Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 340 | Noviembre 2009



An SOS for Climate Change: What Will We Young People Do?

Are the authorities and people aware that the effects of climate change are already being felt in Nicaragua? Is anything akin to a national dialogue underway about this incredibly serious problem? It’s time to act,bearing in mind the old saying: “God always forgives, we human beings sometimes do, but Nature never does.”

William Grigsby Vergara

We are already seeing evidence of the environmental crisis, which has a greater effect on those of us living in the world’s basement, in the least advanced countries. How much do we in Nicaragua contribute to climate change, if at all? What lies ahead for us in ten, twenty or thirty years according to the experts’ forecasts? What can we do as young people to close the open veins of a Latin America that is turning to desert starting in Mexico and melting as far north of the polar ice cap as Patagonia, with a massively deforested Amazon in between?

A good legal framework,
but no political will

A few months ago in a talk at envío, I heard this comment from Sandinista Renovation Movement legislative representative Victor Hugo Tinoco, when he was asked about the environmental situation in Nicaragua: “More important than new laws for profound transformations is application of the laws we already have. A recent important step was the water law that establishes the new Water Authority. But in Nicaragua, after passing a law, we don’t comply with it. We have many good laws but they’re ignored in favor of the de facto path. In this area, as in others, what’s missing is political will. The country’s problems, including the problem of the environment, require a change of vision in the government.”

Cuban bio-mathematician and bio-geographer Mijail Pérez, who is scientific director of the Gaia Association in Nicaragua, agrees with Tinoco: “In effect we have a really good legal framework here. There are regulations on how much forest can be cut down from a river bank inland; there’s the new environmental offenses law, a legal framework so progressive as to appear European; neighborhood noise contamination is already recognized in law and people can report offenses… Yes, the legal framework is good, but is it observed? What no-one has managed to develop in Nicaragua is political will: interaction and synergy among institutions.”

Political will isn’t just about doing something, coming up with a solution to a social problem. It’s about how to implement it. In Nicaragua we have the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), which has jurisdiction over protected areas, but if it doesn’t work with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAGFOR), the system of protected areas on which MARENA has more data is reduced to a series of “islands.” Pérez is merciless with the authorities responsible: “I constantly try to get it across to them that the production models have to change. If they don’t, this country is going down the drain! We have 17% of protected areas against almost 50% productive areas and if we don’t get interested in conservation in the productive system we’re not doing anything. This relationship has to be reviewed. Political will implies reviewing it.”

For Pérez, who also has a biology degree from the University of Havana and a doctorate in science from the University of the Basque Country, political will means working together. That’s why he commends the FSLN government’s wisdom in creating the Agricultural and Rural Public Sector (SPAR), so all institutions can work as a team in the country’s most remote areas. But he also regrets the discontinuation of other good initiatives from previous governments. Providing continuity to initiatives is what allows long term projects to be managed successfully. This too is “political will.”

MARENA needs approximately $12 million to function adequately in the protected areas and the government’s problems with international cooperation make things difficult for future projects to confront climate change. Pérez emphasizes this, but he hold donors and private enterprise responsible for concretizing projects as well as the government: “You need to prepare a map and ask all these actors where on it they want to invest, without this meaning neglect of the protected areas. We have to start managing our country better. With far fewer resources than Nicaragua, Costa Rica has exploited its ecosystems better, in spite of Nicaragua having much more to offer.”

What is Nicaragua contributing
to the greenhouse effect?

Although Central America contributes practically nothing to the effects of global climate change given its size, Mijail Pérez thinks radical measures could be taken all over Central America to improve on a micro scale some of its consequences, such as rainfall. On the global scale, dealing with climate change will have to happen at the level of continental land masses where the most serious problems are: in Africa and South America for some reasons, and in North America, Europe and part of Asia and China for their historical and now accelerated industrialization levels.

The Kyoto protocol for mitigating the effects of contaminating gases has been one of the most globally accepted initiatives. Nevertheless, one of the biggest contributors to the greenhouse effect caused by these gases, the United States, is not a signatory. In Nicaragua these gases have already started to constitute a problem. Several years ago the number of vehicles was small, but deficiencies in public transport and the culture of continuous use of one’s own vehicle, or sometimes more than one per family, has changed the panorama and currently CO2 emissions in Managua are starting to be significant, with effects in the medium and long term.

But believe it or not, Nicaragua’s greatest contribution to the greenhouse effect and its own climate change is the advance of the agricultural frontier for extensive cattle ranching. As of 2003 Nicaragua ceased to be a recipient of contaminating gases and became an emitter, basically because of the agricultural frontier’s advance. A traditional irrational practice has been turning the forests into pasture for cattle. Furthermore, thanks to their metabolism, cattle emit huge quantities of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere and these gases are far more toxic when the cattle feed on natural pastures and not on improved pastures with a higher nutritional content and less capacity for contamination.

Bosawás: An endangered mini-country

In Nicaragua, you can’t talk about large-scale deforestation without talking about Bosawás, a mini-country of 8,000 square kilometers of forest on the Honduran border. This natural reserve is currently in the hands of indigenous people who live off nature using traditional hunting and fishing practices without destroying resources or creating large settlements that threaten the ecosystem like the mestizo settlers who have been advancing from the west and east, causing serious damage.

In September 2007 Hurricane Felix ravaged the northern Caribbean coast, affecting Bosawás among many other places. Nonetheless its ecosystem is very forgiving and has recovered rapidly. Felix’s devastating effects can scarcely be seen. Trees were knocked over but are still alive and while gaps can be seen from high up, the entire seed bank remained and has revived with the rain and sunlight. It’s a biological resurrection process called resilience: natural ecosystems’ potential to react to effects as destructive as those of a powerful hurricane.

For a culture of saving
against an anti-culture of waste

Getting into all these issues as someone who will live in Nicaragua for the next thirty or forty years, I’m interested in what people of the younger generation can do…

Mijail Pérez emphasizes saving electricity and drinking water by using measures that are taken increasingly seriously in rich countries and that young people are increasingly aware of in these countries. “You go to a university in Spain,” he comments, “and you notice little details: the sinks in the bathrooms all have a pressure tap that switches off automatically. Water isn’t wasted. This mini-system implies investment because that sort of tap costs more, but in the long term they mean huge savings in water, especially where there is a widespread culture of hygiene. On the other hand, in Nicaraguan universities you continue to find faucets with butterfly handles left running all day, wasting huge quantities of water. Just seeing this is a bad example, it de-educates young people.”

Technology should create awareness in young people. If Nicaragua’s youth knew about these technologies, maybe they’d pressure the school boards and later the university authorities to take on this sort of project. Trying to bring about change in young people is harder when they’re surrounded by the adult anti-culture of waste. The ways and times that gardens are watered in universities and public spaces aren’t a very good example either. A lot of water gets wasted. Mijail Pérez is concerned by the lack of awareness in Nicaragua about the value of water. How can the urban custom of refreshing sidewalks and streets on sunny afternoons by hosing them down be so widespread? Or washing cars with a hose instead of using buckets of water…”

Many resources,
little awareness

He mentions another example of how other countries save electricity, this time in public buildings: “They’ve got lights with touch switches: you touch it and the light comes on, then after a bit it goes out. Like with the pressure taps for water, it’s a big investment, but you save a huge amount. I think that if Nica kids started seeing and using these technologies at school, that would start a change straightaway. It’s not about being stingy; it’s about creating a well understood savings culture. And where any new culture sticks most is in the freshest minds, those of young people.”

Nicaragua is a country with abundant natural resources. As ironic as it may sound, this represents a big problem because it’s hard for us to realize that we have to look after them. Bosawás is a mine and so is Lake Cocibolca, but we’re contaminating both of them. The city of Granada, at the northwest end of Cocibolca, still doesn’t have a waste water system and the city’s people are destroying their most precious resource. But all is not lost: “Cocibolca is savable,” Mijail Pérez maintains.

Another area of vital importance that must be rescued to conserve our environment is Tisma, a low wetlands area that contributes greatly to the water table connecting our two lakes, Cocibolca and Xolotlán. Nevertheless, the farmers who work on their shores continue to contaminate the water with agro-chemicals. Water transport also pollutes and people who use it throw all sorts of rubbish into the water without paying any attention to the fact that they’re dirtying a source of semi-potable water.

And young people in the countryside?

Faced with such a palpable set of environmental problems, what can rural young people do to avoid being the ones most affected? How informed are they about climate change and its effects? How can they be included in some of the ecological activities that a certain sector of urban youth has already started to carry out?

Mijail Pérez thinks the information available to rural young people is very limited, very scarce, due to the illiteracy reigning in the countryside plus the lack of such valuable instruments as cable television and Internet. We need to remember that literacy is more than just reading and writing the very basics.

Nonetheless, rural youth have closer knowledge of the effects of climate change, even though they might not have given them a specific label. “There are children in Boaco,” Pérez tells me, in the San José de los Remates area, who have to walk long distances to get water. In summer this area gets terribly dry. The children are very clear that something has to be done. The best thing would be to offer them a solution so they can understand that they can eat without having to cut trees down, because if you cut one, you cut two and this starts the desertification process. Young farmers also see the problems brought by lack of water; they sees that the grasses used for feeding the cows don’t grow.

“One rural children’s tragedy that appalls me,” he adds, “is that of the children who gather shellfish. They have to put their hands into the roots of the mangroves to pull off the shellfish that grow down there. The skin on their fingers splits, they get eaten by mosquitoes and if they’re still in the water when the dinghy that comes to pick them up arrives, they spend all night in the mangrove. The mother of a shellfish gatherer will tell you she doesn’t want that sort of work for her child. She’ll tell you it’s a job for animals…”

Forced to adapt

To find out more about climate change and the alternatives with which we young people could confront it, I went to see Antonio Milán, also a scientist of Cuban origin. He’s a consultant with MARENA who trained as an architect at the University of Havana.

Milán believes many things can be done in the short, medium and long term. The first thing is to recognize the problem and its magnitude in order to create international will that starts with observing the Kyoto protocol for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At present the reduction planned ten years ago is already insufficient and should be, at a minimum, 20% by 2020 and 60% by 2050. Otherwise we won’t be able to stabilize CO2 concentration at what environmental activists and a number of scientists ncreasingly consider an acceptable minimum of 350 parts per million rather than the earlier level of 400. That means we’ve already entered the danger zone at the current level of 387 parts per million.

Recognizing the problem means understanding the paradox that while developed countries emit CO2 to get rich, we deforest and emit CO2 to get poor. Nicaragua’s emissions barely reach the insignificant figure of 0.03% of global emissions. The responsibility of Nicaragua’s youth will be to help create awareness and add it to the consciousness of many young people around the world, closing ranks with them.

According to Milán, Nicaragua is obliged to adapt, to assume risks responsibly because we live in a vulnerable region and a poor country, two characteristics that are more than enough for natural disasters to inflict greater damage on us. This requires us to train ourselves in early warning systems to evacuate entire populations from danger areas. “If we adapt to a predicted drought,” he explains, “if we employ traditional good water use methods, if we manage the soil in a sustainable way to prevent degradation, if we avoid burning the land, if we don’t pollute our drinking water sources, if public policies aim at conserving natural resources, we will be adapting to the situation and acting responsibly.”

“The void we have”

In recent years we’ve seen a slow but important, albeit not massive, awareness-raising process among Nicaraguan youth. Universities such as the National University of Engineering (UNI), the University of the Americas (UAM), Univalle and the Central American University (UCA) have joined forces to start with something as simple as classifying rubbish into organic and inorganic waste. The UCA has also put up messages throughout the university campus calling for conservation of the ecosystem and there have been efforts to create eco-clubs and produce newsletters on climate change and other “green” issues.

Milán considers all this insufficient and thinks these problems need to be presented to young people more systematically. Currently they’re not part of any syllabus and there’s only a sort of primary school curriculum produced by MARENA. “It’s something very basic,” he says, “that doesn’t fill the void we have.” Furthermore these issues are often dealt with from a perspective of political confrontation rather than one of education. The communications media, press, radio and television still have a lot to do.

As well as pointing out the lack of political will and inobservance of the existing laws, Milán emphasizes the financial side: “The resources the government allocates to the environmental sector are the lowest of all. The environmental inspector whose function is to enforce the law at departmental level, costs 2,500 córdobas a month (US $125). MARENA is the ministry that receives the fewest resources from the national budget; 80% of its budget comes from foreign cooperation agencies. “

A job for university students

In spite of everything, some young urban people are already informed about what awaits us in the medium run. But what about young rural people who live in the deep valleys, forests and tropical jungles of the north, dense with thick beards of vine-entangled trees full of exotic animals? Does that sea of children disconnected from the Internet, television and books know the danger they’re faced with and are they prepared to confront climate change? How to make them aware?

Milán believes that neither rural youth nor the most isolated indigenous communities know about the dangers of climate change. The structure of our indigenous communities has traditionally been based on the authority of the elders. Much of this authority down the years has been based on knowing about the weather, in practice knowing when it will rain or when there will be drought, when and how to sow. Now, with the climate ever more unstable and less predictable, these elders are losing their authority. In Milán’s opinion the confusion generated by climate change could be producing a social disintegration in the most traditional communities.

“We’re going to need a literacy campaign on these issues,” he says, “but nothing’s being done to teach rural communities, which is where the information needs to get to. I think urban university students could best develop this sort of campaign. I’d enthusiastically offer them knowledge if they decided to travel to the departments to spend time with their rural neighbors teaching them about these issues. Three, four, five days would be enough to give them the basics and alert them to the danger that climate change implies. And afterwards leave them a booklet on how to fight drought, hurricanes, how to use early warning systems… simple training methods would be effective for them to understand and react.”

Optimism, pessimism...

In spite of everything, Milán is optimistic: with wise investment, Nicaragua wouldn’t need to consume fossil fuels to generate energy in a few years. The country’s water, wind and geothermic potential could produce double what we consume today in hydrocarbons. He doesn’t think we’d need to use biofuel: “We have a population of less than six million inhabitants and barely 10-15% have their own vehicle.”

But he’s also very concerned about the advance of the agricultural frontier, deforestation and the devastation of crucial ecological areas such as Bosawás and Musún. There’s currently a national reforestation campaign underway for areas of the Pacific side of the country affected by the advance of the agricultural frontier and the burning of land to prepare it for planting. New vegetation would fix carbon and reverse the contamination process in around 15 years. “Nicaragua’s main contribution to slowing global warming is to drastically reduce the deforestation we’ve historically engaged in,” says Milán.

What will our map look like?

What will become of Nicaragua if we continue cutting down the forests? What sort of face will our map have in a not too distant future? According to Milán there are optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. If there isn’t a drastic change at the global level in the next 20 years, we’ll be facing the worst of the scenarios and Nicaragua could register an increase in temperature of up to five degrees by the end of the 21st century.

The consequences would be disastrous. A lot of land would turn to desert; there would be colossal droughts, a systematic loss of biodiversity, emigration of animal species and humans, climate refugees, and serious social conflicts over access to water in regions suffering total desertification. With such a temperature increase, the land from Nagarote to Chinandega would become a semi-desert and crops would suffer from the major scarcity of water. The population would emigrate to the lakes of the Pacific looking for water.

There’s also a scenario B, if a global correction is made in time and sustainable development is prioritized all over the world. If in the next ten years the current level of polluting emissions is reduced by 60%, climate change would be no more dangerous at the end of this century than it is today. Milán warns that even in this best case scenario, a phenomenon called heat inertia is already affecting the whole planet and making the current warming of the oceans, rising sea levels and melting polar ice irreversible.

Little will, little investment in education

We young people must produce a better future. To find out if we’re taking this seriously I went to visit the Young Environmentalists Club (CJA), an NGO founded in 1996 that now has 13 years experience of working directly with young people in environmental education, citizen participation and environmental denunciations, both in international summits and regional forums.

The CJA’s executive director is Raomir Manzanares, an agrarian extension graduate from the National Agricultural University, who is an agricultural technician and social activist and was MARENA’s general secretary in 2007. He is a man with great faith in the eco-clubs that already bring together 1,580 young people from various areas of the country who are being trained in environmental awareness.

Manzanares agrees about the lack of political will in the country to deal with the crisis: “You can’t obtain this will quickly, without any prior negotiation process.” The environmental movement lobbied for the formulation and approval of the water law, together with women’s cooperatives and various associations from the protected areas. After the law was passed, the CJA made it clear that we face urgent challenges the challenges to avoid it becoming dust-covered and forgotten like other laws. If this law is to function, it’s crucial to appoint the national Water Authority. Nevertheless, the legislators have only interviewed three candidates to date, without selecting any of them.

The government is investing very little in publicizing environmental issues and especially alerting people to the threat of climate change. Those who have responded to this challenge have been NGOs supported by international cooperation agencies and organized civil society, sectors of the population with which the current government never sits down to talk.

The young environmentalists’ movement and its main leaders work in almost the entire Pacific coastal fringe and four municipalities in the north, developing alliances to publicize the climate change problem in rural areas. “A few campaigns aren’t enough; it has to be an ongoing process taken on by the Ministry of Education,” Manzanares stresses. “Climate change is now discussed in the public secondary school system, but it’s necessary to go further and work inter-institutionally with all the ministries.” Nicaragua has yet another void: the National Commission of Environmental Education (CNEA), designed as part of the general environmental law to direct and advise state institutions on environmental education programs, hasn’t been set up yet either.

“This isn’t a secondary issue”

Raomir Manzanares indicates his concern about youth emigration from rural areas due to lack of alternatives. This is the case with young sugar cane cutters, who are already suffering the consequences of climate change thanks to instability in production and harvesting. Most cane cutters are no more than 20 years old. They desert their families and go to harvest cane in El Salvador or Costa Rica looking for better opportunities. He believes the rural population is informed about climate change and its consequences, but it isn’t being trained to deal with them. The government proposes the Cabinets of Citizen’s Power to “provide responses” but young people in the countryside don’t trust politicized proposals. “Young peasants may be ingenuous, but they’re not stupid, they know when politics sticks its nose in everyday affairs and they see it as dangerous, so they prefer to keep their distance,” Manzanares comments.

For him the best alternative offered by the CJA is the project “Look for a pact for life.” The environment can’t just be seen as a secondary social issue depending on a company’s corporate social responsibility or occupying seventh or eighth place on a political party’s manifesto.

“How much does the government give MARENA every year? A little publicized pittance,” warns Manzanares. MARENA should be prioritized as the regulatory body for economic activity. It has to be central. Otherwise, he adds, “this is a struggle between a loose tiger and a tethered donkey: you’re looking how to protect tomorrow and the economic sector is eating it all up today.” The environment must be a priority on the agenda of all sectors of society. The “pact for life” tries to do that, putting the state of our planet at the center of young people’s concerns.

It’s up to us

Urban and rural youth live very different lifestyles and because of this perceive the environmental problem in very different ways too. According to Manzanares, rural young people are far more sensitive, receptive and quick to mobilize, while urban youth are more questioning and difficult to lead; they don’t like being subordinated to anyone and prefer to organize on their own account. “Young city people decide to clean the Xiloá lagoon and come up with the whole plan, but they don’t want anyone at the head of the process. Young people in the countryside are different; they have a lot of respect for social hierarchies. Urban youth are more rebellious, more demanding; they reject adult leadership and don’t like to be lectured on science, preferring to read up on their own. They’re self-sufficient.” Bringing these two kinds of young people together to work gets very complicated.

But we’ll all have to work together, young and not so young. On September 22 the UN held a one-day summit on climate change in which some one hundred heads of state and government reflected on this threat to the world in the largest-ever high-level gathering on the issue. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the world leaders to act with urgency to ensure the success of the UN conference on global climate that will take place in Copenhagen in December.

But urgency isn’t just for leaders, it’s for everyone. We young people must do something for the planet. Will we repeat the history of the dinosaurs, disappeared 65 million years ago? Unlike them, we’re gifted with an intelligence that could save us in time. We young people must do something for Nicaragua, blessed with an incredibly rich ecosystem we haven’t known how to look after. Or do we want to end up surviving on a triangle of desert in the geography of a planet changed forever?

William Grigsby Vergara is a graphic design student and occasional contributor to envío.

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