MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Teams of assessors accompanied by soldiers and police have begun surveying properties along the route of Nicaragua's planned interoceanic canal, taking quick steps toward the start of a vast project the country has dreamed of for more than a century.
But the process is alarming many residents, who say they fear they'll lose their homes and receive unfair compensation.
Teams from the China-based HKND Group this month began interviewing property owners in the Brito River region in southwest Nicaragua, where the first phase of the $40 billion, 173-mile (278-kilometer) canal is supposed to be built starting late this year.
"The census is normal. We had announced that we would go house by house, farm by farm, to see what they have, what they don't have," Canal Commission spokesman Telemaco Talavera said Tuesday. He said the purpose is to assess the value of properties "to pay them what is just for each one."
But some property owners have complained that the joint Chinese-Nicaraguan teams are accompanied by police or soldiers, as well as representatives of the attorney general's office.
"There is intimidation toward the owners of the house. They feel as if they were terrorists," said Octavio Ortega, had of the non-governmental Foundation of Municipalities of Rivas, the local province. "They haven't slept for 15 days because they've been told to stop any construction on their lands."
Talavera said there was no reason for fear. The soldiers are there "for security, not to intimidate anybody. There's no reason or logic to that," he said.
Some also fear they won't get enough to buy replacement properties. The law insists on payment for expropriated property. But compensation is to be based on declared tax value, or market value, whichever is lower. And tax values are often set far below what properties now sell for.
"The tax values of those lands are very low, and even if they pay the real market price, they would not buy elsewhere because the prices are rising," said Azahalea Solis, an attorney advising the property owners.
"I don't know who to turn to," said Jose Jesus Vanegas, owner of a lot along Lake Nicaragua, which is part of the canal route. "They don't tell us anything about the price and all the people are upset."
Ortega said some of the property owners are being told that once negotiations start, "they have a month to leave."
Nicaragua's government announced the canal route in July. It had already granted the previously little-known HKND Group headed by Wang Jing of China rights to the canal, ports, highways and rights of way stretching across the country from The Brito River on the Pacific to Bluefields Bay on the Atlantic.
Many experts have expressed skepticism that HKND has the resources for what would be one of history's biggest construction projects or that it would be an economically viable alternative to the Panama Canal.
The Grand Canal Commission says construction should start this year and finish in 2019 employing tens of thousands of people. If completed, it would handle ships much larger than those that can pass through the Panama Canal.