Nicaragua ’s complex system of parks and reserves encompasses more than two million hectares. The Sistema Nacional de Areas Protegidas (SINAP) is made up of 76 parks, reserves, and refuges classified as “protected” by the Ministerio del Ambiente y los Recursos Naturales (Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, or MARENA).
Of these, many are privately owned land, which strains enforcement of their protected status. That, combined with MARENA’s paltry resource base and budget, has led to the decentralization of park management.
Since 2001, MARENA has been experimenting with the “co-management” model in six natural reserves, handing natural-resource management responsibilities over to local NGOs who work with the communities within the areas to create sustainable alternatives to natural resource use and ecotourism infrastructure. Co-management is a novel, ongoing experiment, and while it has been surprisingly successful in some areas, the great majority of protected lands in Nicaragua remain unmanaged, unguarded, and completely undeveloped for tourism.
They are sometimes referred to as “paper parks,” existing only in legislation and studies, not in reality. The Río Estero Real , a wetlands preserve in the northwest corner of the country, is one of those, where half of the “protected” territory has been granted to private shrimp farmers who have eliminated most of the mangrove swamps and lagoons where shrimp once bred naturally, replacing them with artificial breeding pools.
Remoteness and neglect provide meager protection to some regions, but more frequently Nicaragua’s richest treasures succumb to foreign and national cattle, logging, and mining interests. Campesino populations given little incentive or education to better manage the land are equally destructive.
Worst of all are the cases where the government “protects” a territory where people have been living traditionally for generations. They are suddenly expected to drastically alter their fishing, hunting, and planting patterns to protect a “park” that is and always has been their homeland. That has been the experience in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, where Mayangna and Miskito people were not consulted during the planning of the reserve and have consequently fought against new regulations that interfere with their traditional lifestyle.
Conversely, Fundación Cocibolca, managing La Flor , has both staffed the reserve with local residents and turned to them for input on how to run it. Tourism can go a long way toward bolstering local incentive to protect—rather than consume—the natural world.
The following is a selection of some of the more accessible (or just spectacular) of Nicaragua ’s protected areas.