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Will Nicaragua Build Massive Canal Despite Environmental Opposition?

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In Nicaragua, thousands of rural residents from across the country flocked to the capital Managua in October to protest the construction of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The $50 billion project will be larger than the Panama Canal and could displace up to 120,000 people. Many Nicaraguan residents traveled days to attend the protest in Managua. Police reportedly set up multiple roadblocks in a bid to prevent them from reaching the capital. Farmer Rafael Ángel Bermúdez was among those calling for the repeal of a 2013 law allowing a Chinese firm to expropriate land in order to build the canal. We speak to Nicaragua’s chief climate negotiator Paul Oquist.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask Minister Paul Oquist—in Nicaragua, thousands of rural residents from across Nicaragua flocked to the capital Managua in October to protest the construction of the canal you were talking about, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The $50 billion project will be larger than the Panama Canal and could displace, they say, up to 120,000 people. Many Nicaraguan residents traveled days to the protest. Police reportedly set up multiple roadblocks in a bid to prevent them from reaching the capital. This is one farmer, Rafael Ángel Bermúdez, who was among those calling for the repeal of the 2013 law allowing a Chinese firm to expropriate land in order to build the canal.

RAFAEL ÁNGEL BERMÚDEZ: [translated] I am a producer. They want to take our land with this canal. Here, the fight is ours. We don’t want a canal. Get rid of Law 840, and we won’t continue. It’s Law 840 that we want them to get rid of, so we can work in peace and not waste our time here with this march.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond, Paul Oquist, to the criticism of this canal?

PAUL OQUIST: Over 80 percent of the Nicaraguan people, consistently, in the survey research, are in favor of the canal. Our census of the canal route showed 7,100 families with 28,000 people along the canal route. President Ortega’s instruction is that with regard to the indemnizations, with regard to the resettlement plans and the new villages that will have health and education facilities, markets, running water, sanitation facilities, that—that everyone will be better off than they were before.

We think that these protests will have a short shelf life. The expiration date is when the settlement offers are made. The families can either accept a cash payment, or they can go into the resettlement plan, in which it’s a mix between cash, living in a new house with a new agricultural setup for them to be able to work and have sustainable livelihoods. Plus, the entire region’s economy along the route will be dynamized by the canal.

Canal route four was chosen not because it was the least expensive, but because it had the lowest environmental and social impact. And subsequently, further actions have been taken to further reduce that impact. For example, one, no one, in terms of these resettlement communities, will be moved more than 12 kilometers from where they lived before. This is to maintain intact family structures, community structures, church structures, so that the community, the sense of community, is not lost in these resettlements.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute.

PAUL OQUIST: So it will be a very high-quality resettlement plan along the route.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute. President Ortega is not here. Explain, for the final time, what it means to say Nicaragua is not participating here in submitting a voluntary standard or target for your country.

PAUL OQUIST: Nicaragua does not want to be an accomplice to a 3- or 4-degree world, which means death and destruction. The African Development Bank and others have studied the increase in mortality that that would wreak upon Africa. The same would also be true of Latin America and some places in Asia. And we do not want to be an accomplice to that. So we need to maintain a 1.5 world or a 2-degree world, but not a 3-to-4-degree world, which is unacceptable.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but of course we’ll continue the discussion. Paul Oquist is Nicaragua’s lead negotiator at the U.N. climate talks, and Meena Raman is with the Third World Network, based in Malaysia. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, one of the leading climate scientists in the United States, James Hansen, joins us. Stay with us.

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