A Man, A Plan, A Canal

Palm trees in the tiny fishing village of Brito. In the mid-nineteenth century, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the American steamship and railroad tycoon, developed a route across the Nicaraguan isthmus, and his passengers transferred from stagecoach to steamship here.

Palm trees in the tiny fishing village of Brito. In the mid-nineteenth century, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the American steamship and railroad tycoon, developed a route across the Nicaraguan isthmus, and his passengers transferred from stagecoach to steamship here. Photograph by Jehad Nga.

When Xandari joined Raxa Collective in December, the Central America map became important in our office, and in our news tracking. Several contributors to Raxa Collective got their start in Central America in the 1990s, as did most of Xandari’s staff, most of whom have been working their for nearly two decades; so goings on in that region are of special interest.  Big goings on are of big interest. Especially when the socio-economic costs and benefits are understood in relation to ecological impact. In case you never heard the campaign slogan dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt’s time–A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama–it is worth noting it is a palindrome, a sort of word puzzle in that it reads the same forward and backwards.   In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, another kind of puzzle related to another Central American canal is reported by Jon Lee Anderson who profiles one (or more) man’s plan to:

…“launch the largest civil engineering and construction project in the world: a new transoceanic canal across Nicaragua.” The canal is a pet project of Daniel Ortega, the President of Nicaragua, who has argued that an Atlantic-Pacific shipping route “will bring well-being, prosperity, and happiness to the Nicaraguan people.” But while the canal’s supporters have praised its economic potential—Nicaragua is Central America’s largest and poorest country, and nearly half its population lives below the poverty line—opponents have criticized the lack of public input on the plan, which is expected to cost at least fifty billion dollars. They also argue that the project represents an affront to Nicaragua’s sovereignty: the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company, an obscure Chinese firm that holds the concession to build the canal, has been granted broad rights throughout the country, including the right to expropriate and develop private property.

A farmer stands near his home beside a river in Monkey Point. Details of the canal remain unknown across the country; even people who may be displaced by its construction are unsure what’s in store.

A farmer stands near his home beside a river in Monkey Point. Details of the canal remain unknown across the country; even people who may be displaced by its construction are unsure what’s in store. Photograph by Jehad Nga.

Last November, the photographer Jehad Nga accompanied Anderson to Nicaragua to investigate the proposed canal, news of which the government had been slow to divulge. Tasked with the difficult assignment of photographing something that doesn’t yet exist, Nga set off with Anderson from Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, to look for evidence of Ortega’s elusive canal. Travelling by jeep, prop plane, and speed boat, they zigzagged the country and spoke to several Nicaraguans who had never heard of the canal or its Chinese sponsor. In Brito, on the Pacific Coast, Anderson met “five Chinese men in gray coveralls unpacking generators and long tubes from wooden crates covered with Chinese characters”:

They looked at me with studied disinterest, and carried on with what they were doing. Three Nicaraguan workers were helping them, and I asked in Spanish if they were there for the Gran Canal. “Yes,” one of them, a tall young man, exclaimed, smiling brightly. “What are all these things you’re unpacking?” I asked. None of them had any idea. They couldn’t communicate with the Chinese, who spoke no Spanish. They had an interpreter, who wasn’t there, but he hadn’t told them much anyway. “It’s paid work,” the young man said, as if that were all the explanation needed. The Chinese men stared and commented between themselves. One took my picture with his phone…

Read the whole story here (subscription required)

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