San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lakes, Forests Get Some Lovin’ This Year

Nicaragua made significant advances in 2008 to conserve its lakes and replant tropical forest, though several other environmental challenges – including rampant expansion of the agricultural frontier, protection of endangered species and destructive fishing practices – have yet to receive the government’s full attention.

Some of the most notable headway this year was made in reforestation. Government officials claim 2008 was the first year in which tree-planting efforts outpaced deforestation.

While replanting efforts in 2008 were expected to create a record 80,000 hectares of new forest cover, conservationists say Nicaragua is still losing the overall war against deforestation.

Agriculture is still encroaching into protected reserves in the northern Caribbean, such as Bosawas biosphere reserve in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), where environment officials and businesses are still trying to find ways to clear out 1 million hectares of fallen wood that was downed last year by the destructive Category 5 Hurricane Felix.

The country also took major steps in weaning itself off its oil dependency this year, as private investors and international lenders poured millions into developing alternative energy projects, including wind energy, new hydro-electric projects and expansion of geothermal.

Nicaragua’s lakes also benefited from conservation efforts this year and will in all likelihood be cleaner in 2009 than they were in 2008, thanks to a new $80 million state of-the-art biotreatment plant that will come online next year and help to clean LakeManagua. And a newly formed lake commission, part of the new Water Law, is starting to oversee the 36 municipalities involved in managing LakeCocibolca’s watershed, Nicaragua’s largest.

Efforts to protect endangered sea turtles that nest on Nicaragua’s beaches have proven more difficult. Though the olive ridley turtle arrived in record numbers this year, recorded populations of four other species that nest on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast have declined in recent years in the face of poaching and development. But a budding eco-tourism that caters to turtle watchers promises to inject tourism dollars into turtle conservation efforts in years to come.

Elsewhere in Nicaraguan waters, two of the country’s biggest environmental tragedies are taking place largely unnoticed.

In the Caribbean, indigenous Miskito lobster divers continue to risk death and paralysis to scratch out a living by trapping their share of dwindling Caribbean lobster populations. On the Pacific, the environmentally disastrous practice of blast fishing is spreading along the coast as fishermen drop tens of thousands of homemade bombs into the sea each week. The two risky and destructive practices have yet to prompt serious action from officials or activists.

Even less attention has been paid to Nicaragua’s mining sector. While Environment Minister Juana Areñal denounced potential contamination from a mine in Costa Rica near Nicaragua’s San Juan River, mining continued to boom in Nicaragua, Central America’s largest gold exporter, with seven mines in operation, 60 metal mine concessions and 15 foreign companies carrying out mining explorations.

An environmental and human tragedy that got attention this year was the plight of sugarcane workers in the region of Chinandega. U.S. activists have been documenting a deadly combination of dehydration and heavy agricultural chemical use that is thought to be causing an epidemic of kidney disease in the region, where thousands of cane workers have died in recent years.

The World Bank, which is lending $55 million to sugarcane giant Nicaraguan Sugar Estates Limited, launched an investigation this year into cane worker complaints, including allegations of environmental abuses.

The fate of sugarcane workers in Chinandega would become more complicated if climate change increases temperatures there in coming years. Scientists and farmers in Nicaragua say they are already beginning to sense the effects of climate change.

To prepare the government for these environmental challenges, Cuba-born environmentalist José Milan is drafting a national strategy to present to President Daniel Ortega in 2009.

–Blake Schmidt


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