San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Environment Knocked Down, But Not Out

“You don’t see any butterflies, you don’t hear any birds, there is just a horrible silence and unbearable heat where there used to be the best forests in Nicaragua. It’s an apocalyptic scene.”

This was the description of Rosalía Gutiérrez, regional delegate of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), of what remained after Hurricane Felix.

The storm made landfall Sept. 4 at the village of Sandy Bay in northeastern Nicaragua with 161-mile-per-hour winds, a category 5 hurricane – the most destructive on the scale.

Several villages were completely destroyed or affected, including Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas),  the main city and port of the Nicaraguan Caribbean.

According to the Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies (INETER), Hurricane Felix’s zone of major impact was a 75-kilometer-wide swath of approximately 1.9 million hectares, but its effects were felt as far as 185 kilometers from its center.

The 10 communities that comprise SandyBay were wiped off the map.Most of the residents of the region are Miskito Indians who live in humble wooden houses.

Like a giant weed-whacker, the hurricane stripped from its path the trees of the extensive and dense ancestral forests as if they were toothpicks, yanking them up by the roots, stripping them of their branches and leaving the soil completely bare.

Pandora Martínez, of the Masangni Professionals Cooperative of Bilwi, reported that the wildlife of the region, such as deer, sloths, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, small mammals – raccoons and pacas – and birds such as toucans, parrots and the great curassow, “were highly affected by the hurricane.

Many died and others fled helter-skelter, leaving to take refuge in higher areas and some even went into the Miskito villages.

“Their entire natural habitat disappeared,” she said with discouragement.

“The damage is even greater because the hurricane’s destruction of the ecosystems caused an imbalance in the food chain. All kinds of habitat were affected…the reef system of the Miskito Cays, the coastal zone, estuaries, wetlands, rivers, pine savannahs and broadleaf forests,” said agro-forestry engineer Nidia Matamoros of the Masangni forest management cooperative. “The impact was enormous, altering the geo-morphological traits and biodiversity of the landscape.”

Data from the lumber industry shows that around 6 million cubic meters of wood were knocked down in 477,000 hectares of forests devastated by Hurricane Felix, equivalent to some $500 million.

“It would take 150 years to process all the wood that fell,” said Rosalía Gutiérrez.

“There is no industry in Nicaragua that has the capacity to mill that much lumber.”

Apart from the loss of trees and lumber, the rich biodiversity and ecosystems that are a source of sustenance for the indigenous communities were destroyed.

The storm left 102 people dead and 312 missing. Housing and electrical and telephone wires were damaged along with highways and the local airport. Thousands of hectares of farm crops were destroyed and many horses, cows, pigs and chickens drowned.Human and animal cadavers floated in the sea and in the rivers and the health authorities fear an epidemic will result.

MARENA and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAGFOR) are concerned about the arrival of the dry season, because the thousands of fallen trees will become fuel for forest fires that could be as damaging as the hurricane itself.

“What remains of the forest is an impenetrable mat of leaf litter and branches up to a meter deep. Many trees fell into the rivers, clogging them. These rivers have got to be cleaned up because they are saturated with organic material that can rot and contaminate the water; this will also cause flooding if it rains more,” Gutiérrez said.

“The huge number of dead branches, leaves and animals that fell into the rivers and bodies of water altered the water’s physical and chemical characteristics, making it black in color, with a fetid odor and depleted of oxygen, causing the death of fish, turtles and other aquatic species,” according to Matamoros.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Central America, with profound sadness, viewed the destruction of many years of hard work with the Miskito communities involved in responsible forest-management to conserve and make sustainable use of the forest resource.

Some of these indigenous communities had already become organized into forestry enterprises to sell their lumber and furniture to national and international markets. Now they hope to begin an intensive reforestation campaign throughout the devastated zone as soon as possible.

“There were four hours of strong winds and constant rain,” remembers Gutiérrez. “In the coastal zone, the corals were ripped up from the bottom of the sea and left exposed; the coastal mangroves were destroyed, with their roots in the air and the branches under water; the sand was removed and where it used to be dry there are now lagoons, and where the water used to be deep it is now shallow. There is much pestilence due to the putrefaction of organic material. You can’t even fish now.”

There is an urgent need to remove the organic material deposited in the productive zones of the coastal wetlands, to allow the recovery of the mangrove ecosystems and, as soon as possible, begin the task of reforestation with native species to protect the soils and avoid wash-outs.

Nevertheless, a lesson was learned from the arrival of the hurricane about the protection afforded by natural resources such as forests, because even though the hurricane made landfall as a category 5 storm, it rapidly dropped down to a category 3 thanks to the barrier of the trees that caused the winds to lose strength. If the trees had not been  there, the damage and loss of life would have been even greater.

Coral reefs weakened the force of the waves before they reached the coast and the mangrove forests that line the beaches  reduced erosion of the littoral zone, protectingit from strong wave action on the shores.

Nadia Bood, an expert on coral reefs and climate change for WWF, explained that, “The intricate system of mangrove roots serves as a filter that traps sediments, particles of material and other contaminants from terrestrial areas that would otherwise pass directly into the sea. During storms, torrential rains carrying sediments and agrochemicals from the soils are retained by the mangrove roots.Moreover, just like the coral reefs, the mangroves act as a second protective barrier for the coastal zone against the battering of storms and hurricanes.”

Sylvia Marín, regional representative of WWF Central America, indicated that, “it will take many years for life to return to normal in the areas affected by Felix. It is important now to ensure that the devastated areas remain under the management and protection of the indigenous communities and that no change in land use occurs, to guarantee that the forests and wetlands can be regenerated to their natural state and continue providing important environmental services to the communities and the nation.”

Gilda Aburto, a journalist specializing in environmental issues and a member of the Costa Rican Journalists’ Association, is the head of the WWF’s Communications


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