Nicaragua ’s environmental issues betray a rat’s nest of bigger problems, from politics, land rights, and population pressure to war and natural disasters. The remedies are anything but simple.
The primordial environmental concern is the rapid loss of forests—at the rate of 150,000 hectares per year. Some analyses indicate Nicaragua’s timber reserves will be completely depleted by 2015, but the extent of the risk is disputable, as the calculations rely on figures collected in the 1970s.
The great majority of country-dwellers cook on leña (firewood), so increasing population expansion into previously unsettled lands has boded poorly for forests. Population pressure and the swelling cattle industry have pushed the agricultural frontier inward from both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the country, reducing Nicaragua’s forests by 4.6 million hectares from 1950 to 1995.
On the Atlantic coast, much of the hardwood logging is happening at the hands of U.S., Canadian, and Asian companies that have negotiated lucrative timber concessions with Nicaragua’s successive cash-strapped governments.
Nueva Segovian pine forests are under further ecological pressure from pine bark beetles, a major outbreak of which decimated 6,000 hectares across the north 1999–2001, particularly the area around Jalapa . The beetle attacks both young and mature pines weakened by fires, resin harvesting, and poor management, boring into the tree to feed on the resin between the wood and the bark. At the start of each rainy season, young beetles disperse and fly longer distances. The infestation can spread up to 20 meters per day, that is a full kilometer in just under two months.
Deforestation exposes fragile tropical soils to rainfall, leading to erosion, contamination and elimination of water sources, and outright microclimate changes. This is the case in much of Nicaragua, where within one human generation, rivers and streams that were once perennial now flow only sporadically, if at all. As any viejito will tell you, “it doesn’t rain as much as it used to.” On the Pacific coast, decades of chemical-intensive agriculture and wind erosion have caused the loss of once-rich volcanic soils as well. In general, the entire Pacific, central, and northern regions of the country are at immediate risk of sustained soil erosion.
Sustained efforts are underway to attack the problem from all sides, from environmental education of children to active replanting of hillsides, to the introduction of less-destructive agricultural techniques.