Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 194 | Septiembre 1997



Forestry Plan Backfires

Each year 150,000 hectares of forests disappear from Nicaragua’s map. Is the current forest policy sufficient to detain this disaster? Up to now prohibitions and environmental education are not yielding the desired results.

Túpac Barahona

When technicians from an NGO came to his community with a reforestation program, Pedro Ruiz, a small producer in the south of Masaya, told them, "You're coming to propose to me that I plant trees. Fine. But what good does it do me to make the effort to plant a bunch of trees if later, when they're big and I need kindling and wood, MARENA won't let me cut them?" Some of Pedro's neighbors added that they sometimes feel like thieves on their own farms since, to cut their own trees to get the wood they need to repair their houses or work equipment, they have to sneak around without the authorities catching them.

Such testimony to the central contradiction of Nicaragua's forestry policy abounds. State and other bodies operating at a local level establish norms and coercive mechanisms to prevent deforestation at all costs. Paradoxically, they are triggering an effect totally opposite to what they expected. People always find a way to silently get around the norms. And the categorical prohibitions are disincentives to anyone who would care for a tree today in the hope of being able to use it tomorrow. Thus the forestry policy is backfiring.

In an upside down world one opts to waste

The prohibitive slant of the current forestry policy is causing many segments of the lumber and firewood market to develop illegally. Even when peasants live close to the cities and sawmills, they prefer to fell their trees and cut them up with chain saws. For every two boards they cut this way they lose one to sawdust due to the saw's thick teeth. In addition, no matter how steady the cutter's hand, the board ends up more uneven and bent than the forestry policy itself.

The quality of the cut lumber in the sawmills is much better, since the blade of the big table saws wastes much less wood and produces even boards. Furthermore, a running inch of wood from the sawmill costs about 20 centavos (under $.02), while the chain saw operators charge over 50 centavos, at least around Masaya.

So why do the peasants with trees on their farms prefer to pay more for a service that wastes their wood? Because getting permission from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) to use one of the sawmills is a bureaucratic nightmare. As a result, the existing norms for making use of forest resources, which are apparently rational, create a world that functions upside down, one in which waste is preferable.

Ten trees cut illegally, for every one cut legally

The indigenous artisans from the Monimbó neighborhood who fashion small ornamental pieces of wood don't find the visibly grained and colored wood they need in the lumberyards. The species they work with are relatively scarce, so official norms for using them are much stricter. Where do the artisans get their supply? Many go to the Masaya market and poke around in the stalls that sell firewood. Among the bundles, it is sometimes possible to find a piece or two of the wood they are looking for. Obviously the split branches sold as firewood don't exactly meet the artisan's requirements, but it's their only choice. Another example of irrational waste.

The case of wood called "ñambar" is very special. It is considered an endangered species and cutting it is completely prohibited. Nonetheless, the artisans never have any trouble finding it in the Masaya market. It's another wood that the sawmills never see. Since the artisans don't need cut boards to make their small objects, lumber merchants coming from Ochomogo and Rivas bring branches of up to a yard long and distribute them directly to the artisan's shops after threading their way through police and MARENA controls. Since this trading is particularly illegal, ñambar has become the most expensive wood in the country: the artisan pays over 4 córdobas an inch for it, and these costs of illegality are later passed on to the consumer.

Those who benefit from such price increases for wood products aren't the peasants who sell the trees from their farms. They are the lumber merchants who inflate the prices to compensate for the risks of this clandestine business. They are the ones who bring in the best earnings from the sale of wood.

The illegal functioning of the kindling and lumber trade complicates the system of exploiting these resources, but doesn't stop it. The volumes of both increase year after year. According to employees of a local MARENA office, at least ten trees are cut and processed illegally for every one done legally. The main consequences of this are waste in the processing of wood and increased costs of the product all along the commercial chain. As long as this continues, Nicaraguan forestry has little possibility of inserting itself competitively and viably in the international market.

A tangle of prohibitions and corruption

Trucks brimming with firewood are a common scene on the main roads coming into Managua. They come to sell straight off the truck to small neighborhood stores and houses. Police stop them and request to see the permit to transport wood. The driver will probably have an expired permit, maybe even a falsified one, that he has been using to bring out wood for over a month. The driver's got a problem; the three thousand bundles of firewood he's carrying could be confiscated and he may also have to pay a considerable fine. But there's no such thing as an unresolvable problem. The policeman's intransigence is softened with 40 córdobas and the truckdriver gets to his destination without so much as a stick missing.

With this procedure the firewood merchants make their modest incomes and the servants of public order patch up their skimpy salaries. An extensive network of small corruptions weaves and multiplies, blanketing the whole system, from the police who inspect the trucks on the highways, through the local MARENA delegates who issue more permits than the books show and undervalue how much they collect in fees, all the way up to the top echelons of government.

The vulnerability to corruption of MARENA's structures and control systems is well known. Every so often—the cycle could coincide with the changes of government— this ministry feels the need to legitimize itself, to clean up its image, to present an honest face and to uphold the law. It feels called upon to apply the norms with an iron hand to fight those who "ravage the environment." The requisites to be able to extract firewood and lumber get stricter and the procedures more complicated. The owners of wooded areas are asked to present a costly "management plan," approved by a forestry technician, which includes reforestation activities. Falsification-proof permit forms are printed up for cutting and transporting lumber. Corrupt personnel are removed. Inspection operations along highways and at sawmills increase and illegal wood is decommissioned. The state apparatus struggles to shake off the corruption and improve its control systems.

But would Al Capone and his gangsters have gotten so far without Prohibition? The strategy of continually increasing the quality and capacity of the controls doesn't get at the essential problem. In both bootleg liquor and bootleg wood, prohibitions just engender more and better mechanisms to be violated. The more rigid the norms become, the more the possibility of corrupting those who administer them into twisting the law to make it fit reality. Corruption in itself isn't the problem; it's just one round in a vicious circle. Those who formulate the forestry policy have the challenge of finding a way to untangle this knot of prohibitions-conflicts-corruption.

A map isn't the same thing as the territory

"Territorial planning" is the magic word of natural resource conservation policies. It means that you can take a map and outline on it the ideal use for each specific space, so that the territory is "planned." Some lands have a forestry "vocation," where there should be nothing but forests. Valleys and plains are predestined for agriculture and cattle. Highways and roads are projected on the map, together with railroad lines and ports. "Protected areas," which should be used exclusively for resource conservation, are defined. A perfect equilibrium between human activities and the conservation of nature is sketched out across the map.

But once again the dream backfires when what is laid out on the map doesn't coincide with the reality on the ground. The agricultural frontier keeps on advancing where the forest canopy is supposed to be. Peasants plant maize with a handspike on hillside slopes that are so steep the territorial planners decreed them unfit for cultivation. The railroad tracks, instead of expanding their coverage, as had been planned, disappear completely with the flourish of a government pen. And the protected areas turn into a no man's land in which numerous actors compete to use the resources with no regulation for handling the conflicts between them.

How do we explain this gap between the ideal of planning the territory and real human geography? Fortunately, the use of spaces cannot be determined by a unilateral decree from state functionaries. It must grow out of a game in which many players participate, all with their own strengths and interests. The MARENA delegation will use its scarce staff and resources to try to stop indiscriminate deforestation; an environmentalist group will work to set up an ecotourism project; the lumber dealers will seek out the best species of trees; the farmers will make spaces for their planting; the kindling choppers will come with their axes and machetes to collect the fuel most used in the Nicaraguan kitchen... The result will be a dynamic geography in which each actor molds a small part.

Conservation plans would be more realistic and fruitful if the state functionaries, instead of wanting to "plan" the territory, could conceive of "negotiating" it. Instead of drawing maps of "soil vocation," why not set up chess boards for multiple players?

People fit in protected areas

At the entry to the highway that goes down to Laguna de Apoyo, between Masaya and Granada, there's a sign that says "PROTECTED AREA. Exploitation of plants, animals and other natural resources prohibited." The norm about protected areas establishes that productive activities should be reduced to a minimum in them and that all efforts should be geared to conserving the environment. It doesn't leave much room for humans.
The southern part of the lagoon still has some important areas of natural forest. One part—about 120 acres—belongs to the Juan José Quesada cooperative, assigned by the agrarian reform of the 1980s to a dozen families that live in the town of San Juan de Oriente and regularly work the cooperative. Since the edges of the lagoon are considered protected areas, the MARENA delegation in Masaya is responsible for regulating access to these lands for purposes of making use of their natural resources.

In the areas where the tree cover isn't very solid, the families belonging to the cooperative have given themselves a little over an acre each to establish plots for their crops. They also collectively manage 15 head of cattle, their main productive activity, on this land. The rest of the property, over half of it, is a forest that has been regenerating thanks to the care and protection given it by the coop members, with the intention of obtaining benefits later on.

The members are interested in building houses on their plots to have a more stable presence on their land. But to do so, they need to fell some mature trees, to get the posts and beams that will hold up the roofs. They also want to increase the number of animals they are raising, for which they need some investment capital, and they see the sale of firewood and lumber as a way to finance this project.

With these objectives in mind, the cooperative members approached MARENA to see about the possibility of it allowing them to use the trees on their land, with the commitment to simultaneously replace them.

The request entered a long and still not yet concluded negotiation process between the two parties. At the outset MARENA dug its heels into a position of absolute rejection. It argued that the agricultural and cattle activities that the members wanted to develop was the seed of the forest's destruction, that expanding the humanized area would eat up the wooded area bit by bit. At some moment, MARENA tried to turn the proposal into a "barter" with this handful of families: that they leave the area around the lagoon in exchange for an equivalent amount of land in an unprotected zone. The cooperative members turned the ministry's arguments back on it: their very presence was what guaranteed the care and maintenance of the forest. If they pulled out, the area would be left open to anyone. People from the neighboring districts would swarm in like ants to indiscriminately cut firewood. Other cattle ranchers would herd their animals in there, and burning by the surrounding farmers could extend as far as the forest. All the work of numerous years would have been in vain.

Mediation by other local agencies helped calm down the negotiation. The MARENA delegates finally agreed to allow the use of a small number of trees, fewer than the cooperative requested. The introduction of a variety of alternative crops was also discussed, which would occupy a small amount of space and not endanger the forest. The solution was not what either side had wanted, but was a sign that perhaps, just maybe, protected areas have room for human beings too.

How do you make a glove fit all fingers?

Government policies are characteristically homogeneous yet applied on a national scale. One ministerial disposition defined at a central level has repercussions in Cosigüina, in San Juan del Norte, in Cape Gracias a Dios, or in Sapoá. But this unifying strength is also its weakness, because as the saying goes, not all fingers of the hand are the same length.

The plain that extends between Masaya and Tisma doesn't offer many obstacles to the view. If we situate ourselves on a point outside and just above Masaya we can see the Tisma lagoon or "puddle" in the distance without too much trouble. What is hard is to find many trees between one point and another. This is a zone that lived through the cotton boom in the 1950s, whose ripples spread out until the mid-1980s. Extensive mono-cropping of maize and sorghum was also promoted there during the 1980s, in the big haciendas and cooperatives controlled by the state. The combined action of these two forces shaved the landscape of what had been wooded hillsides.

If we move from the southwest of Masaya toward Catarina and the Meseta de los Pueblos, where tiny peasant plots predominate, we will walk through an artificial forest of fruit and wood trees of all species, which begin to mix with the coffee plantations of the region as we climb higher. Different factors created different dynamics in these two zones. To the north trees were cut down, to the south they were planted. But within the clear-cut plain of the north we find wooded farms sprinkling the landscape with green. And in the south, the extensive forest canopy also has bald areas with no trees.

Does it make sense to apply homogeneous policies to such diverse situations? Prohibitive national level policies can produce damaging effects at a local level. The producers who have cared for their trees can end up without motivation to continue to do so, and the people whose lands are barren won't feel sufficiently motivated to plant trees on them. How does one design a glove that fits all the fingers of reality?

Local commissions: Who's in charge here?

Concentrating decisions at the highest levels of the institutional structures files off differences and tends to generate homogeneous norms in which the saints pay for the sinners. The creation of heterogeneous rules can only happen in the framework of local bodies in which decisions are made jointly and with everybody's participation.

Along these lines, MARENA promoted the creation of Ecological Commissions, or Environmental Commissions, at a local level over the past few years, with the aim of opening spaces for discussion at a local level. In many cases, however, the majority of representatives in the commission belong to the municipal government, MARENA itself and other organizations that promote environmentalist actions. The lumber merchants, cattle ranchers, firewood splitters and sellers and other actors, whose interests are centered on using the natural resources, not on conserving them, have little effective presence. The environmentalists generally take over these commissions and turn them into a medium for legitimizing their interests and imposing their will on everyone else. The challenge of constructing local spaces that allow more balanced negotiation dynamics is still to be met.

Reforestation: An end in itself?

The other side of the coin is the forestry policy, which promotes reforestation rather than prohibiting cutting. It doesn't only seek to care for the forests that have survived, but to create new forested areas where there aren't any. If conserving the natural forests is a good goal, reforesting is naturally also a good objective.

The problem is that today, when the destruction of forestry resources has become an ethical question, one of consciousness, it looks like an end in itself. As a consequence, one of the main methods the state and NGOs use to promote reforestation is "environmental education." This education seeks to conscienticize people about the values of planting trees and the importance of conserving them and other natural resources. "Ecological brigades" of students are organized to do the educating, and they take charge of reforesting parks, streets and schools, announcing to all comers the good news about reforestation.

Ordinary folk don't quite get this compulsive adoration of trees, however. They see trees as a means that provides them with multiple benefits. The peasants get the forked uprights and the crossbeams for their houses and they build their carts and work equipment from them. The women in the neighborhoods need firewood daily for cooking. The wood merchants see the trees as a source of earnings. Common people see the trees at their service, not the other way around.

Brief history of a "communal" nursery

Another typical way of organizing reforestation is to form "communal nurseries." In the Masaya Plain, MARENA promoted a series of nurseries of this type in the past few years. In the San Ramón district, a MARENA promoter took on the mission of preparing a nursery with 70,000 tiny seedlings with "community participation." Chepe Ruiz, a plot holder benefited by the agrarian reform, offered a small space on his land for the nursery, which theoretically would be set up by all the interested families. MARENA would be responsible for providing polyethylene bags, seeds and other materials.

For various reasons, the planned work didn't pan out in practice. The difficulty in organizing the work under a rotation system in which all members would participate, as well as the indefinition of which and how many little plants those who participated would have the right to take, discouraged those "interested" in investing time in the nursery. The planned production target—70,000 seedlings—exceeded local absorption capacity, which we estimate at some 30,00. The forest species to be produced didn't always coincide with people's preferences. And MARENA, due to financial problems, wasn't capable of supplying all the materials promised.

In the end, MARENA opted to pay Chepe Ruiz a salary to take charge of the work of the "communal nursery." But even then MARENA's financial problems prevented it from supplying all the bags and seeds programmed, and it couldn't continue sustaining the salary of the forestry technician in charge of promoting the nursery, who thus never came back to the community. Final result: Chepe Ruiz managed to produce 3,000 seedlings by his own effort—4% of what had been programmed—which he planted on his own land and gave away to friends.

What had happened? MARENA thought that the community would automatically take on the reforestation, with the conviction that it was a project that would benefit everyone. But in reality, the reforestation didn't interest everyone equally, and the "community" didn't function as such, since the families and groups that make it up have their own interests and ways of organizing themselves to work.

FONDOSILVA: Order and schematization

MARENA has also promoted reforestation through FONDOSILVA, a fund of subsidies for silviculture and forest management at a national level that was created in 1993 with the support of Swedish cooperation. Through FONDOSILVA the state pays a certain amount of money to rural producers who reforest. In theory, the subsidy covers 70% of the material and labor costs of reforestation.

FONDOSILVA has focused on financing aligned forestry plantations, in which the young trees seem like an army of little soldiers all in a line along squared off rows. Other, less "ordered" forms of foresting that the people develop on their own—the famous agroforestry systems—have no place in this program . It is common for beneficiaries of the subsidies to reroute the money into other uses, neglecting the development of the tree plantations. FONDOSILVA has concentrated on a small number of beneficiaries—only about a thousand hectares in the whole country—without expanding massively among the peasants.

The vision of the state and of some NGOs of a schematic reforestation conceived of as an end in itself has prevented the people, who in fact do carry out many spontaneous tree planting practices, from embracing these programs.

From coercion to motivation

The current forestry policy puts a marked emphasis on coercion and conscientization as the means for orienting the behavior of a population toward caring for the forestry resources. But in the majority of cases these approaches backfire. Despite experiences and evidence of this, the state is determined to continue using them again and again, increasing controls and prohibitions and expanding environmental education campaigns.

Shouldn't the problem be approached from another angle? A peasant from the Masaya plain told a MARENA inspector who caught him with "his hands in the cookie jar," cutting a tree, "It's good that you fine me for having cut this tree. But now I want you to tell me how much you're going to pay me for all the new little trees I planted on my farm with so much effort."
The forestry policy would have a better chance of being effective if it was based less on coercion and more on awakening the latent motivations among the different social actors linked to this resource. These motivations aren't based on abstract ecological discourses about conserving nature.

The wood merchants want to earn more. The transformation of the entire wood processing and commercializing chain, from the standing tree to the finished piece of furniture, must be supported to make it more efficient.

The peasants need to capitalize their economies. Those who plant tree areas should be given open, long-term credit incentives. The inhabitants of the protected areas should be negotiated with so that they can develop their productive activities without endangering the natural surroundings, advising them so they can develop new technologies adapted to their reality.

As the social actors become increasingly motivated and economically stimulated to participate in natural resource renewal, controls would become less and less necessary. And the relationship with the state wouldn't be one of mistrust and fear, but one of co-management in a project in which common interests are at stake. In the end we would all come out ahead, all of us including our friends the trees.

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