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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 470 | Septiembre 2020
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“Changing Nicaragua is about becoming aware of the environmental emergency”

This social scientist and researcher at the Central American University’s Nitlapan Research and Development Institute is participating in an international investigation in Nicaragua, Nepal and Kenya on governance for forest resilience to climate change. Here she analyzes many aspects of our country’s environmental reality.

Selmira Flores

Will the pandemic have positive or negative environmental effects in Nicaragua? Before addressing this urgent question, it’s necessary to understand that the environmental neglect that already exists in Nicaragua is a historical problem for which all governments, the business sector as a whole and also the population are responsible. It is a problem rooted in the do¬minant economic model: a productive logic of accumulation based on irrationally exploiting the country’s abundant natural resources, which also exacerbates inequality. We have used this extractive and exclusionary model so long that we uncritically equate it with development. Another conse¬quence of this is an environmental crisis, which we should now consider an environmental emergency. I don’t think the pandemic, alone, will change this.

Negative synergy between the
environmental crisis and others

What is true is that the environmental emergency, which we’ve been in for so long, has put us at greater risk from the pandemic. Deforestation, which is advancing across the country, causes drought, drought causes chronic malnutrition, which causes health problems that weaken the immune system and leave people less prepared to resist COVID-19. Deforestation also reduces the water needed for the hygiene that defends us from the virus as well as so many other diseases. The environmental emergency causes these mutually reinforcing crises.

In addition to the most recent pandemic crisis, we have been living with a profoundly serious political, social and economic crisis that has become more intense since 2018. These other crises combine to exacerbate the environmental crisis. The return of migrants, the difficulty they will encounter re-emigrating and the rising unemployment both in our country and in the countries where they previously found work, are factors that will push many people to move in search of new land to produce food, earn income and thus recover economically. This has been a historical phenomenon among the rural population, which has constantly migrated eastward within the country due to a lack of opportunities and low public investment aimed at improving the lives of the small-scale farmers and other sectors living in rural areas.

We can expect
changes in land tenure

For all this, we can expect that the economic crisis, which has been going on for three years, and now the health crisis, will bring about changes in land tenure. We at Nitlapan have been discussing what’s happening with the land in Nicaragua with a group of organizations that are part of the National Engagement Strategy for Democratic Access to Land.

We monitor land purchases and sales in various parts of the country, analyzing the reasons people buy and sell their land today. We’ve found that small farmers sell to pay off debts or cover health expenses, when they have to deal with a chronic illness or surgery. Rural families invest heavily in health because the public system doesn’t solve everything for them. And it’s well known that you have to wait up to three or four months to have tests scheduled and you’re often given only the prescriptions but have to buy the medicines.

How the crises are
affecting rural women …

I see rural women and indigenous communities as two population groups that will be most affected. Why women in the countryside? It’s a kind of rural “Rosie the riveter” effect. We’ve seen throughout Latin America that when men migrate for opportunities, women begin to take center stage in the family’s economic dynamics. The men send them remittances to make productive investments and cover household expenses, but the women are at the forefront managing the family land and properties, taking care of the production cycle and ensuring the harvest. But when the men return, they reclaim their place displacing the women from the management of the plot and the productive activity.

In Nicaragua we saw this process during the revolution: when men were off in the war, women took the lead in productive activity but when the war ended, men took back these activities. Because the pandemic is affecting men more than women, it could now happen that more men die in the countryside, widowing many women, but other men in the family—sons, brothers, father, father-in-law –could displace them from their lands.

…as indigenous communities

Other groups that will also be affected by migrations in search of land are indigenous communities. Many people will head east thinking there’s still “available” land, but those lands from the biosphere reserves and lands that ancestrally belong to indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples are by law “indissoluble; they cannot be donated, sold, leased nor taxed.”

Nonetheless, the invasion of mestizo settlers onto these communal lands has been accelerating year after year, resulting in murders and the burning down of homes and plots of land, destruction that leaves indigenous families with nothing and forces them to move to other lands.

The invasion of land in protected areas and indigenous territories has greatly extended the agricultural frontier. The maps published by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) show how forest cover has been lost in these areas. And it’s the same all over the country.

Today, for example, I was talking to a Mayangna friend from a community that was attacked by settlers earlier this year. He told me that this is a huge concern in the Mayangna communities that inhabit the Bosawás reserve because settlers continue to invade their lands.

the main environmental problem

Forest cover has fallen from 76% in 1969 to 25% in 2020, making deforestation unquestionably Nicaragua’s main environmental problem.

In this context it’s important to review the “national strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from defo¬res¬¬tation and forest degradation” presented by the Nicaraguan government in July 2019 to the World Bank Carbon Fund, an initiative of which Canada, the United Kingdom, Aus¬tralia, Norway, France and Germany are members. According to official information, Nicaragua was selected to receive funding from it. The Nicaraguan government chose 23 indigenous territories of the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions, which house two biosphere reserves: Indio-Maíz in the south and Bosawás in the north. These are the areas where the “carbon capture” program will be implemented.

Will that strategy reverse or even stop environmental damage? I doubt that this project will achieve either goal. I think the government will receive abundant resources “for environmental services,” in this case reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But I don’t see this strategy responding to the environmental emergency we’re facing. As is always the case with initiatives like this, the emergency will deepen while we’re being sold the idea that something is being done to solve it.

Although deforestation is a problem throughout the country, this strategy has focused on just two reserves and no other areas that are also heavily deforested, for example in the pine forest area of Nueva Segovia, northern Nicaragua, where deforestation has caused a serious water shortage. When I was a child, the Pueblo Nuevo, a river in the community I was born in, was flowing. Today it’s just a dry ditch and this year the well of my family home, which always provided water, is dry. We attribute it to deforestation and to tobacco. The rate at which the tobacco industry has grown, and consumes so much water, has dried out my childhood river.

Monocropping is part
of the model’s environmental crises

So, when talking about the productive model that has caused the environmental emergency in our country, it’s also worth mentioning the predominance of large areas dedicated to monocropping. For years in the country we have had mono¬cro¬pping of peanuts and African palm. More recent are the monocrops of oranges, pineapples and robust coffee, which is spreading throughout New Guinea, and moving toward the Caribbean lands.

During much of the history of Nicaragua monocropping of agro-export products has been presented as the great solution to generate employment. That is false. We have proven this, for example, with sugar cane. As the cultivation of large expanses of cane has been mechanized, workers have been expelled. Many Nicaraguans who migrate in search of work in other countries are leaving behind the areas where cane is planted.

We often congratulate ourselves when foreign capital invests in monocropping. The general population also shares this idea, believing that the solution to our problems comes from big projects, when reality tells us that those who support this country are small and medium-sized farmers, and micro and small businesses.

Carbon capturing:
A false solution

Let us go back to the big new carbon-capture project. It must be said that such projects were incorporated into the Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015, although social movements and environmental organizations around the world see “carbon markets” as a false solution to stop global warming, as the carbon catches achieved by these initiatives are only temporary and what is achieved ends up joining the usual carbon cycle, as Victor Campos, the director of the Humboldt Center, explained in envío e a few years ago.

The idea of these initiatives is that the more forest is preserved, the more carbon will be captured and more oxygen produced. The country will thus be helping improve the climate of the entire planet. As a result, the amount of re-sources the country will earn from its contribution to halting climate change will be worked out according to the amount of carbon captured. In Nicaragua’s case, the schedule of reports for emission reduction payments will take place three ti¬mes: at the end of 2020, the end of 2022 and at the end of 2024.

More interest in the
money than in solutions

By taking on this initiative as a major solution to deforestation, the government seems more interested in the resources it will receive than in solving the underlying problems in the two reserves due to land conflicts, the rapid change in soil use and the destruction of such valuable original ecosystems. These problems all arise from actions opposed to the objective of conserving forests, as they all generate carbon rather than capturing it.

MARENA and the Caribbean Coast’s Secretariat of Natural Resources began a few years ago to design the strategy the government presented in 2019 to the Carbon Fund, reporting that this process was “in dialogue with communities.” Indigenous communities in the area, however, say they have not participated in anything and that the government has only spoken to a few Territorial Governments leaders, who the communities identify as spokespersons for the government. In other words, the only dialogue is between with themselves.

It’s also contradictory that as the design of the strategy was progressing, there were 20 fires a day this year on average just between April 1 and April 26 in the Indio-Maíz reserve, one of the two reserves in which to “capture carbon.” A researcher who worked with satellite maps to show the great fire there in 2018—a tragedy that triggered student protests—also identified the hot spots that have now occurred, in 2020. It’s impressive to see those maps. Is it not outrageous to spend five years preparing conditions—the strategy documents—and thinking about how to preserve the two reserves to capture carbon in them only to see 463 fires break out in 26 days in one of them?

Mining: Another activity behind
the environmental emergency

Biosphere reserves are unbelievably valuable areas that must be protected; human activities must be prevented from taking place in them. And since fire does not arise from nowhere, the April 2020 fires are the clearest evidence that there is human activity in the reserve, and it is predatory. What is the government doing? Who knows? And what is MARENA doing? We don’t know that either. It is rumored that there is gold in the Indio-Maíz reserve and that people are coming in to get it. There are already artisan mills working there. It is also said that areas of the reserve have been deforested and burned to establish land for cattle pastures and crops.

Mining is also causing the environmental emergency in Nicaragua. The government has prioritized mining, especially gold. According to data from the Humboldt Center, 26,000 square kilometers of the national territory has been conceded for mining activities.

In Rancho Grande, Matagalpa, the organized community managed to suspend the mining concession to Canada’s B2 Gold in 2015. The Yahoska Guardians environmental organization worked hard to achieve that and other organizations in the rest of the country supported its efforts. What we’re seeing come out of there is rock with a small gold content that’s not from the areas the company bought, but from private farms that were part of the company’s exploration site and from the area that would have been part of the exploitation process. This means some farms no longer produce coffee because it’s more profitable to extract gold. And since they are private farms, they can do whatever they want. Thus, a route for mining is opening up again in Rancho Grande, and small-scale individual miners are coming in from other places and working those farms that have abandoned coffee for the gold they send to the mining company.

It’s all aimed at the
international community…

All these destructive processes are happening while the government seeks resources for a proposal to protect nearly half the country by capturing carbon... how do you explain this great contradiction?

Some will say it’s an oversight, others a lack of political will. To me, it seems to be a strategy of strengthening patriarchal authoritarian power, the perpetuating power of the capitalist model that widens and deepens inequalities.

From a government perspective, the climate change standoff has focused on establishing regulatory frameworks. It’s quite common in our country to “solve” problems with new laws, regulations, decrees, documents... all designed to convince people that a lot is being done on environmental and other issues. But they don’t convince either the country or the organizations working to improve the environment. But that doesn’t matter to the government, which only wants to convince—and sometimes succeeds- the diplomatic corps in the country and the international community.

Environmental issues are now topics of wide discussion among all sectors and in all countries on the planet. In reviewing the news on the Nicaraguan government’s official website, “19 Digital,” I only found events with diplomats or the participation of public officials in conferences addressed to foreign personnel. Not one brief or even a photo of any event indicates government officials sharing with organized farmers, with the very people you must work with to deal with climate change. Surely, this is because there are no events in which the government’s interlocutors are involved.

…not at involving the population

There’s a power dispute here, with unilateral decisions on public policy. Even with this government, different organizations could participate in municipal environmental commissions and talk to state entities until 2015 or so. Not anymore. Dialogue has been disappearing and where there is still any, nothing comes of it. Today you speak to the State through social media. I see this as positive in the current context because at least it’s a space for citizens to find out what’s going on, make demands and even organize. It’s like a form of resistance accommodated to confront authoritarianism.

Let’s look at the contradictory aspect between what is proclaimed and what is done. Reviewing the documents prepared by t Nicaragua’s government to address climate change, one can see the tendency to strengthen top-down and centralized power. It is striking to me that public policies on climate change position climate governance around “families,” and doesn’t even mention small farmers, producers in general, unions or cooperatives. Also not taken into account are the environmental movements, which have worked on so many good proposals to address climate change.

Reviewing Decree Number 7, 2019, “Policy guidelines to address climate change,” the word “producers” is only mentioned four times while “families” are mentioned 21 times. Yet there is no mention of the 198,693 women who the Ministry of the Family, Community, Cooperative and Associative Economy (MEFCCA) claims to have supported with different programs.

And what about the role of indigenous peoples? My Mayangna friend told me that when new settlers arrive, they deforest to crate pasture land for cattle, transforming the landscape. He said 80 Mayangnas from his territory have voluntarily organized as park rangers to patrol and take care of their territory. They are concerned about what is already happening with their lands and what will happen in the future. They fear that if they don’t care for them, their children and grandchildren won’t have land to work on, even a place to live.

How is it that we are not taking into account these people, who spend between seven and twelve days away from their family and without working on their plot to go make rounds taking care of a territory selected to obtain resources conserving the forest to ensure “carbon capture”? No government entity provides them support or accompanies them. My friend told me they feel very alone.

The government’s tendency to legitimize current environmental governance not with the Nicaraguan citizenry, but only with the international community began before the events of April 2018 and has since deepened. The people who can debate and propose environmental governance actions aren’t considered. And how can you govern with an environmental perspective if you don’t talk to the people most directly involved?

The strategy documents
for the Carbon Fund

The government draws up “guidelines” to reverse the effects of climate change with the deliberate exclusion of leaders and protagonists of production in the country. But its proposals are only mitigating measures; they aren’t aimed at transforming the extractive vision or all the practices that result in an irrational use of nature’s resources, causing scarcity and pollution of water and the very serious problem of deforestation.

Reviewing the strategy documents submitted to the Carbon Fund, we see that in the plan for distributing the earnings from capturing carbon, MARENA states that half of those resources should be invested in activities that help reduce deforestation and forest degradation and the other half in improving the conditions of communities and families. The document also talks about devoting benefits to strengthening “community participation structures.”

What structures? That of the 80 Mayangnas who, as volunteer rangers, contribute to avoiding deforestation and forest degradation? So far, this community participation structure has no link with MARENA’s approximately 10 park rangers in Bonanza, who are more geared to reviewing the documents from trucks carrying out lumber. Will the benefits of this project reach Mayangna rangers who voluntarily get drenched with rain during storms and with sweat under the sun while patrolling to tend their territory?

The logic of the Pacific
side seems to prevail

In detailing the 50% of the resources proposed to improve the conditions of communities and families, the document mentions providing them with improved stoves, cisterns for water storage and biodigesters. I wonder why they recommend cisterns when the indigenous logic is that water should not be stored and should flow freely through rivers. I also wonder why indigenous communities need biodigesters if most indigenous families do not own pigs or much other livestock.

Why prioritize individual and non-collective solutions? My reading is that the prevailing vision in the rest of the country, where land is privately held, is behind this, while in the Caribbean the land tenure system is communal, and the collective predominates. There, the largest tracts of land are communal, not private. I think that if people in the communities were asked how resources should be invested, they would have other proposals and not necessarily wood-saving stoves, however good they are, especially for women, who are the ones who cook and inhale smoke.

Why do other collective proposals not appear in the document? Probably because those who have designed this strategy have no knowledge of the worldviews of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Much of our history is marked by this clash of visions. Conflicts on the Caribbean Coast aren’t just about resource management. They are cultural conflicts between two worldviews and the way we see each other. Because the native Caribbean people are an ever-smaller percentage of the coast population given the interminable mestizo invasion, our prejudice is that they don’t think, that they’re backward, shiftless and live without working. Conflicts between these two Nicaraguas will persist if public policies don’t respect the worldview of these ancestral peoples. Not a lot is documented and written about their traditions and standards, but they are passed down orally and strongly shared in the communities.

We need open dialogue,
not a mock dialogue

We have recently found something that is very serious: the government demanded that those who chair the Territorial Governments of the two Caribbean autonomous regions, sign a legal document giving the State the right to the benefits obtained from carbon capture.

The reality is challenging. Tackling climate change, preserving the forests of the Bosawás and Indio-Maíz reserves, stopping deforestation and so many other environmental tasks is not solved by unilateral plans formulated by a single top-down ruler. It is not solved by laws and more laws. The amount of environmental legislation Nicaragua has is impressive, but what good has it done? What we need is a consensual strategy that encompasses multiple actors to transform the country’s historical and still dominant production model. Consensus is needed that these multiple actors commit to substantially modifying the extractive model and its excessive accumulation by a few.

This task is so important that it requires the involvement of more stakeholders, not fewer. The government, however, finds it better to talk to fewer people rather than to more, and preferably only to those who agree with and subordinate themselves to it. This is a mistake because environmental governance always involves dialogue and a sharing among many stakeholders because the environment involves us all; we all need water and air, we all need to eat, drink and breathe. Today we need to think about new ways of relating. We need relationships that are more horizontal with full recognition, respect and collaboration. We need an open dialogue and not a mock dialogue, where we only hear imposition and the will of a single actor.

The agro-export business sector has long been indebted to Nicaragua. Its activities have caused a significant environmental impact. The country’s economic growth has been paid for by the destruction of natural resources. We have grown, but not always, and this economic growth doesn’t guarantee better well-being for those living in poverty, either the extremely poor or those who are simply poor.

Concern about the environment
Is starting among cattle ranchers

Despite everything, I get the sense that there is starting to be more concern about the environmental issue today, at least in the livestock sector which is a critical one. Nitlapan has participated in a group that includes the National Livestock Commission of Nicaragua and other nongovern¬mental organizations. The discussion is centered on how to move toward raising cattle with zero deforestation from here on out. Another challenge will be how to recover the forests that have already been destroyed, converted into pastures for extensive cattle-raising methods.

How do we deal with the very common practice in Nicaragua of moving cattle from one pasture or farm to another when the first one is exhausted? This extensive method of fattening cattle is not yet being questioned, despite being very negative for the environment. Although there is no data to measure the destruction it causes, it would be important to know how many of the farms censused belong to the same owner. With the studies we’ve done in Nitlapan we know that some farmers have six, seven, eight farms dedicated mainly to this practice instead of having one or two farms that grow feed for livestock and other products all year round.

Another challenge is
education for change

We must question deep-seated “success models.” When talking to peasant farmers, their desire is “to be a rancher.” Why? Because the rancher is the one who accumulates more quickly. They soon have several farms, two or three cars and even two or three families... We need to socially and educationally deconstruct the collective self-image of what it is to be a good producer, a good entrepreneur.

There is much to be discussed in Nicaragua and when we incorporate into the debate the environmental impacts and the social effects of the current productive model, we’re faced with the possibility of real change.

In the productive model we’ve used for much of our history, accumulation has been achieved at the cost of paying very low wages; generating serious inequity. Nicaragua has the lowest wages in Central America. Poverty is not solved by paying low wages, but by paying good wages and distributing wealth better.

The business sector, especially agro-exports, must acknowledge the extractive logic that has dominated its agribusiness and commit to changing it. This logic attacks not only the small-scale agro- export businesses, but also the larger ones. There are now concerns in some of the sugar re¬fineries about the water problem and they are interested in doing studies. For years, they have squandered water in the cultivation of sugar cane without paying for it. Today we’re seeing the effects t this has on people’s lives in commu¬ni¬ties surrounded by expansive fields of cane or peanuts. Fa¬milies’ wells have dried up and women who want to incorporate micro-irrigation systems to produce in their small plots have major problems.

Yes, there is a little more concern in the business sector, but if you want to secure the same profits and maintain the same methods you have always worked with, we can’t move forward. We must recognize what the model’s logic has been and, above all, must commit to changing it.

Companies that have opted for large areas of monocropping are not environmentally sustainable, nor are they socially viable. It is a misconception that big is better. The idea that small has no potential is also wrong.

The biggest challenge is to
learn from micro-practices

There are organized environmental projects of civil society in Nicaragua with a lot of potential for change. The thing is that change is achieved on a micro scale. These NGOs, of which there are now fewer because of the loss of funds from international cooperation, have left very interesting experiences in agroecological farms, agro-silvopastoral farms and agroforestry farms, where there are very good practices. No agrochemicals are used, production is organic, native seeds are used... There are many experiences, even among these alternatives that don’t know each other. They need to recognize and learn from each other and to multiply their experiences to demonstrate their potential.

The biggest challenge we have today as a country is to learn from micro-experiences that are done outside the mainstream that can and should be multiplied. They are practices with enormous potential to show us that the country can develop from the grassroots up, not with the State at the forefront but nearby to collaborate and support, and with an agro-export sector committed to changes, not only in the way they produce but also in reducing inequalities. “If here we have everything we need to live and eat,” a small-scale farmer told me, “why change the landscape?”

Destroying the green landscape not only affects humans, but also millions of microorganisms and every living thing in between. Thinking of a more modest way of life for all, in harmony with Nature, is the greatest challenge we have in Nicaragua to achieve real change.

A hundred flowers are blooming

I think that, despite all the disasters, we still have time to make that change and learn from them, link up and promote viable alternatives. There are several examples just within Nitlapan. As part of the international research project I’m participating in with two other colleagues, we’re comparing what’s happening in Nicaragua, Nepal and Kenya, linking the exercise of forest governance and resilience to climate change from positions promoting environmental and gender justice.

An initiative was presented recently in Latin America in which Nitlapan is participating. It is looking for ways to regenerate life in arid areas that are no longer productive and have caused migration. It is achieved with diversified production systems. In Nicaragua there are already important experiences. For example, in Malpaisillo, in the department of León, where the Xochitl Acatl association has worked for more thana decade with women in small arid areas managing to produce food all year round, both for the family and for local sale. They also secure feed for animals. Recently, the husbands of these women have stopped migrating to take care of the productive activity because they now have work on their own land.

These are processes that take time but they have great potential and multiplier effects. Regrettably similar processes in communities in the department of Chinandega have been affected by the methods employed by monocropping. The Rural Women’s Coordinator is also testing small-scale agroecological production diversification processes with women, but their crops, too, are being affected by monocropping, in this case the aerial spraying of agro¬che¬micals on the extensive sugarcane fields.

The first big step Nicaragua must take is to change the extractive logic and big-is-better model. We must take these issues to all arenas available: the opposition, the business sector, schools and even those within today’s government—which is not going to last a lifetime.

These are difficult changes. And change won’t come from just one group. It won’t come from the government alone, or just from NGOs and social organizations, or only from private enterprise. It will only come from the combined efforts we all make.

We run the risk of changing nothing if we think about change only in institutional terms, focusing only on recovering the rule of law and making legal reforms—although they are very important. We cannot leave untouched the productive model and the highly predatory and exclusive economic system. We must never forget that environmental issues also belong within the realm of politics and are what unite us the most.

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