GRANADA – If Nicaraguans seemskeptical about the prospect of a canalbeing built across their country, it’s onlybecause it’s a promise that has gone unfulfilledfor several hundred years.The immediate response is: We’llbelieve it when we see it, and maybe noteven then.Despite the historical odds stackedagainst the Nicaragua Canal, three companiesare prepared to take on the challengeand appear confident about their chancesfor success (TT, Aug. 13).EcoCanal proposes to build a bargeroute connecting the Caribbean Sea to theold port city of Granada via the Río San Juanand Lake Cocibolca, known as LakeNicaragua.EcoCanal’s president, Gabriel Pasos,estimates the project, with an estimated costof $35 million-$54 million, could be operationalby 2009.THE Canal Interoceánico de Nicaragua(better known as CINN) is one of two“dry canal” projects that would connect thetwo coasts with a high-speed freight rail.CINN’s president Leonel Teller claims thecanal project is moving forward in hopesthat President Enrique Bolaños will placethe ceremonial first stone of constructionbefore the 2006 elections.The other dry canal, Sistema Intermodalde Transporte Global (Sit Global), is part ofa mega-development project called “TheLogistical Corridor,” which would includean oil refinery, pipeline, fiber-optic cablesand a tourism project. Sit Global claims tobe the farthest advanced of the three projects,and says construction could begin asearly as August of next year.A fourth canal project, the ambitious$26 billion “Gran Canal” proposed by thegovernment, has not yet been granted congressionalapproval to conduct environmentalor feasibility studies.ECOCANAL, CINN and Sit Globalare working to conduct final feasibilityand environmental-impact studies, afterconducting preliminary studies in 2000and 2001.EcoCanal is trying to raise the $4 millionit needs for its final studies, which thecompany plans to have complete in 12-18months, possibly clearing the way for constructionby next year.Sit Global plans to present its finalenvironmental studies to Congress nextJune and begin construction next August.CINN, which already has spent $12 millionon preliminary viability and feasibilitystudies, claims its final $15 million environmental-impact study will be completed in18-24 months, according to Teller, a well knownNicaraguan politician.ENVIRONMENTALISTS and indigenousgroups on the Caribbean coastclaim they don’t need to see the finalimpact studies to know the projects willdisrupt the fragile ecosystems in the country’ssouthern Atlantic region.“In some cases, the effect of the canalprojects is clear,” said environmentalistVictor Campos, director of the sustainabledevelopment program for Nicaragua’sHumboldt Center. “The dry canal willdivide the biological corridor. There is noother way for it to go from one coast to theother. We don’t have to wait for the environmental-impact studies to reveal this.”The opposition movement to the drycanal projects organized protests in front ofCongress in 2000 to voice disapproval.Since then, however, protests have quieted,as the projects appear to have stalled in thepast two years.Campos argues that one of the mosttroublesome issues involving the canal proposalsis that the general population has virtuallyno information about what the differentprojects entail, or what’s going on withthem. The environmentalist does not denythat the projects could result in job creation,as the canal boosters have promised, butsays more transparency is needed.“We can have a canal or a biologicalcorridor, but it is a decision the Nicaraguanpeople should make,” Campos told TheTico Times. “The problem is that the localpopulation isalways the last toknow anything.”BOTH CINNand Sit Globalinsist preliminarystudies show therailroad constructionwill haveminimum environmentalimpact.CINN claimsits double-decker, 25-kilometer-long train,which will ride on a 377-km-long rail connectingdeepwater ports at Monkey Point(on the Caribbean) and Pie del Gigante (onthe Pacific) – neither of which has beenbuild – will not disturb the biological corridor.The proposed route, Teller explains,is through a swath of the South AtlanticAutonomous Region (RAAS) that wasdestroyed by Hurricane Juana in 1988.Sit Global, meanwhile, proposes toplace its rail through sparsely populatedlands used for farming and cattle raising,not disturbing any primary jungle orforests. The rail will cut up through therural departments of Chontales and Boaco,sweeping north of Lake Managua and thevolcanic ridge in León to arrive at PortCorinto in Chinandega.CINN, a company initially linked withthe Nicaraguan Army’s Corp of Engineers,is behind schedule conducting its environmental-impact studies, but blames its lackof progress on government bureaucracy.“If this project doesn’t happen, it willbe because of the government, not us,”Teller said.CINN is appealing to the United NationsDevelopment Programme (UNDP)for help providing technical and financialsupport to the Nicaraguan government tooversee the company’s environmental impactstudies.Although Environment Minister ArturoHarding has pledged government supportfor the approved projects, the governmentclaims it does not have the money or trainingto monitor the independent impactstudies, effectively paralyzing the drycanal project.“We are not happy about this,” Tellersaid.THE Humboldt Center’s position onEcoCanal, which proposes dredging in theRío San Juan, as well as the construction ofthree locks around the rapids, is that it appearsto be the most environmentallyfriendly of the various canal proposals.But, Campos warned, the San Juan Riveris always a “delicate issue” in Nicaragua.“To touch the river is to touch the heartof Nicaraguan nationalism,” he said.STILL others areraising eyebrows at thepotential economicviability of the drycanal mega-projects.Though both have conductedstudies to showthey would be able toturn a profit on theprojects, some questionwhether it is realisticto invest billionsof dollars in Nicaragua.CINN’s Teller insists the project is nota scam, and claims critics don’t need toworry about the investment aspect.CINN claims it has generated investmentinterest from international shippingcompanies, while Sit Global says it’sworking on an agreement with DeutscheBank and the World Bank.The money will be there, the canalcompanies insist.