make sure you’re parked car isn’t broken into in the colonial city of Granada? Pay the man watching from a deckchair $2. Caught by the police on the highway with no driving license? Pay the cop $4. It’s as simple as that.
The problem is that this malleability stretches through all strata of society and often leads to corruption. And with huge infrastructure projects like the canal there is scope for profound levels of corruption.
For example, while the residents of Playa Gigante and other settlements within the Canal Zone fret about their futures, Carlos Pellas, Nicaragua’s first billionaire and close ally of President Ortega, is building a new airport in the region to help attract international clientele to his marquee five-star holiday complex, Guacalito de la Isla. Although Guacalito is situated within the Canal Zone, Pellas’ ongoing expansion suggests that he does not expect to receive an eviction notice when construction of the waterway begins.
The Chinese come here to destroy the land that I work on.
And then there’s the case of the ill-reputed concession that violated 40 articles of the Nicaraguan Constitution and was rushed through the National Assembly in under a week. Suspiciously, Xochilt Ocampo, the only Sandinista lawmaker to vote against the bill, was sacked without explanation the following week.
At a papaya farm close to the river Brito four men, all from the same family, sit on plastic chairs under a wooden shelter and share a couple of bottles of cheap but potent rum. A hen and her chicks strut around the sandy floor, where bottle caps, Barbie dolls, and children’s shoes lie. “We don’t trust the Chinese,” one of the farmers announces, taking a swig from the bottle. “We don’t want to move,” another says, more seriously. “We want to live here as long as the lord allows us, until he puts us in the ground.”
As the farmers become drunk their distaste for “los Chinos” becomes clear. The first farmer takes off his shirt to reveal a spindly body and starts stumbling around in the sand, as if controlled by strings from above, a routine he says annoys the Chinese when they ask him to help survey the land. The more serious one argues that Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista government are not to blame. “Daniel will not be rude to Nicaraguans,” he says. “What I really want is the land that I work on. The Chinese come here to destroy the land that I work on.”