photo/ Tim Rogers

Nicaragua’s plans to build an interoceanic waterway that rivals the Panama Canal could drive a final nail in the coffin of Central America’s most vulnerable indigenous group, rights leaders warn.

Rama leader Becky McCray says the $50-billion Chinese canal could be a deathblow for the culture of her people, who for centuries have scratched out a living as fishermen on Nicaragua’s southern Caribbean coast.

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“If this project gets implemented, there is a strong possibility that the Rama language spoken in Bankukuk Taik will disappear as the last people who speak that tongue get forcibly displaced from their land,” McCray, the Rama tribe’s first lawyer, told the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Monday afternoon.

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Read: 6 things you need to know about Nicaragua's big dumb canal project

Only several dozen people still speak the Rama language, one of the most endangered in the world. McCray and others fear the canal project would be so disruptive to life on the Caribbean coast that it would undermine grassroots efforts to preserve the ancient tongue.

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The proposed route for the privately owned Chinese canal bisects five indigenous and afro-Caribbean communities on Nicaragua’s eastern coast. It would forcibly displace untold thousands of native peoples in what rights leaders say is a clear violation of indigenous autonomy laws.

Most of the canal route — 52 percent, to be precise — would pass through indigenous territories, yet tribal leaders say they were never consulted about the project prior to the Sandinistas awarding their concession to enigmatic Chinese telecom mogul and canal enthusiast Wang Jing.

Now the Rama fear for their survival.

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McCray said indigenous leaders are worried the Chinese canal builders will gobble up their land and scatter communities that have held together since pre-Hispanic times. And Chinese canal company HKND has all the legal tools it needs to do the job, thanks to Article 12 of the Sandinistas’ hastily written concession law that gives the foreign firm the right to “expropriate any property that’s considered reasonably needed for the project, be it private or communal, in the Autonomous Regions or any other government entity.”

Nicaragua’s losses, by the numbers

Leaders of Nicaraguan civil society yesterday presented a long list of concerns to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Nicaraguan environmental lawyer Monica López Baltodano said the canal will affect seven protected areas and destroy some 480,000 acres of forest. Six of the 13 municipalities bisected by the canal will be physically torn asunder, with people suddenly living on the south side of the canal rendered incommunicado with family members and former neighbors living on the north side.

The canal, opponents claim, will threaten Nicaragua’s food security and decimate local infrastructure —96 schools, 19 rural health clinics, 35 cemeteries, 90 churches and at least 2,800 homes.

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The government, rather amazingly, has offered no clear relocation plan to deal with the tens of thousands of mostly rural poor people who will be displaced by the canal — even after 37 marches and protests demanding answers.Activists worry the canal exiles will be left to fend for themselves, migrating to misery belts around nearby cities or clearing forest to farm new lands.

But the biggest environmental disaster, López warns, will be the irreparable harm caused to Lake Nicaragua, which currently supplies drinking water to some 200,000 people and is considered the future source of drinking water for the whole region — not to mention a main attraction in Nicaragua's budding ecotourism industry.

“There’s no way to substitute that strategic reserve of potable water, which is clearly written into our country’s Water Law,” said López, director of Nicaragua’s Fundacion Popolna.

The Sandinistas have statistics too

The Sandinista government, unmoved by civil society’s jeremiad, presented its own case to the OAS human-rights commission, offering a much more cheerful forecast peppered with encouraging statics of their own making.

Canal commission spokesman Talamaco Talavera promised the canal will double Nicaragua’s economy and provide annual GDP growth of 8-12 percent. He also promised — in large, rounded and easy-to-remember numbers— the creation of 50,000 jobs during the construction phase, 200,000 jobs in the operational phase, and 130,000 additional jobs in some other prosperous moment that I can’t make out in my notes. He promised that the canal would fix hunger and poverty and improve Nicaraguans’ quality of life.

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“This project will have a positive impact on the human rights of all Nicaraguans,” Talavera said, without snickering.

Environmentalists contracted by the Nicaraguan canal commission paint an equally rosy picture of future wellness and good fortune. Government green thumb Kamilo Lara told the human rights commission that the canal will help restore, protect and replenish Nicaragua’s long-suffering environment — something the government alone doesn’t have the resources to fix.

“The canal represents a valuable opportunity to strengthen the environment because it will expand the country’s protected areas to the right and left [sic] of the canal,” Lara said, presumably meaning the northern and southern banks.

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Lara said the government and HKND will release its environmental impact study sometime near the end of April, and promised it would assuage a lot of fears about the project. The government also said it will conduct a series of community consultations along the entire route of the proposed canal — something that should have been done before the concession was granted, not after, scoffed Rama lawyer McCray.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which limited itself to raising a few worried eyebrows and raising mild concerns about the potential for corruption and rights abuses in a megaproject of this size, is expected to present its recommendations next month.

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Watch yesterday's full commission meeting here: