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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Destitution and Deforestation in Nicaragua

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty reports from Managua on the alarming depletion of Nicaragua's forests. Unemployed Nicaraguans are chopping trees for farmland and firewood, and cattle ranchers are clearing large areas for grazing. Some scientists say that these activities are unsustainable and will ultimately result in even greater poverty.


CURWOOD: If the Central American nation of Nicaragua didn't have enough to worry about - an unstable government, a bankrupt economy and continuing political violence - it now has yet another problem: a looming environmental disaster. Since the government of Violeta Chamorro was elected three years ago, Nicaragua's forests have been ravaged. The government itself admits that, at the current rate, the nation's remaining forests will disappear in 20 years. Bob Carty has our story.

(Sound of forest)

CARTY: On the outskirts of Managua, there's an extinct volcano called Nejapa. People from the city used to walk down the slopes of Nejapa's crater, down to the bottom where a small lake echoed with the sounds of croaking frogs and water birds and turtles falling off their sunning rocks, splashing into the water. Today, though, Nejapa is silent. And you can walk across the lake.

(Sound of walking on crumbling clay)

CARTY: This is not a Biblical feat. Not any more. The Nejapa lagoon is now just a flat bed of cracked clay that crumbles under your feet. Last March, the lagoon disappeared. Experts say that deforestation, coupled with a severe dry season, caused the water table to fall below the level of the crater floor. And Nejapa isn't alone. In May, a second lagoon near Managua dried up. At least five others, including the source of Managua's drinking water, are in the process of extinction. So are 38 rivers. Even Lake Managua, a giant in Central American terms, is visibly receding. Jim Barborak is a protected-areas specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Central America.

BARBORAK: What is happening throughout the Pacific slope of Central America, basically from Mexico to central Panama, is an almost total destruction of tree cover. Rampant deforestation, sedimentation, land exhaustion, basically destroying the future, or at least reducing dramatically the options available for this and particularly future generation of Nicaraguans.

(Sound of old truck passing, traffic )

CARTY: You can find the immediate cause of deforestation on a highway right beside the Nejapa volcano. Every morning, there is a procession of firewood into Managua - piles of wood on trucks, on horse-drawn carts, even on the backs of men and women. Firewood represents 57% of the total energy used in Nicaragua. The haze that hangs over Managua isn't smog - it's wood smoke. Of course, firewood isn't the only culprit. Earlier this century, foreign and local businessmen cut much of the forest cover here on the Pacific side of Nicaragua for sugar, cattle, and cotton plantations. And studies now show that rainfall has declined where the forest disappeared. But now, the rate of deforestation is accelerating. Fifteen years of war had crippled Nicaragua's infrastructure and left the majority of people unemployed and impoverished. For many, firewood is the only affordable fuel and the only source of work. As a result, today's rate of deforestation is five times what it was in the 1980's. Danilo Lacayo is the official spokesman for President Chamorro.

LACAYO (translator): The problem is partly an inheritance of the war. If people had good incomes, they wouldn't burn firewood, they'd buy gas. It's a serious problem. Because if there aren't trees, there isn't rain, if there isn't rain, there isn't agriculture, if there isn't agriculture, there is hunger and there is chaos.

(Sound of crickets and frogs in jungle; chain saw)

CARTY: The current battle line against deforestation is 200 miles southeast of Managua, on the San Juan River, which separates Nicaragua from Costa Rica. This is the Grand Reserve of Indio-Maiz, 1,000 square miles of jungle teeming with frogs and crickets - the largest and wettest rainforest on the Caribbean Rim, the home of many unique, unidentified species. But as you cross the boundary leaving the Indio-Maiz reserve, the jungle becomes pasture with only a few charred tree trunks still standing. In Nicaragua, it's illegal to deforest within 200 yards of the river. But here the jungle has been cut right to the shore. Near the riverbank, a farmer rounds up his cattle for a ration of salt.

(Sound of farmer calling cows)

CARTY: The farmer is a wiry, weathered man, although he's only 30 years old. His farming clothes are old army fatigues. His neighbors all call him "Manicheta," which roughly means "hit in the hand." He's a former Sandinista soldier who fought for 13 years, until he settled here 2 years ago with 20 head of cattle.

MIRANDA (translator): You couldn't work here during the war. On one side were the Contras, and on the other the army. When I arrived here it was totally forest. I had to clean it all. There's quite a lot of people coming to this area now, a lot of people. They can't survive on the other side of the country, so they come to this zone.

CARTY: The settlement of this part of the rainforest was supposed to be controlled. The idea was to create a buffer zone to protect the rainforest reserve. Instead, there's been a land rush. Like Manicheta, many of the new settlers are former combatants, either Sandinista soldiers or Contras. Ecologists estimate that because of this colonization, the entire rainforest buffer zone will be gone in just 3 years. Already, part of the reserve itself are coming under the ax. Jim Barborak of the Wildlife Conservation Society laments that it's all for nothing. When turned into pasture or corn fields, the rainforest soils last as little as 3 years before losing their nutrients and washing away.

BARBORAK: It rains 6 meters a year along the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border. That means that most of this part of Nicaragua is unsuited for agriculture, grazing, or even forestry. Any effort to colonize this is folly. You're not in any way helping the peasants have a better life. You're doing what I call helping promote sustainable misery.

(Sound of tugboat motor and barge)

CARTY: On the San Juan River, a tugboat pulls a fenced-in barge loaded with 100 head of cattle. Rainforest destruction here is not only caused by the peasant farmer trying to survive - it's also caused by cattle ranchers trying to finance their next trip to Europe. Neither is subject to government control. In the case of the small farmer, a handful of rangers can't stop thousands of hungry peasants. In the case of the big cattle ranchers, the government is actually supporting them as one of Nicaragua's few viable exporters. Presidential spokesman Danilo Lacayo says the government is doing its best with what it's got.

LACAYO (translator): This is one of our priorities. Here in Nicaragua, there are five fundamental challenges - unemployment, production, national reconciliation, peace, and the conservation of nature. Because if nature isn't conserved, we won't have a future. President Violeta has created great extensions of forest which can't be cut. The problem is economic resources.

CARTY: Those economic resources are already scarce and getting scarcer. Since the war, Nicaragua has become the second poorest nation in Latin America. The ecology will likely continue to pay for Nicaragua's vicious treadmill of political instability and economic stagnation. It's a high price to pay. Without trees, the soil runs off and sedimentation destroys current and potential sources of income, from hydro dams and ocean and river fishing. The loss of the jungle also means the loss of the wealth in precious woods, eco-tourism, and rainforest fruits, nuts and medicines. Jim Barborak.

BARBORAK: What the country is doing is drawing down its natural assets, to think of it in banker terms, and depleting its possibilities of taking out loans against that capital, you might say, to finance its future. And so its best use for Nicaragua and for mankind, for the long term, is leaving those trees standing where they are today.

(Sound of river rapids)

CARTY: Near the edge of the Indio-Maiz rainforest, the ruins of a colonial fort overlook some rapids on the San Juan River. This is El Castillo. Here, the Spanish empire once used the fort, the white water, and the jungle to form an almost impenetrable defense against the British navy and assorted pirates. Today the legacy of recent wars is as noticeable as the ruins of past ones. There is no longer any jungle here; the forest has fallen under the ax of recent migrations. Someone here at El Castillo seems to have recognized the potential tragedy. Beside the ruins of the fort, a poetic warning is written on a wooden sign. It says: "Civilization was born when the first tree was felled and will die when the last one falls." For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on the San Juan River in Nicaragua.



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