|Central American University - UCA
Number 476 | Marzo 2021
“Environmental protection is going through its worst moments”
On the eve of the Humboldt Center’s 30rth anniversary,
its director discusses the serious environmental crisis
Nicaragua is experiencing and some of the main challenges
it believes a new government should tackle.
Victor M. Campos Cubas
In April, the Humboldt Center will celebrate 30 years of working for the environment. To commemorate this date, we offer our country a balance sheet of its environmental situation over the last decade, 2010 to 2020. We want to offer the most complete panorama possible of the challenges we are facing as a society and must work on “together for a sustainable environment,” to quote our motto, once we find a way out of the national crisis we’ve been living in since April 2018.
The balance sheet has information on the situation of each of our natural resources. From it, we draw a guideline for an environmental agenda going forward towards 2030.
Another view of risk management
Before discussing the most important, and worrying, aspects of our analysis, , I want to start by saying that based on the planetary pandemic, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) established by the international organizations will have to be reviewed with respect to the objectives they set, including those of the 2015 Paris Agreements on climate change. International conditions have changed since back then …and they are continuing to change.
This is very clear in Nicaragua’s case. We have to change, for example, the way we conceptualize risk management. Many of us who founded the Humboldt Center in 1990 came from INETER, the Nicaraguan Territorial Studies Institute. We understood risk management as adequate ways of approaching and managing emergencies caused by natural threats: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, hurricanes, droughts… And what happened in April 2018? Wasn’t that an emergency? We weren’t prepared to manage that national social earthquake. We couldn’t find answers for something of that magnitude in our frame of reference. Two years later another emergency happened, the pandemic. And it confirmed that our understanding of risk management isn’t correctly focused.
It’s a lesson recently learned. Nobody was prepared for April, or for the pandemic. We had to invent contingency plans for the social emergency that happened in April and for the emergency, also social, of the pandemic. And those plans don’t conform to the responses one gives when faced with natural disasters.
When we met with several women’s organizations after April, we heard how they have always “managed” other risks: violence at home and in public spaces, health, security… They explained their efforts to manage these emergencies. Another view, and they’re right. We understood that in public institutions, even in the UN, a conceptualization and a frame of reference exists regarding “risk management” that doesn’t correspond to so many other realities that also put lives at risk. Therefore, in the proposal we make in our 10-year assessment, we are proposing to discuss “social risk management.” There’s no doubt that we have to continue managing the risks of natural threats, but we must work on a new frame of reference for social risk management that includes new elements for each public institution and even for private enterprise.
Economic growth was at the
cost of environmental destruction
To show how the protection of our natural resources is in its worst moments, I need to start with what was happening before April2018.
Until then, Nicaragua was projecting an image of economic growth that allowed poverty and extreme poverty to start to decrease due to better employment opportunities in several sectors. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), we had an average annual economic growth of 5% between 2006 and 2016.
As we all know, our economic growth since 2009 was based on a governance scheme that stood on a corporative agreement between big business and government. This agreement conditioned public policy management to economic issues and these had an effect on environmental policies. Today we clearly see that such positive growth rates correspond to rates of extreme environmental destruction.
Figures show that our economy grew at the expense of our national environment. One of the most indisputable indicators of this statement is what has happened with the forest cover. The destruction has been alarming in all areas, from young regenerating forests to closed broadleaf forests—as in the two large reserves, Bosawás and Indio Maíz—and open broadleaf forests such as mangroves.
Let’s look at the figures between 2011 and 2018. In 2011 we had around 6 million hectares of vegetation cover. That’s about half of the national territory. In 2018 there were only 2.6 million hectares, less than half. We went from 50% to 28-29%, a loss of 3.4 million hectares. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, we had an annual deforestation rate of 4% in 2011; it’s now 8.5%.
Since 2011 we’ve lost 50% of our mangrove forests to set up shrimp farms, mainly those of the Pacific coast. Despite it being a serious loss because of the important ecological function mangroves provide, this has been totally out of public opinion’s radar.
The forests in the Caribbean have been and continue to be destroyed to farm other crops—first corn and beans and later grasslands for cattle. This has greatly speeded up the advance of the agricultural frontier in the two Caribbean regions. The intensity of that process in the southern Caribbean area has brought the agricultural frontier almost up to the ocean. We now see large extensions of African Palm and grasslands in Pearl Lagoon and Kukra Hill.
decreasing lumber sector
With more than 150,000 hectares of forest lost every year, one would think the country has a strong and active forestry sector producing lumber and generating economic resources. But it’s not so. These days, hardwoods are scarce in the country. No less than 80% of the plywood we consume comes from China, in fact some is produced with African wood. We are also seeing a decrease in furniture production. If one travels through furniture centers like Masatepe, Masaya abd Granada, one can confirm this, even though, like many other matters of public interest, there is no official information.
There’s an US$ 8 million deficit in the forestry trade balance, which was positive until 2008-2010. The Inter-American Development Bank stated in 2018 that the sector’s contribution to Nicaragua’s gross domestic product decreased from 3.8% in 1991 to 1.2% in 2016. Increasing deforestation rates and decreasing participation rates of the forestry sector in the GDP? What happened?
Where is all the wood going?
We know wood hasn’t been extracted from plantations that haven’t yet reached maturity. Where is all the wood that’s been extracted from the disappearing forests?
Of all the many tree species in Nicaragua only 30 have commercial value for lumber dealers. But all species are of important ecological value. In the market cedar isn’t the same as guarumo, but when a forest is burned down to expand the agricultural frontier, cedars go down right along with guarumo trees.
The advance of the agricultural frontier for agriculture is mainly responsible for the deforestation, and the main method of clearing is fire. The exchange of forests for basic grains is an unstoppable, irresponsible waste. But, fires don’t explain all the disappearing lumber.
Nothing happens that we don’t hear about. We find evidence in social networks. People around the country post photos of trucks hauling loads of valuable lumber, with nobody stopping them. We strongly suspect, given no proof that would hold up any other hypothesis, that powerful actors are illegally removing lumber from the forests that aren’t burned.
What is INAFOR doing?
In 2014 the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR) was shifted to the direct responsibility of the executive branch. It was first under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAGFOR), then later under the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), until the presidency decided to place it under its own command.
It’s enough to see how the country’s forest cover has been preserved and protected during the last six years under presidential management to judge whether it’s been positive or not. There’s more than enough evidence; not much needs to be argued. It is very clear that conserving our forests is not the presidency’s priority.
A lot of trees were felled in the South Caribbean area of Kum Kum during the Bolaños administration (2002-2006), leading it to declare a ban on cutting down several species: mahogany, cedar, ceiba, pochote and pine. Ever since INAFOR was moved under the presidency, however, one of that institution’s tasks has been to annually renew the suspension of the ban. The destruction happening in the northern Dipilto-Jalapa mountain range is very serious. All the pine forests are disappearing. It’s an environmental tragedy that has been documented and reported by the people in this area of the country who are seeing their water sources drying up.
We’ve never seen a worse situation regarding environmental regulation and control, especially in the forestry sector.
What is the Army doing?
A high percentage of the forests destroyed are from our two biosphere reserves, Bosawás and Indio Maíz. The media have paid more attention to Bosawás because it is the most iconic reserve in the country, but the amount of deforestation happening in Indio Maíz must not be minimized.
Of the 185,000 hectares destroyed annually, 20-30% is destroyed in the two reserves. What is the Nicaraguan Army’s Ecological Battalion doing to prevent this? Its troops have been in Indio Maíz and Bosawás for eight or ten years with the mission of stopping the invasion of “settlers” in those protected territories. These peasant settlers who are not from the Caribbean region enter the area and destroy the forest to plant basic grains on the cleared land. They then typically slash and burn the stubble after the harvest, sometimes causing still more fires.
The Army knows where these people’s entrance points are, and they know during what season they enter. It’s always during the dry season, because in the rainy months they can’t make paths and set fire to the forest to later plant. The agricultural frontier always advances during the dry months.
The Army knows. But, if one reads its annual reports, no concrete actions are implemented by the Ecological Battalion in these reserves. One only reads their rhetorical speeches about defending the environment.
A necessary but broken
We have a national system of protected areas in Nicaragua. For a long time, state “protection” was only on paper. Now we can state that what really exists is the promotion of non-protection. The only effective environmental protection and conservation now is the national network of private wildlife reserves.
The law of protection of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve establishes that this task is under the responsibility of a national commission in which all mayors from the municipalities within the reserve’s area must participate. Nonetheless, the commission has not met even once since 2008. The same happened with the commission in charge of protecting the Indio Maíz Biosphere Reserve.
In fact, all the national commissions established by law having to do with caring for the environment stopped meeting back in 2008 or 2009, except for the national INAFOR commission, which only meets to annually suspend the protective ban on cutting down valuable lumber species.
By eliminating the national commissions, the dialogue between national and local government authorities and local populations and civil society organizations broke down. Unfortunately, this necessary exchange no longer exists. And that is why environmental protection is going through its worse moments.
Knowing that state institutions haven’t had the capacity to protect our two biosphere reserves and the other reserves in the national system of protected areas, we can ask ourselves how “protected” the Caribbean Biosphere Reserve will be. It was created this year by the government in the 42,000 kilometers of marine platform that the International Court of Justice reincorporated into Nicaragua in 2012 as a resolution to its border dispute with Colombia.
If the protected areas in our continental zone are abandoned, we can only imagine what kind of care there will be for a reserve in the ocean many kilometers out from our coast. The economic value in that zone is incalculable. It has a significant amount of the Caribbean Sea’s coral reefs, among the most important ones in the world.
Not even 1% of the national budget
What kind of management capacity do the Nicaraguan institutions have to oversee the environment and natural resources? The answer is found in the budget. If we add up what the Republic’s general budget assigns to MARENA, INAFOR, INETER and ANA, the National Water Authority, the amount doesn’t represent even 1% of the national budget.
Interest in the environment has only been rhetorical. If the government is investing less than 1% of the national budget for all the public institutions that are in charge of the environment, what kind of priority does the government give to caring for our natural resources?
We also don’t see the media encouraging environmental conservation or questioning the generalized extractivism prevailing in the country’s production model. The belligerent voice defending the environment is weaker and weaker, while the criminalization of pro-environmental struggles is a priority.
more agro-toxic substances
The economic growth of these last years has been paired not only with the destruction of the forests, but also with the expansion of monocropping, especially sugar cane and African palm.
The monocrop that increased the most up to 2018 was sugar cane. Since then it has been African palm. The goal of planting 180,000 hectares of African palm was established in the Ortega government’s human development plans. Sugar cane continues to expand in lands on the Pacific where it wasn’t planted before. Other monocrops are peanuts, tobacco and irrigated rice.
All the crops are industrialized and mechanized and are accompanied by technological packets that include agro-toxic substances. In 2018, Nicaragua imported US$ 221 million worth of agro-toxic substances: $120 million in pesticides, herbicides and fruit ripeners, and $100 million in synthetic fertilizers, an amount in no way insignificant. All those products contaminate the soils and water. In the case of sugar cane, its cultivation is associated with harmful practices, such as burning the land.
“Nicaragua is turning into one huge pasture”
Pastures for cattle also increased. Between 2001 and 2018 two million hectares were converted to pasture land. Many of the new grasslands appeared in in both the buffer zones and part of the nuclear zones of our two biosphere reserves.
Extensive cattle-raising continues to grow, associated with deforestation. Today, the largest cattle-ranchers, those who export meat to the United States, are concerned by a recent publication in the US that gave information on how part of the meat that is exported from Nicaragua, mainly from the agricultural frontier areas, is produced at a high human and environmental cost. Hopefully the concern is genuine and lasting, and they do something about it. In cattle-raising, what is needed more than a change in public policies is a change in practices rather than continuing to do the same thing that’s always been done.
An extractivist production model
The economic growth of these last years didn’t accomplish a change in the production model. Nicaragua’s productive structure has remained the same for centuries: based on natural resource extraction, with the export matrix the same for decades, involving little diversification from the same six or seven products.
Our economic model is dominated in both the private and public sectors by an extractivist vision. If this doesn’t change it will exhaust our natural resources. During these years of economic growth, the model only intensified, accumulating ever more serious environmental problems.
They didn’t aim to transform, they aimed to continue doing the same but with more investment. During the years in which we grew an average of 5% annually, direct foreign investment doubled. And that increased investment brought more extractivism.
Gold mining doesn’t stop growing
Mining, specifically gold mining, has had a leading role in the prevailing extractivism. In 2011 we had 11,836 km2 given in concession for gold mining, about 8.3% of the national territory. By 2018 it was up to 26,890 km2, 20.4% of the territory.
An important happening, though it went virtually unnoticed, was the creation of the Nicaraguan Mining Enterprise (ENIMINAS), a public company assigned to manage what the government decreed “mining reserves,” which are not considered in the Mining Law.
The “mining reserves” represent 9.5% of the country’s territory. This land extension was given to ENIMINAS so the government could make bilateral agreements with foreign investors, by mutual accord and without having to go through the consulting process the Ministry of Energy and Mining demands. To date, ENIMINAS has had two presidents: Francisco López, the FSLN treasurer f and Iván Acosta, treasury and public credit minister.
Gold is now the number one export
In 2020, gold exports reached more than US$ 660 million, making it our country’s main export product. The price of gold skyrocketed with the pandemic as those who fear investing in the stock market are seeking refuge in gold, which right now has a price of around US$ 2,000 an ounce.
During the last two or three years, there’s been a concentration of mining concessions in our country in the hands of one company: Calibre Mining from Canada. It has been granted 72% of the area in concession. It bought all the concessions of B2Gold, which operated in La Libertad, Santo Domingo and El Limón.
This oligopoly, to call it something, doesn’t seem very convenient for our country because concentrating all the investments in very few hands increases its influence in decisions regarding public policies. The Humboldt Center took this case to ProCompetencia, a government entity, in order to prevent the issue from just slipping by. They received us and listened to our explanation, which is that the concentration of the sector in too few companies should be corrected because it goes against the free competition that should govern a free market. The institution, of course, did absolutely nothing. Today there are 85 concessions granted to 7 companies, the main one being Calibre Mining.
Mining for whom?
There is no more gold to be extracted in La Libertad and very little is left in Santo Domingo. They’ve extracted it through the Tajo Jabalí project, close to a populated area. The hill at the entrance to town is the one the company is “eating away” now. The gold reserves are being exhausted in the area of Chontales as well, but since the company’s plant is in La Libertad, the material has to be hauled in from other places. It’s being supplied from Rancho Grande in Matagalpa.
We know how harmful industrial mining is for health. We know the harm it causes people, water, soils and landscapes. However, as happens with many other industrial processes, mining is trying to paint its image green. They do it because public opinion, mostly from the countries that receive the products from the extractivism in our countries, is now beginning to be more sensitive to environmental issues and others such as child labor, gender, et., and put greater demands on the market.
The Nicaraguan Mining Chamber’s motto is “Mining for everyone.” In our center’s media spots we say: “Mining for whom?” Mining barely hires 1.2% of the Nicaraguan labor force and we get a ridiculously low amount in taxes: in 2018, the last year we have as a reference, mining left Nicaragua with only US$ 2 million while US$ 500 million in gold was exported.
What is known as downward integration is very weak in the mining industry. Most of the wealth generated by mining leaves the country. Employment is very low compared to the advantages the company with the concessions receives. These companies’ logic is to get the greatest profit possible in the shortest possible time. They all come to our country, however, presenting themselves as “green mining.” To top it off, one company, along with claiming to be green, placed all its workers from its payroll as investment in “corporate social responsibility,” presumably tax exempt.
growing at alarming rates
Another pressing problem is the growth of small-scale mining. The rise in gold prices and the lack of employment opportunities has expanded small-scale mining to alarming levels throughout the country.
We’ve detected small-scale mining activities in more than 50 of the country’s 153 municipalities. A lot of small-scale mining is installed in the nuclear zone of the Bosawás and Indio Maíz reserves. Of the US$ 660 million in gold exported in 2020, 30% came from small-scale mining, US$ about 180 million, not an insignificant amount.
This activity is done in totally unsafe conditions. Small-scale mining caused more deaths in 2020 than hurricanes Eta and Iota combined. Twenty-nine men were buried by the ground caving in or landslides caused by the holes made in the ground through different types of excavation methods. Public institutions did nothing to rescue them. Searches didn’t even last 24 hours.
Mercury and cyanide:
Poisons without control
A difference must be made between small-scale mining and artisanal mining. The latter is done with a pan and the gold is separated in a box through precipitation, by stirring the soil or gravel with water. Nowadays there is very little such artisanal mining.
Small-scale mining separates the gold using mercury or cyanide to amalgamate the materials it extracts. Mercury is one of the strongest contaminants we know. Those who work in small-scale mining heat it up and the vapors are fatal for one’s health. The first people exposed to mercury are those with the task of separating the gold. And since mercury has the property of being bio-assimilable, it then goes into the soil and water, and from there into plants, animals and people, who assimilate it, getting poisoned little by little.
During the last few years, grinders—a wheel with a motor and rocks to grind the material—used in small-scale mining have multiplied by the hundreds in our country. The mercury separates the gold from the rest of the precipitate they are grinding. They also use cyanide for separating, which, even though it is not bio-assimilable, is also a potent poison that puts an end to both aquatic and human life.
Rancho Grande, where several years ago there was a strong anti-mining struggle with the participation of all sectors, including the Catholic Church, is now invaded by small-scale mining. In the area of Yaoska there are a lot of grinders that extract the material, which is then sent to the plants in El Limón and La Libertad.
There are hundreds of small-scale mining plants around the San Juan River, another icon of our national identity, between Santa Fe and La Esperanza, along the road that goes to Sábalos. It’s been calculated that in 2019 ten tons of mercury were deposited into the river, a tragedy that has not been mentioned much. In 2020 the activity increased, but we don’t have any figures.
There’s a mining concession, Las Crucitas, on the Costa Rican side of the river that was suspended in 2010 by the Costa Rican government. A significant number of small-scale miners have also settled there. Most of the material extracted there is processed on the Nicaraguan side, but the waters contaminated with cyanide or mercury return to Costa Rica through the Colorado River, an area with significant tourism infrastructure that requires quality water. We thus have a shared tragedy.
Small-scale mining is also abundant in Villanueva and Somotillo, on the Pacific. Here the contamination goes into the Estero Real and the Llanos de Apacunca, areas for shrimp farming. I was there last month and the people were telling us that the fish have left those waters and fisherpeople have to go farther and farther away to fish and the number of young fish and shrimp has greatly decreased.
No respect for an international treaty
Nicaragua is a signatory of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty the Japanese government proposed after a disaster caused by mercury in that city. That global treaty, which went into effect in 2017, seeks to protect human and environmental health from the emissions caused by human activities that use mercury and its compounds. Since then, the import of mercury is prohibited in Nicaragua, but where there’s small-scale mining any amount of mercury can be purchased in any shop. Nobody is even aware of the prohibition. The existence of this treaty is only known in some circles.
When we say “small-scale mining” we mustn’t kid ourselves. Many within this sector are not small at all. There are big operators who are getting rich off of small-scale mining. But those people aren’t among those killed in the mines, it’s the poor who are hired as cheap labor.
Small-scale mining needs regulation. Today it’s growing at a staggering speed and there’s no law to regulate it. The approval of a bill for small-scale mining falls to the National Assembly which, according to the 2001 General Law on Mines, should have been approved six months after the latter became effective. Another entity with partial competence to intervene in small-scale mining is ENIMINAS, but to date there’s been no action.
Consultations came to an end
With respect to institutional issues and public policies, I would like to refer to the reforms made to the environmental impact evaluation system.
About three or four years ago an executive decree reformed the system, making environmental standards flexible and altering the procedure for public consultations with citizen participation. Consultations are still done, but the authorities fill the place where they are held with workers from the mining companies, who defend their jobs. They don’t allow anyone from the territory who is critical of the mining industry.
There has not been a single case where someone with a critical position has participated. A determination exists to favor mining investment and increase it. Not even during the most crucial time of the 2018 crisis did the “consultations” stop. In fact, there was one the very same day s the national business strike.
The government’s interest in facilitating the greatest number of mining exploitation concessions is obvious. An industrial processing plant has been installed just half a kilometer from the historic San Albino mine after a powerful social struggle opposing it. One of the most modern ones in Central America, it belongs to the British company Nikoz Resources and will start to operate in 2021.
Resistance to defend the environment
The huge volumes of water used in mining, particularly industrial mining, are causing serious damages to several populations.
Mining did away with the excellent potable water of Túnel Azul in Santo Domingo when the mining company built a dam a few kilometers from the town. Today, the people of Santo Domingo have gone from having running potable water service seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to now having water only four hours a day twice a week. The resistance of the people of Santo Domingo was steadfast, but in the end, the miners’ interests prevailed.
Opposition to mining has led to large protests in our country. The people’s resistance where mining companies have arrived has been consistent. During the social demonstrations before April 2018, environmental issues were very present: the struggle in Rancho Grande, in Mina El Limón, in Santo Domingo, and the protest against the government’s negligence toward the forest fire in the Indio Maíz reserve. There’s still resistance, but it’s getting ever harder to express.
The case of Puma Energy
An issue that needs to be highlighted is environmental impunity. Has anyone read or heard in any media of anyone being sentenced for an environmental crime? With figures as negative as the ones I’ve shared it’s impossible that no crimes have been committed by anyone, but nobody’s been penalized.
In 2016 there was a huge fire in Puma Energy’s oil storage tanks in Puerto Sandino and to date nobody has paid for that disaster. We don’t call it an accident, because an accident happens when you’re moving at 12 mph and someone crosses in front of you and you run into the person. But if you’re moving at 112 mph, you’re going to cause much more damage. In that fire 140,000 barrels of crude oil were spilt and burned over an area of hundreds of hectares.
We did an environmental evaluation, even though we were never able to get official information. In so many other cases of environmental disasters in which we have presented appeals demanding accountability, the judicial system has told us that the Humboldt Center had no reason to appeal because we “were not directly affected.” This time we went to the people who live around where the fire happened, those directly affected, and we appealed with them.
In a disaster of that size someone has to be held accountable, so we claimed the manager of Puma, a Colombian, and the plant manager, a Nicaraguan as responsible. We presented the appeal in the offices of the public prosecutor in León. It took them hours to attend to us, waiting for orders from Managua. The prosecutor passed the appeal to the Police. When we saw that time had gone by with no response, we complained and were told that the person who had received the appeal had retired and the file was lost. Knowing something like that could happen, we had a copy ready and handed it to them. The April events happened soon afterward and we lost all possibility of getting a response from them.
Clearly there was no interest in penalizing anyone. Impunity reigned. But we continue to insist. We went via CAFTA because the event didn’t comply with the Environmental Law that that free trade treaty with the United States demands of the countries in it. We went to its Secretariat for Environmental Matters in Guatemala to file the suit. The secretary asked Nicaragua for an explanation and the government responded that the Ministry of Environment had done all the investigation required. In the end, nobody was held accountable, but the gesture was good because we saw that CAFTA’s secretary acted. And that could be useful for a little justice and less impunity in other cases.
Another issue we want to call attention to is the reform made to the General Law of National Waters, approved in November 2020. Within the institutional framework, the reform got rid of the Nicaraguan Institute of Aqueducts and Sewage (INAA), fusing it to the National Water Authority (ANA), which was given the authority as a regulating entity and had its authority expanded to include, among other things, the possibility of granting concessions to private entities.
In response to expressed concerns, the governments discourse was: “We are not going to privatize water.” Nonetheless, the reform recognizes private participation in the catchment, storage and distribution of potable water. It also recognizes participation in drainage and sewage systems.
The formula the government is applying is the same the World Trade Organization (WTO) applied when it said it had never proposed the privatization of water, “just” the participation of private capital in its catchment, storage and distribution.
Some private actors are actually already doing so in new residential areas where they installed their own water services. We believe there will not be privatization in small cities because it wouldn’t be profitable there, but the reform to the law does allow for that possibility and surely there will be privatization in Managua, León, Matagalpa, Estelí, Chinandega, etc., where there have already been privatization attempts during the past decade.
Regarding the reform to the Law of Water (Law 620), the Humboldt Center criticized that it reflected “a merely extractive character to ensure the distribution of available water, but without considering the possibility of promoting the production of water that ensures sustainability for human consumption and other activities related to livelihoods.”
We also expressed several other concerns such as the expected privatization; the lack of participation and consultation in the reform; the centralization of decision-making on something this important to collective interest; the increase in the bureaucracy of public water management and also the repeal of Law 626. That law guaranteed the integrity of lake Cocibolca, a very valuable resource of national interest, the largest water reservoir not only in Nicaragua but in all of Central America and one of the largest in Latin America.
Climate change: Temperatures rising
I have not referred to the problems of climate change because I believe they are better known. I only want to say that we recently finished a study on climate behavior during the last ten years and observed that between 2010 and 2020 the temperature in our country has risen by 1 degree Celsius. We calculate that if things don’t change in Nicaragua, we will reach increases of between 2.7 and 4 degrees, which would be very alarming, and rainfall will tend to decrease.
The climate crisis will get worse if we don’t start corrective measures in local spaces. What we have seen is that people are recognizing and adapting to climate change and haven’t stopped looking for solutions. We call it adaptation; people call it survival. They lack water… so they look for it. A certain seed no longer works… so they look for another. The poor have always lived in a constant process of adaptation to survive. Now their challenges have doubled. Up to now they had the challenge of overcoming poverty with sustainability. But now, besides that challenge, they have that of adapting to the changing climate conditions.
In search of international resources
Nicaragua has no plans or public policies in response to climate change. According to the United Nations Convention, we should have a national plan for adapting to climate change. We had one, but it ended in 2015. Nobody knew about it or paid any attention to it, and the plan of course achieved nothing. Now there’s none, even though the Nicaraguan government has been present in international negotiations looking for access to resources created by international organizations to deal with the growing climate crisis.
In general terms, international cooperation is declining, but of the funds still available a lot are related to climate change. The government is very interested in getting its hands on those resources.
The acronyms have changed: from SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) to NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) in everything referring to climate change. Before the Paris Agreement the intention was that commitments to reduce emissions causing climate change be obligatory for all countries. Now the goals and contributions of each country will be voluntary. Nicaragua did not sign the Paris Agreement in 2015, but it later did in 2017 and is the first country to present its NDC, by simply completing a list of requirements to be eligible and get access to financing from international organizations linked to climate.
In the Paris Agreement, funds are established for countries with a national strategy for “avoided deforestation.” It’s to say, caring for forests so they capture carbon to decrease carbon emissions. The World Bank donated about US$ 8 million for Nicaragua to write up its strategy. MARENA wrote it and proposed to stimulate caring for the forests, especially in the Caribbean. Utterly the opposite is being done, however.
The government presented its “strategy” to the World Bank’s Emissions Reduction Program in 2019, expecting the Bank to disburse US$ 55 million to execute it between 2020 and 2025. National sectors opposed to granting those resources to the government due to the lack of environmental governance in the country proposed that the Bank postpone the delivery of funds until “governance conditions are restored” and this March the World Bank announced that, in common agreement with the government of Nicaragua, the disbursement of the 55 million would be suspended.
In another similar initiative, the government requested about US$ 112 million from the Green Climate Fund. The Fund’s condition was that the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples and another specialized UN agency follow up on the execution of the resources. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed interest in taking on this task.
In another initiative with the Green Climate Fund, a condition was established that follow-up of the project execution be done by the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples—because the project had to do with the Caribbean Coast—and another UN agency. Once again, the OHCHR expressed its interest in participating. There has been no advance due to the understandable lack of interest by the government in the possible intervention of UN agencies linked to human rights.
Something similar happened with another fund from the World Bank, this time US$ 16 million for a geothermal project that favored a private company. When civil society organizations communicated their position to the Bank, the government decided to retract the proposal. It’s clear that it prefers to give up the money rather than be under the scrutiny of UN multilateral organizations.
What we hope for
Everything I have described shows that environmental governance depends on our country’s overall governance. While there is no solution to the human rights crisis we’ve been experiencing for the last three years, it will be hard for us to see changes in environmental public policies, which we urgently need so we can start improving the desolate environmental situation e find ourselves in today.
If the environmental challenges are not among this government’s priorities, we hope they will be among those of the new government administration. We hope it will also be everybody’s priority to want to build a more just Nicaragua with more solidarity.
Víctor Campos is an environmental engineer. The Humboldt Center is a Nicaraguan environmental institution involved in national and international networking.