El Nuevo Diario: HKND “We are listening to people”
Note: This article was the headline on the front page and the "Topic of the Day" on pages 4 and 5 of El Nuevo Diario of Nicaragua on June 22nd, 2015. The Chief Project Advisor of HKND Group, Bill Wild explains the adjustments to the selected route of the Interoceanic Canal of Nicaragua to protect and even improve the environment, and various measures to prevent and mitigate the environmental impact of the Project. Wild states that these decisions are due to the fact that the company is open to receive people’s proposals.
By: Velia Agurcia, Benjamin Blanco
The Nicaragua Grand Canal project, which was officially inaugurated last December 22nd, still remains in the analysis stage by the inter-institutional committee led by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources -which reviews the results of the Environmental and Social Impact assessment, handed over recently on May 31st by HKND itself. The report is still open to make new adjustments with the purpose of reducing the social and environmental impact of this work primarily valued at US$50,000 million.
The Chief Advisor of HKND, Bill Wild, granted an exclusive interview to “El Nuevo Diario” to talk about some data contained in the studies, comprising 11,000 pages, which were handed over to the government; these studies stand out for the substantial changes made to the route, the mitigation measures to protect the lake and the forests, as well as the resettlement plans for about 7,000 families that live along the route of the canal.
After the changes and adjustments made to the canal route, do you think that route 4 is still a viable choice?
We are convinced that only by choosing route 4 can we meet the international best practices and global standard for building a project like this.
One good reason that makes us feel satisfied is the fact that route 4 can help us to preserve the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve and will cause less disruption to the local communities because these areas are less populated and actually, we will cause less impact on the indigenous territories.
The canal project is the only way to preserve the Indio Maíz Reserve and other forest areas.
To what extent will the indigenous territory be affected?
We must clarify that there are about 300 families within the affected indigenous territory, of which 25 belong to the Rama Kriol ethnic group and the remaining families are settlers who have moved to live in that area.
But in total, from the Pacific to the Caribbean, the number of affected people will be less than 7,000 families. Because after conducting the census that helped to do research about the area, some adjustments were made and therefore the number of affected families was reduced.
What will the human resettlement plan offer?
The affected people will have the option to choose between monetary compensations and new houses. These new houses will have all necessary infrastructure, with basic services such as electricity, running water and sanitation, as well as health, education and police security services, etc.
If families choose the alternative of a new house, they can be confident that this house will be better than the one they are currently living in.
On the other hand, those families opting for cash will receive fair market prices for their houses and land, but there will be no room for speculation in prices.
We are now working with the Government to define the best locations for these new communities. The scale of settlements will depend on the number of people opting for a house instead of choosing cash payment.
What is the next step after the submission of the 14-volume Environmental and Social Impact Assessment?
We are looking forward to either receiving feedbacks from the government on this matter or obtaining its approval in late June or July. We have already started the preliminary design of the western port in Brito, Rivas, and we hope to commence its construction by the end of this year.
In the upcoming months, we will begin drilling on site and conducting more detailed surveys of the soil, which will include seismic analysis. All these studies are parallel to the preliminary design and are a reference for the canal.
What did the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment determine?
It is a huge study. It took us two years to finish it. It includes a great number of studies that are called baselines studies, and these local surveys and investigations required up to 500 people working on site.
The ESIA defines that the Grand Canal will comply with international standards stated in the Equator Principles statement (an international agreement) and it also determines that if we manage to mitigate, control and compensate the impacts of the project, then the canal, in the end, will bring a net positive impact, i.e., with the protection of the Indio Maíz and the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, and with the proposed embedded controls, mitigations and offsets agreed by HKND, the positive environmental impacts will exceed the negative impacts.
What is the major environmental risk found in the study?
Rather than a risk, it is a challenge because we will need to strive to handle the excavation appropriately near the Punta Gorda River basin, an area where it is always raining but for which we know what the challenges are. Therefore, we are preparing management plans to face them, but at a technical level, this poses no real risk for the project.
What prompted the various adjustments made to the canal route?
We listened to what people have said and made decisions based on their proposals. In the original design of the port in Brito, the canal was supposed to begin at the mouth of Brito River, which would destroy the mangrove areas.
Therefore, we moved the port to the land to avoid the river mouth and a big portion of the mangroves. Then, we took into account the comments and reports resulting from a workshop conducted in Miami by a group of experts who recommended us to move the starting point of the canal in Brito another 300 meters further south to protect most of the mangrove area.
It was very important because the shoreline is very beautiful and it has mangroves, a river and people living nearby.
Was the route moved to prevent the San Miguelito Wetlands as well?
In San Miguelito, we avoided to the extent possible the wetlands area, the township of El Tule, and the route will no longer pass by there anymore. This caused an increase of 700 million dollars in the cost; however, the fact of moving the route in Brito will reduce our costs, as we will no longer pursue an offshore port, but an inland port. We think that the latter is some kind of compensation for us.
We have notified the Ramsar Group that we will help restore such area of wetlands, but we still have not received their recommendations.
What were the adjustments made in the Caribbean?
Here we moved the canal route further north in order to reduce the impact on the Punta Gorda river mouth as little as possible. And perhaps in the final design it will be moved even further.
We will choose the shortest route to cut across the palm forest. Also, we decided to move the port offshore, which was originally designed to be located at the shoreline, in order to create a water stretch to minimize the impact on the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.
As a result, animals’ migration will not be a problem because deforestation is what prevents animals moving from one side of the river to the other, but if there is forest on both sides of the river, fauna can feel safe to swim and roam without problems.
Where will the excavated material be located?
We conducted many studies on how to conduct excavation in each section, including the Lake.
Excavated material alongside the canal will be deposited in areas designed for it; the areas will be transformed or rehabilitated into fertile lands for agriculture and we have estimated to create from 30 to 40 thousand hectares of highly productive lands thanks to this operation.
Does this material include what is extracted from the lake?
Yes, it will include the material extracted from the shore of the lake, but most of the material extracted from the lake will not be used for land rehabilitation. Two large islands with rock walls will be created in the lake and the dispersive material extracted from the lake bed will be deposited on these sites, while material that won't cause turbidity in the lake will be deposited on the lake bed along the canal corridor.
What material extraction technique will be used in the lake?
In the lake, we will use a suction system with huge pipes that will absorb sediments as if it were a vacuum; in this way we will ensure that the extracted material is not released into the lake, it doesn't cause sedimentation or turbidity, and it doesn't affect water quality.
Costa Rica has expressed their concerns on whether or not the canal will affect it, but we can clearly and affirmatively state that the canal will not cause adverse impact on that country or on the San Juan River.
How will the Great Lake Nicaragua be protected?
The lake is among the main concerns of people. We are confident and are committed not to affect it, but to protect it.
For the water to be used in the canal, we will contain the water flowing to the Caribbean through the Punta Gorda River. Moreover, thanks to the water saving basins at the locks, the level of the lake will not be affected.
We also take into account the annual fluctuation of the lake level in each season to ensure an extra amount of water required by the regular operations of the canal.
How will Cocibolca Lake’s salinization be prevented?
Salinity is also a concerning risk and we are planning to control it through the design of the locks. By using a freshwater flushing system, we would keep salt levels within the standards for potable water or even less than the allowed level.
For the time being, we have several design proposals to prevent salinity, but it will not be until we have the final design that we will choose the best option.
What is your assessment of the protests against the project?
It is a normal phenomenon. This is a democracy. It is quite common that some people do not agree with projects of this type, but we are listening to the people. The adjustments made to the route are, to some extent, due to our listening to people’s concerns.
Reforestation is a daunting task
HKND’s Chief Advisor, Bill Wild, believes that one of Nicaragua’s most severe problems is deforestation.
Deforestation for subsistence farming is a major environmental problem in many parts of the world and it is a serious issue in Nicaragua.
“If we do not do anything now, if we keep such level of deforestation, in 20 years all the forests and reserves will disappear from Nicaragua, even the beautiful Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, which is the only reserve that is still under favorable conditions”, assesses Wild.
In relation to the critics from organizations pointing out that the construction of the canal represents the loss of thousands of trees, the HKND official estimates that the deforestation is worsening faster than what could be caused by the forest cutting for the canal construction.
“We will create a massive reforestation program in the river basins zone throughout the canal route, in order to protect the Indio Maíz and Punta Gorda Biological Reserves and the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor” , highlights Wild.
He added that HKND will also provide the Government with financial resources to do patrolling and to avoid people emigrating to the reserves, and people who live in the forest areas will be offered a voluntary resettlement program by the Government.