Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 260 | Marzo 2003



Municipal Governments and Natural Resources: Swimming Upstream?

Municipal governments are swimming against the current to defend the natural resources in their area, often ineffectively. But environmental protection and local economic benefits can be compatible if we can get past the “doctrine of guilt.”

Túpac Barahona, Ove Faurby, Virginia Zeledón

San Francisco Libre’s municipal government is tired of trying to stop the logging that’s impoverishing the municipality’s forests. The people who gather and sell firewood invariably find a way to mock its efforts, going so far as to bribe the guards at the checkpoints on the main highway to look the other way when they pass with a load of wood. The municipal government of León, with somewhat more resources than San Francisco Libre, has even decreed an ordinance to regulate the extraction of firewood but has had no more success than San Francisco Libre.

In their efforts to protect the natural resources in their municipalities, the local governments seem to be fighting a current that they find impossible to channel or stem. In the case of León and San Francisco Libre, it is made up of hundreds of poor farmers and small truckers who eke out a living by cutting and selling firewood, the most widely used cooking fuel in the country. With their scarce resources, the municipal governments cannot control the economic forces that exploit any natural resource that has commercial value. Does this exhausting battle against the tide make any sense, when there are so few results? To answer this question, we surveyed 45 of the country’s 151 municipal governments by phone and visited 9 municipalities the length of the Pacific strip: from El Viejo in the north, down through Chichigalpa, León, San Francisco Libre, Nindirí, Catarina and Ticuantepe, to Rivas and Tola in the south.

The residents benefit the least

The municipal governments view protecting the natural resources within their boundaries as one of their responsibilities, especially when they see people from outside with more economic power or political influence exploiting local resources without any benefit to the residents. In San Francisco Libre, those who benefit most from the firewood extraction are the truckers who come from Las Maderas, a town in the neighboring municipality of Tipitapa, to buy it from the peasants then later resell it in Managua.

José Ernesto Quezada, a field technician in Tola’s municipal government, explains that his municipality is particularly concerned about regulating access to and use of Tola’s most valuable resource: its beaches. A group of municipal councilors decided to open access roads to the beach in front of the old Güiscoyol estate because the owners of the Iguana Beach tourist complex and other neighboring estates had closed off all public access except by a long walk from a neighboring beach. The municipal government’s steps aroused the ire of these large landowners, who wanted to enjoy the beaches as if they belonged only to them. A similar case occurred in Laguna de Apoyo, in the municipality of Catarina, where politicians and other wealthy people have gradually taken over stretches of the beach by building additions to their lakefront homes that extend to the neighboring house, leaving no public access to the water. In Nicaragua as in most countries, beaches and coastlines are legally designated as public domain, though they may be leased to individuals.

Municipal governments
are caught in the middle

In their initiatives to protect the natural resources, municipal governments must not only deal with those who exploit those resources, but also adjust their functions and responsibilities to those of the central government. There has recently been much talk of decentralization and Nicaragua’s municipal governments now have a Municipalities Law that grants them a good deal of autonomy, but the reality is that the state remains very centrist. In practice, the central government has been very reluctant to cede control and even more reluctant to cede any of its budget to the municipal governments.

The central government has its own Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MARENA) that is responsible for natural resource protection. MARENA’s Protected Areas Department establishes norms and regulations for managing the entire system of protected areas at a national level, which in theory includes areas declared to be protected by MARENA, those declared by the municipal governments, and reserves established by private owners.

Municipal governments make their efforts to protect natural resources within this national regulatory framework. These efforts are aimed at managing natural resource use in a variety of ways, ranging from very tenuous attempts at regulation—such as negotiating with private landowners not to cut down the forests on their land—to municipal government ownership of land for conservation purposes.

In our visit to the municipalities mentioned, we found a variety of regulations. Some municipal governments, including the one in Rivas, have no formal initiatives to protect their natural resources but express interest in making better use of them to promote tourism or other activities that could foster development. Other municipal governments, such as Tola, have no legally protected areas within their boundaries but have identified places where conservation is important, such as Mohosa Mountain, and have negotiated with the nearby inhabitants to protect the mountain’s remaining patches of forest. Such areas fall under a kind of municipal protection that is not formally classified as conservation.

Several municipal governments also participate to a greater or lesser degree in joint management initiatives for protected areas of national interest designated by the central government. Such is the case of the municipality of El Viejo, which includes two protected areas of national interest: the Cosigüina Volcano and the Padre Ramos Estuary. The municipality of León includes Juan Venado Island, another of the protected areas where MARENA has agreed to allow “co-management.” Finally, some municipal governments have their own land that they have decided to dedicate to conservation. The government of Chichigalpa, among others, has established municipal ecological parks on them. This short list suggests the range of mechanisms that municipal governments have found to protect the natural resources within their boundaries, sometimes in coordination and at other times in conflict with the central government.

Ecological parks and municipal autonomy

The recently approved Municipalities Law empowers municipal governments to designate these “municipal ecological parks” on their own initiative. Once done, they become part of the National System of Protected Areas. In other words, once a series of procedural requirements have been met and a management plan drawn up, MARENA must recognize them as protected areas. Some municipal governments, including Acoyapa, Chichigalpa and Bluefields, have tried to obtain MARENA recognition but thus far with no success.

In fact, recognition of the ecological parks within the National System of Protected Areas could mean the municipal governments losing the autonomy to manage them, since management would become subject to the norms established by the ministry. Once an ecological park is created, the central government would probably prevent the municipal government from changing its mind, or changing the management norms established in the plan. It is highly probable that MARENA would also restrict the municipal government’s freedom to decide what to do with the bigger ecological parks, although there is no legal basis for this.

Of course, recognition of the ecological parks at a central level could also help protect the natural resources from the forces the municipal government views as a threat. Francisca Jarquín, environmental protection officer in the Nindirí municipal government, took us to the “Piedra Quemada” area, where the municipality is planning to establish an ecological park on a swath of volcanic rocks that have fallen from the Masaya volcano. By creating the park, the municipal government is hoping to prevent the central government’s mining institute from granting any more concessions to extract rock from this area.

Co-management initiatives:
Top down or bottom up?

Co-managing a protected area is in theory a way to involve civil society and local governments in administering a protected area of national interest. According to the Regulation on Protected Areas (Decree 14-99), universities, municipal governments and NGOs can ask MARENA to assign them the responsibility for planning and managing a protected area. MARENA establishes the management norms and supervises the administration, but other bodies take responsibility for directly managing the area.

By law, municipal governments can participate in managing or even directly administer an area ceded for co-management. To date, however, all such areas are being managed by NGOs, most of them with the support of funds from USAID’s Co-management of Protected Areas Project (COMAP). From the start, the COMAP project sought to encourage NGOs to manage protected areas but did not contemplate financing other entities that could participate in co-management. Each NGO chosen to receive project funds must hire a technical team made up of ecology specialists. In practice, the team responsible for managing each area makes most of the management decisions, in coordination with the COMAP staff, while the NGO representatives have only limited influence.

Municipal governments participate in these co-management initiatives in a very timid, indirect way, by coordinating with the NGOs or participating on local co-management committees. In some cases, co-management has meant that the municipal governments do not actively participate in managing the area at all. The government of León, for example, has let FUNCOD take full responsibility for managing Juan Venado Island, limiting its involvement to a minimum.

Municipal governments could, however, take a much more active role in making decisions about such areas. Local co-management committees are ideal forums for the municipal governments to express their ideas about how protected areas should be managed, but our impression is that many municipal governments have undervalued or minimized the potential of these forums.

The ambiguity of public property

The issue of ownership is invariably linked to that of protecting natural resources. Despite this intimate relationship, however, ownership categories do not coincide with the categories used for protected land. An area protected under the category of a natural reserve can include several different kinds of ownership: national land, communal land and private land. The areas under protection are superimposed on various forms of property ownership like two different outlines that have to fit on the same map.

This situation complicates the municipal governments’ work of protecting natural resources. When a protected area involves private property, the municipal government must negotiate with the owners to preserve the natural resources on their land. When it is public property, the municipal government must ascertain whether it is responsible for managing the area or that responsibility falls to the central government.
It is not entirely clear that the central or municipal governments are responsible for managing beaches and coastlines, but many municipal governments have taken on that responsibility. This is the position of the municipal government of Tola, which charges a tax on houses and hotels built in Pie de Gigante Bay, a virtually untouched beach where the first investors have recently set foot.

The law defines municipal property in a general way as ejidal or communal land. Article 44 of the Municipalities Law states that “Ejidal lands are municipal property, of a communal nature; they may be leased but not sold. Their use will be determined by the respective Municipal Council, in accord with the law on this matter.” The origins of this municipal land are not entirely clear but presumably date back to the “ejidos and common lands,” measured by counting one league in all four directions from the center of the town square, which were “assigned” to and administered by each indigenous community.

A second kind of communal land in the colonial period was made up of larger areas that the Spanish crown either donated or sold to the indigenous communities, in what was probably its way of respecting the pre-Colombian form of property. These two kinds of communal land could be leased but not sold—the same stipulation still found three centuries later in the Municipalities Law. The exact legal status of these lands today is somewhat confused, however, since they are not generally listed in the Public Property Registry under the municipal government’s name.

We also found references to more recent donations of communal land that are clearly supported by the law in effect at the time. For example, the central government donated the Padre Ramos Estuary in El Viejo and the Musún Mountain in Río Blanco to the municipalities by decree. National lands that have become municipal common lands in this way often cover a significant part of the municipal territory, and the municipal governments have considerable freedom in deciding how to manage them and their natural resources. It is our impression, however, that the municipal governments do not take sufficient advantage of this possibility, limiting themselves in the best of cases to taxing those who live or grow crops on the land.

In some cases, the municipal government’s communal land coincides with land declared a protected area of national interest, as is the case of the Padre Ramos Estuary. There is a legal contradiction here, since the regulations on protected areas give the power to set their management standards to MARENA rather than the local government. While it is not clear which of the two decrees prevails in such cases, it is clear that the municipal governments could take much more advantage of their legal and political space to manage their communal lands.

Conservation and use of the Quebrachal forest

Many municipal governments have established environmental offices whose work focuses on regulating or prohibiting natural resource exploitation. Municipal governments typically try to reduce tree felling by setting up lookout posts, following up on accusations and pressuring central government institutions such as MARENA and the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR) to step up their controls. We have not found a single municipal government, however, that is satisfied with the results of protection based on prohibitions and controls. The best that has been achieved with this method is to slow the rate of forest degradation.

Not all local governments are struggling against the current, however. The municipality of Chichigalpa, continuing activities initiated by the Pikín Guerrero Project, has organized fire brigades to protect the secondary Quebrachal forest on the slopes of San Cristóbal volcano. This example is particularly interesting because the poor farmers from nearby communities make up the brigades. “When we began to protect these copses, there wasn’t enough wood here to make a plow,” said Ulises Hernández, president of the peasant cooperative that assumed care of the forest eight years ago.

Today Ulises and the other peasants from the nearby town of El Pellizco are beginning to see the fruits of their efforts. The forest has grown and is providing firewood and lumber for house repairs and tools. The municipal government supports the community organization, and both have benefited from the initiative: the government has succeeded in regenerating a forest that was on the verge of becoming scrub land, and the farmers are meeting their need for firewood and lumber. The municipal government has hired Enrique Reyes, another young peasant from El Pellizco, to take charge of environmental protection for the municipality. Enrique knows all the different species of trees in the area and has the community ties that make him an excellent liaison between the municipal government and the peasants. This is one good example of how resource conservation and use can be mutually compatible.

Successful experiences take
advantage of local trends

Tola’s government is seeking a similar way to protect Mohosa Mountain, home to some of the municipality’s largest remnants of mature forest. The government has negotiated with the cooperatives that own the land to get them to moderate their use of the forest and stop activities that cause significant damage, such as slash and burn agriculture. And when a cooperative member violates the agreement by clearing land to plant, the government negotiates to have the terrain left as it is, to facilitate regeneration, and promises in exchange not to press legal charges against the farmer.

León’s municipal government has bought some 13 hectares of land from the neighboring municipality of La Paz Centro to help protect the watershed around Lake Asososca. The point of this purchase is not entirely clear, however; it appears to us that the success achieved thus far in conserving the watershed is related to work done with neighboring residents rather than the municipality’s purchase of the land.

In all of these cases, success in conservation has come about through dialogue with the residents in and around the areas under protection, while control based on the imposition of authority has had little positive impact. Residents are motivated when environmental protection is combined with access to the benefits of the forest, such as wood for domestic use. This is a way of taking advantage of local currents, channeling them towards positive conservation, instead of thrashing ineffectually against them.

Overcoming the “doctrine of guilt”

All of Nicaragua’s municipalities have natural resources, some quite visible and appreciated, such as a volcano, a virgin forest or a lake, others less visible, like a quarry or a household well. These resources form the basis of the rural population’s survival and provide raw materials for the economic activity of the urban centers. The municipal governments are obviously concerned about their management.

Natural resource management ideally includes both conservation and exploitation for the benefit of the local population. In the past, municipal governments have been more inclined to conservation, concentrating their efforts on protecting ecosystems and threatened animals and plants, preventing natural disasters and protecting water sources against contamination. They have been less concerned about taking maximum advantage of the natural resources to benefit the municipality’s inhabitants or increase its income by charging taxes or use fees.

Taxes are mainly perceived as an instrument tied to conservation, and are charged to compensate for environmental destruction. At the same time, natural resources are perceived more as victims to be defended than as potential to be unleashed. Municipal governments share in the questionable “doctrine of guilt” that predominates in Nicaragua today with respect to nature, a doctrine that sees a strong contradiction between conservationists and reforestation on one side of the line, and loggers and deforestation on the other.

This contradiction is apparent, not real. While most of the country’s forests are indeed being irrationally overexploited, that doesn’t mean this is the only possible form of exploitation, or the one that generates the most income. Many ways to increase the income generated from an area do not cause undue harm to the environment. The range of possibilities includes income-generating activities such as farming, mining, fishing and the like; attracting tourists who bring money into the municipality; extracting raw materials for the area’s homes and industry; providing recreational spaces for the municipality’s inhabitants; and recycling domestic and industrial waste, to name but a few.

Backpacker tourism: A few simple ideas

Many municipal governments see tourism as the largest potential source of income in protected areas. Municipal officials tend to believe that tourism is the least damaging use of the land, with the greatest potential to generate income. There are people in every municipal government full of ideas about what the municipality can offer tourists and they look at the municipality’s natural resources from this perspective.

Nevertheless, we found no municipal initiatives aimed at encouraging tourism, either in a specific site or at the municipal level. Let’s take the municipality of León as an example: the city and surrounding rural areas offer innumerable attractions of all kinds and the local government has been working to keep up the churches, improve the city’s historic center, clean the river and protect the mangroves. Private enterprise, including both local and foreign investors, is taking advantage of the opportunities promoted by the municipal government and the various projects in the area, but there is no coordination among them. Each hotel promotes itself without contributing either new ideas or money to any larger endeavor to promote tourism in the region as a whole. The municipal government, NGOs and donors develop sites to attract tourists without knowing who will visit them or how to recover their investments. The municipal government could play a much more active role in coordinating these various efforts, taking the initiative to design tourist routes, draw up maps and promote the city, and encouraging investments with mixed public and private funds.

With respect to protected areas, León’s municipal government has been paying attention to the Juan Venado Island for over a decade, making considerable efforts to save the sea turtles, forests and mangroves. But it hasn’t managed to generate any income for the municipal government or the local inhabitants by doing so. Through a co-management agreement with MARENA and the municipal government, an NGO known as FUNCOD has recently begun opening up the island for tourism, which for now consists only of offering boat trips through the estuary.

Municipal governments sometimes fail to undertake initiatives related to tourism for lack of money. They fear that a great deal of money is required to get started, because they think that every tourist needs a four-star hotel, an air conditioned bus and a power boat, and that all services should be provided with the newest equipment. They don’t realize that there are many possibilities to do many things with very little money.

In the case of the Juan Venado Island, they could begin by putting up a sign at the entrance to Poneloya Beach saying, “Turn left to visit Juan Venado Island.” At the estuary, another sign could advertise tours and trips in rowboats. The municipal government could organize a network of authorized guides and boats, and later prepare a flyer and map. After an initial period to get the plan going, the municipal government could recover its costs by charging a small sum for authorizing the private boats.

Promoting tourism isn’t just a question of money

There are interesting sites in all of the country’s municipalities that could be made available to tourists without doing much more than organizing the resources that already exist in the area. Alain Meyrat of FUNDENIC explains that all they had to do in Río Blanco was declare Musún Mountain a co-managed protected area and tourists started showing up, even though it was a remote, unknown site. Río Blanco’s municipal government then contributed to the effort by opening up a place where backpacking travelers could sleep and leave their belongings while they climb.

Another barely explored “product” that could be offered tourists is the possibility of their participating in some of the activities that the area’s inhabitants normally carry out: a traditional oven or an oxcart are exotic and interesting to tourists from countries where such things are part of a distant history. It doesn’t have to cost much to promote tourism. Guidebooks for travelers are available in northern countries that cover all the possible destinations on the planet. They don’t charge to mention a site; one only has to send them the information. How can people here find out about these guidebooks? The tourists carry them. It’s simply a matter of copying down the address and, if the books are written in a foreign language, asking the traveler to help translate a few paragraphs.

The Internet is another inexpensive way to publicize local attractions. The municipal government of Catarina has a web page to promote the municipality (http://www.ibw.com.ni/~catarina/) and has set up an Internet café in its offices, with the support of AOL Time Warner. This kind of promotion is within the reach of many municipal governments.

Overcoming the stigma

Forests are exploited behind the authorities’ backs, and the activity is frowned upon by the population as well. Not even those who use, process and consume forest products defend the exploitation they themselves are engaged in.

The very positive case of the Quebrachal forest, where instead of stigmatizing the woodcutters, the municipal government is promoting the simultaneous exploitation and protection of the forest, is an incipient model that must still be developed. The neighboring peasants can now meet their own firewood needs but do not yet produce enough wood for the carpenters in the town of Chichigalpa, who depend on unmanaged exploitation of the forests on the slopes of the Cosigüina Volcano. It would be possible to set a goal of producing more from the Quebrachal forest without endangering its role in stabilizing the slopes of San Cristóbal.

This kind of forest management aims to eliminate malformed trees or those with little value, rather than take the best trees, as is too often the case. This can help facilitate the regeneration of desired species. Optimal management of a forest like this requires technical assistance, and forestry experts in the country still have much to learn about processes within these secondary forests, but much progress can be made even without technical support. Most small farmers understand how the forests work; the challenge is to make it possible for them to apply their knowledge in practice, instead of continuing the current dynamic in which conservationists act during the day while the illegal woodcutters take over at night.

Natural resources: A tax source?

Municipal governments constantly lament their lack of resources and often use this excuse to justify their lack of effectiveness on environmental issues. On very few occasions do they look at the issue the other way around, to consider the fact that natural resources can also generate income for the municipal governments through taxes. The protected areas themselves are not the main sources of taxes, since they are mostly public or communal property, and in the case of private property the owners generally expect a tax exoneration in exchange for their commitment to protect the land. All this might explain why municipal governments pay little attention to these areas as possible sources of revenue.

In fact, however, the greatest income from tourism is often generated outside the protected areas themselves. Once a protected area begins to attract tourists, it suddenly makes sense to open a restaurant at the turn-off to the park, or the hotels in town begin to have more clients. Well-managed forestry can revive a town’s carpentry shops and perhaps encourage someone to open a sawmill. All of this new economic activity could be subject to taxes that would allow municipal governments to increase their budgets. And if the government plays an important role in creating sources of income by managing protected areas and providing incentives for tourism and forestry activities, the population is more able and more likely to be willing to pay a bit more in taxes. Taxes will begin to fill the community coffers when the municipal government establishes its legitimacy and becomes involved in managing its natural resources.

The capacity to collect taxes

Another kind of tax related to natural resources that could be of interest to municipal governments is the property tax. Since a recent law is gradually decreasing the percentage of sales and service taxes that municipal governments can collect, property taxes will become one of their main sources of income in the future. Many municipalities do not collect as much as they could in property taxes because they don’t have a current registry that allows them to identify and appraise the properties subject to taxation. Some municipal governments, like Rivas, have an urban registry but have not developed a system for rural areas. To collect rural property taxes, these municipal governments depend on people voluntarily coming in to pay taxes based on the value the owners themselves declare, since the governments do not make their own appraisals. In the case of communal land, municipal governments typically charge a land use tax. People who have built on communal land are also legally subject to property taxes, but the municipal governments do not usually charge them.

Property taxes would be an even more significant source of revenue if the promotion of tourism around protected areas increased the value of land. With an effective land appraisal system, municipal governments could also benefit from this increase in value, which would create a virtuous economic circle to the benefit of all.

Put match to candle:
Make use of existing resources

These are some examples of how municipal governments can swim with the current of local initiatives to take greater advantage of the natural resources they possess, whether by attracting tourists, promoting carpentry or collecting more taxes, while at the same time protecting nature. Implementing these initiatives is not so much a matter of finding more resources but rather of figuring out how better to organize and release the potential of the resources already existing in the municipality. In the words of William Areas, an environmental engineer involved in co-managing the Cosigüina Volcano, “Sometimes it’s like we’re walking along in the dark with a match in one hand and a candle in the other. To get some light, all we have to do is to light the candle with the match. Similarly, if we could bring local resources together around a good idea, we could transform the natural resource management of any of our municipalities.”

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The Names of the Rose

Six Realistic Theories About the Mythical 6%

Municipal Governments and Natural Resources: Swimming Upstream?

El Salvador
Could the Community “Over There” Depolarize Politics “Over Here”?


George W. Bush: A Dictator by Any Other Name...

Always at War against Someone

Weakness, Inequality and Complicity

War Is a Defeat for Humanity
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development