The Nicaraguan government approved an environmental impact study last week and issued an "environmental permit" for a Chinese company’s controversial plan to build a $50bn inter-oceanic canal to rival Panama’s.
Hong-Kong-based HKND Group, headed by Chinese billionaire Wang Jing, called the decision a major milestone following an "approval ceremony" in Managua on 5 November.
The company, which was given the concession to build and operate the canal in 2013, said start-up works for Brito Port on the Pacific coast would start by the end of this year while lock construction and bulk excavation would commence by the end of 2016.
In September the government’s canal commission delayed the project’s start to 2016 to allow for four extra environmental studies recommended by UK-based consultant Environmental Resources Management (ERM), which prepared the 11,000-page environmental and social impact study.
This is a project that will bring significant economic, social and environmental benefits. It will not only benefit this generation of Nicaragua, but will also benefit future generations, even the whole world– Telemaco Talavera, canal commission spokesman
Conservationists and scientists in Nicaragua and around the world oppose the canal, fearing environmental damage to the country’s vast Lake Nicaragua, which would have a channel dredged through it to accommodate ships.
Former environment minister in Nicaragua, Jaime Incer Barquero, told AP news agency that the lack of transparency and the government’s refusal to submit the project to independent, outside review makes last week’s decision suspect.
He said "there will always be doubts about its validity", AP reported.
But the scheme’s proponents celebrated the occasion.
"Today is a historical day for Nicaragua and will go down in history," said Telemaco Talavera, canal commission spokesman, in a statement released by HKND.
"This is a project that will bring significant economic, social and environmental benefits. It will not only benefit this generation of Nicaragua, but will also benefit future generations, even the whole world."
Monica Lopez Baltodano, a legal adviser for the canal opponents, told AP that the government appeared prepared to ram the project through, noting "the only path left for us Nicaraguans is international appeals and demonstrations across the entire country".
Photograph: HKND Group’s chief project advisor, Bill Wild (second from left), receives the environmental permit from Canal Commission chairman Manuel Coronel Kautz (second from right) and Paul Oquist (right), a US-born special advisor to Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. On the left is Daniel Ortega’s son, Laureano Ortega, described by HKND as an advisor to Nicaragua’s inward investment agency, ProNicaragua (Source: HKND Group)