Record forest fires are fanning the flames of Nicaragua’s deforestation crisis


Weak governance and an expanding export-oriented agribusiness model are fuelling growing deforestation and forest fires in the Central American nation

An export-oriented agribusiness model has boosted Nicaragua's economy but is leaving its forests at risk. Photo: Shutterstock

While Brazil and other South American countries have received widespread international attention over the Amazon fires and increasing rates of deforestation, a similarly urgent crisis is taking place in Nicaraguan forests.

Forest fires in the country reportedly increased by more than 650 per cent in the first four months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2017. 

The Humboldt Centre, a Nicaraguan conservation NGO, documented nearly 3,900 fires between January and April this year, of which over 600 were in protected areas.

Jurguen Guevara, the NGO’s Extractive Industries Officer, told Earthsight that most of the fires are set to clear land for agribusiness and are among the “main drivers of deforestation”.

Between 2011 and 2018, the country lost almost 1.5 million hectares (ha) of forests, equivalent to 11 per cent of Nicaragua’s territory. Pastures for cattle increased by more than 2.3 million hectares in the same period.

Protected areas have not escaped untouched. The Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, a biodiversity hotspot covering over two million hectares, has lost around 15 per cent of its forest cover in the last 20 years. 

The number of cattle ranchers and farmers illegally invading the reserve’s core zone, a heavily protected area, increased from just over a dozen in 2016 to hundreds in 2019.

The Environment and Natural Resources Ministry has acknowledged a direct relationship between the loss of thousands of hectares in Bosawás in the last five years and the expansion of pasture for cattle in the reserve.

“Between 2011 and 2018 Bosawás lost 300,200ha of forest cover,” Guevara says. “The deforestation fronts have concentrated mainly in the core zone, but there have been deforestation fronts in the buffer zone too.”

Indigenous leaders have called on the government to halt land grabbing and deforestation in Bosawás. Members of the Mayagna and Miskito indigenous communities have denounced death threats and violence they have experienced at the hands of farmers when attempting to confront their allegedly illegal activities.

Nicaraguan civil society has blamed a harmful mix of weak governance and an expanding, poorly regulated agribusiness sector as driving the increases in deforestation.

Humboldt’s April 2018 report said the pursuit of economic growth, which averaged close to 5 per cent between 2013 and 2017, based on activities that have a high environmental impact – such as monocultures, ranching and mining – has been a key factor fuelling land clearances.

“Until April 2018, when the political crisis began, Nicaragua had experienced stable economic growth based on the destruction of natural resources,” Guevara adds. “Forests were one of the resources being destroyed.”

“We have an export-oriented agribusiness model that generates high incomes but that needs vast tracts of land, especially forested lands.”

Nicaraguan exports of agro-commodities have increased steadily in recent years. Earthsight’s analysis of international trade data shows that beef exports to the US increased by over 70 per cent between 2015 and 2019, from 1,393 tonnes to 2,385 tonnes. Mongabay recently reported that dairy exports have increased by more than 40 per cent in the last year.

It is not only the cattle sector that is having a negative impact on Nicaraguan forests and protected areas. The palm oil sector has also been a source of controversy.

The Humboldt Centre has monitored the activities of Cukra Development Corporation, a palm company that controls over 2,500ha of palm concessions in the country’s Caribbean region – making up half of all palm plantations in Nicaragua.

The company has leased over 500ha of land from Cukra’s indigenous authority in the Caribbean.

“According to our evaluation, the company has not produced any boundary maps to determine the limits of the leased area,” Guevara says. 

“The contract only says the size of the area and nothing more. So these gaps generate concerns among the population because they don’t know whether the company is only using the leased area or going beyond it.”

The Humboldt Centre has also criticised the lack of priority given by the Nicaraguan government to environmental protection. Public institutions in charge of environmental management have seen their budgets reduced in recent years to account for less than 1% of the country’s public spending.

Even where regulations are in place, implementation has been a cause for concern. Forest Use Plans (Planes de Aprovechamiento Forestal), which are one of the main regulatory instruments strictly necessary for any productive activity taking place in forested areas, must be approved by a Forest Regent (Regente Forestal).

“Forest Regents are trained by INAFOR, the National Forest Institute, a public body. But they are then hired by the private sector to carry out the necessary assessments for the Forest Use Plans. 

"So the regents have no autonomy to issue impartial assessments. Since they are hired by those trying to obtain permits, it can be easy to coerce them to draw up flexible plans. INAFOR does not provide adequate follow up to the implementation of the plans,” laments Guevara.

For Guevara, Nicaragua’s increasing loss of forests to agribusiness and other economic activities is one of the most pressing issues facing the country. “The legislative and regulatory frameworks are inadequate. There is no appropriate governance regime to promote the sustainable use of forests.”

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