Nicaragua and the Interoceanic Grand Canal
Nicaragua’s plant and animal communities are perhaps the least-well studied in Central America. One symptom of this knowledge gap is that birds are poorly represented as natural history museum specimens, and mostly absent from North American collections. There is, however, one notable exception: my home institution, the Burke Museum. As a result of this quirk of history (itself the result of fieldwork by UW graduate student D.A. Banin in the 90s), the Burke’s Zoology department is once again considering field work in Nicaragua, this time with collaborators at the Universidad Centroamericana.
Our future research in Nicaragua (which I’ll say more about later) has mostly been spearheaded by my colleague, the indefatigable Rebecca Harris. But as Rebecca was in Germany at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies for the past quarter, I was lucky enough to briefly visit the country in November, and meet our collaborators in her stead.
The proximate reason for my trip was to participate in the 2nd Annual Taller Internacional Sobre El Canal Interoceánico Por Nicaragua — the 2nd Annual Workshop on Nicaragua’s Interoceanic Canal. Held in Managua, the goal of this year’s workshop was to assemble a cadre of local and international experts in biodiversity, geology, engineering, economics, and sociology to rigorously review the environmental and social impact statement prepared by a UK contractor for the Nicaraguan government on its ambitious proposal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via a major canal through the country. This quixotic venture is only the most recent in a series of over 80 proposals of trans-isthmus canals through Nicaragua, dating back to at least 1581. (Other than Panama, Nicaragua presents the only major gap in the American Cordillera amenable to excavation, and is a particularly appealing site for a canal the navigable San Juan River feeds to a major lake with shores only 12 miles from the Pacific.)
The Sandanista government’s rhetoric is revolutionary, but the economic benefits of the canal are far from clear, and there has been considerable opposition from academics and los campesinos, both in the predominately mestizo communities on the Pacific Coast and Afro-Caribbean / indigenous communities along the Atlantic. It’s emphatically not my place to offer an opinion on whether Nicaragua should or should not construct the canal (which would be the largest excavation project in human history), but the workshop’s consensus was that considerably more study was needed to determine whether the project’s benefits would offset its substantial ecological, economic, and social costs.
It was my second trip to Nicaragua, and my first to Managua, a fascinating, complex city usually overshadowed on tourist itineraries by its showier sister, Grenada. I was not exempt to Grenada’s charms, however, and following the conclusion of the workshop on Friday, left the capital with Jorge Huete-Perez (UWBM collaborator, head of the Centro de Biología Molecular at UCA, and workshop organizer), UCA hydrologist Katherine Vammen, and fellow Seattleite workshop attendees Lindsey Whitlow and Wes Lauer (Seattle University professors; UCA and SU have a sister-university relationship).
We drove two hours south to the shore and gazed at the surreal beauty of Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua), with Isla Ometepe’s twin volcanoes painted against the horizon. Following a meal in a 16th-century hotel, we toured Granada’s “Isletas,” an archipelago of tiny islets formed by the spray of nearby Volcán Mombacho in some long-ago eruption. It was dusk, and cormorants, egrets, and kingfishers flew in front of our boat as we cruised the great Lake’s northeast corner, clouds clinging raggedly to the surrounding mountains.
24 hours later, I was back in Seattle, already looking forward to a longer visit in the months to come.