San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

ALBA Fund Takes Aim at Environmental Conservation

MANAGUA – Socialists have been waving red flags as far back as the 19th century, but Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s plans for 21st century socialism in Nicaragua are starting to look a bit more green.

Chavez’s alternative trade and financing pact with leftist Latin leaders, known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, will unleash $3 million from the ALBA Bank to fund plans to reforest Nicaragua and protect Central America’s largest body of water, LakeCocibolca, according to Nicaragua’s Environment Minister Juana Argeñal.

The initial funds are part of a larger plan to clean up the lake and reforest large swaths of forest that have been cut at a rate of about 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) a year over the past two decades, according to Nicaragua’s Forestry Minister William Schwartz.

“We have to set limits … this is our main basin,” Argeñal said of LakeCocibolca’s basin, the largest in Central America. The funds will be used to order the lands around the lake, which will in turn help the Environment Ministry enforce Nicaragua’s environmental laws, according to Argeñal.

Officials at the ALBA environmental meeting last week also discussed the possibility of using Venezuelan funds to expand Managua’s water treatment system and to fund a treatment plant in San Carlos, the depressed southern port town where the lake flows into the Rio San Juan. Argeñal said the Nicaragua’s ministries and municipalities will administer the funds.

“It’s great news,” said SalvadorMontenegro, Nicaragua’s leading lake researcher, upon hearing that the ALBA bank plans to fund efforts to clean up the lake. Despite a lack of financial support, Montenegro has long championed the need to invest in LakeCocibolca, also known as Lake Nicaragua, which is considered the future source of potable water for Nicaragua and the entire region.

Others are more skeptical of how the ALBA environmental funds might be managed.

“Any aid that will go toward the sanitation of Lake Nicaragua must go through the commission, which was just approved by law,” said Liberal legislator Carlos Garcia, head of the National Assembly’s Environment and Natural Resources commission.

Last month, members of the LakeCocibolca and San Juan River Basin Commission formally installed a separate commission of non-governmental organizations, representatives from several ministries and the mayors’ offices of the 36 municipalities bordering the lake to direct policy concerning management of the lake’s basin.

Garcia’s comments echo similar ones made by opposition leaders who have alleged that aid Nicaragua is receiving from Venezuela under ALBA has no institutional controls and lacks transparency (see separate story, Page N4).

Argeñal met with environmental officials from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador and the tiny Caribbean Island of Dominica last week as part of efforts to unite environmental policy among ALBA countries. The meeting, which began in the Las Mercedes hotel in Managua, also included field trips for some attendees a tour of the Masaya volcano and a trip to OmetepeIsland, a unique volcanic island in Lake Nicaragua.

Nicaragua Forestry Minister William Schwartz said members of the delegation discussed the possibility of creating a staterun or private company to manage ALBA environmental funds for Nicaragua, where about 60 percent of the country is without tree cover. After the event, he told The Nica Times that $1 million of the ALBA funds will go toward a plan to develop a tree plantation in Nicaragua.

“The agreement was that we’re going to develop forest plantation programs for commercial ends,” he said, “the creation of a forestry business via ALBA.”

Forest representatives from each member country will meet next month in Caracas, Venezuela, to detail those plans.


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