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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 397 | Agosto 2014
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Nicaragua

There’ll be no development by ignoring Science

We aren’t addressing the challenge we have with Bosawás, and now we’ve got a huge new one with the part of the Caribbean given us by the ruling of the International Court at The Hague in November 2012. As the waters now ours contain the Atlantic’s largest barrier reef; we’ve been given a treasure to study and use sustainably. The possibilities are enormous. But if we continue to ignore Science, as we always have, we’ll waste the opportunity and fail the challenge.

Jorge A. Huete Pérez

If impoverished countries are to progress towards a knowledge-based economy, the environment has to be conducive to innovation and the economic regime and institutional framework have to be appropriate. Resolute determination is required to prioritize investment in education, particularly scientific education, because we need science if we are to progress.

Limits and increasing inequality
in our economic model

While the creation of knowledge and its application to business represent the essence of productive development in the globalized world, Nicaragua has lacked programs that make the most of Nicaraguan creativity, by applying it to use national and universal knowledge in the products and services a competitive global economy needs. We continue promoting the export of traditional products with little value added and/or technological content while our manufacturing industry essentially consists of low-complexity assembly work in maquilas (foreign-run plants that assemble imported inputs for re-export).

Nicaragua’s economic activity has always been based on stimulating what’s called “the agricultural vocation,” perennially of low productivity and now with major competitive limitations. Alongside the limited impetus to industrial growth is the promotion of an economy based on mediocre tourist attractions and related services.

Our economy’s limited achievements are excessively fragile because they essentially depend on the good prices our traditional raw materials bring on the international market. Time is moving on and we’re still not taking advantage of the demographic dividend—a dropping birth rate and more working-age young people. We’re failing to provide good job opportunities and to prioritize education to improve our human resources.

In addition to its macroeconomic stability, Nicaragua has some important economic advantages in key issues for the knowledge society: its regulatory framework, economic incentives and commercial policy. However, its GDP growth over more than two decades has not resulted in a significant improvement in the economy of Nicaraguan homes. The inequality in income and opportunities in our country is becoming ever greater, as studies by the World Bank and the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean show. It’s no secret that inequality is currently corroding Nicaraguan society.

We can’t develop without education

Paradoxically, although Nicaragua has been performing well macroeconomically, this stability isn’t reflected in a greater and more resolute investment in education. While the GDP has sustained an average annual growth of 3.5-4.5% over the last two decades, the budget allocated to education has remained virtually static.
Nicaragua’s investment in public education is one of the lowest on the continent. Half the schools in the country have inadequate infrastructure and there’s a shortfall of more than 12,000 classrooms. Experts say it takes at least 10-12 years of formal schooling to get out of poverty, yet many children don’t even finish primary school and even that limited education is of poor quality.

We’re in a vicious circle: low investment in education, low pay for teachers, a paucity of quality in public education… All this subsequently results in juvenile unemployment, low wages for the jobs young people can get, massive emigration of our youths in search of work abroad… We aren’t taking advantage of the demographic dividend and are postponing, perhaps forever, our country’s advance towards the knowledge society.

It has already been determined that the main bottlenecks to Nicaragua’s development are in the low quality of our workforce and insufficient investment in training. This, of course, is then expressed in low productivity levels. But there are also other “bottlenecks”: Nicaragua ranked 99th among 148 countries in the latest Global Competiveness Index. Our country is seriously disadvantaged at both regional and global levels. And although the procedures to start up a business have improved, development is also affected by deficiencies in the legal and justice system, political instability and corruption.

We can’t develop ignoring science

Opening up trade and investments and having a patent system can favor the creation of new knowledge. But this is not likely to happen given the lack of resources in the science, technology and innovation system and of investment in the work of research centers and institutes that can create knowledge and in adapting and finding new ways to produce and market it. Consolidating a modern patenting and intellectual property system without addressing these national innovation needs is another absurdity in Nicaragua’s current economic model. This contradiction weakens any progress we make in the knowledge economy.

Nicaragua has never contemplated science-based development. This willful negligence can be seen not only in the absence of funding for scientific projects but even more importantly in the lack of impetus to the main instruments to promote the scientific and technical work we already have. For example, the Law on Science, Technology and Innovation (CTI) was passed in 1995 but there still is no CTI policy, and the CTI plan drawn up in 2010 has gathered dust ever since due to lack of funding.

The unfortunate canal concession
and the Bosawás disaster

An example of the deep-seated disinterest in science and lack of political commitment to a science-based development project is the concession the government awarded Chinese businessman Wang Jing in June 2013 to build an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua. That astounding and highly questioned concession was ratified in Law 840, which was passed in no time by the National Assembly without consulting public opinion much less the national scientific community and without any environmental studies having been done.

We have witnessed this same apathy and lack of political will before, in the tragedy of Bosawás. The rapid deforestation of those 13,048 square miles of rainforest—considered the lungs of Central America and declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO—is basically explained by the govern¬ment’s inability to enforce the law. Appallingly bad management of the reserve, perpetuated and worsened through various administrations, heralds the destruction of this natural treasure. Probably the most serious aspect has been the lack of a comprehensive management plan to deal with the various challenges presented by Bosawás. Drawing up such a plan requires scientific considerations.

Science sees the roots of a disaster like this as extremely complex. A scientific-technical approach to a comprehensive strategy that will ensure the conservation of this “lung” involves enhancing it with multiple integral perspectives and correlating it with the reality of a country like ours, which houses almost 10% of the world’s biodiversity, an authentic treasure for Nicaraguans and for humanity. Core environmental issues must be analyzed in order to correctly address the challenges of Bosawás, and the ravages already resulting from global warming, drought and the loss of adjacent water resources cannot be ignored. In sum, a comprehensive response requires a multidisciplinary approach focusing on the interrelationships among the environment, the biosphere and the people who live there.

What Bosawás demands of us
and the mistakes we’re repeating

A social science approach to the forest’s destruction involves considering not only the impact on the material life of the indigenous communities that have traditionally lived in this reserve but also understanding their culture and the relationship they’ve evolved with the land they live on, Nature and their heritage. It requires understanding what it means for them to lose the forest, which is their basic means of subsistence, and also their vulnerability to economic developments and the effects of the various governmental institutions’ intersecting policies.

A comprehensive solution must make it a priority to respect and protect the indigenous communities’ cultural values and, above all, must find effective and sustainable mechanisms to stop the abuses and crimes committed by the powerful groups currently plundering the forests with impunity.

The synergy achieved many years ago as a result of a lot of work between the ministries and civil society hasn’t been put to good use in Bosawás. The loss of these linkages goes some way to explaining the current inability to effectively deal with the environmental challenges.

The same mistakes have been repeated with the canal concession: lack of transparency, little or no community participation in decision-making and disregard for natural heritage.

The bishops speak out

In the document the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua delivered to President Ortega as part of their dialogue with the government in May, they referred to the problematic ecological situation represented by Bosawás and the interoceanic canal project.

In an opinion shared by national experts, the bishops expressed concern about the “increasing and alarming deterioration and destruction of our natural resources, which represent a benefit not only for the country’s ecology but also for tourism and the economy.” And they explicitly noted that the powerful individuals [and companies] deforesting those areas are operating “under the corrupt protection of municipal and national authorities.”

When emphasizing the possible effects of the interoceanic canal project on indigenous peoples—abused and disregarded by the political class on the Pacific side of the country—the bishops also clearly and precisely presented their deeply-felt central concerns about its impact on Lake Cocibolca and the natural reserves. They urged that experts be listened to regarding a project such as this, which must consider various constitutional, geological, technical, environmental and other issues: “calmly weighing up the risks of such a megaproject in order to safeguard our environment and natural resources.”

A public debate on the canal

The bishops very wisely highlighted the need for public debate and for transparency in the handling of public affairs. These demands, which unquestionably represent how most of the population feels, should immediately lead to several measures: postponing the canal’s projected timetable—the project is allegedly due to start in December 2014; the government’s obligation to submit all canal studies, not just their conclusions, and to do an environmental impact study, not just the feasibility study. It should also mean submitting the studies to an informed, high-level public discussion, considering the opinions and recommendations of national and international scientists and experts and quickly forming an independent scientific commission to oversee national interests rather than those of the concessionary company or individuals interested in directly profiting from the project. Finally, it should lead to proposing and studying alternative projects that would lead us to real sustainable development.

The Seaflower Reserve:
a treasure and an opportunity

If we have a challenge with Bosawás, we also have another new and similarly enormous one in the extensive territory in the Caribbean Sea Nicaragua recovered in 2012 through the ruling of the International Court of Justice at The Hague. This area comprises 80% of the Seaflower Marine Reserve, one of those containing the greatest biodiversity in the world. This lush and valuable national heritage offers us a unique opportunity to promote national development sustainably, at the same time giving leverage to scientific-technical development.

Seaflower’s coral reefs are the natural habitat of countless fish, sponges, mollusks, lobsters, crustaceans, turtles, whales and many other species, making Nicaragua an even more exceptionally diverse country than before. The enormous biological wealth in these waters is an extremely valuable resource for scientific research, both for its intrinsic biological value and because this splendid variety of native and endemic species represents an extraordinary source for invention.

With this wealth, Nicaragua now has the opportunity to promote the development of marine-based medicines, enzymes of pharmaceutical and biotechnical interest, bio-fertilizers, emulsifiers and other natural products of the highest technological value. As it’s an emerging industry, it’s easy to profitably and sustainably manufacture biological preparations and give our country an unparalleled edge in the region.

Will we know how to make the most of it?

Sustainably harnessing this wealth requires devising a strategy that would also build a better base for scientific development. However, in all humility, we must recognize that if we have documented very little about our Pacific Coast’s biodiversity, we know even less about Caribbean biodiversity.

In addition to research on the area’s complex marine-coastal ecosystems, and studies on wetlands and estuaries, it’s essential to thoroughly understand the scope of the problematic situation involved in taking on this treasure: these waters’ degree of acidification, underwater ocean currents and possible climatic effects. In order to thoroughly research marine biodiversity and use it in high-tech industry, qualified staff need to be trained in countless specialties, from marine biology and fishing to other indispensable and more sophisticated tools, such as computational biology, bio-informatics, genomics and proteomics.

In addition to science’s undeniable interest in this recovered marine territory, these waters are of enormous value for the fishing industry because they contain the largest coral reef in the Atlantic and reefs act as a habitat for a large variety of fish, crustaceans and mollusks. The oceans make an especially valuable contribution to food security by providing humanity with up to 20% of its animal protein.

The extraordinary beauty of this coral reef is also an important tourist resource, generating almost a million US dollars a year for Colombia. Therefore our country is being given the opportunity to promote a wide range of activities: swimming, diving, snorkeling, day and night excursions, sport fishing, aquatic sports, educational tours…

Or will we opt for profit
and prioritize oil?

In addition to the Caribbean Sea’s biological wealth, there may be oil deposits in the area we’ve recovered. It is regrettable that, while Nicaragua hasn’t shown a real interest in promoting conservation of these waters’ biological resources, it has doggedly proceeded with the search for oil in them. The oil industry can be profitable but it is essentially polluting. The burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of global warming and, last but not least, increased carbon dioxide levels also have a devastating impact on the oceans.

Opting for the oil route in the Caribbean is another indication that all that matters is immediate profit, even if this is incompatible with the sustainable use of marine resources. The misguided choice of conceding areas of the Caribbean for oil prospecting and exploitation once again frustrates the possibility of testing out new ways of thinking and designing our growth. It’s a continuation of the same old gloomy extraction and looting system that’s holding us back.

To make the leap we need

Countless productive activities can benefit from scientific-technical progress in the context of the knowledge society, decisively helping to improve the productive system and increase exports. The minimal economic growth we’ve seen in these years would have been greater had there been adequate investment in research and development.

To improve growth and move towards a knowledge-based economy Nicaragua should encourage the generating and use of knowledge at all levels. More and more appropriate investment in training and work skills should focus on educating our people, both to suitably prepare our teachers and to give the working class more skills. A more skilled productive force would have higher salaries and investments would be directed at prioritized industrial sectors. All experts insist on the need to address the challenges of technical education, including training in the emerging sectors: nanotechnology, biotechnology and cybernetics.

To resolutely opt for a scientific development model requires formulating state policies that encourage the appropriation and creation of knowledge. It is urgent that initiatives that arise in the universities be supported, not to serve power but to maximize the benefits the public gets from such initiatives.

If we want to prosper in the knowledge society we have to consolidate the nation’s incipient innovation system, coordinating and creating a shared vision of its goals. Innovation processes must be encouraged by training people and institutions and expanding international networks of scientific collaboration. This would help Nicaragua make the leap from an essentially agricultural economy to one of high-tech products and services.

We must promote the
values of scientific work

The new economy isn’t an extravagant, futuristic proposal with robotic people dedicated to ultra-modern technologies. The essence of the knowledge society is mainly expressed in people and in their right to the information and knowledge they need to advance in their own individual and collective endeavors. This is why it’s essential to pay attention to the quality of education at all levels, encouraging creativity and critical thought and promoting skills that will help develop scientific education: rigor, responsibility, discipline and the values of scientific work itself, which are freedom of speech, exchange of ideas and respect for the truth.

A knowledge-based development model will devise new solutions to old problems and invent novel outcomes to our country’s chronic challenges and the urgent challenges of a rapidly changing world. This kind of model is an opportunity to harness growth to solving economic and social problems, including reducing social gaps.

For future generations

In order to act responsibly for the coming generations as well as the present ones, Nicaragua must choose a sustainable development model that makes use of scientific-technical progress. This kind of model would place ecosystems and the ecological services they provide at the center of our socioeconomic development plans. Nicaragua has incomparable natural wealth and with it a unique opportunity to use biodiversity and natural resources efficiently in programs based on scientific vision.


Jorge A. Huete-Pérez is a molecular biologist, director of the Center of Molecular Biology of the Central American University (UCA), Managua, and president of the Academy of Sciences of Nicaragua.

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