Nicaraguan lawmakers OK canal concession amid protests

Managua, Jun 14 (EFE).- Nicaraguan lawmakers passed two bills that give a Chinese company an up to 100-year concession to build and operate an inter-oceanic canal, despite protests by opponents who called President Daniel Ortega a "traitor."

In a marathon session Thursday, Nicaragua's Sandinista-controlled unicameral legislature approved the awarding of a 50-year concession - renewable for another 50 years - to Hong Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. Limited (HKND Group).

The legislation grants the company the rights to build both the waterway and supplemental works including ports, airports and roads.

The company's chairman, Wang Jing, said in a statement he was "honored to be given the opportunity to develop this transformational project that has the potential to bring tremendous, long-term economic benefits to Nicaragua, to the region, and to international shippers and consumers around the world."

The company said in a statement that it estimated that the volume of "trade addressable by the Nicaragua Canal will have grown by 240 percent from today."

"The total value of goods transiting the combined Nicaragua and Panama canals could exceed $1.4 trillion, making this one of the most important trade routes in the world," it said.

Both inside and outside the legislative building in Managua, hundreds of opponents of the megaproject held up signs and shouted slogans blasting Ortega as a "traitor" and accusing him of handing over the country's sovereignty to the HKND Group.

"We're launching a struggle against Ortega's handover of our sovereignty, our territory, to a shell company in which surely his family has economic interests," Dora Maria Tellez, a former member of Ortega's leftist Sandinista guerrilla movement and now an opponent of his government, told Efe.

Ortega's Sandinista Party, for its part, hailed the economic benefits the canal would bring, saying the project would take 10 years to build at a cost of $40 billion, though the Chinese company has not confirmed those figures.

The Great Nicaraguan Interoceanic Canal, if it is found to be economically viable and eventually completed, would have a waterway, railway lines, pipelines, ports and airstrips on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides.

Nicaragua is looking at four possible routes for the canal, with all of them passing through Lake Nicaragua.

Construction of the canal, which would be wider than the Panama Canal, would boost the impoverished Central American country's gross domestic product by up to 10.8 percent in 2014 and by as much as 15 percent in 2015, Nicaraguan Public Policy Secretary Paul Oquist said.

The Chinese company, meanwhile, announced that it had "enlisted a global team of world-class experts to support HKND's feasibility studies on multiple fronts, including outreach over time to a range of stakeholders with an interest in this new project."

It also confirmed that the canal's route would not follow the San Juan River, a natural border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.