Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 125 | Diciembre 1991



The Environment: Saving Nicaragua's Soils

Envío team

Due to deforestation and inappropriate agricultural practices, Nicaragua's best soils have been massively flushing into its two bordering oceans for over 30 years. Official statistics show that the Pacific plains—once considered the breadbasket of Central America—are eroding at an annual average of 18 tons per acre, nearly four times the maximum rate considered acceptable, and many believe that even this calculation is low. Miguel Caseres, adviser to the minister of the Institute for Natural Resources and the Environment (IRENA), estimates that a more accurate figure would fall between 20 and 40 tons. "Half the national territory—and the country's most productive zone—is seriously affected by erosion," says Caseres. Like almost any environmental issue in dependent countries of the South, the causes of this accelerated erosion relate back to the imposed development model and continue, despite official US proclamations about a new environmental consciousness, with the imposition of the neoliberal economic plan (see envío, May 1991).


The agroexport model imposed on Nicaragua in the late 1950s has led to deforestation, sedimentation of waterways, loss of water resources and, perhaps most importantly, falling agricultural productive potential and consequently increased poverty for the nation as a whole and the peasant population in particular. This increased poverty, in turn, translates into additional pressure on the natural resource base.

The imposition of the agroexport model led to the rapid growth of cotton production in the Pacific plains and cattle ranching in the interior. While intensive and ecologically insensitive cotton cultivation itself saps soil fertility, vast expanses of forested land were cleared to make way for the cotton plantations. This combination of factors turned much of the lowland Pacific region into a virtual desert within just a few years.

Thousands upon thousands of acres were also cleared in the interior to make way for cattle. In addition, wealthy cotton interests seeking increased profits drove peasant farmers off their fertile lowland plots and into the Pacific highlands or the country's central regions, setting off a chain reaction of further forest destruction. Peasants cleared the new land for subsistence farming, but, because of its poor quality, it only produced sufficiently for two or three years, forcing them to continually repeat the process, pressing ever further into the agricultural frontier.

Many other factors have also contributed to forest destruction, such as forest fires, foreign lumber interests, Hurricane Joan in October 1988 and, most important in heavily populated areas, the need for firewood. Analysts now estimate that firewood accounts for 65% of the country's energy use.

An IRENA study of the country's resources reports that deforestation averaged 250,000 to 300,000 acres per year from 1965 to 1981. This means that in that 16-year period alone, Nicaragua lost 30%-40% of its forests. Deforestation slowed overall during the war years but increased again to some 170,000 acres per year by the end of the 1980s. The report states that there are virtually no forests left in the Pacific and only deteriorated secondary forests in central Nicaragua; only the Atlantic region still retains its primary forests. While 34% of the country's land surface is still covered by forests, the vast majority of those are in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions.

Trees protect the soil from the impact of rain, retain it with their roots and increase rainwater filtration. Deforestation leaves the land vulnerable to the elements, particularly wind and rain erosion. Combined with inappropriate land use and agricultural practices, the results for soils are devastating, as the erosion statistics indicate.

Land Use and Agriculture

The same IRENA report compares potential and actual land use throughout the country and estimates that 10,000 square miles of forested land has been converted to other uses. There is almost twice as much land in pasture for beef and dairy cattle as is appropriate for that use (17,000 and 9,000 square miles, respectively). Annual crops grown on formerly forested land will not produce adequately. The cities that have grown up disproportionately in the Pacific have sprawled onto the prime agricultural land that could otherwise be used to support the urban population with food crops.

The lack of conservation practices in ranching and agriculture also promotes soil degradation. Cattle compact the soil and prevent rainwater absorption, increasing the volume of destructive runoff, while overgrazing increases erosion and decreases soil fertility. Vast expanses of a single crop such as cotton are particularly vulnerable to pests and erosion. Increased pesticide use further depletes natural fertility. Leaving cropland idle and bare between planting seasons invites wind and water erosion, as does planting on slopes without terraces or attention to contour lines. Inappropriate practices uphill make everyone downhill more vulnerable.

Eroding Away Resources

Erosion affects not only agricultural production but also water resources. The thousands of tons of topsoil washed away from the Pacific plains year after year affect the bodies of water in which they are deposited. This sediment decreases navigability, the amount of water available and aquatic life, whose habitat gets smaller and smaller every year.

IRENA adviser Caseres points to two specific examples. In Managua, several rain drainage ditches east of the city's center were diverted in the early 1980s to empty into Lake Tiscapa. That small volcanic crater lake, which has no outlet, was estimated, at that time, to be about 60 meters deep. In less than ten years, Caseres points out, an island has formed. And in Bluefields, the capital of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, residents report that 30 years ago sharks and dolphins used to come in to Bluefields Bay from the ocean; now they say the bay can be crossed on foot in a dry year.

Erosion carries away the country's most fertile and productive soils. At least one regional study estimates that, Central America as a whole has lost 30% of its potentially arable land due to erosion over the years. In an attempt to compensate for falling yields, farmers generally increase the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, further depleting the soil of any remaining natural nutrients. For example, according to entomologist Carlos Pérez, Nicaragua's cotton growers applied pesticides 5-10 times per season between 1950 and 1964; by the 1967-71 period, applications were up to 35 times. (This was lowered again to 18-22 applications with the implementation of an integrated pest management plan until 1974. Since then, says Pérez, the average has ranged from 24 to 30.)

Contaminants in the soil, such as pesticides, are swept into water supplies and enter the food chain with consequent, though largely unmeasured, health problems. A 1980 study found DDT levels in the fatty tissue of people living in Nicaragua's cotton-growing region to be the highest in the world. Soils and contaminants carried by wind in the same area have also been shown to cause serious respiratory problems.

Changing the Development Model

According to Caseres, IRENA's plan for the recovery of Nicaragua's natural resource potential involves fundamentally changing the concept of Nicaragua as an agricultural country. Being an agricultural country means "subjection, manipulation, and dependence," says Caseres. "A poor country always has to be begging. Comparing agriculture with other potential areas of production, we seriously question the agricultural future of this country." He criticizes universities, training centers, institutions and most international organizations for actively or tacitly promoting the continuation of the agroexport model in Nicaragua.

IRENA's plan is to promote products that are ecologically and economically sound, such as coffee, while phasing out destructive and costly crops like cotton. Promoting coffee also means investing in the northern coffee-growing region. IRENA recommends building up a "development center" there, providing better infrastructure in roads, education and health care, thereby encouraging those who have left the region over the years to return. It appears that the government has, at least in part, come to the same conclusion; it recently announced that this year the national bank would fully finance the renovation of coffee plantations.

Nicaragua's fishing potential offers one alternative to agriculture. In the Estero Real alone, says Caseres, 75,000 acres of shrimp cultivation could generate $300 million in export income, just under the country's total export income last year.

Conservation: A Big Business Concern?

IRENA is also directly promoting forest and soil protection through its national forestry program, encouraging peasant producers, for example, to mix annual and perennial crops so that the roots of the perennials protect the soil from erosion, or to graze cattle on wooded land instead of clearing it for pasture.

But Caseres places enormous faith in the potential of large agricultural interests to conserve, and little in the peasant population. "We aren't going to get out of this mire very fast if we start by trying to transform the peasants," he said; "we'd have to begin by teaching them to read." Contradicting Nicaragua's historic experience, he insists that "cotton growers, for example, are fully aware that they have to be efficient; they're efficient or they fail. So if big business were to enter fully into coffee, or into industrial wood processing, then we'd have conservation." Cotton growers in Nicaragua, however, are famous for their inefficiency, largely due to extensive government subsidies (which they still receive), and lumber interests have never shown the least interest in conservation.

Explaining that foreign markets "want wood, not bananas," Caseres advocates the planting of vast extensions of eucalyptus trees on the Pacific plains. Because their deep roots can penetrate into rich subsurface volcanic soils, he explained, eucalyptus trees grow three times faster in the Pacific than in other parts of the country, while shallow-rooted crops grow poorly because of the degraded topsoil. "If big business were to do this, then we'd really begin to change the [development] model," he said. But the agroexport model has always promoted big business interests and the extraction of raw materials; the only "change" would be from cotton to wood. Caseres also failed to mention that foreign buyers are not interested in eucalyptus; they want the valuable tropical hardwoods now found almost exclusively in the virgin forests of the Atlantic plains.

While the massive planting of trees would have obvious ecological benefits if appropriately managed, such management is not by any means guaranteed. In addition, Caseres minimized the social conflicts that such a project would generate. "Ecologically and economically it would show immediate results, though later we'd have to confront social problems such as land distribution," he admitted, but the growing multitude of urban and rural poor would put even greater pressure on natural resources for survival.

Conservation for the Peasants

A number of organizations are working with peasants on soil conservation projects throughout the country. One such project is the Western Agroforestry Project, funded by Holland's Food and Agricultural Organization with IRENA as its national counterpart. The project is located in the Maribios mountain chain, above the cotton plantations of the Pacific plain. Begun in 1988, it provides peasant farmers participating in the project with technical assistance in soil conservation and forestry management techniques. Peasant farmers have begun to rotate crops, plant along contour lines, integrate annual crops with perennials, plant live fencing, build dikes and drainage ditches and cultivate tree plantations for firewood and lumber.

It is unclear, however, how much of this will continue when the project ends, the technical assistants leave and credits and subsidies are no longer available. The program's emphasis until recently has been more on reforestation than soil conservation, but reforestation is of little practical interest to farmers. They see plantations as taking up important space that could be used for agriculture and offering no short-term benefits at a time when survival itself is at issue. Most of the project's large-scale reforestation has been undertaken on municipal property by those who do not own land but make a living collecting and selling firewood. The problem with ownership puts this part of the project's future in doubt.

Another problem with the project is that participants benefit financially through a credit policy that boils down to substantial subsidies. This means peasant farmers are more likely to see the project as a temporary economic advantage instead of the means to greater self-sufficiency. But many have also seen their production increase by incorporating conservation techniques, thus experiencing the benefits of continuing to use them.

According to analyst Edgard Fernández from Nitlapán, an economic research institute linked to the Central American University, the project's fundamental problem is the country's economic plan, over which it has no control. "The goal of structural adjustment is to make labor cheap; now a worker can make the same by catching and selling an iguana as he can in three days' work," said Fernández. Current prices on basic grains, due to government economic policies, led one farmer to exclaim, "What good does it do me to increase production a little, when prices are so low for my products?" And Fernández pointed out that while residents in search of firewood may avoid a protected tree plantation, they simply walk on to the next available wooded area and strip it instead.

An effective, comprehensive conservation strategy must involve all sectors and include a fundamental change in the agroexport model; an alternative, grassroots economic plan that alleviates poverty; and projects that change the culture of small-scale production, promoting the incorporation of conservation techniques. A solution without all these elements will only be a patchwork solution, and Nicaragua's natural resource base will continue to erode away.

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