Just north of Punta Gorda, the view of Nicaragua’s Miskito coast is much as Christopher Columbus would have seen it when he first sailed these waters more than five centuries ago. On the land, there is little sign of habitation among the forested cliff tops and pellucid bays. At sea, the only traffic is a small boat and a pod of half a dozen dolphins.
Our launch, however, is a 21st-century beast that leaps and crashes through the swells with bone-jarring, teeth-rattling thuds as we speed past this nature reserve and indigenous territory that is set to become the stage for a great many more noisy, polluting intrusions by the modern world.
If the dreams of Nicaraguan officials and Chinese businessmen are realised, this remote idyll will be transformed over the next five years into a hub of global trade – the easternmost point of a new canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific for supertankers and bulk carriers that are too big for the Panama canal.
In an era of breathtaking, earth-changing engineering projects, this has been billed as the biggest of them all. Three times as long and almost twice as deep as its rival in Panama, Nicaragua’s channel will require the removal of more than 4.5bn cubic metres of earth – enough to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building. It will also swamp the economy, society and environment of one of Latin America’s poorest and most sparsely populated countries. Senior officials compare the scale of change to that brought by the arrival of the first colonisers.
“It’s like when the Spanish came here, they brought a new culture. The same is coming with the canal,” said Manuel Coronel Kautz, the garrulous head of the canal authority. “It is very difficult to see what will happen later – just as it was difficult for the indigenous people to imagine what would happen when they saw the first [European] boats.”
For the native Americans, of course, that first glimpse of Spanish caravels was the beginning of an apocalypse. Columbus’s ships were soon followed by waves of conquistadores whose feuding, disease and hunger for gold and slaves led to the annihilation of many indigenous populations.
The Nicaraguan government, by contrast, hopes the canal can finally achieve the Sandinista dream of eradicating poverty. In return for a concession to the Chinese company HKND, it hopes for billions of dollars of investment, tens of thousands of jobs and, eventually, a stable source of national income.
First, however, the project has to be built. Since the days of the first Spanish colonisers, there have been more than 70 proposals to construct a route across this stretch of the Central American isthmus. Blueprints have been sketched out by British, US and French engineers. Almost all have remained on the drawing board.
But this time work is already under way. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on 22 December. Over the next five years, engineers will build a 30-metre-deep, 178-mile, fenced waterway which, if finished (and there must always be doubts for a project of this size and cost), will change the lives of millions and the wildlife of a continent.
Despite protests, Chinese surveyors have measured up the land and in the next few months, HKND is expected to announce compensation packages for those whose lives will be turned upside down.
On the ground, there is widespread unease about what this mega-project will mean for people and their homes, wildlife and ecosystems. Will it bring wealth and growth or confusion and destruction ? To get a sense of the mood as this latest tidal wave of global development approaches, the Guardian travelled across the country, as closely as possible to the proposed route, to ask ordinary Nicaraguans what the canal would mean for them.