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Nicaragua had big plans to build a $50 billion shipping canal across the Central American country, perhaps big enough to rival the Panama Canal. Now the project is on hold. The Chinese businessmen backing the project had deep financial losses this year, and opposition to the canal is growing among many who fear it will destroy the country's natural resources. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The main man in the Southern Nicaraguan town of San Jorge is Rafael Angel Bermudez. To find him, just ask anyone for El Escuelita.
RAFAEL ANGEL BERMUDEZ: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "That's me. I'm one of a kind, at your service," booms Bermudez. Now 60, he got his nickname back in the 1970s when he ran a training school for guerrilla fighters during Nicaragua's revolution. These days, he's leading the fight in his small town against the massive canal backed by President Daniel Ortega.
BERMUDEZ: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "Look," he says, "we've been jailed, beaten up, you name it," says Bermudez. "But we'll keep fighting." Since announced nearly three years ago, the 178-mile long inter-oceanic canal has met with opposition. When built, it will pass through some of Nicaragua's most sensitive regions, indigenous communities and Lake Nicaragua, Central America's largest freshwater source. Financed by a Chinese telecom billionaire, the estimated $50 billion project will also include a new international airport, two seaside ports and a major four-lane highway. Fatima Duarte's small house near San Jorge sits right in the path of the proposed highway.
FATIMA DUARTE: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "I only have my tiny house. I don't have great properties in their way. But I won't be forced from my home," says Duarte. She says she was just kicked off the local city council by Ortega party officials because of her opposition.
DUARTE: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "I showed up at a meeting and they blocked me from entering," says Duarte. She says she also stopped receiving her government salary, a tough blow for the single mother of two girls. The Chinese financial backer of the project received a 50-year exclusive lease to build the canal, but his finances have since taken a catastrophic hit. Valued at $10 billion this summer, Wang Jing's personal wealth dropped nearly 85 percent along with the Chinese stock market decline. Bloomberg named Wang the worst performing billionaire of 2015. But Telemaco Talavera, a spokesman for the Grand Canal Commission of Nicaragua, insists the project's finances are just fine.
TELEMACO TALAVERA: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "The project remains on track," says Talavera. He says the delay in major excavation is to allow for additional traffic studies and the impact on archaeological sites.
MANUEL ORTEGA HEGG: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "Their studies have all been superficial and full of holes," says Manuel Ortega Hegg, the president of Nicaragua's national association of scientists. Ortega says an international panel recently rejected the long-awaited environmental impact report on the canal.
HEGG: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "How is it possible," says Ortega, "that a study evaluating a project that will move the largest amount of Earth ever in history took just 17 months to conclude?"
Sitting right outside her small banana farm on the banks of Lake Nicaragua, Antonia Romero talks over the sound of an engine sucking water out of the lake and pumping it through her fields. She worries about what will happen to the fresh water she depends on to irrigate if the canal is built.
ANTONIA ROMERO: (Foreign language spoken).
KAHN: "If they destroy this lake, it will be like killing us," says Romero. "I won't let that happen," she says. "They'll have to do it over my dead body."
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Jorge, Nicaragua. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.