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  Number 323 | Junio 2008
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Nicaragua

Climate Change: We Can Already See What Our Future Will Be Like

Information on the effects—those already evident and those still to come—of climate change in Nicaragua.

Antonio Mijail Pérez

There’s no doubt that we’re seeing and feeling climate change around the world, Nicaragua included, but there are also effects that we still don’t know whether to attribute to climate change or to more normal climatic cycles that simply haven’t been studied enough yet, such as those related to natural phenomena like El Niño or La Niña. What seems certain is that the climate change already underway has been accentuating the effect of these phenomena: severe droughts and torrential rains in unusual places and at unusual times.

There are already serious effects on Nicaragua’s climate due to the intensive and extensive soil use initiated in 1990. Before that, we benefited from “conservation by war.” With the country at war, few people were using the land in some of the country’s most untouched areas. The war saved us from the deforestation taking place in neighboring countries during those same years. But once the war ended, an intervention began that often paralleled the de-mining process. In zones where the state and the OAS went in to de-mine, lumber companies followed, cutting down the forests.

Deforestation is altering our ecosystems,
allowing other, tougher species to invade

Nicaragua has a good legal framework for lumber extraction; the problem is that it isn’t respected. In some places the quotas for cutting wood are disproportionate and in some places nobody even knows who authorized the extraction that’s going on. The result is a lot of deforestation and a radical transformation in land use, with serious secondary effects, including changes in native fauna. As deforestation alters the ecosystems, they’re invaded by other species that tend to be much more competitive.

Towards the end of November 2007, we saw the reactivation of a leptospirosis epidemic in Nicaragua. It was related to these changes. Rats are vectors of this disease through their urine, but for them to pass it to humans, they have to live with them. Nicaragua’s endemic rat species—the “country” rat or rice rat of El Rama (Oryzomis dimidiatus)—lives in the forests and is an herbivore. It doesn’t live with humans.

So what’s happening now? This rat is being displaced—and may even disappear—due to the invasion of “urban” rats, two species that came to Nicaragua on Spanish boats five hundred years ago. One of them was responsible for Europe’s bubonic plague.

When primary ecosystems are altered, more competitive non-native species enter them. It’s not that the urban rats eat the country ones, but they have a greater tolerance for a variety of conditions than the local rats. When the forest is altered, country rats reproduce less, have less food and start to decline. And since the other rats are omnivores, eating anything and living anywhere—on asphalt, on concrete, in sewers, in ceilings—they reproduce more and replace the local rats. With a better adaptation capacity, they compete successfully with the native rats. And since they live alongside humans, they increase the danger of passing on disease.

The substitution of rat species—and its consequences for human health—is associated with changes in climate through the disappearance of the forests. With less forest, evaporation processes change and rain decreases; and along with a lower rainfall, the rainy season is delayed or comes early. These climate changes have been evident in Nicaragua for several years.

We’re trying to institute
more work on the environment...

We need to take a broad view of deforestation, not only in Nicaragua, but also in the Central American region and in the Amazon region—which is one of the planet’s lungs. Our own region is small and the Amazon is relatively close, so everything that happens there influences water and wind cycles here.

In order to study what we have and predict what’s co¬m-ing, we’re hoping to launch a project called Analysis of Conservation Gaps. The eventual aim of this study, which all the other Central American countries have already done and is considered the first biodiversity baseline for Nicaragua, is to declare new protected zones. The Gaps Analysis should have started in February or March of 2007, but was held up by the change of government. And even then it was out of sequence with the studies in the other Central American countries, which were ready in December of 2006. We’ve had an enormous delay in our commitment to the Convention on Biodiversity and both civil society and international cooperation have had to intervene to push it forward.

In 1992, at the Rio Summit, Nicaragua signed one of the most important environmental agreements in its history: the Convention on Biodiversity. It committed Nicaragua to a series of measures for the conservation and sustainable use of its biodiversity: identifying and monitoring species, conserving them in their habitats in protected areas, conserving them outside of their habitats in seed banks and key species nurseries, encouraging research and training, evaluating environmental impacts and making resources available for all this. But fulfillment of all these commitments has been very limited and in some cases there are serious failures to comply.

We’re also working on getting the Nicaraguan Biodiversity Network up and running. This project was initiated in 2000 and we’ve been trying to include it the university, but now civil society is taking it up, bringing together centers, NGOs and anyone who works on any project related to biodiversity. This is an important project in Nicaragua, where there’s no Biodiversity Institute or Academy of Sciences.

In Nicaragua, all we have is a Scientific Society, but it has a very broad and general purpose: promoting science and scientific concepts. It doesn’t deal with specific topics such as biodiversity. There’s been no reflection so far on how to promote scientific thinking in the schools, starting in primary school. I see no signs of interest, no proposals on this urgent need.

...and to predict the effects of climate change

But let’s get back to climate change. Another sign we’re already seeing is the failure of hurricane prediction models. Hurricane Felix, which devastated the Northern Caribbean in September 2007, demonstrated this. It surprised everyone. But changes are being detected that are outside the models that had worked up to now because models are based on statistical probabilities and we have under a century of quantitative data for making projections. When there are such big changes, the models don’t work anymore.

Climate change is currently having an effect in two big areas: in climate itself, where meteorologists and climatologists work; and in the more biological domain, where we biologists, geographers and other scientists work. Climatologists are using mathematical models to work on change scenarios.

On the website of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), a global institution to which the whole world contributes, you can see a map of how the zone or country where you live would change in response to a change in temperature that you can enter yourself: an increase of one degree, two degrees, three degrees… If you enter an increase of three or four degrees some areas basically disappear due to rising sea levels or because the temperature will extinguish many species.

By changing the values on that map, we can see how any place on the planet will change in the year 2020, in 2050 or in 2080—which are the three big reference dates for which they’re formulating these scenarios. After 2080, it’s too hard to predict. By agreement among scientists, almost everything is oriented around these three temporal horizons. Of course, some models make more specific predictions, depending on the database they’re working with. Also, some zones of the planet have a lot of information and some have less or very little.

What are those of us who
work with living things doing?

Those of us who work with living beings—plants, animals, fungi and others—want to know what’s already happening and what’s going to happen to the flora and fauna in these future climate change scenarios.

We already have the tools. In Nicaragua we’ve started the first phase: producing maps of potential niches. A niche is anything that goes into making up a species. It’s the place where a species lives; it’s the temperature or range of temperatures where a species can live; it’s what it eats and who eats it, when it reproduces, how much it reproduces, etc. Based on certain variables, these maps try to simulate where a species could be found—which is why they’re called potential niches. It isn’t exactly its distribution, but where it could survive and live.

These models are extremely interesting because none of the countries of the Central American region—perhaps with the exception of Costa Rica—has facts on biodiversity at the national level. We don’t have complete maps of the national distribution of species. All we have are maps of some protected areas or specific places where work has been done for some reason. But complete maps with national coverage barely exist because of the lack of researchers and resources.

In a country like Nicaragua—which has many urgent needs and emergencies—donors only support projects related to solving problems and often forget that development involves investing in education and the generation of basic research. Spellerberg and Sawyer, two American experts, provide a revealing and frightening fact about biodiversity studies that have to do with taxonomy. They state that only 6% of active taxonomists in the world live in underdeveloped countries, which is precisely where the greatest biodiversity in the planet is located.

Getting back to the models that help us learn about our biodiversity and predict its future, when we introduce certain variables into one of theme, we find out, for example, if a species of flora or fauna that we’ve found in seven or eight zones of the country is likely to be in other zones that share these variables: precipitation levels, elevation, soil type, etc. We work on these models based on Nicaraguan and regional information. One type of variables is required at the more local scale, and another type is needed for wider scales. The soil variable works well for local and national scales, but variables such as temperature and precipitation or combinations of both are normally used for regional and larger scales. Until now, we’ve been playing with both universes of variables to construct maps of potential niches of flora and fauna for Nicaragua and for the Central American region as a whole.

We have three groups working on this project in Latin America: one (Ecosur) in Mexico in the Colegio de la Frontera Sur, another (Ecociencia) in Ecuador, and us, the Gaia Association, in Nicaragua. Our colleagues in Ecosur are quite advanced because they’ve been working on these issues for years. They work in a serious university and have good computer equipment. This kind of work is always teamwork. We biologists work with computer specialists, because it requires significant software and other technology.

Nevertheless, we already have several future scenarios for the region and are starting to work on ones for Nicaragua. These scenarios were constructed by increasing the temperature by one and two degrees. What’s most interesting is to relate climate changes to real species. There are zones of Nicaragua’s Pacific, such as the Cosigüina peninsula, where a temperature increase of one or two degrees would mean certain species won’t be there anymore. They’ll die, particularly mollusks and other invertebrates, species that don’t move much. When it comes to birds or other large vertebrates, they’ll go live somewhere else.

These scenarios are probabilistic maps, where the probability from one to zero of a species’ presence is indicated by color. Probable presence appears in red, absence in blue, with yellow in between. We consider it significant that the continental zone around the Gulf of Fonseca, the border between Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, shows up as yellow in a scenario of moderate change (a two-degree increase). This means that some species are already starting to disappear. And this zone is of interest to all three countries from a tourism and economic point of view; there are mangroves there with conchas negras, a shellfish very sought-after throughout Central America, and it’s also a zone where shrimp are cultivated. Both generate significant income for businesspeople and local communities.

This basic research
can be applied the next day

We’re working on models based on data about trees, birds and mollusks. We have information from all three groups and the combination of their presence and disappearance reveals different aspects of the problem. These are three groups with different biological characteristics so they offer different perspectives on the same problem. These models could tell us, for example, where the rats that carry leptospirosis will be. With the coordinates we have we can see the probability of finding them and in what locations. These are what I was referring to as models of potential niches. Projection into the future will indicate where a particular species, good or bad, will disappear. We already have results in both models. We can also make predictions about other, more pleasant topics such as coffee: where the best zones for cultivating it will be in a moderate change scenario: an increase of two degrees in temperature. It’s very basic but also very useful research, because it can be applied the next day.

Although the future looks bleak, I always try not to take a catastrophic view; I think in terms of an increase of only about two degrees, which is most realistic. On that realistic basis—only one or two degrees more of heat—we can figure out where we should make the biggest efforts at conservation.

Some funders are very interested in these studies, because they want to know where to invest to obtain efficient results in conserving the quetzal or the harpy eagle, which are emblematic species. Conserving them means also conserving certain species of trees they depend on. These funders—not commercial institutions but environmental and individual donors, even governments—are interested in species and, by extension, in ecosystems, because species live in ecosystems. And in saving the species, we save the ecosystem. We also save a biological system in a wider sense, because the ecosystem can be associated with a system of production.

Next we need to look at
groups of species territorially

What our group still needs to do—and this is already being done in other groups—is to integrate information at the territorial level, looking not only at species, but also at groups of species. This requires a more complicated mathematical process. When we put the species into the territory, we can see what are called rates of change over time. Using the grids of the map, we can find out how many species that weren’t there before will be there in the future and how many of the original species will have been lost, and how they’ll interact among each other. Because we can calculate how many species will be gained and lost in 2050 at a territorial scale, it allows us to calculate rates of change in species and groups of species and produce territorial averages.

The species that are most vulnerable to climate change in Nicaragua typically and right now—which we call indicative species—are the ones most associated with the original primary forests, both the dry ones and the rainforests. Only small patches of dry forest are left in Nicaragua in the Pacific: some around Nandaime, a few little ones in the Cosigüina zone and Somotillo and other ones in Ometepe, Carazo and Rivas. Animal and plant species associated with well-conserved original zones—usually rare species of which there are few—are the ones that will disappear first. The quetzal, for example, is in grave danger of extinction. This bird needs extensive forests, which are decreasing all the time, so it’s increasingly restricted to northern Nicaragua. Similarly, the harpy eagle, which also needs high and extensive forests, has been restricted today to patches of forest in the country’s northern area.

The invertebrates are
most important and most vulnerable

The examples of animals in the Pacific that are most vulnerable to climate change that come to mind are small ones. I’m thinking of a mollusk linked to primary forests, the Orthalicus princeps, which is the most typical of the continental mollusk species. It’s a snail about 60-70 millimeters in length. We hardly see it anymore. There are some in Ometepe and in very specific zones, for example around Laguna de Apoyo. It hasn’t disappeared because of temperature changes, but because of deforestation. Fewer and fewer forest zones with the humidity conditions required by these snails still exist. Deforestation is also making the Morpho or Caligo genus of butterflies—which are indicators of a good conservation level—extinct.

Some will say it doesn’t matter: what do we need snails for? Perhaps they don’t know that all invertebrates are extremely important in the basic scheme of all ecosystems. Snails, which have a high biomass, are very important food for many other larger animals. The snail that’s disappearing is a tree snail, but there are others that also play very important roles in the formation of soils, as do millipedes and earthworms. They’re all part of that incredibly important task. Even some scientists wonder about the importance of these snails or other invertebrates. They don’t know that the forest couldn’t exist without these small soil-forming animals, or without the pollinating animals. The animals we don’t see are the ones that maintain the forest life we do see. Entomologist Terry Erwin uses the metaphor of the dead forest: if pollinating fauna and soil-formers are removed from a green and flowering forest, the forest will die. Without soil workers, the soil will compact; it will lack aeration. And without creatures to carry the pollen from one tree to another, no more trees will be born. The forest will be dead.

Cattle are Nicaragua’s biggest
contribution to global warming

We in Nicaragua don’t contribute much to global warming through industry, because we scarcely have any. We sometimes think that exhaust from cars, buses and trucks are our main contribution to climate change, but that’s not correct. In Nicaragua, livestock is the main culprit. Both the gases cattle produce when they ruminate the grass and the flatulence they release into the atmosphere create an impressive quantity of methane, which is very polluting. Cattle contribute in both these ways to heating up the climate. The climate change office in MARENA has some quantitative data on the volume of this contamination. That office tracks our country’s greenhouse gas emissions, because it’s one of Nicaragua’s commitments to the global institutions. According to this data, Nicaragua has gone from being a carbon sink country to emitting gases in recent years.

In terms of contamination from livestock, we’re moving towards introducing improved grass for cattle ranching. It is more nutritious, produces better meat and feeds more head of cattle per area of land. Another advantage is that it can grow with trees in the pastures, so the cattle graze in the shade. And most importantly it reduces the amount of methane gas generated by cattle. This improved grass is already being viewed as one of the strategies for Nicaragua to help slow climate change and also helps conserve the farms’ soil.

The prediction models can
also be applied to bodies of water

There are models that simulate the future of Lake Cocibolca, the largest of Nicaragua’s three big lakes. They show us how many contaminants enter its waters, where, what type and what the mitigation measures are. In my opinion, studies on the conservation of Nicaragua’s two big lakes are going too slowly. We’ve been saying for too long that river transport in Lake Cocibolca is badly regulated and that there are too many dumps. All the rice industries and farms dump all kinds of contaminants into the lake, and Granada contaminates it daily.

Are we in time to save Cocibolca? I think so. The case of Lake Xolotlán, on Managua’ northern edge, is much more serious. This lake is lucky because its wind system helps oxygenate its waters. There have been some attempts to detain the contamination in Xolotlán, but saving it would require a lot of intervention and mobilization. Sewage is still being dumped in the lake, so the first thing would be to put a stop to that dumping. There seems to be ongoing interest in saving Xolotlán, but no project ever crystallizes. Having that lake clean would be a source of income, not just because the water could be used but also for tourism: sports, scenic value, businesses on the boardwalk. It’s an enormous potential that Managua is not using.

Environmental awareness continues to increase worldwide. We’ve managed to raise the awareness of many people in many ways. Even in Nicaragua, despite all the fatalism, there’s more awareness. We’re starting to have a generalized concern, because people see that the rains come early or late or that it rains for days and days. Al Gore’s documentary has been widely shown. He achieved something we scientists could never have achieved, simply because he was the Vice President of the United States and candidate to the presidency so the whole world knows him. He didn’t discover anything, but he made information available to people, summarizing it and putting it all together in one documentary. The number of facts and examples he fit into one hour-and-a-half film produced a catastrophic vision. If all that information were more spread out, we wouldn’t feel so alarmed. Also, the film came out at a time when there was already a planetary awareness of the havoc being wreaked by climate change.

What can we in Nicaragua
do about climate change?

Managua is a green city; from an airplane it looks like a green ocean. Maybe other cities in Nicaragua should follow Managua’s example and try to have more vegetation. But we always need to keep in mind that too many trees in a city can damage the sewer system. Some species are better than others for a city because of their root structures. Architects know which ones they are.

One thing that has to be done, and that’s already underway and having a positive impact is switching from incandescent to fluorescent light. We have to create a culture of saving light. Currently, the governments of wealthier countries save most, through various measures. Throughout Europe there are light timers in hallways, in the stairwells of public buildings, hotels and homes. People forget to turn out the lights but with a timer they go out by themselves. The government of Nicaragua should invest in that, at least in public institutions. There should also be investment in water timers in bathrooms. They’re expensive, but they save an enormous amount of water. We also need to keep in mind the best time of day for watering. You have to water very early in the morning, or in the late afternoon. We also have to start using drop irrigation, a method that’s been very successful in Israel, a country that has dominated the desert. It’s also used in Cuba, with Israeli technology, and in other countries.

Recycling is also important and we have to invest in it. A few years ago, people used to save glass Coca-Cola bottles to get the deposit back on them, but now all the bottles are plastic. We have to go “back” to the glass bottle. Glass doesn’t pollute, because it can be ground down and recycled. An incredible amount can be saved by recycling paper. In Nicaragua there’s some recycling of paper and plastic but the problem is that a lot of people still see all this as a cost rather than an investment. If we see it as a cost, we’ll never do it.

Orlando Núñez wanted to install gas bio-digesters all over the country as an energy generation alternative. It’s an interesting idea for homes and small communities, but not on a large scale. To install biogas plants you need a sewage system or pipes that take the population’s fecal matter or waste, gray water and other waste water to the place where it’s processed. In a big city you can’t do it. I think every energy alternative has to be adapted to the social context.

Solar energy is the most expensive form of energy. It requires major investment, but that investment is recuperated in five years. In European countries and the United States there are subsidies for those who want to install this kind of energy.

Nuclear energy is very clean and powerful. But if it isn’t managed carefully it can cause devastating effects. As a volcanic country, Nicaragua should take much more advantage of geothermal energy.

Wind energy has great potential in Nicaragua. In Denmark and Spain—leading countries for wind energy worldwide—biologists are very opposed to it because the windmills mar the landscape aesthetically and kill birds, which don’t recognize the danger they represent and don’t have time to find out. But if care is taken to keep the windmills out of the paths of migrating birds, wind energy is very good. In Nicaragua we already have studies on which places wind energy would cause least impact and we have the capacity to do it right.

Hydroelectric energy also has a lot of potential in Nicaragua. There are areas in the north of the country where there’s still a lot of water. Although it can affect the fauna of rivers or the water source where it’s installed, in principle this energy conserves the environment. Of course, I’m talking about small dams that provide energy to small communities to promote their development. Not mega-dams. Any mega-project is risky and tends to have negative environmental impacts.

Is there any reason to take a catastrophic view?

We have to change a lot: waste and exploit natural resources less, save more energy, contaminate the water less, recycle more. We’re not doing this. A depressing example of what can happen is Lake Aral, an enormous lake that disappeared from Russia. It can’t be saved. That lake died and now it’s just a pond. The current landscape is hellish. It’s incredibly sad. It’s the greatest tragedy that can happen to a body of water. And that could happen in Nicaragua with Lake Xolotlán.

I think taking a catastrophic view is helpful, up to a point. If you go too far, it has the opposite effect: people think nothing more can be done. But in moderation, it helps because it creates concern that something needs to be done and a conviction that something can be done. The planet is so grateful it makes us optimistic. When you leave a meadow or pasture to regenerate, a new forest is already being born within two or three years. The capacity for recuperation, especially in tropical ecosystems, is enormous. But we can’t forget that there are points of no return, situations that are irreversible. And we already have them in Nicaragua, in parts of Chontales and Boaco.

The English biologist John Lovelock sees an irreversible situation for Gaia, the Earth, because we’ve damaged it so badly. But I believe we’re still in time. I believe there are structures in Gaia that may never recover because it’s a living body and, like a human body, there are areas that after an illness remain so damaged that they have to be amputated. That’s already happening. The Sahara Desert has increased in size greatly in the last 50 years. Gaia has lost a lot. But she’s also recovered a lot. In Europe, there has been a recuperation of forests, desertification processes have been turned back and wetlands and coastal zones have been salvaged.

In Nicaragua, I’m starting to see more open minds. I think we hit bottom in 2007 with the prolonged electricity cuts; this led to a collective “click.” Economically and psychologically, the blackouts of 2007 were unbearable. I think it made us reflect on the need for change, understanding it as investments, not costs.

Do we have a critical mass of
environmental awareness yet?

I think it’s there among farmers in Nicaragua. A project we conducted to raise cattle in tree-shaded pastures led to very interesting results: 20-30% of the ranchers became aware of this alternative, even after the end of the project. So some started to form that critical mass. Farmers are starting to worry and to change. They understand the advantages of environmental conservation for economic and profit reasons. When this happens, they spread their knowledge by word of mouth and you get a very beneficial snowball effect.

Where I don’t see critical mass is among politicians. There’s no social or environmental conscience among politicians, with few exceptions. They’re very focused on their own political agenda. Politicians should seek out the scientific community to learn. Climate change is challenging Nicaragua in new ways that we couldn’t have imagined even a short while ago. The changes we need require a new and more responsible political class—very different than the one we have today.


Antonio Mijail Pérez, a PhD in biology, is the scientific director of the Gaia Association.

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