On the right path

In the second part of our exclusive interview with Bill Wild, Grand Nicaragua Canal lead developer, we focus on the route chosen for the $50bn project and its impact on communities.

At the CG-LA Latin America Forum, held in Guatemala earlier this month, we had a chance to catch up with Bill Wild, lead developer on the uber-ambitious Grand Nicaragua Canal project being pushed by HKND, a Hong Kong-based company set up specifically for canal development. With several decades of engineering expertise, Wild believes that despite the naysayers, this project is completely feasible and that work could begin as soon as this year. 

Infrastructure Investor: During your project presentation as part of the CG-LA Latin America Forum, you emphasised how the canal is avoiding the Bluefields and creating a sort of barrier for the rain forest on the eastern side. How did that component get built into this?  

Bill Wild: When we started looking about two years ago, there were really two routes. This has been looked at for a century or so. There are six routes that people have been looking at, and there have been many reports written on all of them. When we sat down and we looked at them, it didn't take long to narrow them down to two. There's no point going further and further north: the canal just gets longer and longer, and that causes more disruption in everything.

There's no point in going down to San Juan because the chairman took a view that he didn't want to get into political arguments and all the arguments that were around the San Juan, which was the original route. That left two routes – three and four.

If you go through Bluefield, there are a number of issues. One is that it was longer and you don't want it to be longer if you can help it. Two, it caused a lot more social disruption. The canals are both the same on the western side across the isthmus, and they diverge the two options in the lake.

To go on route three was a massive social disruption. All the way through there is highly developed. And the eastern part of it is indigenous lands. In fact it is even the center of the indigenous lands. The canal that had always been considered for route three actually went through two islands in Blue Field Bay that are actually the homeland of a particular group of indigenous people. That was not something we wanted to do.

Another thing is that environmentally if you did go through there, you really did destroy the palm forest around Blue Field Bay. Because if you went through the middle there was all these problems with indigenous people. If you tried to divert and went right around the bottom, you'd cut off all the water courses and kill the palm forest anyway. So from an environmental point of view we saw it as really not a good solution. We didn't think we could ever satisfy international standards with that. 

When we looked at route four, environmentally, at face value it goes right through the middle of all the environmental reserves. There's a bundle of reserves there – the Indio-Maize, the Punta Gorda Reserve, the Cerro Silva, the Nuclear Cerro Silva, and the Blue Field – and we went right through the middle of them. But once we started to look into it, it wasn't that way at all. If we went along the Rio Punta Gorda, we went right along the bottom of two reserves that were pretty well degraded – the Cerro Silva and the Nuclear Cerro Silva we went along the lower edge of them; we went along the top edge of the Indio-Maize, which is untouched or close to untouched; and, we went along the top edge of the Punta Gorda Reserve.

And straightaway it became a fairly evident thing to us guys working on it that if you wanted to protect these reserves and stop the encroachment that happened all the time, you needed some sort of barrier or a line in the sand. Sort of a thing where this is the point where beyond which we're not going to allow development, we're not going to allow degradation of the forest or whatever. So we set that as our target and in the end that's what we've come up with. In the end, the canal will be placed as a barrier, where we won't allow people across the canal into the Indio-Maize or the Punta Gorda Reserve. The government will assist us but we can police our own canal. The western side, the government will do because we don't have any jurisdiction there. But we talked to the government about it and they're keen to do it and we'll fund it. So they'll protect, and stop people from migrating into those reserves. 

So not only were we saving the Indio-Maize, we were also committed at the same time to try to rehabilitate the Punta Gorda Reserve, the area of the Miso-American Biological Corridor, so we've undertaken to do that. And then we've undertaken to do a massive reforestation program across the country. 

That's all part of this.

II: While the surveys you were pointing to earlier show really strong support from the local and national communities, do you anticipate that there are any special interest or local groups that could cause some issues with the current route? 

BW: Well, if you read the press there's certainly special interest groups and there's certainly particular groups. One particular group of people who are concerned about the canal are the residents of El Tule. The canal originally went through the town and part of the Marina wetlands there. So we've moved the canal, and it's an expensive process, I can tell you. The extra earthworks is probably $100 million dollars-worth. We've still got to refine that and try to get that cost down, but we've undertaken to avoid that township and my personal view is that should satisfy the people. But there's always special interest groups, particular interest groups and opponents. On this project they tend to be pretty vocal as they often are and to get a lot of press as they often do, but we showed this morning, the majority of people in Nicaragua strongly support this project. It's got incredible public support.

II: How do you see this canal benefiting the people of Nicaragua? 

BW: If you start at the macro level and ask what is the benefit to the country of having this canal then just have a look at Panama.

II: Do you have any sort of projections of the growth?

BW: Yes we do. I don't have them off the top of my head but GPD growth of XYZ, and all that sort of thing. There have been studies done on it and reports, our own internal studies. There's no doubt that there will be economic development of the country, it's unarguable.

The more interesting question, and the more challenging one, is, like most of these things, the whole community might benefit and that's fine; for those that aren't impacted but benefit, that's really good. But what about the people who are directly impacted? That's the biggest issue that we've tried to address in the ESIA. To ensure that those people who are directly impacted, who get moved out of their homes and their properties, that they don't have a net negative impact.

That's what we've focused on getting sorted out in recent times, is to ensure that they end up with a positive impact. 
Part of that is to give them good accommodation – good new housing – or to pay them an appropriate value for their land. We're committed to doing that. 

We're finalising the [Resettlment Action Plan] right at the present. But I can tell you that anyone relocated will be better off from a housing point of view; they will get fair value for their land. And if you look at the housing, we're talking about giving the option of going to a new village that we'll build, and those villages will have far better social infrastructure than they've got currently.

Most of the people living on east canal don't have any social infrastructure. They don't have road access, half of them. They don't have access to power, schools, medical facilities-not easy access anyway. We see them as being far better off.

*Photos by Rolando Alfaro, courtesy of CG-LA, and Alex Barth