Nicaraguan lawmakers have approved a canal project, which would connect the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Opponents criticized the government for commissioning a Hong Kong firm to construct the waterway.
The Nicaraguan National Assembly voted in favor of a plan to develop a canal, which President Daniel Ortega's government and other proponents have billed as a potential goldmine for the impoverished country.
The Thursday vote granted a licence to a Chinese group to conduct the preliminary assessment of the land and then any subsequent development.
The Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co, owned by Beijing-based entrepreneur Wang Jin, received the commission. Ortega's government did not vet any other companies in the decision-making process.
It was not immediately clear what share of profits the Nicaraguan government would receive in the event that the firm successfully builds and puts the canal into operation.
Ortega's FSLN Party has said the project would not only grant Nicaragua its dream of connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, but would also create jobs in the near future.
Opponents lashed out at the $40 billion (30 billion euros) project, which includes the construction of a railway, ports and an oil pipeline.
The leader of the opposition, Eduardo Montealegre, called the canal scheme "unconstitutional, fraudulent and harmful to our interests," citing the government's failure to vet other companies first.
Environmental groups held protests against the development plan.
"Nicaragua isn't for sale. Nicaragua belongs to all Nicaraguans and isn't the private property of Ortega and his family," a coalition group, the Movement for Nicaragua, said in an open letter to the country this week.
The government hopes to begin construction in May 2014 after the completion of a feasibility test.
kms/jm (AP, AFP, dpa)