Nicaraguan officials and a Chinese company have broken ground on a $50 billion transoceanic waterway predicted to rival the Panama Canal.

Vice President Omar Halleslevens with Wang Jing, president of the contracting firm HKND Group, say the canal will change the history and the economy of Nicaragua, one Latin America's the poorest countries.

Officials broke ground Monday on ancillary projects in Brito, where the first port will be built. They say the canal will be fully operational by 2019.

The groundbreaking has been preceded in recent months with protests by thousands of Nicaraguans, who fear their land will be taken without fair compensation. Environmentalists accuse the government of ram-rodding environmental reviews and ignoring the threat that cargo traffic will pose to Lake Nicaragua, the country's main source of fresh water.