Our future is at risk
Nicaragua’s age-old development model is opportunistic and unsustainable.
We can no longer continue irrationally exploiting our natural resources.
The prevailing developmentalist mindset is fatalistic and shortsighted.
We may well be facing our very last chance to change course,
think responsibly about the future of coming generations
and adopt a new development vision.
Jaime Incer Barquero
Nicaragua’s immediate future is determined by the characteristics of its terrain, its natural resources, the development model being espoused, the economic activities engaged in and its inhabitants’ ability to understand and promote their own progress and wellbeing. It also depends on the national interest in promoting a new vision and a willingness to make it happen, given such all-encompassing phenomena as regionalization, globalization and world population growth.
The providentialist era is overThis new vision has to consider balancing three factors that form an inseparable triad: the terrain, the economy and the population. None of them can guarantee development without recognizing the value of the other two.
In Nicaragua, geological, climatological and ecological phenomena interact with a special dynamism that shapes the essential survival processes. Given our country’s active geographic dynamism, it’s inexplicable why the important role these processes play in ensuring the productivity of the terrain, our economy’s principal mainstay and the main generator of social wellbeing so desired by the population have been underestimated for so long.
The time of believing that natural phenomena are providentially sent to benefit humanity has passed. In Nicaragua, as in almost all third world countries, nature seems to have exhausted its capacity to continue subsidizing development all alone, without being rationally exploited or provisions being made for its regeneration or restoration.
Very few development planners have enough foresight to value and incorporate our country’s natural heritage into the national accounting systems. That makes it appropriate to ask ourselves, for example, what the pollution of our rivers, lakes and seas costs in terms of our population’s health; how our agricultural production is affected by water and wind erosion, which causes thousands of tons of rich topsoil to be carried to the sea annually without benefit or recovery; how much economic and ecological loss there will be from the thousands of hectares of trees that perish annually in our mountains, felled and burnt where they lay without being used; the losses that result from the progressive disappearance of so many species of flora and fauna we have never had the chance to study and use; how much it will cost to restore fertility to the hundreds of thousands of hectares of grasslands burnt every year, carbonizing their organic material by the outdated burning of pastures…
And other questions: where will we find the quantity and quality of drinking water needed for the Nicaraguan population, which will exceed ten million inhabitants within 20 years? How much sedimentation will be in the hydroelectric dams by then if the soils in their deforested catchment areas aren’t properly managed? Can a country whose countryside is exhausted, its nature annihilated and its environment polluted attract wealthy foreign tourists? And like these, other unknowns are appearing that show how unsustainable our current development model is.
Large population, reduced resourcesThese doubts have to be cleared up if we’re thinking of our country participating in international conventions, large-scale market economies or the globalization process, so we don’t continue creating false expectations with an economic vision and model totally divorced from our geography’s practical capability, which has been plundered without benefiting an ever increasing and impoverished population.
In Nicaragua, as in the other Central American countries, environmental alterations and irrational natural resource exploitation have increased in recent decades. Coincidentally, both processes have been accentuated right at a time when the region’s population has increased—with the highest growth rates in its history. That poses the serious challenge of satisfying an increasingly larger population’s social and economic needs with increasingly reduced resources.
Traditionally, our country’s economic options are based on agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and tourism, areas linked to land and natural resource use and management: excellent agricultural soils of volcanic origin; extensive coniferous and broadleaf forests; fishing and marine resources; and the countryside with all its manifold biodiversity.
However, the traditional development model has been geared to agro-export products needed on the international market, achieved at the expense of diminishing natural resources and altering or polluting the environment, without thought for replenishment or conservation. It’s a develop¬ment model based on an unsustainable opportunist vision.
Clearly, in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua, nature can no longer subsidize this form of development. Moreover, the social marginalization of a large mass of landless peasants has created a spontaneous colonizing force that is wantonly destroying the forests, slashing and burning to make way for subsidence crops with low economic yield or to extend pasturelands for extensive cattle-raising, all at the cost of destroying our original rainforests.
Through greed or ignoranceAs a result of this model and these activities, the following ecological changes can be seen in Nicaragua: increasing depletion of the forest cover; erosion and loss of soil fertility; bodies of water reduced; gradual decrease in biodiversity; and progressive soil, water and air pollution. Commercial interests or people’s consumption have resulted in certain species being captured, fished or hunted almost to the point of extinction without regard for the regulations or closed seasons designed to prevent this.
Environmental pollution abounds not only in rural areas, where agricultural practices that add to it are still used, but also in the cities from sewage and industrial water disposal processes, from vehicles, and from discarded garbage generated by the consumption habits of residents who live crowded together in the main urban centers and lack civic education and responsibility. Clearly, environmental education has had little impact and regulations restricting all these processes and their consequences are not adhered to.
Greed or ignorance conspire against managing natural resources well. The lack of environmental awareness in all sectors of the population isn’t just the result of successive governments’ inefficient enforcement of the laws but also of the absence of citizens’ education and participation in resolving these problems—of any feeling that they’re society’s responsibility and a commitment to future generations.
In short, we believe that the national population’s current social behavior, the historically employed development models and the environmental degradation with the depletion of natural resources has led to a critical impoverishment of our growing populace, compromising the options of future generations. It’s therefore appropriate to start right now to refocus all national life, adjusting it to a new development model with a sustainable vision so that Nicaragua can survive as a civilized nation in the 21st century.
Some people defend the current situation, arguing that environmental deterioration is an expected result of development, especially in countries like Nicaragua where the poverty levels force people to use renewable resources wherever and however they are, without feeling any obligation to conserve or replace them. This argument becomes a vicious circle: poverty contributes to environmental deterioration, which in turn generates more poverty, progressively exhausting the resources and natural environments in increasingly more costly and irreversible ways for the human beings who live in and from them. The consequences of this fatalistic, short-sighted developmentalist mindset are already visible and represent a tragic warning of what we cannot continue doing.
A change of attitude is called forA change of attitude in the country’s current social and economic development is an urgent, desirable way to correlate the population’s needs with the terrain’s capability; a change that could happen by increasingly taking actions toward what is being called the sustainable development model.
The Central American Alliance for Sustainable Develop¬ment, signed by the region’s Presidents at the Ecological Summit held in Managua in October 1994, defined this new development model as: “A process that pursues progressive change in the quality of human life and targets human beings as the central and primary target of development. It is achieved through economic growth with social equity and changes in production and consumption patterns, based on ecological equilibrium and support of the region. This implies respect for regional, national and local ethnic and cultural diversity, and the enhanced and full participation of all citizens, living together in peace and harmony with nature, not jeopardizing but rather guaranteeing the quality of life of future generations.” There’s also a responsibility, shared by several nations and governments worldwide, from the World Conference on Environment and Development, held in Río de Janeiro in June 1992, that requires us all to act in harmony with nature if we want to live from it.
There’s been a lot of discussion in economic circles about the restrictions that ecology imposes on development, while the other end of the spectrum criticizes the lack of environmental considerations in developmental processes, the search for benefits in the shortest term possible regardless of consequences.
Sustainable development tries to correlate these two concepts. Well-understood conservation increases production by properly managing resources and natural environments so that economic processes yield immediate, permanent results with benefits that should be reflected in national social wellbeing and an improvement in the population’s quality of life. The challenge is great, but shows many possibilities for action. It requires current and future governments to have a clear vision, willingness and responsibility to promote the country’s new development, with the active and consensual participation of all civil society in a process of change that favors the present and coming generations.
What will we bequeath them?In Nicaragua, the acceptance of agricultural, industrial, urban and household processes that use, produce, transport or eliminate substances or waste that contaminate the soil, water and air, altering the natural systems and threatening the health and life of all living things, including ourselves, should be of particular concern.
In countries such as ours, where the main economic activity revolves around farming and the use of natural resources, we must pay greater attention to environmental issues, to the conservation of soil, water and forests, which keep the natural system operating and guarantee national production. Part of the economic benefits resulting from productive activities must be reinvested in the conservation and operation of natural systems.
Nobody can deny the importance of leaving our children 6 million hectares planted with 500 million trees of the best quality lumber in perhaps two or three decades, an inheritance that would transform our country into an emporium of forestry production. Sustainable development is our responsibility; it’s the legacy our generation will leave to those that follow.
The universities’ roleIn light of these concerns which, in fact, are real challenges, we must ask ourselves what role Nicaraguan universities should play in refocusing the country’s future. In how many of them are we forming professionals committed to a truly nationalist vision? How much of the teaching and research we provide is aimed at forming professionals concerned about the country’s destiny; committed to working for the country and not just depending on it? How many careers are aimed at supporting Nicaragua’s future development with a real vocation of justice, equity, awareness and knowledge of the opportunities offered by its geography and the needs of its inhabitants? How many are aimed at the future development of our country with a sustainable model?
Are the universities ready to take on new, 21st-century challenges? Are they offering careers that address the individual, social, national and global survival of our planet’s human beings? Will Nicaragua someday have amongst its future graduates an environmental promoter, an environ¬mental planner, an environmental attorney, an environ¬mental defender, an environmental educator, an environ¬mental legislator, an environmental engineer, an environ¬mental manager, and so on, down the list?
There’s no doubt that the government should be the main proponent of sustainable development. It’s role is to plan, regulate and facilitate development, without losing sight of the fact that this development model is a national commitment incumbent on all members of civil society (farmers, industrialists, administrators, merchants, students, teachers, professionals, workers, leaders, women, youth, indigenous people…) who should all participate in installing and implementing the process, because the results concern or affect all of us as inhabitants of this nation.
The participation of the nation’s population in sustainable development planning allows those same people to understand the process, to become aware of its importance and benefits and to contribute to planning the nation, because Nicaragua demands work and services from us and it’s from Nicaragua that we expect benefits.
The country’s laws should confer mandates and promote capacities so that the various strata of Nicaraguan civil society take an active part in the new development vision. And because this new vision is based on the local terrain’s characteristics, the regional and municipal governments should take the initiative in local actions and projects; and to invest in that process they will have to be trained and provided with resources.
If sustainable development is to be feasible, sustainable human development needs to be promoted at the same time because the best resource any country has is its people; they are the only force that can build the future by acting with self-awareness and responsibility. Human development should be invested in as much as or more than economic development. Humanity’s best values urgently need to be rescued and taught, and the aspiration to live in peace with justice and equity in a democratic system with equal opportunity for everyone needs to be promoted. This is also another huge challenge for the universities.
Our last chanceHopefully Nicaragua is preparing to move forward in the 21st century with a sustainable development vision across all its economic, social, ecological and human aspects. Hopefully its relationship with the rest of the world will increase so it can benefit from scientific and technological exchanges and ensure the survival of this small nation, so beset with problems. Hopefully it will know how to face the challenges posed by a demanding civilization that is asking for the increasingly scarce resources provided by nature. Only then can we Nicaraguans of today and tomorrow manage to live in dignity, escape the terrible bondage of poverty and ignorance, and enjoy a civilization that respects itself and all other living things that share our only planet.
Nicaragua needs to earn its space to survive as a prosperous, free and independent nation over the course of the 21st century, not as a hollow historical aspiration but as a right that its own inhabitants should start building now, for the good of the future generations. When this happens, as we hope it will, many of us Nicaraguans will have already have passed on but millions of our descendants will be waiting for, or perhaps already enjoying, this last chance.
Jaime Incer Barquero is a scientist and academic. This was his speech on being given an honorary doctorate in the American College, Managua, July 25, 2012.