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Amid protest, canal project debuts

MANAGUA — Nicaraguan officials and a Chinese company broke ground Monday on a $50 billion transoceanic waterway predicted to rival the Panama Canal, but which has drawn anger and protests from citizens in recent weeks.

Vice President Omar Halleslevens, with Wang Jing, president of HKND Group, said the canal will change the history and economy of Nicaragua, one of Latin America’s poorest countries.

The groundbreaking marked the start of ancillary projects in Brito, a city about three miles from Nicaragua’s Pacific coast where the first port will be built. Officials say the canal will be fully operational by 2019.

‘‘With this great canal, Nicaragua expects to move 5 percent of the world’s commerce that moves by sea, which will bring great economic benefits and double the GDP,’’ said Halleslevens.


President Daniel Ortega was scheduled to make remarks later from Managua.

Projected to span 173 miles between the Caribbean and the Pacific, the canal would be the realization of a dream that has been studied since the early 1800s.

Last year, Ortega’s allies in Congress fast-tracked legislation granting Honk Kong-based HKND a 50-year concession, renewable for another 50, to build and operate a canal in return for a payment of $10 million a year. The law lets HKND develop ancillary projects — ports, an airport, roads, a railway — even if the canal doesn’t get built.

Thousands of Nicaraguans have protested, fearing their land will be taken without fair compensation.

‘‘We’re ready to die before we give our property to the Chinese,’’ said Orlando Ocampo, who leads farmers in Tule, a municipality on the Caribbean side of the canal route.

Environmentalists accuse the government of ignoring the threat they say cargo traffic will pose to Lake Nicaragua, the country’s main source of fresh water.

HKND hired the UK consulting firm Environmental Resources Management a year ago to assess the environmental and social impacts. The project is expected to displace 29,000 people. In July, two weeks after HKND announced its preferred route for the canal, ERM held meetings in seven cities. Some who attended left feeling they were merely being told what was going to happen rather than asked for input. Those who asked how much they would be paid for their land were told only that officials would go door-to-door to inform them.


In a statement on Monday, ERM declined to discuss its studies, saying the work is ongoing. HKND said in November that they were complete.

ERM said a wide range of experts were involved, thousands of people and households were surveyed, and more consultations will be held with indigenous people and other communities that stand to be affected.

Cocibolca Group, a collection of Nicaraguan environmental interests, called it irresponsible to start construction before all reports are in hand.

‘‘This is contrary to the most basic environmental practices and national and international standards,” the statement said.