Damnation or salvation? | Global News

Damnation or salvation?

11:43 PM March 18, 2015

NEW YORK CITY — In my last column, on the international poetry festival in Granada, Nicaragua, I had mentioned the project the Nicaraguan government had begun to undertake, carving out a canal á la Panama that would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It is a massive undertaking that would destroy the beautiful Lago Cocibolca, the largest lake in Central America and on whose shores Granada is located, and the many diverse and traditional communities in its path. The opponents of the proposed canal say it would not only devastate these communities and deprive them of their livelihood but also be an environmental disaster.

Estimated to cost $50 billion, and bankrolled by China, the canal will be thrice the length of the Panama Canal and twice as deep. No one believes that this monumental undertaking will be completed in 2019, as planned, or even that it can be done. Local opposition is particularly strong among the towns and villages and the numerous small barrios that surround the lake as well as those along the route the gigantic canal would take. During the carnival procession at the poetry festival, at one intersection, a group of protesters held banners and signs denouncing the interoceanic canal.

Learning of the canal, a reader based in Iloilo wanted to bring my attention to a project she believed was equally wrong-headed: the Jalaur River Multi-Purpose Dam being planned there, that would likewise devastate the many communities, made up mainly of the Tumandok indigenous peoples, by forcing them from their ancestral lands and effectively ending their traditional livelihoods. This reader pointed out that the site for the proposed dam “sits on the active West Panay fault.” The dam’s sponsors claim a treasure trove of benefits would ensue but such benefits could be attained, critics say, through smaller projects that would be less costly, and with less environmental damage.


Shortly after I heard from this reader, I received an announcement from International PEN (based in London), PEN Quebec, and PEN Nicaragua denouncing the arrest and incarceration of an army officer, First Lt. Yader Montiel Meza. The officer had told his family about his dismay regarding police oppression of an anti-interoceanic-canal demonstration by farmers in the town of El Tule late last December. Apparently, the government of Daniel Ortega views these protests darkly. This is the same Ortega who spearheaded the Sandinistas’ successful drive to oust the oppressive Somoza regime, notorious for its disregard of human rights.


The lieutenant is being charged with violating military decorum—I suppose that means he wasn’t toeing the establishment line—even though he was speaking as a private citizen. The writers’ organizations have demanded the immediate release of the lieutenant, the cessation of harassment of the opposition, and respect for freedom of expression. As the announcement pointed out, being in the military does not mean being deprived of one’s civil liberties.

Of course the Philippine precedent that came immediately to my mind was the Chico River Dam project that the Marcos regime had planned in the 1970s, with funding from the World Bank. Had the dam been erected, it would have flooded approximately 1,400 square kilometers, encompassing mountain towns and ancestral domains in the Cordilleras. Two Igorot tribes, the Kalinga and the Bontoc, were to be essentially dispossessed of their lands, in the Mountain Province and in Kalinga-Apayao. Opposition ranged from environmental activists and left-wing policy analysts to the tribes people themselves and the New People’s Army.

Principally the dam was meant to supply hydroelectric power to industries in urban areas, ostensibly to spur the rise of development. The downside was that the dam would not benefit those actually living in its path. In short, urban elites would be the beneficiaries while the indigenous people, lacking political clout, would suffer, along with loss of ancestral domains and the degradation of the environment. A Kalinga chieftain Macli-ing Dulag became the spokesman and visible face of tribal opposition, for which he was assassinated by the military in 1980. The outrage, both local and international, at his murder forced Malacañang to call off the project.

The official mindset, then and now, is that the developmental models from the West are almost automatically assumed to be the right ones to follow. In fact, the heavily industrialized West is the primary factor in global pollution and warming, and should serve as a cautionary lesson for those who tend to think that West Is Best. In truth, fewer dams are being constructed in the West; alternatives are gaining more traction, along with the exploration of how to reuse water and recharge or resupply groundwater. Of course, we all want to improve water supply and irrigate more farmland but in these ecologically fragile times, there is a need for a detailed and thorough assessment both environmentally and socially. Above all, those most impacted by the planned construction of this dam need to be listened to seriously and viewed as partners in any enterprise that affects their way of life.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2015

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TAGS: Lago Cocibolca, World Bank

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