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Controversial China-Backed Nicaraguan Canal Project May be Doomed

It would have been the largest amount of earth moved in human history.

Lake Nicaragua, which the proposed canal was slated to run through. (Photo: Zach Klein/CC BY 2.0)

The Panama Canal is one of the great modern wonders of the world. Completed by the U.S. in 1914, thousands of ships have since traversed the canal, which stretches 48 miles across the Isthmus of Panama, and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. 

Its construction was notoriously difficult, and an early attempt to build a canal there by France was abandoned after some 22,000 workers died due to accidents or disease.

So it was impressive when a Chinese billionaire broke ground in December 2014 on a competing canal in Nicaragua, hundreds of miles northwest of Panama’s. But that controversial project, the New York Times reported Monday, is probably dead. 

The Chinese billionaire behind the idea, Wang Jing, has lost the vast majority of his fortune, and protests in Nicaragua have also reached a critical mass, according to the Times. The planned canal was going to be deeper and longer than its counterpart in Panama. But it was also slated to be, environmentalists said, an ecological disaster, disrupting local habitats and virgin forests.

Residents were incensed when the Nicaraguan government gave broad legal protections to Wang and his company, gifting them wide latitude to take land to build the canal.

“I will resist with all of my strength when the bulldozers come to tear down my house,” one resident who stenciled “Go Away Chinese!” on the side of her house told The Times. “I will fight until I die. I have to for my children. They can’t take this land from my family.”

The fight over the canal may end up being an anti-climax, though. Unless the Chinese government steps forward to fund the project, experts who spoke to the Times say it’s likely toast, meaning the 170-mile canal might remain a dream.

Or, to some, an unfinished nightmare.