Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

NICARAGUA: Can Army Protect Plundered Forest Reserves?

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Feb 1 2010 (IPS) - The Nicaraguan state has embarked on an iron-fisted policy, including the use of military force, to clamp down on those responsible for environmental depredation, after repeated denunciations by organisations and government officials that the country’s two largest biosphere reserves are being plundered.

Special environmental prosecutor José Luis García told IPS that his office has received instructions from the presidency to enforce laws against environmental crimes immediately and “with full rigour.”

“It’s a specific directive” from the Attorney-General’s Office and the presidency “to bring criminal, administrative and civil action suits against all those accused of destroying and threatening the environment,” he said.

In December, members of the indigenous Mayangna people came all the way to Managua to complain to the national government that their territory in the Bosawás biosphere reserve, in the northeast of the country, was being invaded by thousands of settlers from the central and Pacific coast regions.

“The invaders are destroying the ecosystem!” protested the concerned Mayangna delegates. Their reserve is home to 50,000 indigenous Mayangna people and 100,000 Miskito (the most numerous indigenous group in the country), as well as another 100,000 mestizos (mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry) and non-indigenous settlers, according to official figures.

In early January, a commission of legislators and environmental organisations visited the area to verify the reports about destruction of land in indigenous territories in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).

During their tour, the lawmakers confirmed that the country’s main natural reserve, one of the largest in Central America, has lost close to 60 percent of its forest cover due to invasions by small farmers and organised groups trafficking illegally in lumber and land.

Independent environmentalist Kamilo Lara, a champion of the Mayangna cause, told IPS that depredation of the environment by small farmers and land speculators has not only severely damaged the reserve’s buffer zone, but has also deforested large areas of formerly pristine wilderness in the protected core.

“They have destroyed, and continue to destroy, the main water and forest reserves in the country. At this rate, deforestation will wipe out the reserve in 10 years,” Lara told IPS.

According to his calculations, approximately 11,000 square kilometres out of the 20,000 square kilometres set aside as the original reserve have been damaged through expansion of the buffer zone, which was originally less than 5,500 square kilometres in area.

In 1997 Bosawás was designated a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Located along the border with Honduras, Bosawás covers 14 percent of Nicaragua’s territory. One of the largest forested areas of Central America and the second largest in Latin America after the Amazon rainforest, it is rich in biodiversity, with moist tropical forests and a number of crystal-clear rivers.

The other major protected forest reserve in Nicaragua, which is also at risk, is the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve in the southeast of the country, bordering the San Juan river on the frontier with Costa Rica. It covers 3,180 square kilometres and is part of the Rama indigenous people’s territory.

Prosecutor García said land invaders who had settled in the core of the Bosawás forest reserve had been evicted with the help of police and the army, and those who organised the occupation and sold the land are being prosecuted in the courts.

The Autonomy Law for the eastern Atlantic regions of Nicaragua stipulates that indigenous territories can only be occupied and used productively by members of native communities, and cannot be sold, traded, transferred or used productively by anyone else.

When the parliamentary commission visited Bosawás they found that in 2009, more than 3,000 small farmers had taken over some 50,000 hectares of the indigenous community’s land in the protected core of the reserve, to cut down and sell the valuable timber, grow crops and later sell the appropriated land to cattle ranchers from rural areas.

So far, 27 people have been arrested and accused of organising the invasion of Bosawás and damaging the environment.

In light of these events, President Daniel Ortega proposed that the Nicaraguan army create a specialist unit on environmental crimes to guard 70 reserves and protected natural areas in the country.

Army spokesman General Adolfo Zepeda told IPS that the armed forces were making the president’s proposal a priority, and are currently organising what will be named the Ecological Battalion.

But they are encountering difficulty because of the lack of resources for transporting the specialist unit between the country’s reserves.

“The army has made the environment its priority and we are considering alternative options on how to make the unit operational,” Zepeda told IPS.

But the prospect of the military being involved in protecting natural resources has given rise to suspicion and distrust among civil society organisations and indigenous leaders.

Brooklyn Rivera, a member of parliament and leader of the RAAN, accused the army of complicity with environmental destruction because it tolerates lumber trafficking and protects the powerful cattle ranchers involved in the land scam.

“The lumber mafias and the settlers who invade indigenous lands in the North Caribbean operate in collusion with state institutions like the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR), which issues permits to fell timber in the Bosawás reserve, and the army checkpoint guards who look the other way when the trucks go through,” Rivera complained.

The lawmaker directly accused the army of taking bribes to allow illegal lumber extraction.

“At night and at dawn the trucks loaded with lumber come and go. They just pay at the army checkpoints and go through without any trouble,” Rivera claimed.

Army chief General Omar Hallesleven denied the allegations and called for proof to be presented in court to back up the charges.

Hallesleven told IPS the armed forces actively cooperate in a coordinated fashion with the Attorney-General’s Office, the Environment Ministry and INAFOR to safeguard Nicaragua’s natural resources.

The head of the non-governmental Environmental Policy Initiatives Centre (CIPA), Cirilo Otero, was sceptical about the idea of forming a specialist military unit to solve a serious environmental problem.

“Environmental problems are never solved by the intimidating force of a rifle. The problem requires political will and a great deal of education, not rifles or boots,” he said.

According to Otero, CIPA has been denouncing the depredation of Bosawás for more than 10 years, and the state has never taken real measures to solve it.

“Arms and the use of force must be reserved for other things. To prevent environmental destruction, strong institutions are needed, together with state resources to give small farmers alternative life choices, and real and concrete environmental policies,” he said.

According to the sociologist, the destruction of the reserves is closely linked to the country’s widespread poverty.

“A small farmer who is landless and hungry goes into the forest, cuts down trees, kills a deer, slashes and burns a field and sows his crop. What is to be done? This person must be given a different way to survive, rather than being threatened with a rifle,” he said.

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America, after Haiti. More than 47 percent of its population is living below the poverty line, on incomes of under two dollars a day, according to the United Nations.

In the view of Javier Meléndez, a sociologist and analyst at the non-governmental Institute for Public Policy Studies and Strategies, the use of military force to curb environmental destruction is only justified if it is accompanied by environmental policies implemented by civilian institutions.

“The army can escort the authorities, patrol the reserves and be at hand to help state institutions when called upon. But they must not be the final arbiters of justice in the mountains. That would be dangerous,” he said.

President Ortega’s adviser on environmental affairs, Jaime Incer Barquero, said that above and beyond the controversy over using the armed forces to curtail environmental degradation, what is needed immediately is protection for the threatened reserves.

“The most dangerous thing that could happen to the country is that, if we do not demonstrate that we are capable of protecting the Bosawás reserve, it might lose its status as a Biosphere Reserve, and we would be labelled as a country that plunders its environment,” he told IPS.

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