Climate Change, Combating Desertification and Drought, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-NICARAGUA: Indigenous Groups Sound Forest Fire Alarm

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Mar 12 2008 (IPS) - Indigenous community leaders have sent a letter to the Nicaraguan authorities requesting protection against the risk of a potentially huge forest fire that would endanger about 60,000 families.

“The communities are afraid, but they are working hard to prevent a catastrophe. They know that with so many trees on the ground, a fire would mean the end of their habitat forever,” said Brooklin Rivera, a congressman for the indigenous Yatama party.

In September 2007, hurricane Felix swept through more than one million hectares of forest, uprooting trees in its wake, and now the fire risk is threatening 12 indigenous communities in Puerto Cabezas, a municipality on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, 445 kilometres northwest of Managua.

Rivera pointed out that the indigenous people burn limited areas of woodland every year to prepare the soil for cultivation.

“Small fires would break out, that were easily controlled. But we are insisting, by means of local radio broadcasts, and by direct appeals from religious and community leaders and teachers, that no one should burn their fields this year, because the forest could disappear in the blink of an eye,” Rivera told IPS.

Hurricane Felix devastated a swathe of jungle 75 kilometres wide and over 100 kilometres long in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (R.A.A.N.) of Nicaragua, according to studies by the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR).

According to Rivera, the government is trying to prevent a conflagration by organising and training community fire-fighting brigades. These are being trained by member institutions of the National System for the Prevention, Mitigation and Response to Disasters (SINAPRED).

A major problem faced by the communities is that the fallen trees are not being put to use quickly enough.

“There’s enough timber to rebuild all the destroyed churches, schools and houses three times over, but we haven’t the capacity at the moment to saw up all the trees,” Rivera said. Thirty industrial sawmills are needed, but only five are up and running, he added.

According to statistics from the office of the president, hurricane Felix destroyed 20,394 homes, 57 churches, 102 schools and 43 health centres, as well as 1.3 million hectares of forest, including part of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.

Colonel Mario Perezcassar, head of the Nicaraguan army’s civil defence body, expressed concern at the vulnerability of over 60,000 families in the disaster area, which is peopled mainly by Miskito, Mayagna and other indigenous groups. There are 139 communities within the high-risk zone, he said.

“We are talking about highly combustible fuel. Over 15 million cubic metres of wood are drying or rotting, including conifers, which are resinous and highly inflammable,” he said.

A shift in the weather has been a boon in the danger area. “Thank God, it has been raining and that has lowered temperatures. But April will be a critical month, because the rainy season will be over, and that’s when the fire risk will be at its height,” Perezcassar said.

“We have trained 200 soldiers to act as forest firemen, and deployed them in the danger zone on a permanent basis,” he said. Ground patrols, reconnaissance flights and satellite monitoring are also being carried out to detect outbreaks of fire promptly.

But scientist Jaime Incer, winner of the 2006 National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation in Latin America, said that these measures were still inadequate.

“An iron-fisted approach is needed, along with an urgent awareness-raising campaign and a large, permanent presence to prevent campesinos (small farmers) from burning the land in this area,” he told IPS.

Incer stated that the authorities were underestimating the danger. A fire in this area would not only affect Nicaragua, but also the whole of Central America, because one of the last natural “lungs” of the region would be lost.

“This area is close to the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site, designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). One fire now could destroy thousands of years of natural evolution,” the scientist said.

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