Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 100 | Noviembre 1989



The Nicaraguan Environment.... A Legacy of Destruction

Envío team

The Esquipulas process has been concerned not only with problems of war and peace in Central America, but also with the region's ecological problems. In the recent presidential summit meeting in Tela, Honduras, the new Central American Commission on Environment and Development was called upon to hold its first meeting at the end of August, to draft an accord that would regulate its nature and functions.

Although less in the news, this issue is urgent enough that envío listed Nicaragua's environmental problems and possible solutions as one of the themes for its second annual Writers Congress. The following article, by US ecologist and journalist Anne Larson, was the winner of the competition this year.

—The editors

In a similar pattern repeated throughout the Third World, Nicaragua's environmental problems are rooted in a system of exploitation that began with British and Spanish colonialism, became entrenched under US imperialism and the Somoza dictatorship, and is still manifested today in the agroexport model, an economic model in which so-called developed nations keep their poorer neighbors entrapped. Nicaragua, with the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in July 1979, broke out of the orbit of US domination, but it will take many years before the revolutionary government will be able to reverse the environmental effects of this oppression.

Environmental problems in the Third World, generated by this history of exploitation and the agroexport model and aggravated by the world economic crisis, have completely different implications than environmental problems in the advanced industrial countries. Says René Escoto, economist with CRIES (Regional Coordinator on Economic and Social Research), "In developed nations, environmental problems refer to the quality of life; in the Third World, they have implications for the survival of the majority of the population."

The agroexport economy is based on the production of raw materials for industrial markets. It is built on a system of inequality in land ownership and access to resources. The Sandinista government has changed those patterns of ownership but is still trapped in the economy itself by the infrastructure that supports it, the current international economic order and a national economic crisis created by the US-backed counterrevolutionary war and the agroexport model itself.

As direct and indirect environmental effects, this economic model—which typically is not concerned with long-term effects on the environment and the population—has brought about extensive deforestation, overuse of pesticides, contamination of waters, soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, massive urbanization and so on.

Faced with this legacy, the first law passed by the new revolutionary government with respect to the environment decreed the natural resources of the country the property of the people and government of Nicaragua, prohibiting their extraction by foreign corporations. The first new institution formed was the Institute for Natural Resources and the Environment (IRENA), which launched a series of exemplary policies and programs in an attempt to protect and restore Nicaragua's devastated environment. Some 18% of the country's land was targeted for national parkland. The export of endangered species was banned. (Under Somoza, Nicaragua exported more rare and endangered species than any other Central American country.) Projects in soil conservation, flood control and reforestation, and research in alternative technology were initiated. Several of the most dangerous pesticides commonly used in Nicaragua were banned, and experimentation was begun on integrated pest management programs. Environmental education is now included as a part of formal education in many primary schools.

Some of these programs continue today. Some have been abandoned as the war picked up force and demanded more resources and as the ensuing economic crisis has deepened. But through innovation, international aid and a new emphasis on community participation, environmental protection and restoration continue.

Environmental destruction

The problems are enormous. A 1981 IRENA study of water quality in Nicaragua showed 75% of the nation's water sources contaminated by agricultural residues, 50% by sewage and 25% by highly toxic industrial wastes. Before 1979, the rivers near the mining towns of Bonanza, Siuna and Rosita were dumps for more than 4,000 tons of cyanide from gold-mining companies. Every year, the rivers of Matagalpa and Jinotega are heavily polluted by coffee production. An estimated 30% of Nicaragua's forests were wiped out in the 1970's alone, partly from international logging companies. Some of the most devastated forests, near urban areas, continue to be exploited at a startling rate due to the demand for firewood; wood provides 90% of household and 25% of industrial fuel.

On top of this human-made destruction, in October 1988, hurricane Joan wiped out 22% of Nicaragua's forests from the Atlantic coast to central Nicaragua. Though the ecological damage was severe—as was the damage to the region's infrastructure—recent studies show the forest to be recuperating naturally at an unexpected rate, and international experts consider it unnecessary to take actions other than fire prevention and control. It is unclear what additional damages may be caused by the loss of this forest covering, but flooding and soil erosion will undoubtedly be more severe throughout the region.

Nicaragua's most serious environmental problems can be divided into three main areas: the Pacific Region, which began its grave deterioration with the introduction of cotton in the 1950s; Managua, including the contamination of Lake Xolotlán (Lake Managua) and the rapid and disordered urbanization of the city; and the war, which has had both direct and indirect effects on Nicaragua's environment and environmental programs.

The Pacific region

During the 1950's cotton production, heavily financed by foreign capital and the Nicaraguan banking system, rapidly replaced coffee as Nicaragua's major export crop. Between 1950 and 1973, the area in cotton production expanded from 4,000 to 85,000 acres, making Nicaragua the fifteenth largest cotton producer in the world by 1971 with the fifth largest yield per acre.

Before this time, the Pacific had some of the most fertile land in the country and was rich in the production of basic grains (beans, corn and sorghum), fruit and beef. Chinandega was famous for its oranges. There were seemingly endless forests of high-quality hardwoods.

But the rapid growth of cotton production changed the face of the land completely. By the mid-1960's, basic grain production by small producers had dropped over 50%, and 80% of the Pacific's arable land (40% of the national territory under cultivation) was producing cotton.

The chain of environmental destruction that was set off by the invasion of cotton will take many years just to stop; it will take far longer to reverse the damage that has been done. Though the causes of this destruction are integrally related, the roots can be traced to three main factors: massive deforestation, the intensive cultivation of vast expanses of a single crop, and the introduction of and increasing dependence on pesticides.

Deforestation. Large landowners hungry for greater profits devastated most of the region's dry tropical forest in the lowlands to make way for cotton plantations. A regional study quotes the rate of deforestation in the region before 1980 as one of the highest in Central America, reaching 40,500 acres per year at its peak. Small farmers, left with little alternative, also contributed to the destruction of the forest.

Peasant farmers were forced to compete with large landowners in cotton production, cotton now being the only crop that the national banks would finance in the Pacific region. Unable to pay back their debts at the end of the season, they forfeited their fertile land to the bank and were left with the option to become wage laborers on the large plantations or find new land. Small farmers who chose the latter began the expansion of what is known as the agricultural frontier. They moved up the steep slopes of the Maribios mountain chain, or into other areas of the country, generally clearing land whose low fertility meant that after three or four years the farmer would have to clear new land and move again.

Today the greatest damage to the few remaining forested areas is the population's pressing need for firewood, the main—and cheapest—source of fuel in the country.

Mono-cropping. The cultivation of vast expanses of a single crop is devastating to soil quality. Any intensive monoculture rapidly depletes the topsoil of important nutrients and organic matter. This process is accelerated by the overuse of pesticides, which kills not only the damaging insects and pests but also the microorganisms that keep the soil fertile and alive. With no covering vegetation to protect it from wind and rain, the soil is vulnerable to massive erosion, which also carries away organic topsoil. In one state-owned cotton plantation near León, almost 280 acres were turned over to IRENA in 1984 after cotton production dropped from its peak 3,500 pounds/acre to 300 pounds/acre in 1983. This land had been under intensive cotton cultivation for 30 years.

The deforested highlands and the vulnerable plains of cotton fields are a destructive combination in the rainy season. The use of heavy machinery in the cotton fields also exacerbates the problem, compacting the soil and preventing rainwater from filtering into the ground. The effects are well known in the region. The forest canopy no longer absorbs the force of rains in the highlands; little rainwater filters into the ground, instead flooding downhill in any available gully or streambed. Every rainy season, flooding damages roads, bridges, homes and crops throughout the area.

In these annual floods, more and more soil is carried into the rivers, lakes and the ocean, causing sedimentation at an alarming rate and depletion of the water supply. The rate of erosion has been as high as 18 tons/acre/year in the Pacific plains, where 5 tons is considered acceptable.

The deforestation in the lowlands and wide-open fields also makes the region famous for its dust storms in the dry season. Before windbreaks were planted during the revolution, there were times when vehicles had to turn on their headlights in broad daylight in order to see.

Wind and water erosion have additional consequences when coupled with the overuse of agrochemicals. In the dust storms, the winds carry pesticide residues that cause skin and chronic respiratory problems not only in the rural but also in the urban populations. Flooding carries pesticide residues into the rivers where people bathe and sometimes drink and into the drinking water supply, and to the ocean where it has probably affected marine life.

Pesticides. Under an agreement between Somoza, the national and international banks and transnational agrochemical producers, cotton production was introduced in Nicaragua with a complete "technological package" that included credits for machinery, other equipment and agrochemicals. Because of the intensive cultivation of the soil that rapidly lowered its fertility, producers became more and more dependent on pesticides to guarantee high yields. And as natural predators were killed off and new resistant strains of pests appeared, farmers had to apply increasingly greater amounts and kinds of pesticides more frequently, a process known as the pesticide treadmill. Whereas annual insecticide applications ranged from 5 to 10 in the 1950's, by the end of the next decade, some fields were being sprayed as many as 35 times.

Pesticide use became widespread as other producers sought to improve yields in other crops, especially coffee and sugar cane, also grown in large plantations. But small and medium producers, who rarely use protective equipment or understand the danger, also began to use pesticides extensively.

Similar processes of generalized pesticide use occurred throughout the Central American region; in the 1960s and 1970s, 40% of all US pesticide exports went to Central America. And many of the products being used in Nicaragua had been banned in other countries, like DDT, endrin and dieldrin. Somoza allowed chemical companies to test new products in Nicaragua for a charge of $1,000 each.

Some of the effects of the overuse of agrochemicals have already been mentioned. The greatest effect is on the health of the population. But there are few studies and no systematized ones of these effects, though the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health has begun to collect some of this information. A 1977 study of mothers' breast milk showed concentrations of DDT to be 45 times higher than the level recommended by the World Health Organization, and DDT in human blood to be 11 times higher in the cotton-growing regions of Nicaragua than in the cotton-growing regions of the United States. The majority of agricultural workers in cotton fields are women and children.

Eudoro Espinoza, an agronomic engineer currently working with INETER (Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies), carried out a study of drinking-water quality in 1976 in the area of the dust storms. He found the level of nitrites, a pesticide residue fatal to children under six months old, to be four to seven times higher than the maximum recommended level.

In 1987, there were over 700 reported cases of light to moderate pesticide poisonings. Every year there are a few deaths. In the 1960's and 1970's, Honduras and Nicaragua had the highest number of pesticide poisonings and deaths in the world.

Government actions

Even a revolutionary government that understands its consequences cannot change this pesticide dependence and economic infrastructure built around cotton overnight. This infrastructure, the lack of resources and the economic importance of foreign exchange from export crops has prevented the Sandinista government from taking more decisive steps toward the formulation of coherent policies on cotton production and pesticides. Even since the triumph of the revolution, agrochemical imports have ranged between $70 and $80 million per year, representing 10% of the gross domestic product and more than 25% of Nicaragua's export earnings. But important advances have been made.

Between 1979 and 1981, the government banned the use of six of the "dirty dozen" pesticides, including DDT, endrin and dieldrin. Later, four others were banned, leaving only toxaphene and paraquat, both of which are produced in Nicaragua. But because some of these are still found in warehouses in the country or enter Nicaragua through international donations or credits, their use has not been completely stopped.

In a somewhat misguided effort to support production throughout the country, the government heavily subsidized pesticides until 1988, up to about 95% of the cost. This change in policy has provided an important impetus for producers to decrease pesticide use to more appropriate levels. Though there have been Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs in the past, there was no economic incentive for producers to risk changing their methods of production (IPM is the use of natural substances instead of agrochemicals in the control of pests).

The government implemented a pilot IPM program in 1982 through the Center on Cotton Experimentation (CEA) to control boll weevils on a 7,000-acre cotton plantation. The program was very successful, saving some $2 million in pesticides and preventing up to eight unnecessary applications. The program doubled in size the following year and saved another $2 million. But with the diversion of human and material resources to the growing counterrevolutionary war and with the trade embargo imposed by the Reagan Administration in May 1985, the program was abandoned that year.

But IPM research has continued, especially through the UNAN (Autonomous University) in León, and new programs have recently been financed by international organizations. The university is in its sixth year of IPM field studies. Norway and Sweden recently approved $3.5 million for a new IPM program that will begin this year under CEA and CATIE (Tropical Agronomy Center for Research and Training). Experimentation is also being conducted with natural substances that may serve for pest control, such as the neem tree, used as an insecticide in India.

The Sandinista government has enacted laws regarding worker protection, but though the plantation owners are required to provide protective equipment, most agricultural workers won't use it. Programs to educate workers have also been implemented. One program funded by CARE since 1984 also includes monitoring poisonings and implementing measures to control the area of contamination.

Though cotton production cannot be abandoned completely, the government has reduced the area under cultivation from 85,000 to 24,000 acres in 1987. Another 14,000 acres will remain in cotton production. The other areas are being converted to nontraditional export crops such as soybeans and sesame.

To address erosion problems, IRENA implemented the Western Erosion Control Project in 1982. Within three years 600 acres had been reforested, almost 500 acres of windbreaks had been planted and 4,220 torrent-regulating dikes had been constructed.

There is now a flourishing forest on the cotton plantation, mentioned earlier, that was removed from production and turned over to IRENA in 1984. IRENA planted a variety of rapid-growth and hardwood species in an area of about 120 acres. Workers for the Institute built a series of dikes to control erosion and undertook an agroforestry project, growing basic grains alongside the trees, which protect the soil from wind and rain erosion and improve its fertility. Whereas cotton yields had dropped from 3,500 to 300 pounds per acre, bean production almost doubled in four years, from 450 to 800 pounds per acre. Last year IRENA was able to cut and sell firewood to help fund the project. They also introduced cattle into the forested areas to help clear the underbrush. This project is an excellent example of the success of mixed-use agriculture and appropriate land management, and of the possible future environmental restoration of the Pacific.

The expansion of the agricultural frontier has been slowed by the Sandinistas’ agrarian reform policies, and by projects like the Heroes and Martyrs of Veracruz project, one of the most important in the region. Long-term solutions to the still-serious erosion problems must begin in the highest areas of the watershed. Under this project, FAO/Holland has recently funded a pilot project in the highlands of the Maribios mountain chain.

Heroes and martyrs of Veracruz: A model project

This pilot project is a model for grassroots participation and represents ten years of growth on the part of the revolutionary government; its increased understanding of peasants and rural organizing has made possible real, long-term community participation in the countryside.

Begun in the uppermost areas of the Maribios watershed, the project is designed to address erosion and deforestation problems by providing small farmers with the education, inputs and technical assistance necessary to improve the environmental quality—and, therefore, the productive yields—of their highland plots. To organize community involvement, the project was first presented to the farmers who had been identified as respected leaders in the area. One of the first to agree to participate was Hugo Chévez, a local leader who had organized for the Union of Farmers and Cattle Ranchers (UNAG) for many years after the triumph.

Says Chévez, "We haven't trusted these kinds of programs very much. Shortly after the triumph, the government defined some projects without considering the peasants. But peasants are not very trusting and don't like to be told what to do. We'd had enough of that under Somoza.

"But the method they use now is different. They explain the project to the peasant, the benefits it will give him, and it's up to him whether he wants to participate or not. And, for example, with these soil conservation measures, the benefits are mine, not anybody else's. If I were to keep cultivating this plot of land as I have been, in two or three years it would no longer produce, and I would have to clear new land to plant. But financially I would never have been able to make these changes on my own."

The project includes training in fire prevention and control; planting windbreaks and live fencing—which prevents the need to cut trees to build or repair fencing and, if managed properly, provides an endless supply of firewood; crop rotation; the planting of a deep-rooted cactus to retain soils on steep slopes and "achiote" trees mixed with the annual crops to retain soils on other cultivated hillsides; reforestation; and flood control. The achiote also provides an economic benefit: it is a popular natural food coloring that can be sold in the local markets.

The project provides technical assistance—including three technical advisers who live in each of the three highland zones—all the necessary supplies like seeds and seedlings, tools that the peasants don't already have and a small provision of food. The peasants provide the labor.

People like Hugo Chévez have drawn the project to the attention of other farmers throughout the zone. "I have a bit of credibility with the other peasants, so they want to know what I'm doing, who these people are who are visiting me so much. Everybody wants to participate. I have to explain to people why the project starts up here and works its way downhill instead of the other way around. But I don't think there will be any need for a project below here in four years, because people are already looking for a way to get the seeds and supplies to participate now!"

Community education in the region has helped to promote a greater environmental consciousness. The windbreaks planted with paid labor, without community participation, are in poor condition, but people recognize the significant effect they have had in preventing dust storms. But the government's consciousness has increased too: if the community is invested in an environmental project, its results will be long lasting.


The problems of the department of Managua can be divided into three main areas: the southern watershed, Lake Xolotlán and the capital city. The recently formed Council on Environmental Quality for Managua (JCAM) was created to coordinate environmental restoration and recommend government policies in these areas. The Council is made up of 12 scientists representing 12 different organizations committed to improving environmental quality in Managua, including the Ministry of Health, the Mayor's office, DIRENA (formerly IRENA), ABEN (Association of Biologists and Ecologists), MAN (Nicaraguan Environmental Movement), the CDS (Sandinista Defense Committees), the different universities and others. Their goal is to unite the diverse efforts being made to improve the Managua environment. The Council is firmly committed to grassroots participation; their slogan is "without community participation, there is no environmental action."

Southern Watershed. Twenty-two kilometers south of the capital, the land rises to 926 meters in the area known as the southern watershed. The problems of the highland areas are similar to those of the Pacific cotton areas already described. The watershed has been deforested to make way for cattle and coffee, and, again, due to the population's need for firewood. The crops that peasants have chosen to produce there leave the soil bare and vulnerable to erosion. Because the water is not absorbed in the highlands, the rains cause even greater damage to the infrastructure of Managua as the run-off passes through on its way to the lake, carrying huge quantities of sediment.

The watershed area is currently being used for cattle and intensive agricultural production. Any improvement in its ecological conditions and their effects on the city demands a change in land use. The JCAM proposes reforestation and agro-forestry development: fruit trees with wide canopies that protect the soil from erosion due to rainfall, with agricultural crops grown underneath. This combination would improve environmental quality while still allowing for production, taking advantage of the nearby market for agricultural products.

The JCAM is slated to prepare a policy statement redefining the watershed's land use, then organize an educational campaign to set up experimental use areas. There are already some soil conservation, flood control and environmental education programs underway through MIDINRA (Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform).

Lake Xolotlán. After passing from the southern watershed through Managua, rainwater drains into Lake Xolotlán, dumping everything it carries with it into the water. The rate of sedimentation is very high due to the deforestation and erosion already mentioned. The rains also carry most of the city's solid waste into the lake.

Under the Somoza regime, the lake became the cheap dumping ground for Managua's sewage and dozens of industries that sprang up on its shores. Because the city has no sewage treatment plant, the lake receives 130,000 cubic meters per day of raw sewage (1985 figures). The different industries discharge a myriad of wastes into the water. One of the worst offenders is Penwalt Corporation, which releases mercury into the lake; it is estimated that between 1968 and 1981, the corporation emitted 40 tons of mercury into the water. The recently constructed Momotombo geothermal plant emits 8,640 cubic meters per day of hot residual waters containing arsenic and highly concentrated salts.

The lake has no outlet except during rare years when the water level is high enough to drain down the Tipitapa River and into the larger Lake Nicaragua. Due to the level of turbulence, the lake self-purifies, decomposing the organic matter. But the inorganic mercury and arsenic remain.

Aside from being highly unaesthetic, the lake is also a health hazard to the population. People swim and fish in it. These fish—containing high concentrations of mercury—are sold in the markets of Managua.

The lake also threatens Managua's water supply. When the water level in Asososca reservoir drops below a certain height, Xolotlán's water, complete with toxins, leaches toward it. To prevent the water level from dropping below this point, the water is shut off in Managua two days per week, and the water level in Asososca is closely monitored.

Solutions like fining the industries that pollute would generally make them prohibitive. In many cases the state, as owner or part owner of some industries, would be fining itself, where it is clear that the capital necessary to provide wastewater treatment simply does not exist. Mixed foreign and Nicaraguan corporations like Penwalt would simply leave the country before paying a heavy fine, and Penwalt is important to the Nicaraguan economy.

The only short-term steps that can be taken are to research alternatives for the control and treatment of industrial wastes. The JCAM considers it more important and more realistic to restore the southern watershed, reorganize the city's solid waste disposal and research options for the future than to focus, now, on the industrial waste problem. Providing sewage and industrial waste treatment are multi-million dollar projects that Nicaragua has neither the economic resources nor the technical skills to carry out.

The capital city. Managua's fundamental problem is that it is built on ecologically and seismically fragile land. Over 100 geologic faults have been located within the city. Downtown Managua—now mostly open, abandoned land with occasional collapsed buildings—was destroyed in a 1972 earthquake and never rebuilt. Somoza pilfered the reconstruction funds, appropriated the best lands for his own profits and left Managua to grow haphazardly into the distance. Says Juan Carvajal, representative from the mayor's office to the JCAM, "We can't forget this historic reality: we inherited a structurally defeated city."

Managua's growth rate, at 7%, is the highest in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. About half is due to the high birth rate and half due to migration. It has been said that Managua's infrastructure was built to serve a population of 500,000, that the current population is 1,000,000, and that the actual population (including the surrounding communities) using Managua's services is 1,500,000. The demand and, therefore, the stress on this inadequate infrastructure is obviously enormous.

The most serious problem in Managua is solid waste. The city currently produces 3,031 cubic meters of domestic garbage daily, of which the city garbage services only collect about 50%. This 50% is disposed of in the city dump at Acahualinca, at the edge of Lake Xolotlán, where heavy rains and runoff often wash it into the lake. The other 50% is dumped into some 150 "spontaneous dumps" throughout the city, probably the greatest cause of infant mortality in Managua. In the first nine months of 1988, 58,000 children were affected by diarrhea, and 300 died.

The JCAM is working on several solutions to this serious health hazard. One is to establish and enforce realistic norms for the disposal of solid wastes. For example, industrial, commercial and state institutions can be required to treat their own garbage at the workplace itself. The Council is also searching for a new dumpsite for the city that will be developed as a landfill. One has already been found on San Carlos peak for Ciudad Sandino, to the west of Managua, and has just begun to function.

The problem of Managua's water supply has already been mentioned: the water is shut off two days per week to protect the lagoon from contamination. A series of new wells have begun to be dug with international aid, but their expected yield will barely keep up with the constantly increasing demand, meaning the shortage will continue into the foreseeable future.

One of the biggest unresolved problems is the population's demand for firewood. In its plan of action, the JCAM lists the search for solutions to this problem as one of its primary goals but, so far, has not developed concrete proposals.

Given the economic crisis, the primary means available for solving the problems of infrastructure is to call on Nicaragua's greatest resource—the community. Environmental activists have already begun working with the CDS and other neighborhood leaders to encourage and support projects for reforestation, composting, community gardens and community landfill sites

Another Model Project

One of the most effective grassroots projects already underway in Managua is being organized, in coordination with the JCAM and MAN, by professor Luvy Lindo at the Central American University's School of Ecology in the Jonathan González neighborhood. A marginalized barrio since many years before the revolution, the government had prioritized Jonathan González due to its degraded ecology and poor health conditions, and due to complex social factors—many of Somoza's National Guardsmen and their families lived in this barrio and continue to live there today.

The neighborhood was promised several improvement projects by the Sandinista government, but due to limited resources and poor management, little was actually done. So when Lindo began working in the community early last year, people were suspicious. It took two months to find the best way to get people's attention and begin to gain their trust. With the support of 20 students, Lindo successfully convinced 14 of the community's natural leaders to form the central committee that would participate in and eventually direct the project. Block by block, night after night, two students accompanied by one of the committee members explained the project to the community.

Lindo had previously done a diagnostic study of the neighborhood's environmental problems which became the curriculum for a series of eight educational workshops—including general environmental education, garbage and compost, sewage, nutrition, reforestation and infant health. Over several months, Lindo gave the workshops to the students who, in turn, taught the information to the committee. Finally, the committee, with the students' support, gave the workshop to the community, working acre by acre through the barrio. After the sixth workshop, the committee decided to take on full responsibility for the community sessions, teaching the last two workshops without the help of the students. This process took almost a year, drawing in, Lindo estimates, about 60% of the barrio.

The first living example of the project's success is a line of trees planted along the two principal streets running through the barrio. Each homeowner planted and is responsible for his or her own tree, guaranteeing its care for the future. The community is anxious to begin composting, gardening and a community landfill and to continue with reforestation, the only delay being the difficulty of finding even the relatively small amount of funds needed to get these projects underway.

The war

The war in Nicaragua has had significant direct and indirect effects on the natural environment. The direct effects are related to the weapons used in combat, the construction of infrastructure for military purposes, the direct attack on environmental projects and the assassination and kidnapping of environmental field workers. Indirect effects include the displacement of the rural population and, most importantly, the diversion of economic and human resources away from ecologically sound development projects, research and environmental programs. In the context of "low-intensity warfare," the effects of the US trade embargo and financial blockade must be included.

Direct Effects. It is impossible to quantify the environmental damage done by the war because there is no documentation of what existed before the destruction. It is also difficult to analyze the effects concretely because it is still too dangerous to enter many of the isolated rural areas.

Conventional arms like hand grenades project shrapnel not only into one's enemy but also into everything else in a 200-meter circumference. A tree with shrapnel lodged in its trunk would destroy the teeth of a chainsaw and, therefore, no longer has commercial value. Irresponsible combatants also use grenades to "fish" in rural rivers. But in addition to killing the fish, of course, the grenades damage the entire aquatic habitat in which the fish live and breed. Peasants and soldiers who don’t recognize the damage they are inflicting on the environment also sometimes use grenades to kill monkeys or iguanas.

Direct damage has also been done by the construction of military infrastructure like helicopter pads, small airstrips and communication and combat trenches. These require the clearing of forests or other land and the removal of earth, increasing sedimentation rates during the rainy season.

More serious damage has been done in direct contra attacks. Counterrevolutionary forces set fire to a large reforested pine plantation in Slilma Lila, in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region in 1983, destroying more than 65,000 acres of pines, one third of the protected area. The burning of thousands of seedlings and young trees prevented the forest's natural regeneration. In this attack, the Northeast Forestry Project lost 60 out of 64 mobile fire-fighting units and had to abandon 10 out of 12 watchtowers, losing the communications equipment in all 10. With the loss of fire-detecting and fire-fighting equipment, forest fires increased 600% after this attack.

Whereas 18% of the national territory was proposed for national parkland in 1982, only a fraction of this has actually been protected. One of the largest proposed areas is Bosawás, an area of over 400,000 acres, stretching from Region VI to the North Atlantic along the Honduran border. The project began in 1983 with funding from Bulgaria, but it was quickly abandoned when the contras attacked the base of operations and kidnapped a biologist working on the project. More than 30 IRENA and state forestry corporation (CORFOP) employees have been killed in similar projects, and far more have been kidnapped. Like the Bosawás reserve, numerous other rural projects were abandoned or never begun due to the danger to personnel.

Indirect Effects. Over 250,000 peasants were displaced by the war, about 25,000 of whom moved to new rural settlements whose lands were not necessarily adequate for the kinds of crops they were accustomed to growing or to this new concentration of people. Aside from putting pressure on the new land, this movement of people also increased the demand for natural resources, like wood, for example, needed to construct new housing.

About 225,000 rural peasants living in the war zones migrated to urban areas, putting intense pressure on urban infrastructures that were constructed for much smaller populations. Puerto Cabezas, for example, has almost quintupled in size since 1980, and currently has the population that was estimated for the year 2000. The kinds of problems associated with this massive urbanization have already been discussed, though they generally occur to a lesser degree in cities smaller than Managua. This movement of people into urban areas has also meant a decrease in the production of basic grains for domestic consumption.

A new environmental concern has arisen with the possibility of peace—the reopening and renewed expansion of the agricultural frontier. Given the vital importance of production and the problems of overcrowded cities, the government wants peasants who have moved to urban areas to return to work the land. But returning to the land they left behind often means returning to the poor soils that oblige farmers to slash and burn new land every few years to continue producing. Instead, these peasants are being encouraged to join existing cooperatives or settlements in rural areas; and those who have moved to rural settlements are being encouraged to remain near them. The government is currently installing more permanent infrastructure, like fruit trees, corrals and permanent instead of provisional housing, hoping to convince the peasants to stay.

The financial blockade promoted by the US government has also indirectly affected Nicaragua's environment. The Agency for International Development's Central America Office has excluded Nicaragua from financing for training, planning and research programs on the environment in which the other Central American countries and Panama have participated. The US economic embargo has prevented Nicaragua from getting spare parts for all kinds of existing machinery and, for example, from importing some safer pesticides that could replace ones currently being used.

The greatest indirect effect, though, is the mobilization of people and resources to the defense of the country. Combined with the economic crisis, there is little room left for innovation, research or experimentation, let alone for the implementation of new programs.

In its case against the United States government before the International Court of Justice, Nicaragua is demanding over $12 billion in direct and indirect economic damages. From 1980 to 1987, Nicaragua suffered $279.7 million in losses due to the embargo, $423 million in international financing, over $1 billion in production (including the destruction of equipment and machinery), and $29.3 million in other physical damages, totaling $1.8 billion in direct economic damages. This does not include the more than 55,000 victims, including almost 30,000 dead, counting contra, civilian and Sandinista military casualties. In comparison to Nicaragua's export earnings, these damages are even more shocking; the Planning and Budget Office reported the preliminary figures for total export income for 1988 as $228 million. The combination of the war and the general international economic crisis is devastating to Nicaragua's economy: the rate of inflation in 1988 was over 36,000%.

These factors have obliged the Sandinista government to abandon numerous environmental programs: IPM experimentation (continued through the university and slated to expand again this year with international aid), numerous reforestation projects, forestry protection and research projects, alternative energy research and so on. But if the US were to pay damages, even large-scale projects like a sewage treatment plant for Managua would be possible.

But fundamentally, the war and blockade and the resulting economic crisis have forced the Sandinista government to pursue short-term development goals instead of being able to research and experiment for a long-term sustainable development model.

Adjusting to the budget cuts

Under the state's "compactación" in 1988, 500-600 of IRENA's personnel were laid off, and numerous others were transferred to other projects or to MIDINRA. This year, with few people left to lay off, the Institute only lost about 40 more employees, but it also lost its standing as an institute, becoming instead a department under MIDINRA now known as DIRENA. DIRENA has suffered not only from these budget and personnel cuts but also from the instability of the professional sector. Very low salaries have driven many professionals to seek higher paying jobs or to leave the country.

These considerations have forced a change in DIRENA's programs. Problems like water contamination have been put aside. "If there weren't more pressing problems, and if we had the resources, we could address water contamination, but there are national problems with national consequences that have to take priority," says Javier López Medina, assistant director of DIRENA. One of those is the serious problem of soil erosion that threatens production throughout the country. "Under the circumstances, orienting our work to the planning and management of the agricultural and cattle sector is the most effective thing we can do," says López.

DIRENA will also continue to work in the forestry sector, because it generates income. The primary projects involve collecting seeds to preserve and to sell internationally and studying the potential of quality woods not traditionally used commercially.

The Association of Biologists and Ecologists of Nicaragua (ABEN), a professional association, formed the Nicaraguan Environmental Movement (MAN) last year with the principal objective of creating a broad-based popular environmental movement. The time is ripe. With resources drastically limited, the only solution is to involve the community in its own ecological improvements. Projects like the ones in the Jonathan González neighborhood in Managua and the Maribios watershed are models of this strategy's success.

It is also important to demonstrate the economics of ecologically sound practices. For example, MAN has begun a successful organic coffee project that has peaked the interest of coffee farmers throughout the region. With the costs of pesticides prohibitive for many small farmers, coffee produced organically has a new appeal. Says René Escoto, economist and member of MAN, "Prices now demand a new economic rationality, cheap environmental alternatives, greater efficiency. These are the parameters that should determine the development model that Nicaragua will follow in the future."

The Sandinista government is committed to promoting sound ecological practices, but there is still a fascination, common to the third world—and, of course, to the industrial countries—with large-scale capital-intensive projects that are not necessarily appropriate to the country's social and economic conditions. These projects also tend to have significant environmental impacts and, in terms of development, are far from the appropriate technology projects environmentalists dream of.

"The only good thing for the environment that's come out of the economic situation is that these capital-intensive projects have been stalled," agree many environmental professionals. They have been stalled for economic reasons, but the concept of ecologically sound development is growing. Nicaragua recently hosted the Fourth Biennial Congress on the Fate and Hope of the Earth, an international environmental conference held this year in a third world country for the first time. At the Congress, delegates discussed the international economic crisis, war, sustainable development and many other topics in relation to the global environment and, particularly, the Third World. As an indication of Sandinista commitment, Vice President Sergio Ramírez and President Daniel Ortega gave the opening and closing speeches, respectively, at the conference.

Nicaraguan environmentalists fully agree that, like few other countries, Nicaragua has the political and social conditions necessary to make fundamental changes in the conception of development, integrating environmental and economic considerations. Instead of being discouraged by the economic crisis, activists and DIRENA are taking the opportunity to broaden the environmental debate from the grassroots to the presidency, to increase environmental education, to seek more international financing and to promote grassroots solutions.

DIRENA has done several large reforestation projects, and the community has often cut down the trees for firewood or even cleared the land for agriculture. Says Javier López Medina, "We are defining a new work strategy that involves the community. Our role will be to orient the population, to teach the peasants to reforest. And if the peasants reforest and protect and care for those trees, we will do even more for the environment than when we as an institution had more resources."

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