San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Replanting Turns Tide on Deforestation

MANAGUA – Bucking a decades-old destructive trend, massive reforestation efforts by the government and private organizations this year are expected to reverse Nicaragua’s annual deforestation rate for the first time ever.

From students planting trees in schoolyards to soldiers harvesting plants at their base camps, Nicaragua this year has seen what is considered its largest reforestation effort ever, resulting in a net forestry growth for the first time in recent memory, according to William Schwartz, director of the Forestry Institute (INAFOR).

The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) estimates 100,000 hectares of forest cover will have been restored by year’s end – an effort environmentalists say is necessary to reduce greenhouse gases and protect watersheds, and also to save one of the most deforested parts of Mesoamerica, a region which houses 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity.

Over the past 50 years, Nicaragua’s tree cover has been cut nearly in half to 4.2 million hectares, according to Schwartz. The government’s attempt to confront rampant deforestation led to a controversial 2006 logging ban that has been criticized for prohibiting indigenous communities from using forest they’ve been living in for centuries (NT May 26, 2006).

But the sprouting reforestation efforts are a sign that Nicaragua may finally be seeing the forest for the trees, Schwartz said. “We’re not going to resolve this with coercion or repression alone; it’s going to have to be with a change of conscience,” Schwartz told The Nica Times in an interview in his Managua office.

Schwartz also applauded Nicaraguan timber exporters who are looking to become certified for sustainable practices – another factor that’s helping to mitigate deforestation. But not all is growth and greenery.

Nicaragua’s expanding “agricultural frontier” – campesinos who clear forest cover to plant basic crops – continues to be the main culprit for an estimated 70,000 hectares of tree cover that are lost each year.

“Agriculture is the biggest threat to forest cover,” said Marvin Centeno, director of the forestry program for the German aid agency GTZ. “Harvesting food is the primary necessity here, but here there is a very arcane 300-year-old ranching and farming culture.”

The deep-rooted agricultural tradition is clashing with new restrictive forestry laws, experts say. As a result, Nicaragua’s protected areas are – ironically – experiencing some of the worst deforestation in the country.

A recent GTZ study of satellite imaging shows that between 1987 and 2005, protected buffer zones surrounding national parks near the Caribbean coast saw more loss of forest cover than the surrounding unprotected areas.

For Schwarz, changing that culture is a must, or President Daniel Ortega’s call to increase agricultural productivity could result in further deforestation. Experts note that increased agricultural production doesn’t necessary have to threaten forested lands, considering Nicaragua has hundreds of thousands of hectares of idle arable land.

The ‘Campesino Dream’

For GTZ’s Centeno, whose previous government career was spent enforcing environmental laws with MARENA, Nicaragua’s destructive farming practices are linked to an antiquated farming culture.

“The campesino still dreams of having his house on his ranch with his cows. The culture is deep,” he said, adding that it’s also a culture with little regard for environmental costs.

But instead of trying to address the systemic problems, the government has opted for a total prohibition in the form of the logging ban, passed in 2006 to suspend logging in reserves, sanctuaries and parks, plus an additional 10-kilometer circumference, or buffer zone, around protected areas. Logging is also prohibited within a 15-kilometer zone from the borders with Costa Rica and Honduras and within 200 meters of river basins (NT, May 26, 2006).

To enforce the ban, the government has called on the military to beef up operations in protected areas where environmental crimes are escalating.

MARENA representative Jose Luis Galeano has been in charge of enforcing the law in and around the Indio Maiz reserve on Nicaragua’s southern border. He says MARENA has been unable to control campesinos looking to clear land for settlements and agriculture in the 315,000-hectare reserve.

“People living in the buffer zone want to enter the park. The threat is every day. They don’t know about the biological, environmental value of protecting this area,” Galeano said.

With military support, MARENA officials have done three large evictions of illegal settlers in the reserve since the law was passed two years ago.

Authorities have arrested 28 illegal settlers, who cleared forest for their small-scale farming settlements.

Still, Galeano said, authorities continue to struggle with as many as 5,000 illegal settlers – many demobilized soldiers – who are constantly trickling through the reserve’s porous borders. A military presence is needed to stem the flood tide, he said.

Others, however, insist beefing up the military presence is not the solution. Centeno said communities should be allowed to exploit their forests, as they have for centuries. He said the native communities should be allowed to manage the forest with proper controls.

“If you respect this principle, you shouldn’t affect the forest,” Centeno said.

Schwartz said a problem with the ban is that it doesn’t allow communities to control some species of trees that need to be controlled, such as pine. A lot of pine and a lot of people in one place creates a high risk for forest fires, tree malformations and plagues, he said.

More aggressive tree species, such as the Roble, will kill off other species of flora if not managed correctly, he said.

But even Schwartz admits the military may be the best solution to fill the gap between law and enforcement capacity.

INAFOR, for instance, only has delegates in about half of the country’s municipalities. The military, on the other hand, is about 12,000-strong with no war to fight.

To make up for the military’s lack of environmental expertise, the government also plans to train soldiers to become environmental watchdogs.

“Environment will be their specialty,” said Gen. Orlando Talavera, the military’s director of civil affairs. Battalions will be sent to Nicaragua’s two largest reserves: the Bosawas biosphere reserve in the north, and the Indio Maiz biological reserve in the south.

Central America’s first “eco-battalion” will draw off $6 million in aid from Finland, Norway and Denmark to equip and train more than 600 “eco-soldiers.” The battalion, to be formed by the end of this year, aims to crack down on exotic species trafficking, poaching and deforestation in a country with 250 animal species in danger of extinction, according to Talavera.

Yet some people, such as Centeno, are skeptical of the plan, calling it “dangerous.”

Replanting the Forest

While the preventive effectiveness of the logging ban is still being studied and debated, no one doubts the importance of reforestation efforts to replace what’s been lost over the years.

INAFOR, for its part, is looking to meet its goal of replanting 16,000 hectares of forest this year, which would be a record for the Institute. Private organizations – from Mexican cement giant CEMEX to the Enitel telecom company – are also helping out with reforestation efforts.

French businessman Clemente Ponçon claims to have planted some 300,000 trees this year between his forestry company AgroForestal and his logging company MAPINIC. The later is reforesting a portion of 3,000 manzanas of fallen timber it is processing in the wake of last year’s category 5 Hurricane Felix.

But Ponçon noted the long-term solutions to Nicaragua’s disappearing forests are “education and propaganda.”

The government agrees: The Education Ministry has plans to include environmental education in the elementary school curriculum for the first time in 2009.

“We have a cultural problem we have to address,” Centeno said.


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