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Contentious Year for Environmentalists

December 22, 2006

For environmentalists, 2006 was a year of mixed signals, tough talk and myopic emergency decrees by government officials.

Topping this year’s list of environmental concerns was continued deforestation and illegal logging, which has threatened to wipe out two of the largest remaining tropical forests in Central America: Indio Maíz Reserve along the Costa Rican border, and Bosawas Reserve in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).

Unable to get a handle on the corruption that has infected the country’s timber industry over the years, President Enrique Bolaños on May 3 declared an Economic State of Emergency through the forested regions on the AtlanticCoast, stopping all logging activity dead in its tracks.

The 180-day emergency decree halted all cutting, transportation and export of precious woods until the government could sort out who was operating illegally and who was not. The government, however, couldn’t figure it out, and when the 180 days were up the National Assembly extended the emergency moratorium for 10 years with the Logging Ban Law.

Lisandro D’Leon, the country’s top prosecutor for environmental crimes, estimates that more than half of all logging in Nicaragua is done illegally, leading to the clearing of some 12,000 hectares of primary forest each year.

But not everyone is in agreement that the logging ban is the best way to crack down on illegal cutting, or even to protect the forests. Conservation groups such as the Rainforest Alliance and the World Wildlife Fund have both come out against the logging ban, arguing that if cutting is outlawed, only outlaws will cut and nothing will be regulated.

Indigenous communities that have been working to get government forestry-management plans to cut legally argue that the logging moratorium undermines their efforts to make a sustainable living from their natural resources.

Furthermore, opponents of the ban argue that it is counterproductive to pass a law that the government doesn’t have the manpower or resources to enforce.

The indigenous communities and conservationists claim the best way to protect the forests is to promote controlled cutting, rather than imposing a complete logging ban, which only encourages people to clear more forest to plant crops.

In other news related to unenforceable environmental legislation, in May the government enacted a new Environmental Crimes Law, which carries a maximum penalty of $100,000 and five years in jail for serious offenses against the environment.

Seven months after being put on the books, the Environmental Crimes Law has still not been applied to anyone, and critics are asking that it now be suspended. Environmentalist Darwin Juárez claims the law is well-intentioned, but does not consider the Nicaraguan reality. He argues that it should be suspended until the government is prepared to give it teeth.

Others in the tourism industry claim that the Environmental Crimes Law has confused potential investors and developers who aren’t sure what is expected of them before building.

A Whale of a Shark Tale

Not all of Nicaragua’s environmental concerns were focused on forests. There were also several reoccurring issues this year involving marine life, namely sharks and whales.

An effort to revive a old bilateral accord between Costa Rica and Nicaragua to protect sharks and sawfish fell flat early this year when politics interfered with conservation.

The initiative was started four years ago by Nicaraguan fishery authorities, who drafted a memorandum and sent it to their Costa Rican counterparts asking for cooperation in protecting sharks and sawfish along the San Juan River and adjacent Caribbean coastline.

There was no response from the Ticos. Then, in February, the Nicaraguan Fisheries Institute decided to follow up on the matter by sending a letter to its Costa Rican counterpart asking the authorities to revisit the proposal.

Again nothing happened, until a Nica Times article on the issue prompted the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) to write a heated response to Nicaraguan fisheries director Miguel Marenco, blaming Nicaragua for the depletion of the shark population.

INCOPESCA concluded its rather aggressive letter by inviting Marenco and Nicaragua to build bridges to protect the sharks.

Marenco, however, said it was too late for that, and that he would wait for the next Tico government to take office in May before attempting anymore bilateral cooperation. By the end of the year, no bilateral efforts had been initiated.

Marenco also came under fire this year for pledging Nicaragua’s support to lift a 20-year whaling ban by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Local student activists and international conservation group Greenpeace accused the Nicaraguan fisheries director of corruption.

The critics claimed Marenco had been bought off by Japanese whaling interests – an allegation Marenco firmly denies.

Frustrated by the accusations made by Greenpeace, Marenco challenged the American campaigner to come to Nicaragua to “settle the issue like men.”

Nicaragua has never had a whaling industry, nor do the conditions exist to set one up here. Yet the country was the only in Latin America to vote before the IWC to lift the 1986 whaling ban – a situation that critics called “shameful.”

The days of Nicaragua supporting whaling may soon be over, however.

Vice-President-elect Jaime Morales, an environmentalist, said recently that the next government will not support whaling.

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