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NICARAGUA: Plant Trees, Harvest Water

José Adán Silva* - Tierramérica

MANAGUA, Jun 29 2007 (IPS) - More than six years ago, the residents of the rural community of Lomas del Viento, on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, took up the task of recuperating the 10 flowing springs that were drying up as a result of logging in the surrounding forests. And they succeeded.

Lomas del Viento is a 200-year-old village of small farmers in the hills 22 kilometres south of Santa Teresa municipality in the south-western department of Carazo.

The area was always forested, with mountains filled with a variety of plants and animals and abundant springs and rivers. But about 12 years ago everything began to change.

Little by little, the farmers began taking over the forests in the hills, and burning off the vegetation to clear the land to plant grains, María Margarita Carmona, who was born in the area, told Tierramérica.

Other families, faced with poverty and the impossibility of obtaining loans to improve their farms, sold their land to livestock and logging companies, who extracted the valuable lumber and cleared the land for cattle, she said.

“We were scared when the rivers began to dry up and we had to travel kilometres up the mountains to get water,” said Carmona.

Of the 10 springs that quenched the thirst of many generations in Lomas del Viento, by 2001 only two were available to the 40 families living in the area, community leader Marcial Umaña told Tierramérica.

The other eight had dried up and were filled with rubble from the construction of a highway to carry tourists to the Chacocente wildlife refuge on the Pacific beaches.

“People began to worry because every day it was more difficult to find water and there was very little rain. We had to climb the hills to look for water in the wells, but almost none of them had any,” recalled Umaña.

Faced with this crisis, a community committee asked for help from the Santa Teresa municipal government to build a well, he added.

The local government had no resources but did have information that led them to the non-governmental organisation Tierra y Vida (Land and Life).

According to Reinerio Mongalo, a technician with Tierra y Vida, a team of experts made three discoveries in Lomas del Viento: its tourism potential, the flow of water in layers deep underground, and – the most worrisome – a rate of environmental destruction that would soon leave the hillsides usable only for livestock.

Either change the methods of agricultural production, or say good-bye to the last forests and rivers, the experts said.

“The people were shocked by that choice. It is difficult to accept the disappearance of all the forests where you grew up, those giant trees and roaring rivers,” Marcial Jáenz, a young man who now administers the Lomas del Viento community tourism project, told Tierramérica.

After receiving the warning, the Lomas del Viento Cooperative of Community Tourism was organised.

Of the area’s 40 families, half immediately joined the project and began to apply the environmental management plans; they no longer burned off fields and they replaced chemical pesticides with organic farming techniques.

The other 20 families took the wait-and-see approach, and promised to join the effort once they saw that it works.

While some of the locals involved in the cooperative have planted 20,000 trees in areas destroyed by logging, others cleaned out the springs, reforested the watersheds with local plants.

After six years, the community has seen the eight springs once filled with mud and garbage now produce water.

The giant trees they managed to preserve have seen the return of howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) and bird species that had disappeared from the area years ago. No longer are there dark clouds of smoke from the annual burnings of fields in preparation for planting.

Since the official launch of the rural tourism project 16 months ago, 1,560 visitors from within Nicaragua and abroad have hiked the hills and have seen the miraculous resurgence of the crystalline waters.

This year the Health Ministry certified that the water coming from Lomas del Viento’s springs is suitable for human consumption.

But not all of Nicaragua’s rural communities have had such an opportunity. In May, a study by the non-governmental Alexander von Humboldt Centre found that 70 percent of the country’s surface water sources are contaminated by household and industrial waste.

The Human Development Report for Nicaragua, presented this month by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), states that more than 70 percent of Nicaragua’s five million people lack access to potable water.

The National Potable Water and Sanitation Commission recognised in an August 2006 document that only a quarter of Nicaraguan families had access to clean water.

This Central American country will have to ensure safe water and sanitation services to at least 2.5 million people before 2015 if it is to meet its target under the eight Millennium Development Goals, adopted by the international community in 2000.

In Latin America there are some 100 million people who live without any sanitation services and 50 million without potable water. Worldwide, there are more than one billion people who lack safe water for drinking, according to the United Nations.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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