San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Miskito Community Loses Its Forest

MANAGUA – Nicanor Polanco said he had no idea a hurricane was heading his way when he and his fellow cooperative members went out into the forest on the edge of the Bosawas Reserve early morning Sept. 4.

Luckily, Polanco and the 12 other Miskito men who went with him that day thought to bring a transistor radio along.

When the wind started picking up around 5 a.m., the men – all former anti-Sandinista combatants who fought together in the 1980s – tuned into a local radio station in nearby Bilwi for a weather report.What they heard was about to change their lives –Hurricane Felix had just made landfall as a category-five storm, was destroying Bilwi 120 kilometers to the east, and was heading their way. An hour later, the radio tower was knocked down by the storm and the radio went dead.

Polanco, the group’s former guerrilla commander, acted quickly and ordered his men to run to the edge of the forest, toward an area that had been cleared for cattle grazing.

At the edge of the forest, Polanco told his men to find the thickest tree stump they could and tie themselves to it.

That order saved their lives.

“When the storm came, it was horrible, horrible, horrible,” Polanco remembered. “The rain was so hard, it looked like a cloud in the forest. Then the wind blew so strong, we couldn’t open our eyes. It was sad; we could hear the trees falling all around us.”

The storm lasted until 2 p.m. When it finally let up, Polanco and the others couldn’t believe the destruction before their eyes.

“We lost everything, everything, not a single tree was left standing,” Polanco said.

In the following days, the extent of the hurricane continued to make itself known. In addition to wiping out 29,763 acres of virgin forest that belongs to his indigenous group, Kisan for Peace, they also lost all their crops, their homes, and the means of economic subsistence for 342 families.

“All the animals were killed, and the rivers were polluted from the chemicals from the fallen trees,” he said. “The Kukalaya and the WawaRivers used to be clear, now they are black and the fish float dead down the river.”

“The people in the communities have to drink from the river, because there is no other water,” he added.

Polanco’s community was totally cutoff from the rest of the country by the storm. It took him 10 days to get emergency relief from UNICEF, which gave him enough rice, beans, meat, oil and salt to last each family two days once distributed. At that point, Polanco did the only thing he could think to do, get on a bus and make his way to Managua to look for help.

Polanco admits he doesn’t know his way around the capital very well, and doesn’t know many people here. So he turned to one of the few people he does know, Jaime Guillén, a forestry consultant with conservation group Rainforest Alliance.

Guillén had been working with Polanco and Kisan for Peace to help them develop a forestry management plan to get permits to cut and export certain trees as certified lumber.

The plan was scheduled to begin next month.

But instead of embarking on a sustainable economic future, the Kisan group is now in basic survival mode. Polanco said he asked Guillén for $80 to purchase plastic and nails to build emergency shelters for the families back in his community. But on the way to purchase the supplies, Polanco was robbed by a Managua taxi driver.

“I was almost in tears,” the 45-year-old former combatant said.

Future of the Wood

For indigenous communities that survived on the forests, their ability to pull themselves through the enormous social, economic and cultural tragedy caused by Hurricane Felix will depend on what happens to the fallen lumber in the coming months.

The once-green forest has become completely burned out just two weeks after the storm.When the sun finally came out, it did so ferociously and scorched the earth that was no longer protected by the shade of the trees.

Guillén says he thinks some of the burnout is also due to the hurricane carrying saltwater from the ocean.

According to initial damage assessment by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), Hurricane Felix destroyed 7.4 million acres of forest, including seven nature reserves. The damage was roughly the equivalent of five years of deforestation at the current rate.

The central government has insisted that the nation-wide logging ban in place since last year will remain in effect, despite some calls to have it lifted or modified in the wake of the hurricane. Reports are also coming out of the region that the government has started confiscating other finished wood products scheduled for export, including doors and furniture.

The Regional Council of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (CRANN) emitted a decree Sept. 9 saying that the hundreds of thousands of felled trees must be prioritized for reconstruction of homes and other infrastructure, and that all extraction, transport and commercialization of lumber has been “immediately and indefinitely suspended.” Polanco and the Rainforest Alliance think that is a big mistake.

“We can rebuild our homes with just a fraction of the trees that fell, and what happens to the rest?” Polanco said.

The Miskito leader insists that his community must be allowed to sell what can be sold to get money to buy new crop seeds and to replant trees.

“We are the owners of this land, we need to sell the wood and make money,” he said. “The state can’t take care of us forever.What are the people going to eat?”

In addition to salvaging the wood that can be sold, Polanco says the government needs to help them protect the forest from outsiders who might try to take advantage of the situation by setting fire to the damaged forest to clear it for cattle-raising or planting.

“If we take care of the forest, it will eventually re-grow; the fallen trees spread seeds and the wood will rot and turn into fertilizer,” he said.“But if it is burned, the forest will never return.”

How to Help

To help the Kisan for Peace cooperative and the community, send money to Western Union, Rosita, Nicaragua in the name of: Nicanor Polanco Barrio Sol de Libertad, contiguo a la Iglesia Bautista Cellular 639-6837.

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