Teams of Chinese and Nicaraguan assessors accompanied by soldiers and police have begun surveying properties along the route of Nicaragua's planned inter-oceanic canal - the first steps of a vast project the country has dreamed of for over a century.
But alarmed residents fear they will lose their homes and receive unfair compensation.
Teams from the Hong Kong-based HKND Group this month began interviewing property owners in the Brito River region in southwest Nicaragua, where work on the first phase of the US$40 billion, 278km canal is supposed to begin 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 on Tuesday.
He said the purpose was to assess the value of properties "to pay them what is just".
"There is intimidation towards the owners. They feel as if they're terrorists," said Octavio Ortega, of the non-governmental Foundation of Municipalities of Rivas, the local province. "Some 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 were there "for security, not to intimidate anybody. There's no reason or logic to that," he said.
Some residents also fear they will not get enough compensation to buy another property. The law insists on payment for expropriated property. But compensation is to be based on declared tax value, or market value, whichever is lower. Tax values are often set far below what properties 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 prices are rising," said Azahalea Solis, a lawyer advising the owners.
"I don't know who to turn to," said Jose Jesus Vanegas, who owns land along Lake Nicaragua.
"They don't tell us anything about the price and all the people are upset." Ortega said some of the property owners were 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 little-known HKND Group, headed by Wang Jing, rights to the canal, ports, highways and rights of way from the Brito River on the Pacific to Bluefields Bay on the Atlantic.
Many experts have expressed scepticism that HKND has the resources for one of history's biggest construction projects or that it could rival the Panama Canal.
Construction is scheduled to start this year and finish in 2019, and create tens of thousands of jobs.