Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 317 | Diciembre 2007



Who Gets a Key to the Doors on the Forest?

“Civilization was born when the first tree was felled and will die when the last one falls,” warns a sign in El Castillo, a municipality within the still densely-forested Indio-Maíz reserve on Nicaragua’s southern border. The people trying to survive there are trapped by a lack of opportunities, the lumber mafia’s greediness and contradictory environmental laws. Only a forest management that takes such people into account will be morally acceptable, more socially viable and ensure us a more sustainable forest.

José Luis Rocha

On the boat trip from San Carlos to Boca de Sábalos along the Río San Juan I get an intensive course on the area’s metaphors: the Tarzans—or boatmen of San Juan del Norte—ride enormous “mules of water”; in summer only “light wood” of ceibo and royal cedar is shipped out; or we go from rapids to “dead water.” Powerful words, laden with meaning. The use of the term “dead water” is old: it was recorded by the German Julius Fröebel who traveled through Nicaragua in the mid-19th century.

The three other passengers on the outboard motorboat are two chainsaw workers and a supplier. They are the adventurers of the moment. Like the rubber workers of long ago, they have been toughened by their work, which requires firmness in negotiations, knowledge of prices and psychologies, and a real command of government controls and how to get around them. They go over the latest exploits of other lumber dealers and reminisce about scams by other chainsaw workers and suppliers. The chainsaw is a top-of-the-line machete, a high-tech hatchet. The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) wants to control the cutting of timber, but nobody controls the possession of chainsaws, the weapon that brings down forests. If the politicians had the decency to openly declare their real intentions, the most powerful party running in El Castillo’s municipal elections would have an emblem consisting of two crossed chainsaws with the cadaver of a forest in the background. And it would beat the pants off its rivals.

What does the state mean here?

I continue the journey to the district of Bartola, located in the southeast corner of the municipality of El Castillo, which lies along the Río San Juan. The only thing southeastward before hitting the municipality of San Juan del Norte is the dense Indio-Maíz reserve, full of herds of wild pigs that run through the forest trampling anything in their path. There are also congo monkeys that celebrate the rain with strident howling, lithe ocelot-like tigrillos and snakes of various hues and circumferences. In the river itself are alligators and caymans that sink beneath the surface as our boat approaches. It rains day and night and even in the reserve’s buffer area it takes half an hour or more to walk a kilometer. The muck sticks to rubber boots, exponentially thickening until even a casual jaunt becomes a challenge worthy of an Olympic athlete.

Bartola is at the edge of the reserve. I find myself wondering what the state, the Zero Hunger program, the Councils of Citizen’s Power and the slogan “the people as President” means to local inhabitants. These urban inventions have faint echo here, like the reflection of shadows that a cavern full of fantasies projects on the real world.

Why such rapid population
growth in El Castillo?

Apart from the progress of the Plywood lumber company, the area’s great Leviathan, everything seems immutable in Bartola. The transnational scene that courts and cudgels Bartola and the other districts of the municipality consists of Plywood’s greed and the legal environmental globalization orchestrated by white foreigners rightly worried about climate change. Bartola is only linked to the world market through its lumber and the environmental policies. The rest is marginalization, bare subsistence and migration to Costa Rica.

The environment seems like a scene described by the 19th-century travelers who passed through. Many houses still have wood tile roofs turned jet-black by the mold that takes root in them. The machaca fish, chock full of bones, is an essential part of the diet, together with root crops such as cassava and malanga. The school only goes up to third grade and only has one teacher, a graduate of that same school who thus generates little expectation among parents. He teaches all three grades at the same time. No supervisor from the Ministry of Education has ever shown up nor do pupils ever receive the corresponding graduation certificates.

The municipality of El Castillo has a small but fast-growing population. In the California gold-rush year of 1850, US government representative George E. Squier calculated its population at 100 people. In 1909, nearly 60 years later, it had only grown to 367. By the mid-eighties it had grown to about 5,000, by 1995 to 9,717 and by 2005 to 19,864, according to that year’s census, roughly doubling in each of the last two decades.

Given that El Castillo covers 1,656 square kilometers, we’re talking about 12 inhabitants per km2, which is less than a third of the national average. It’s logical given that a number of its many farms are huge. Natural resources have played a prominent part in the history behind people coming to settle here after many ups and downs, twists and turns.

The deforestation began over a century ago, but it wasn’t as devastating as now. “One can currently see,” wrote German traveler Julius Fröebel in 1850, “clearings along the river edge where timber has been cut to provide firewood to the steamboats; and clearings, although few in number, have also been cut for agriculture works.” The population was scant; Fröebel only saw one palm leaf hut, “with a hammock the only furnishing,” on a stretch of over 100 miles. “All was glorious and bright in that luxuriant nature,” he wrote.

The hardened rubber tappers
and the forest wounded by their hands

The rubber tappers dealt the forest a severe blow through the 2-inch V-shaped incisions they made every meter up the trunk of the Castilloa elástica trees, in which they inserted a bijagua leaf that served as a spout for the bloodletting of the tree’s latex, gathered in large tin jugs. One 5-foot-diameter tree produced up to 20 gallons of latex during the first cut. The trees grew fast and were ready to enter into full production in 10 years. But the rubber dealers never replanted. They were only interested in purely extractive labor, moving deeper into the jungle once the more accessible trees had been bled dry.

In 1868, the English naturalist Thomas Belt stumbled upon abundant mahogany, a species that no longer exists in these forests. But the rubber set the pace. The year before Belt’s discovery, 750 metric tons of it, valued at US$112,000, were shipped out from the banks of the Río San Juan. Little or nothing was reinvested for the area’s inhabitants. The rubber gangs exterminated the Guatusos—an indigenous group so dubbed because their auburn hair was similar to the fur of the guatusa, a native member of the rodent family.

In 1873 the French engineer Pablo Lévy visited Nicaragua and summarized all the existing information about our country’s history, botany, zoology, geography, sociology and economy. He presented El Castillo, declared a municipality three years earlier, as a small population “grouped around the fort that defends the rapids of the same name.” The young municipality depended on the department of Granada for purposes of political administration and on the prefecture of Acoyapa for the electoral raffles. Lévy relates the fearsome character he kept encountering in many of the area’s inhabitants: “The rubber workers, because of their extraordinarily rough life in the bush, full of harmful animals, form part of the population that is especially active, enterprising and work-hardened.”

Between 1881 and 1883, Swedish scientist Carl Bovallius studied Central America, which he described as “nature’s favored land.” Fascinated by the fauna of tapirs, howler monkeys, crocodiles and toucans—many of which he killed and dissected for his collection—Bovallius also took down data about the rubber collecting on the shores of the Río San Juan, whose end he saw coming “as a consequence of the rash and savage way” it was extracted.

The rubber tappers generally went out in gangs of five to eight. They alternated the search for rubber with panning for gold, assaults and stealing and selling indigenous children. They bled the trees and prepared balls of rubber they called “tortillas,” whose weight they increased by mixing the latex with dirt. Their expeditions lasted from one to three months, providing individual earnings of over $1,000. Because the tapped trees usually died, the rubber harvest dropped with each passing year. As a general rule, no limits were imposed on how much was extracted per tree and no new trees were planted. The governments never lifted a finger to regulate and defend the rubber.

The rise and fall of El Castillo:
“A moldy, worm-eaten little town”

Carl Bovallius didn’t find much development in El Castillo either: “At the foot of the hill, on the long, narrow beach between it and the river, one finds a string of shacks and wood houses along the thin strip that takes the name Villa del Castillo... The city itself is made up of two strings of houses, and between them the main street, or better said the only street.” Rubber was still the motor force of the economy: “El Castillo is certainly one of the most important places for the rubber business, since there is good access to rubber trees. The most important clients of these businesses [rum stores] and the more than a few gaming houses are the rubber harvesters.” Already at that time he found that “all the high points around El Castillo are clear-cut and covered with abundant leafy grasses.” Pasture was already imposing itself.

Twenty years later, in 1905, rubber represented 13% of total Nicaraguan exports. A decade after that, a US company began to exploit the lumber in the region with more than a thousand workers. World War II caused a new boom in the demand for rubber until 1945. El Castillo again became a customs post in 1941, 31 years after this post had been suspended. In 1943, a total of 3,638 metric tons of merchandise passed through the port, but that dropped to only 120 metric tons five years later. That was El Castillo’s last hurrah, from which it has not recovered. Nor will it be rescued by the lumber dealers’ current enclave economy.

In the mid-fifties, Nicaraguan poet José Coronel Urtecho summarized his impressions of El Castillo’s past prosperity and current decadence in a passage from Rápido tránsito: I didn’t forget that countless gold seekers had passed who spent from two to three thousand dollars a fortnight in El Castillo, which is now a dead, moldy and worm-eaten little town.”

From rubber to bananas to ipecac
and then on to the lumber era

After the Second World War, El Castillo’s economy revolved around other enclave economies. Between 1944 and 1970 the banana production was sold to Costa Rica-based US companies until the sigatoka plague wiped out the plantations. From 1938 to 1966 there was a massive boom in the extraction of ipecac, until the appearance of synthetic petroleum-derived emetine caused prices to plummet.

Ipecac and its growers had their day. Coronel Urtecho saw them living “at times in simple improvised palm huts on small keys or the mouth of creeks, interested in growing ipecac, which currently sells for US$10 the pound, and some of them already have plantations of one or several hectares in the Sábalos and El Castillo region.”

By then, lumber exploitation was on the rise and in the hands of North American companies. In 1944 the Cuban Alberto Chaguel took huge lots of lumber out through San Juan del Norte. A few years later various processes accelerated the lumber fever. In the fifties and sixties the Nicaraguan Agrarian Institute undertook an agrarian reform process to multiply the smallholders who provided labor on the large haciendas during the coffee, sugarcane and cotton harvests. Various land distribution projects were implemented along the Río San Juan, using land considered national or common. The Río Sábalo project involved 122,076 hectares, covering Bluefields, San Miguelito, San Carlos and El Castillo. The Rafaela Herrera project affected 35,878 hectares in the municipalities of San Carlos and El Castillo. And while the El Castillo project was just over 2,612 hectares, it activated the colonization of what is now the Indio-Maíz reserve’s buffer zone.

Agrarian reform, migration,
foreign cooperation and business

The agrarian reform of Somoza’s time was to serve as a safety valve for the land appropriations taking place in the Pacific zone. But it had a long-term effect on the Río San Juan’s natural resources.

In 1961 the Somoza government granted a concession to US Plywood to extract lumber from El Castillo and other areas along the river. That exploitation was halted by the US-financed war against the Sandinista government in the eighties, and many farmers were displaced by the military activities of the counterrevolutionary Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE).

The nineties opened with the mass return of Nicaraguans who had fled to Costa Rica during the war. Many of them, together with internal migrants and war veterans from the Sandinista army and ARDE, were granted land in various districts of El Castillo in a mix of the different migratory flows. In 1993, a study revealed that 41.5% came from Nueva Guinea, 22% from San Carlos, 17% from Chontales and Boaco, 7.5% from El Rama and 7% from Masaya. Only the remaining 5% were returnees from Costa Rica.

CORFOP Extracciones Madereras S.A. (COREXSA), a state company, facilitated the penetration of the migratory farmers with the brush-clearing and road-building operations it conducted inside the reserve’s buffer zone during the eighties. After peaking at 20,000 cubic meters of lumber in 1989, COREXSA went broke. Its deteriorated machinery and reduced administrative capacity passed to the hands of its workers under the name EFORSA, with support from Austrian cooperation and the municipal mayor’s office. EFORSA’s crisis dragged on until 1997, when the Austrians finally pulled out. The operation was put out to bid again and was bought up by SOSMADERA, a company that worried more about profits than continuing with the agroforestry training and follow-up of management plans.

There was also CAMA S.A., a saw mill equipped with second transformation machinery donated by the Austrian government that was able to saw hardwood lumber that doesn’t float. Transporting milled lumber was cheaper than transporting logs, but the saw mill has been paralyzed since 1992.

Putting doors on the forest:
Creation of the indio-maíz reserve

Nicaragua’s pacification reactivated the war of the forest. At a deforestation rate of between 125,000 and 150,000 hectares per year, experts have calculated that in 18 years only the forest reserves will be left standing in Nicaragua, and in another 7 even they will have been devoured. Given this prospect, 1.1 million hectares of broadleaf forest located in the Caribbean region of the country were declared protected areas in the nineties. A forerunner to this decision was an assessment of the El Castillo zone conducted by the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) in the eighties. INETER determined that 12% of the soil in the area is apt for agriculture, 18% for agroforestry and 70% for forestry and forest reserve.

Nine years after being declared a protected area, the Grand Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve was created via Decree 66-99. Its territorial extension was set at 263,980 hectares, covering four municipalities: El Castillo, San Juan del Norte, Nueva Guinea and Bluefields. It is called Indio-Maíz for the two rivers that encircle it. Few rainforests of its size in the world have remained without human intervention for over a hundred years.

The national initiatives were joined by local legislation and institutional arrangements. According to environmental specialist Anne Larson, important progress was made in 1999 with the creation of the Municipal Environmental Commission (CAM) through an ordinance approved by the Municipal Council. CAM was made up of the deputy mayor, a council member, three representatives from the central state institutions (MARENA; INAFOR, the National Forestry Institute; and OTR, the Rural Titling Office) as well as a member of civil society. The ordinance also states that the mayor presides as chairperson at the CAM meetings. Then, in early 2003, MARENA created the Municipal Environmental Unit in order to decentralize environmental functions.

Local environmental ordinances

Larson explains that the Environmental Unit consists of just one person, who is in charge of forestry regulation for the municipal government. This involves conducting field inspections, reviewing and monitoring forestry management plans, directing watershed reforestation projects and protecting bodies of water, among other functions.

In 2004, Larson found four ordinances related to the environment: “In the first of them, in 1999, the Municipal Council approved the creation of CAM. Another ordinance issued later, eliminated the lumberyard next to the Boca de Sábalos wharf, which was damaging the town street due to the traffic of trucks loaded with logs to be deposited there.” This ordinance, approved in September 2003, was never applied because the lumber dealers argued they had nowhere else to store the lumber while awaiting the ship that would take it to the Pacific.

The third ordinance was directed to the SOSMADERA lumber company, ordering it to organize the lumber left lying in the town street, given that the company had a saw mill. It was also ordered to repair the street it had ripped up, which is maintained by the municipal government. The fourth ordinance, also directed to SOSMADERA, was related to waste management as it had been found that sawdust and other waste materials were being dumped in the river, contaminating it with the natural toxins from the wood.

In 2004, Larson and Virginia Zeledón wondered what the mayor’s offices’ main interest was in the forestry resources: were they worried about protecting them at any cost, would they do it for ecological reasons, were they more worried about the local population’s needs or did they have a comprehensive vision? They found that there were no comprehensive initiatives and that those initiatives that did exist could be classified, according to their motivations, as either conservationist, developmentalist or plain corrupt.

El Castillo’s mayor’s office:
A deer surrounded by tigers

Only in El Castillo did Larson and Zeledón identify a comprehensive vision. They argued that “El Castillo has been recognized as the mayor’s office with the clearest and most comprehensive vision and understanding of the forestry situation in all of Nicaragua. It also has a proven technical capacity and good communication with the population. It has a small holistic forestry project and a lot of ideas.” And yet “despite this vision, one still doesn’t see truly integral initiatives coming from the mayor’s office.”

They offer two possible explanations: “First, [the Danish aid agency] DANIDA and its conservationist ideology has had a major influence, dominating the scene and to a certain degree hindering the development of other alternatives. Even if the ideology that views the population as ‘the problem’ were technically correct, it is a socially unacceptable perspective because the solutions have to start with support from that very population.”

The adverse forestry law
and vacillating decentralization

El Castillo’s municipal government faces a very complicated situation. In 1999 over a third of its income was from forestry exploitation. In 2003 the municipal government received 10,000 córdobas in payment for forestry extraction endorsements. It also received income in kind, such as the use of the lumber companies’ tractors for road repairs.

It has never been able to be achieve total independence. It thus seems like a deer surrounded by different tigers: the lumber dealers, the population’s needs and pressure from other governmental entities that oppose decentralization. For example, INAFOR insists that the participation of local governments in the process of requesting and reviewing exploitation permits has only resulted in greater costs and more bureaucracy.

The adverse factors facing the El Castillo mayor’s office include the forestry law itself. The Law for the Conservation, Promotion and Sustainable Development of the Forestry Sector (Law 462) was published in September 2003, two months before its regulatory law, Decree 73-2003. The law contains different descriptions of the regional and municipal governments’ participation in conserving the forest resources, but the regulations don’t echo the municipalist spirit, or provide it with concrete attributions. The law annuls the possibility of the mayor’s office conducting an independent appraisal of the exploitation requests. The review of such cases remained a function of the “public hearing,” which only includes the participation of INAFOR and the mayor’s offices’ forestry technicians—which not all have.

The municipal government tax on lumber extraction was eliminated, affecting municipal finances. The governments retain 25% of the fees charged for INAFOR contracts, but bear the brunt of the exonerations benefiting forestry investors: exemption from 50% of the municipal sales tax for those who plant in plantations and from 100% of the property tax (IBI) for areas with a forestry management plan.

The mayor’s office is thus faced with a vacillating decentralization that is not immune from spurious interests, including INAFOR’s nostalgia for the golden era when it controlled all endorsements. Those endorsements are an indispensable source of income for a municipal government whose financial future is compromised by the creation of a reserve in whose nucleus is located 45% of the territory under its jurisdiction. That amounts to over 745 km2 in which there are supposed to be no inhabitants, effectively making it an area from which the local government receives no income from property tax collection.

This is happening in a municipality in which 85% of the land is covered in forest, only half of the land has any slope at all, and 76% of the population lives in poverty, with 41% of them in extreme poverty.

Complaints about the forest rangers:
What do the “MARENAs” do?

Also cornered are the other figures in this forest resource management drama: the forest rangers. As the repressive face of MARENA, they have a terrible reputation among the peasants. Criticism rained down in a pulse-taking of houses along the Río Bartola.

Reinaldo Alemán underscored their strictly police nature: “The ‘MARENAs’ climb up to keep watch from their tower and that’s it. They hardly ever visit us.” Some stress their laziness and their absence: “We built our house out of cedar and papayo wood. The rangers were supposed to come and supervise, but they said to me, ‘Go ahead and take it out, I don’t want to go in there.’ We never find them on the road. We could make lots of trips without being checked, or only being checked on some trips.”

They tell stories of the rangers’ laid-back attitude toward visible threats: “It’s the Costa Ricans who don’t leave the reserve. The come to hunt, bringing AK-47s, shotguns, carbines and dogs. I’ve seen them and I warn the MARENAs, but they’re too lazy to do anything.”

And they also emphasize the rangers’ insensitivity to the peasants’ economic situation: “The MARENAs only come out to tell us to that we have to respect the reserve, reforest, not burn or cut down trees. But they don’t give any incentives. You only survive out here by the pure will of God.”

Others denounce their corruption: “The Costa Ricans with money have huts out along Sarnoso Creek. They come to hunt with carbines, arriving in big SUVs and bribing the MARENA forest rangers. They spend weeks hunting right in the reserve. They pay 25,000 colons per spotted cavy they bag; 5,000 colons per kilo. They also go after the huge herds of wild pigs and deer but they even leave a lot of small animals dead in the forest. That’s why we flat-broke Nicaraguans keep telling MARENA that they can’t prohibit us from hunting, because we do it to eat, not to sell. And we’re Nicas; it’s our right!”

There’s also a lot of anger about MARENA’s extravagant spending, at the peasants’ expense: “MARENA and other government officials go by in their big motorboats. We hear that foreigners send money for the peasants, but these institutions spend it on their huge SUVs. The government’s the big winner, the one that gets the money for having this reserve.” While we struggle against the current of the Río Bartola in a narrow outboard motorboat, the congo monkeys roar as we pass and Segundo Rivera comments bitterly: “They’re happy because the forest is theirs. They do what they want there and nobody from MARENA comes to tell them they can’t.”

The forest ranger’s life:
Risks, powerlessness and prejudices

The forest rangers are spread out in seven posts around the perimeter of the reserve and change posts every three months. They don’t have any snakebite serum, even though the territory is plagued with a variety of deadly snakes. Their work is very complicated in this loosely defined buffer zone because they are supposed to review permits, seize everything that comes out of the reserve and apply fines.

They view the permits as harmful: “They’re like tossing in a bomb, because they expand the extraction.” They depend on the police during their expeditions because they have no coercive force of their own: “We’re civilians. We don’t carry weapons.”

The financial limitations of the three institutions responsible for controlling the area—the police, army and MARENA—result in a very meager patrol scheme. They often come upon armed hunters who threaten them and have come prepared to camp out, “while we have to return to our posts before nightfall, don’t have weapons and are easily controllable. If we come through once, they know we don’t have enough fuel to make another trip that week.”

Given these serious deficiencies, they are authorized to seize vehicles and equipment involved in illegal activities and demand a payment worth double the price of the cargo. But the Nicaraguans carry INAFOR permits and the lack of collaboration by Costa Rican and Nicaraguan authorities leaves gaping holes in the application of the laws. “How are we going to get someone who lives in Costa Rica to pay a fine?” complain the forest rangers stationed at La Lagarta. “Nobody pays because there’s no threat of jail. That law’s really dumb. We’ve made lots of denunciations but they don’t pay, the illegal goods aren’t seized and they come right back again, and even make fun of us.” That’s why there’s a high turnover among the rangers: “We don’t last long because of the low pay and high risks. There’s no serum for snakebites; we don’t even have acetaminophen. They trained us in the use of GPS but we never saw another one of those apparatuses after the training session. Five years ago nine of us came in at the same time; I’m the only one left.”

The forest rangers argue that the lumber companies and the indolence of INAFOR officials are among the biggest problems: “The company pays its technicians to design its management plants. The INAFOR people never go out so they don’t know if the plan affects rivers. They only pay attention to the amount and don’t do any field inspections. Sometimes the inspectors grant permits without ever going to the field, just for the love of money, then the companies make various trips with the same permit, or transport more than the permit authorizes.”

But they point the finger at others as well: “We give talks to people in the communities. We take advantage of all meetings to give talks. They don’t contradict us to our face; they say ‘Sure, sure,’ but the message doesn’t get through. It’s better to go to the schools, work with the new generation, but there are hardly any schools.” The rangers’ appraisal of the peasants echoes a technocratic vision that has no empathy with the forest’s inhabitants. But what are these forest dwellers really like and how do they think?

Are the farmers the
bad guys of the flick?

Most documents about the reserve and its dynamic depict the farmers as the villains in the movie. They appear as a kind of anti-ecological Terminator, a forest-swallowing Gargantuan. They are painted as migrant settlers who incessantly advance through the forest and whose merciless practice of clear-cutting followed by slash-and-burn agriculture gobbles up the forest. It is said that they turn to cattle ranching to give free rein to their unstoppable geophagy or sell their land to ranchers to move deeper into the woods, pushing the agricultural frontier ever eastward. Unstable, restless, pioneering, they impose their own law and threaten the survival of the Indio-Maíz reserve, that Holy Grail that so many venerate and claim to want to protect.

Who are these farmers and what is their story? According to the National Agricultural Census (CENAGRO), 74,740 hectares—45% of the municipality’s total area—are in the hands of 1,945 producers, many of them (47%) young farmers between 25 and 44 years old. The male farmers have very low education levels; 56% of them never received any schooling, 9% are only barely literate, 30% studied at least one year of primary and only 4.5% reached high school or a higher level. But the situation is even worse for the women, 62% of whom have received no education at all. In El Castillo, the medium-size farmers are legion: 14-35 hectare farms account for 38.6% of private land and are in the hands of 52% of the farm owners, 14% of whom are women. Farms in the 35-140 hectare range make up another 40% of the private holdings but are owned by barely 25% of the farmers, only 10.6% of which are women.

Then there is a small but powerful group of large-scale landowners. The 42 hacienda owners with farms exceeding 140 hectares control a combined 17% of privately held land, although they only represent 2% of the agricultural producers. The interesting thing is that this group has shrunk over time. According to the 1952 National Census, 83% of the land in the department of Río San Juan corresponded to farms of more than 500 hectares at that time, 70% of which exceeded 2,000 hectares.

The cattle ranchers’ realm

Cattle ranching rules in El Castillo, with 19% of farmland dedicated to natural or sown pasture grasses and 48% of the farms involved in raising cattle. That percentage is far higher than most other agricultural categories, as the chart shows.

While the grains (beans and maize) are found on 84% of the farms, they are only grown in modest amounts because the soils aren’t very suitable for them. The yields usually drop from a maximum of 18 to between 7 and 11 hundredweight per hectare between the first crop after cutting down the trees and the second year. Most farmers prefer to cultivate plantains and cassava, an emphasis that has influenced a change in eating habits, above all for the many pioneers who came to these lands from Nueva Guinea, itself only founded in the sixties by peasant farmers pushed off their smallholdings in the Pacific. The tortilla has been replaced in the daily diet by boiled cassava or a plantain variety known in Nicaragua as guineo. The cattle boom has involved a notable change over the previous decade.

It’s not just that cattle are economically attractive. Agricultural expert Cristóbal Maldidier described the conditioning of the climatic setting in 1996: “In areas with fragile soils and high rainfall, as is the case of the rainforest, the land without its forest cover degrades even faster—through lixiviation and oxidation processes—and the exhausted soils become inappropriate for grain production, leaving pastureland the only alternative. The nearly obligatory nature of pasturing also comes from the force of the natural dissemination and spreading of these grasses. The aggressiveness of some grasses effectively limits the producers’ possibilities of preserving areas of forest regrowth for producing basic grains in the future.”

The field is the most
cultural space for the peasant

To these ecological conditions are added cultural condition-ings: a worldview in whose value system the forest is perceived as undominated land, nature that has thus far escaped man’s control.

In 1998 a team headed by anthropologist Lone Badstue published an interesting study on the peasants of Río San Juan, which explains the attraction of cattle-raising in the context of the opposition between cultivated and wild land: “The distinction between nature and culture exists in every society, its purpose being to demarcate the limits between the human aspect, which belongs to the social sphere and forms part of people’s active space, and the natural aspect, which is something untouched over which human beings do not exercise control. It is the task of people to control, order and appropriate nature’s spaces for culture. The most cultural space in the peasantry’s vision is the field. It is an area domesticated by man. Although cultural, the corn, rice and bean fields are a little outside of human control; it is a lot of work to keep them clean. The same is true of the vegetable plot, which is seen as a somewhat disorderly space, with a big tangle of bushes and no clear sign of human management.”

The cattle furor was imposed with economic, ecological and cultural incentives. There is a total of 12,100 head of cattle, at an average of 13 head per farm, which of course increases with the larger farms. On the 14- to 35-hectare farms the average is 9 head, a figure that rises to 16 and 20 respectively in the 35- to 70-hectare and 70- to 140-hectare farms, peaking out at 56 for farms of between 140 and 350 hectares, only to drop again to 49 in those exceeding 350 hectares. The total extension of pastureland, however, is slightly less than the brush areas, and very much smaller than the forests.

Between sown and natural pasture, each cow has an average of 1.2 hectares of grass. Assuming that this must be shared with other livestock species, it drops to 0.95 hectares a head. But on farms of over 350 hectares, it shoots up to a little over 4 hectares a head.

According to some research studies, this high pasture-land/head of cattle ratio has to do with the declining productivity of the pasture due to the soil’s low fertility, especially its reduced levels of phosphorous and nitrogen. Natural pastures deteriorate rapidly and are overrun by weeds, reducing the biomass levels. This problem is typical of rainforest soils and encourages expansion of the areas of cattle exploitation by cutting further into the forest, where the cattle to pasture ratio can drop from five to one head per hectare.

Farms with forest and water,
but no credits or property title

The cattle fever did not halt the predominance of the forest, even on the farms, where civilization and nature coexist in the agriculturally exploited area and the forest. A full 41% of the farms’ surface has forest cover, 10% higher than the area covered by pasture and basic grains.

The forest cover climbs to 44% and 49% on farms of 14-35 hectares and 70-140 hectares, respectively, averaging between 12 and 48 hectares of forest per farm. The farms in those ranges also have better management, raising barnyard fowl, horses and pigs. Their owners not only live alongside the reserve, they are people of the forest; in fact they own much of it.

The availability of non-drinking water is excellent, with 89% of the farms having their own water sources and 73% having rivers running through their land. The municipality’s hydrographic network is made up of 457 longitudinal kilometers of rivers, but this natural wealth receives paltry socioeconomic attention and most of the producers are bypassed by the national financial system. In 2001, only 19% of the producers even tried to apply for credit, and barely 4% were successful. The situation doesn’t even improve much in the case of the farmers with over 350 hectares: 22% requested and only half of the applications were approved.

This abandonment is directly related to the legal situation of the properties. Only 20% of the farmers have a publicly registered property deed. Curiously, that rises to 50% among farms of under half a hectare, presumably because they were beneficiaries of some land distribution, and to 42% in farms of over 140 hectares. Most of the rest have agrarian reform titles. Those most affected by the lack of any legal title are those whose farms are in the 2-14 hectare range.

Lands in dispute

The 55% of the farms awarded by the agrarian reform cover between 14 and 35 hectares, precisely the range that predominates in the municipality. The agrarian reform assignations drop off abruptly both above and below that range. Between 1992 and 1994, the Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA) granted 825 agrarian reform titles for farms averaging 35 hectares. Many, perhaps the majority, of the beneficiaries were veterans of either the Sandinista army or ARDE. The total area distributed was 26,968 hectares, all of it located in the buffer zone.

The land was given in a disorderly way, without recognizing the ownership situation in the territory or studying what land could be distributed. When the old owners returned to their plots, they discovered them occupied by cooperatives and veterans. This situation multiplied the number of plots in dispute due to double titling. Errors in establishing the boundaries and the overlapping of farms threw more kindling on the local fire of property conflicts, which were also burning all over Nicaragua.

The state has compensated some of those farmers, but that doesn’t put a stop to most of the fights. The state doesn’t indemnify those who don’t have legal documents, and most people don’t. Government officials usually argue that compensation can’t be paid for national lands illegally in the hands of private individuals. And although the owners have well-rooted social recognition strongly affirmed in the peasant culture, the state ignores such rights. The debate is between formal law and the rights derived from occupation and/or improvements made, rights that peasants consider natural.

How should the territory be planned?

The land planning efforts have produced weak results. Their objective is to reduce conflicts over agrarian properties and ensure legal stability and security for all smallholders as a strategic element for preserving the reserve and containing the immigrant flows.

Between 1995 and 1998 the OTR, previously INRA, implemented a massive property legalization process with support from DANIDA in 25 of the 43 communities in the buffer zone under El Castillo’s municipal jurisdiction. Nearly a thousand titles were issued, corresponding to nearly 33,452 hectares, 44.8% of the land being farmed today. Half a million dollars was invested in that process. In Bartola alone 37 lots covering 2,058 hectares were legalized. But in the communities of Bartola, Buena Vista, Marcelo, Kilómetro 20, El Chanchón, Nueva Quezada, La Pintada, Nueva Libertad, Fátima and Bijagua, those who had recently received their titles began to sell their properties and push on toward the reserve.

Why do the peasants look to the forest?

Bartola is attended by El Castillo’s Municipal Land Planning Unit (UTOM), which also serves seven other communities. This unit is located in the southeast of the buffer zone and is bordered on the east by the Sábalos UTOM, on the south by Costa Rica, on the west by the reserve and on the north by the district of Las Maravillas. Wicker, various woods and certain fauna species—parrots, macaws, parakeets, toucans, wild turkeys and deer—are all extracted from this area.

The situation of its residents is nothing to write home about. Bismarck Fernández, a 24-year-old farmer, has a clear view of the future: “There are no farmers with much money here in Bartola. All of us here are shit out of luck. Nobody contracts you. To get a contract you have to go to El Castillo, and they pay just over $2. Better to just grab a hook, catch a catfish and eat it with a couple of guineos.” Their living conditions are rough: they have no electricity or potable water; it’s hard to get out of the zone in case of emergency; there’s not always a midwife around; the school is hours away on foot from many houses; nobody’s hiring… The only option is to turn to the forest, in an alliance that is hugely advantageous for the lumber dealers.

The mammoth lumber business

The price of wood has been rising by leaps and bounds. In 1993 the quoted price of a tree was 100 córdobas, by 1999 it had risen to 200 córdobas, and now it brings over 500 córdobas. (Little of this price rise is explained by annual inflation, which never exceeded 10% during that time). Even at current prices, farmers still receive a pittance for their trees. Considering that a relatively small royal cedar averages 12,000 cubic inches of wood, the 500 córdobas the farmer gets is pathetic compared to the scandalous 120,000 córdobas (10 córdobas a cubic inch) that a carpenter in Managua has to pay directly at the sawmill or the exorbitant 300,000 (25 córdobas a cubic inch) charged at El Halcón, a big building supplies center. As Anne Larson points out, “the price that the owner of the forest receives under these circumstances is well below the ‘real value’ of the lumber.”

For their part, the lumber businesses and dealers argue that their prices are fair, considering the costs they assume, including the design of forest management plans, the extraction operations, the payment of taxes to INAFOR and of property taxes to the mayor’s office, among others. They claim the big winner is the state, not the lumber dealers, because of the high taxes it charges. But that self-defense conveniently leaves aside the fact that a large part of the extraction is illegal and doesn’t involve management plans, much less taxes, with none of these illegal savings passed down by the lumber operators or intermediaries.

It’s also safe to assume that if it were not a good business, there wouldn’t be any lumber companies functioning legally. The money from selling trees, even under these ripoff conditions, is still attractive: the value of 50 trees easily exceeds the annual income of most farmers in El Castillo.

Trans-border peasants:
Hunters, gatherers and nomads

Many of these peasants spend the better part of their time hunting and gathering, with some periods as wage workers for Costa Ricans. Like the rubber tappers and ipecac sellers before them, very little is planted by people who gather wicker vines and fish. The small amounts of the forest’s products they need don’t endanger its sustainability, except when they go after saleable goods, such as a certain vine and some forest fauna: parrots, macaws, mountain cats, white-faced capuchin monkeys, squirrels, bush hens and rabbits.

Selling off their part of the forest is the only chance they have to escape being hunters and gatherers. But selling trees and the existing prohibitions to that sale have sunk the forest people into a morass of contradictions. Development seems to contradict conservation. If there are more roads, they reduce the costs of moving agricultural products and lumber. But while there will be more development with more and better roads, there will also be less forest.

Actually, three factors do more to protect the forest than the legislation: rain, the producers’ lack of capital and migration to Costa Rica. But who protects the peasants from starving to death? As Larson points out: “We need to remember something the environmental law says that is omitted in the forestry law: the benefits for the communities must be taken into account for the exploitation contracts.”

Policies that emphasize conservation more than rational exploitation do nothing to benefit peasant life. The forests on their farms are ignored in the law. According to Larson, “Neither the law nor its regulations explicitly considers the dispersed trees in agro-forestry or shaded pasture systems, managed mainly by small and medium peasant farmers, to be forestry resources.” The law thus appears an instrument of environmentalist neocolonialism, with the MARENA officials as intermediary executors of an environmental legal globalization that isn’t based on socio-ecology. A comprehensive socio-ecological approach would start from a vision that combines natural resources, productive activities and human beings and their cultural productions, given that trees live in a productive-economic, ecological and social sphere.

“Is this farm mine only for paying taxes?”

The peasants of the area see it more clearly than the suit-and-tie technocrats. Sixty-two-year-old farmer Segundo Rivera has a healthy hostility toward the conservationist programs that require voluntary reforestation work of those who can barely subsist: “Filling the bags and making those plots is pretty serious work for someone who doesn’t know where he’s going to find his next meal. Plus it’s about planting trees that I can’t cut. The people from the Güises de Montaña” center used to tell us, ‘Plant these saplings and I’ll give you 50 pesos; here, take this machete and file.’ But the MARENAs don’t offer any incentives at all and you have nowhere to turn; you might as well just eat your fingernails.”

These requirements deepen the tangle of contradictions until getting down to a fundamental one: private property vs. public property; legal authority of the farm owner vs. legal authority of the government. The sacrosanct nature of private property, culturally inoculated into us from breastfeeding days, doesn’t help us swallow the state’s conservationist and fiscal interventions. As Segundo Rivera expresses it: “The cycle of taxes is yours to pay, but if you want to cut down a tree the farm isn’t yours, because you have to get a permit for everything. And you have to spend a year going back and forth to Sábalo just to get it.”

Reinaldo Alemán adds: “We pay taxes on land they don’t want us to touch. We don’t have a farm, all we have is taxes. If I’m the owner of the farm, why the hell do I have to go ask MARENA for a permit? If the lumber’s from my farm, why do they take it away from me? They’ve got me like a caretaker of my own farm. And not even that, because you’ve got to pay a caretaker and nobody pays me. Yet they want me to pay my taxes every year. This farm isn’t mine because they won’t let me do what I want with it. It’s mine only to pay taxes on.”

All the peasants in the area know about Costa Rica’s payment system for environmental services. They have received promises of something similar, but with no clear idea of how to make the environmental services compatible with the sovereignty of their plot: “Some institutions offered money to maintain the forest. But they still aren’t giving anything. They’ve offered us agreements with the community: payment for maintaining the forest. But the people want to know if we can sell or clear the land if we sign this agreement. We want to know if they pay well and if we keep our rights to sell. If not, they can pay us for the farm and we’ll go buy on the other side.” Once again, the way the agreements are proposed doesn’t consider the tension between public good and private good or the need for education on the subject.

The farmers’ proposals lean toward cattle raising, a profitable activity that is compatible with the soil and the culture of “clean” terrain as a metaphor for civilized life, as Segundo Rivera illustrates: “All of us here are equal: we’re all at the same level. It would help if they’d give us cows on credit. A priest from San Carlos loaned us $500 interest free for five years. We drink the milk, eat the rennet cheese, are paying the man and we’ve got the cow and her calves.”

Reinaldo Alemán is of the same opinion: “They should give us cows, because ‘the hide makes the harness,’ as they say: the cheese pays for the cow.” The need to better oneself doesn’t seem to mesh with orthodox conservationist activities, which is why Larson concludes that “at the root of all the problems is the tension between conservation and development, a tension that may only be surmountable on the ground and with a strategy that starts with social considerations.”

Seeing the forest through the eyes of its people

The main means of capitalization on Nicaragua’s agricultural frontier is investing in land and cattle. Investment in cattle is gradually swallowing up the forest in the buffer zone. The state and foreign cooperation oppose the peasant strategy with their obsessive and blind intent to put doors on the forest. They are installing legal doors, fiscal doors and policing doors, yet none of them is halting the extraction of ceibo, níspero and cedar trees.

All these efforts result in financial hernias for the state institutions and international cooperation. Corruption, ennui, legal obstacles, legal loopholes and the forest rangers’ paltry wages are some of the enormous entryways right alongside the doors.

But the worst of these gaping holes is complete ignorance of the viewpoint of the forest dwellers, who live with the forest, possess it and coexist with all that lives in it. A socio-ecological approach that considers the views of this endangered species—the peasantry deep in the outback—and the possibility of managing forest resources in a such way that the extraction leaves the greatest earnings in the hands of the farmers could be morally more acceptable and socially more viable, as well as making the forest more sustainable.

The wild pigs grunt as they hear the boat pass, invading their jungle peace. When I ask Segundo Rivera what more he might add, he answers very firmly: “Write that there’s no money in this jungle. We only sell pigs, chickens and bananas. When we go to El Castillo, they tell us: ‘Now we’ve got eggs and everything.’ So I sometimes go to Costa Rica illegally; I go for up to three months to work ten hours a day; until I end up sagging and with my backside pure moss from all the rainfall. When I’m here, I just pull up some cassava and hunt spotted cavy if we want to eat. When you’re back there, write that we just live here eating a bit of cassava, agouti and ripe plantains, coati, or scooping out little fish like that small bird that sits on a twig to spy on the fish.”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío Editorial Council.

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