Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 242 | Septiembre 2001



Protected Areas and Natural Resources: With or Without People?

Protecting biodiversity requires respecting sociodiversity. The more people know about and use their natural resources, the more concerned they will become about preserving them. Defending our forests and resources requires creativity and a new focus that involves people.

Túpac Barahona

In 1983, the Sandinista government decreed the creation of a natural reserve in the San Cristóbal-Casitas volcanic complex to protect what was left of the forest cover on its slopes. Similar reserves were also established on the Cosigüina, Mombacho, Concepción and Maderas volcanoes, the latter two on the island of Ometepe.

Times have passed, things have changed and 85% of the land that formed part of the reserve on the San Cristóbal volcano now belongs to one private owner while government control of even the 15% remaining under the category of "national lands" is theoretical. In practice, both landless peasants and large coffee growers and cattle ranchers in all the places mentioned above are slowly eating into these national "no-man’s" lands, and the government has neither the resources nor the interest to stop them.

In 1991, the Chamorro government decreed the creation of Bosawás, an enormous natural resource reserve covering 8,000 square kilometers of forestland in the north-central part of the country. At that time, the indigenous Mayangna and Miskito peoples inhabiting the reserve never even suspected that they were living in a protected area. The government did not consult them about the decision to create Bosawás, and when they learned about the new decree and its implications, they realized that it threatened their traditional rights to fish, hunt and cultivate crops in their traditional land. Supported by various NGOs, the Mayangna undertook an initiative to delimit the lands they have historically used and demand collective property deeds for them.

It is always the same old story. Every time the state establishes a protected area with the supposed intention of safeguarding natural resources from human voracity, it runs into various social groups that have lived in or exploited the respective forests for many, many years. Now, with the final pages being torn out of the 2001 calendar and a new government just around the corner, many questions are being raised about the state’s role in natural resource management. Will the incoming government be able to protect the reserves effectively? Should local inhabitants be involved in the management and conservation of the protected areas and, if yes, what are the best ways the state might involve them? Does the establishment of protected areas do any good in any case?
The campaigning politicians have so far ignored this issue or touched on it only tangentially, sidestepping any troublesome aspects. The electoral juncture, however, offers us an opportunity to put the complicated problem of managing our natural wealth up for discussion.

Biosphere reserves: vast and untouchable

Approximately three-quarters of Nicaraguan forests have already been turned into crop and pasture land. Very few areas of extensive and compact forest are left in our country and most of the remaining woodland areas are like small dots scattered across the national map. To protect the few remaining areas of extensive forest, two large protected areas were created in the 1990s: the Bosawás Natural Resources Reserve in the north and the SI-A-PAZ conservation system in the southeast, which included the large Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve.

The design of these two areas was inspired by the Biosphere Reserves promoted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which was in turn based on the protected areas model proposed for the large reserves in the southeast United States. This model creates a reserve with a central zone or "nucleus area" where human intervention is totally prohibited, with the aim of guaranteeing the maximum conservation of the pristine ecosystems. It is ringed by a series of concentric bands called "buffer zones," whose degree of protection intensifies the closer they are to the nucleus. In these bands, regulated natural resource exploitation is allowed, with limits on the kind of activities permitted and the intensity of resource exploitation. At the same time, a management plan is required to ensure renovation of the forest, survival of the fauna and the quality of the waters and other environmental values.

Social conflict escape valves

The model based on nucleus areas protected by buffer zones only works in theory, however. In practice, peasants, lumber dealers, mining companies and other stakeholders make free with the natural resources in both the nucleus areas and buffer zones with little or no regulation. Everyone knows, for example, that peasants who are gradually advancing from the central region toward the Caribbean side of the country in search of lands have already invaded the nucleus areas of both the Bosawás and Indio-Maíz Reserves. According to environmental engineer Byron Walsh, who knows the area well, the number of families settled in the Bosawás nucleus area climbed from 23 to 70 between 1996 and 1999. These families have deforested nearly 680 acres to cultivate the grains that they require to survive. The limits of the Indio-Maíz Reserve have not been respected either. It is estimated that between 100 and 200 peasant families have invaded the reserve from the direction of the El Castillo municipality, establishing small plots of cultivated land in the middle of the forest.

International cooperation projects working in the buffer zones have suggested resettling these families in other areas of less environmental importance, but the government has not dared expel the peasants due to the possible political consequences of such a move. The forests on the Caribbean side of the country have historically acted as a safety valve, allowing landless peasants to establish new plots of land at a minimum cost and thus avoiding any conflicts. Deciding to limit the advance of this agricultural frontier would imply restructuring the whole land tenure system in the Pacific and central regions through active state intervention. But the words ‘state’ and ‘agrarian reform’ have been eliminated from the national political dictionary by the neoliberal model currently in the ascendancy.

Quetzals and howler monkeys rely on the forest

The aim of promoting huge reserves with an untouchable nucleus has been to save the last redoubts of almost unaltered ecosystems harboring certain increasingly rare species. The misty mountains of northern Nicaragua are the preferred habitat of one of the most colorful and symbolic birds in Central America: the quetzal. Without the forest, the quetzals will disappear, as they are incapable of living in or flying long distances across deforested lands. The same is true of howler monkeys, which can still be seen in the woodland patches that still exist in the Pacific region, in Chacocente, in a few well-protected farms in the Carazo plateau, on the Maderas and Mombacho volcanoes and on those of the Maribios chain whose slopes still have forest cover.

Howler monkeys are so sensitive to manmade alterations that bands of these forest trapeze artists stampeded away when a new highway was built through the Chacocente reserve on the Carazo coast. For the quetzals and howler monkeys, their few forested habitats remaining in Nicaragua are like oases in the middle of a deforested desert. They cannot survive outside of them and the bigger the area the more space these species have to move about, feed and reproduce.

The problem is that the remaining forest islands in our country are increasingly less pristine. Humans have stamped their mark on even the most isolated spots in Nicaragua, the most virgin forest or the purest ecosystem. Aerial photographs of the San Cristóbal volcano show a compact forest mass on its western slopes, which at first sight appears to be primordial. But once there, it is possible to see coffee farms dating back to the middle of the 19th century concealed beneath this forest cover. The same is true of the Bosawás Reserve, which contains the largest mass of compact forest in Central America, and has been inhabited by Mayangna and Miskito peoples for centuries. These indigenous peoples have left their mark on the ecosystem, too, hunting, fishing and practicing slash and burn agriculture. Given such realities, the challenge is how to achieve the peaceful coexistence of people and our remaining ecosystems so rich in natural diversity.


Based on Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture archives.

Balanced and unbalanced
mosaics of forest and crops

The remaining spots of forestland in Nicaragua’s central and Pacific regions are much smaller than those in the northern and Caribbean regions. They are also more mixed with agricultural and ranching areas, forming a mosaic of small dark green woodland patches and the dun tones of agricultural and pasture lands. In certain areas, the mosaic is quite balanced. A good example is the vegetational landscape in southern Masaya on the road to Catarina, Niquinohomo and Masatepe and the other towns of the Carazo coffee-producing plateau. In this region one can observe small plots of agricultural land surrounded by fruit trees, small woods of timber-yielding trees, plantain plantations, coffee plantations and a whole variety of permanent crops. It is a zone where human beings have found ways to live harmoniously with nature, benefiting from it without destroying it.

If we travel up into the northwest section of the country, however, the mosaic ceases to be balanced. There is a brutal contrast between the vast, nearly treeless plains formerly dedicated to cotton cultivation in León and Chinandega and the highest slopes of the volcanic chain, to which remnants of forest cover still cling. Instead of a mosaic where woods are scattered throughout the agricultural landscape, we find an extensive area with stark borders, half covered in maize and pastureland, and the other half a refuge for forests surrounded by the advancing agricultural frontier. Obsessed by the economic benefits that time would prove to be ephemeral, the people of Chinandega have been eating into the forests that once covered the plains ever since the explosion of the cotton boom in the 1950s. Now that international cotton prices have fallen, consigning the era of "white gold" to history, some small-scale peasant farmers are trying little by little to reconstruct the mosaic of woodlands and crops on their lands, yearning for the days in which Chinandega was known as the "city of oranges."

Shrimp profits take precedence over protection

Faced with the overwhelming force of money and power, the government’s norms and measures for protecting the reserves are like dry leaves that blow away in the slightest breeze. The reserves have been dubbed ‘paper parks’ because they are only protected on the paper used to print the decree or law that created them given the state’s incapacity to offer any effective care.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the Río Estero Real was declared a protected area, along with its tributaries and the surrounding lands full of natural lagoons. The aim was to save the mangrove swamps and the fauna that inhabited the estuary. In the mid-1990s, the first shrimp farms began to be established in the area. To date, almost half of the protected area has been granted to shrimp farmers in minimum 20-year concessions to exploit the Estero Real. They have already eliminated half of the mangrove swamps, along with the natural lagoons where the shrimps once bred naturally, replacing them with artificial pools to cultivate the shrimps.

So what happened to the protection? The flourishing shrimp industry is producing an important export product. Economic interests, as usual, outweighed any environmental protection decree; the paper on which it was written has been recycled for less ecological uses.

Of corruption and bribes

The corruption surrounding management of the protected areas works on both a large and small scale. It is most scandalous when concessions for natural resource exploitation that benefit large capital are uncovered. Obvious examples are the Estero Real shrimp farms and the SOLCARSA lumber company; the latter was not only given the green light to extract precious woods from the Bosawás Reserve in the mid-nineties, but voraciously exceeded the area designated. But workers responsible for keeping watch over the reserves engage in a more surreptitious kind of corruption. The system of "bites," or small bribes, now institutionalized by the urban transit police, is also permeating other areas of public service, particularly the administration of the few natural parks that still receive foreign and national tourists.

Any visitor to the Masaya Volcano National Park or La Flor Natural Reserve south of Rivas should be prepared to be hit up. After paying the park’s entrance ticket, which should theoretically cover all services included in the visit, tourists are invariable approached by some grossly underpaid soldier or park guide insinuating—quite truthfully— the need for some kind of extra "help" to get by. In La Flor, the information leaflet explaining the importance of this beautiful beach between August and November, when the turtles officially known as lepidochelys olivacea lay their eggs there, is sold separately. Every available service is judged an extra and therefore worthy of a charge. One leaves amazed by the beauty of the beach and the spectacular sight of turtles laying their eggs, but with the strange sensation of having been stung all over, and not only by tropical insects.

Sociodiversity also matters

If the state, with its limited budget and human resources, cannot protect the national parks by itself, who can help? The only viable solution is for the state or private entities that decide to administer protected areas to seek alliances with those who could economically benefit from the reserves’ resources, and efforts in this direction are already underway.

When discussing natural resource conservation, a great deal of emphasis is given to biological diversity, or biodiversity: that great variety and wealth of plant and animal life that lives in a determined space. Not enough attention is paid, however, to what we could term sociodiversity: the diversity of stakeholders that depend economically on the reserves’ natural resources. If the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MARENA) and various environmental organizations want to involve people in managing the reserves, it is important to know who these actors are, their particular interest in the use of the natural resources and the best mechanisms for engaging them in their conservation.

The Cocibolca Foundation, responsible for administering La Flor, is trying to involve local peasant families in taking care of the beach and the turtles. One of the subsistence measures adopted by the local peasants is precisely that of selling turtle eggs. Realizing that it is very difficult to stop them from digging up the eggs, the foundation has adopted a rationing system, assigning a quota of ten dozen eggs per family. In return, it expects the peasants to help protect the reserve from people outside the community coming in to rob eggs. Despite all of the system’s difficulties and imperfections, the initiative is an interesting one because it tries to involve the locals in protecting a natural resource on which they depend for their own survival and that the country has to preserve.

In the Natural Reserve of the Chonco, San Cristóbal and Casitas volcanoes, we discovered a great variety of social actors who possess forestlands within the limits of the protected area (see map on the next page). Among them are large and medium-sized coffee growers whose farms are in the highest parts of the volcanic slopes and cover most of the mature woodland that still exists in the reserve. These growers are concerned about conserving the woods because trees provide the shade and cool climate their coffee plants need. Some even pay people to guard their farm and stop outsiders from intruding to steal firewood, timber, plantains and fruit. These coffee growers thus indirectly protect the woodlands and represent excellent allies for any conservation strategy.

On the other hand, many peasant families own plots of agricultural land at the foot of the San Cristóbal and Chonco volcanoes in Chichigalpa. Most have very little woodland, although some do own forest patches higher up the slopes. The Chichigalpa municipal government and the community of El Pellizco have joined forces to protect a small patch of national forestland on the upper slopes of San Cristóbal that has no specific owner. In exchange for looking after the 510 acres, El Pellizco residents are allowed to extract the firewood they need to cook and the lumber they require to repair their houses. Experiences such as this could be reproduced among other peasant communities living at the foot of the reserve, allowing the peasants to make use of the woodland closest to their communities while caring for it at the same time.

MARENA could also ally with coffee growers, peasants and municipal governments to promote joint conservation of the woodlands in this reserve. The coffee growers are constantly complaining that MARENA does not even let them extract firewood and timber from their own farms. Instead of prohibiting it, national and local authorities could involve the growers in designing and implementing management plans and practices that would both let them exploit their woodlands for timber, firewood and other goods and ensure the conditions necessary for new trees to develop. In the case of the small-scale peasants, MARENA and the Chichigalpa municipal government could sign an agreement providing a legal instrument that would allow the peasants from El Pellizco and other communities involved in such a plan to claim their usufruct right over the woods they are protecting.


Various alliances with tourists, too

Other actors who do not belong to the local world of producers living in the reserve’s immediate surroundings are also interested in forestry conservation. People from the city and foreign tourists want to enjoy nature, get away from the stress of urban life and enjoy the feeling of freedom provided by a beach, a forest or the summit of a volcano. The municipal governments of Chichigalpa and Chinandega are thinking about how to attract visitors to the slopes of the San Cristóbal volcano. One possible tour could involve visiting the old Las Brisas hacienda—currently administered by the Chichigalpa government—to see the wealth of different tree species in its woodland area, followed by a horseback ride up to the "joint," where the San Cristóbal and Casitas volcanoes meet. An alternative route would be to climb up to the meeting point of the San Cristóbal and Chonco volcanoes, followed by a visit to the Las Rojas coffee hacienda, whose plantation coexists in harmony with the woodland. More daring tourists could opt for a hike to the rim of San Cristóbal, accompanied by don Chente, a peasant from the La Bolsa area working with the volcanologists studying that volcano who often climbs up to the top of its cone. All of these projects are floating like dreams in the heads of municipal officials and would be well worth turning into reality.

Are human beings nature’s enemies?

Whenever ecological destruction is discussed, human beings are pointed to as the main predators. The advance of the agricultural frontier has wiped out Nicaragua’s central forests and is now poised to ravage those still covering large areas of the Caribbean side of the country. The over-exploitation of firewood to fuel the kitchen stoves of families living in the Pacific area has led to the near exhaustion of certain species valued for their combustibility. Meanwhile, not only have shrimp farms devastated the mangrove swamps of the Estero Real basin but deforestation caused by extensive cattle ranching on the Costa Rican side of the Río San Juan has caused sediments to wash into the river, accumulating on the river bed and gradually reducing its breadth.

The list of ecological damages caused by human beings is never-ending. But must we be the enemies of nature? In fact, we aren’t always. Cases can also be found in which human hands have helped enrich the stock of species in certain ecosystems. The management of certain coffee plantations is ones of the best-known examples. It should even be borne in mind that conserving forestland in a "pure state" in certain ecological conditions ages the ecosystem so that only those species of trees most tolerant of the shade of the other trees manage to survive. This is what has happened on the oldest patches of woodland on the Chonco volcano, where ojoche trees dominate to the detriment of other species. On the coffee farms, producers have partially eliminated the ojoches, thus opening woodland clearings where cedar, oak, cortés, guanacaste and numerous other species have been able to grow. Human intervention can enrich a forest instead of deteriorating it.

Between co-management and privatization

There is an increasingly obvious and urgent need to involve civil society in management of the protected areas. In the National Workshop on Management of Protected Areas held in March 2000, MARENA, environmentalist NGOs and USAID discussed the possibility of private foundations administering protected areas under the regulatory framework defined by national laws and MARENA. This formula is known as co-management, which means joint administration of the reserves with the participation of the state and private initiative.

Such a scheme would open the way for environmental foundations and tourist companies to administer the national parks. It is not hard to imagine an entrance ticket to the Masaya Volcano National Park being collected by an employee of a private foundation rather than MARENA officials in the near future. In fact, there is already one co-management experience in the country, with the Cocibolca Foundation administering the Mombacho Volcano and La Flor Beach protected areas. The Foundation has organized a path around the volcano’s crater, with signs explaining the different species to be found in the cloud forest and the "dwarf forest" there. The park guides are young peasants from the surrounding area who have been trained to receive the visitors. This is one way to involve the local population in management of the reserves. Another experience along the same lines has been the inauguration of the private Domitila reserve on the banks of Lake Cocibolca opposite the Zapatera Island National Park. This small reserve, administered by the family that owns it, includes 300 hectares of dry tropical forest. MARENA only establishes general norms for the reserve’s management, following the criteria of the General Regulations for Protected Areas (Decree 14-99, year 1999), which for the first time created the legal status of private reserve.

Although co-management schemes create an important opportunity for citizens to participate in management of the reserves, the long-term danger of gradually privatizing the system of protected areas is that the state will forget its regulatory and controlling function, leaving all decision-making power in private hands. Over time, enjoying nature could thus become a privilege reserved for those who have enough money to access a private reserve.

Much has already been privatized

Nicaragua is seeing its tourist sites rapidly and spontaneously privatized. Beaches such as Las Peñitas, next door to the well-known Poneloya Beach in León, are now completely private. In Las Peñitas, people with money have built their houses along the whole beach, blocking out any public access to the sea that does not involve jumping over their fences and garden walls. The only access road down to the water is at the beginning of the beach, and it is followed by a couple of kilometers of private houses built up against each other without leaving so much as a crack for poor mortals to squeeze through.

The same thing is happening in Apoyo Lagoon, whose banks are infested with private houses. Three-times minister José Antonio Alvarado, not content with having a lakefront house, built a wall three meters into the water. Although MARENA forced him to knock the wall down, the house now has walls down to the water on either side to stop people from crossing the property; it cynically been named an "ecological terrace." Other politicians of today and yesterday, such as Mónica Baltodano and Martha McCoy, have also built houses at Apoyo Lagoon.

The most scandalous case is that of the Granada Islets in Lake Cocibolca, where each island of any size is now privately owned and has a sumptuous house on it. The natural enchantment of the islands has been replaced by the luxury of artificial walls, pastel-colored houses and radio and television antennas. In addition to wealthy foreigners, politicians from the last two governments have also paid bargain prices for their private island. Among them are Minister of Government José Marenco Cardenal; Supreme Electoral Council president Roberto Rivas; Ambassador to Peru René Marín; Attorney General Duilio Baltodano under the Chamorro government; and, of course, Arnoldo Alemán and family. The great paradox is that members of the political class can buy themselves an island, but cannot guarantee one public spot from which the rest of us can enjoy the surroundings.

Tourism: electoral proposals

In his proposal for promoting tourism, PLC presidential candidate Enrique Bolaños suggests facilitating the arrival of pleasure cruisers to Corinto and San Juan del Sur and attracting large international hotel and resort chains to all beaches of the Pacific. His idea would be to turn even modest beach resorts such as El Velero or Pochomil into luxury centers like Montelimar, now owned by a Spanish hotel group. In this design of things, the protagonists of tourist investment would be large companies that develop monumental works, with the state acting as a mere facilitator of their investment in the best of cases. Against the normal trend, it can only be hoped that in this particular case his electoral promise will not be fulfilled. The state must conserve its role of regulating and protecting public spaces for a more balanced tourism that does not create a division between foreign tourists with money and national visitors who cannot jump the wall separating them from the beaches. The FSLN and Conservative Party candidates have yet to mention tourism in their proposals, although the signs are that should they get into government they probably would probably be unable to develop an intelligent and active state role in natural resource management either.

What we don’t know and barely suspect

Nature conceals mysteries that we barely suspect. That is why we are so interested in conserving it, so we can learn from it. Conservation fads, however, sometimes confuse our capacity to learn through figures and terms that float around in the theoretical air with no concrete basis. One fashionable imported term—as usual from the United States—is that of "ecological corridors." These are defined as strips of land that connect different reserves and allow the flow of species between them. It is said that Central America’s protected areas—patches of forestland from Guatemala to Panama—form the Meso-American biological corridor, which was previously known as Panther’s Walk, because it was supposed that large mammals such as panthers and monkeys used this corridor to move around freely. Despite its name, no serious studies have ever proved that these animals really use the corridor, so it continues to exist as a concept and hypothesis without our really knowing how—or if—it really works.

Another example of using a scientific heading to hide our ignorance is the calculation of annual deforestation in Nicaragua, as it has been sold to us since the beginning of the 1980s. It is normal to hear that Nicaragua loses between 100,000 and 150,000 hectares of woodland a year, but such figures are based on estimates made three decades ago, which nobody has updated by measuring the area deforested in the 1980s and 1990s. Nor has it been calculated how much forestland has been recovered in the cattle ranches abandoned in the central region during the war of the 1980s. We actually have no net deforestation balance, which is the balance between recovered forest cover (positive count) and felled forest cover (negative count). The information about deforestation is handled politically, as a warning cry to save our forests. From the scientific perspective, the most exact estimate is the one offered by an expert consulted: "We’ve lost a hell of a lot forest in recent years!"
The lack of ecological knowledge in Nicaragua also influences the development of programs to recover our natural wealth. Take reforestation programs, for example. In Nicaragua and the other Central American countries, reforestation has been promoted using just a few species of trees, many of them imported: leucaena, madero negro, pochote, eucalyptus, etc. They have been set down in plantations of just one species, with all of the trees lined up like soldiers in a military platoon. While we are busy creating uniform woods, we have paid little attention to the numerous species of native trees, such as ñámbar, cedar, guapinol, mora, chocuabo, tololo, genízaro and many others, that also have an interesting potential for reforestation. The error here lies in the knowledge, or rather lack of it: knowing the "psychology" of each tree would allow us to plant combinations of various species and form an area more like a natural wood, which is always a "pluralistic" society and never a ‘militarized" one.

Locked-up wealth

Biological diversity is like a treasure locked up in a drawer to which we do not have the key. The only way of opening up this wealth is to study the ecology of the species involved and discover the different uses we can give them. In Nicaragua, for example, the timber industry exploits a very limited number of species with lumber potential, concentrating on pine, royal cedar, laurel, guanacaste and coyote, among others. The efforts of MARENA’s former wood laboratory, financed by Swedish cooperation in the 1980s, to promote the use of alternative woods produced few results. Builders and furniture makers still use the traditional woods, with only a few starting to experiment a little with other woods out of necessity.

Paradoxically, the more we use natural resources, the more we worry about conserving them. If we know that the wood of only a few species of trees is valuable, all other species seem superfluous and we will have no scruples about eliminating them. But if it can be shown that each plant in our garden has a value—medicinal, esthetic, timber yielding, or anything else—we will expand our concern to care for the greatest amount of varieties possible.

With a little luck and inventiveness, biodiversity can live side by side with sociodiversity. People can participate in caring for the protected areas and the presence and work of human beings can be used to enrich other living beings, both animal and vegetable. Like well-coordinated ants, people can also slowly impose their criteria for careful management of nature on the politicians, who have turned their back on such a vital issue.

Túpac Barahona is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA.

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