MANAGUA – Nicaragua has no certified labs to conduct water-contamination tests; nearly half of Nicaraguans do not have sewage-treatment systems; and about 70,000 hectares of forest are lost every year.
These are just some of the environmental weak spots that Nicaragua is expected to address to meet its obligations under the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
CAFTA isn’t only stimulating commerce with Nicaragua’s largest trade partner, it’s also designed to help Nicaragua protect its rich biodiversity – what CAFTA environmental expert Miguel Araujo calls Nicaragua’s “real oil.”
“There can’t be more trade if a country doesn’t have its natural resources in order,” said Araujo, coordinator for CAFTA’s Secretariat for Environmental Affairs for the region.
Araujo insists CAFTA is intended to be more than just a trade deal. If implemented properly, he said, CAFTA has the potential to strengthen environmental laws and protections in member countries.
“CAFTA provides for application of environmental norms whether or not it has to do with trade,” he told The Nica Times at a Sept. 17 conference with Nicaraguan environmental officials in Managua.
An entire chapter of the CAFTA agreement addresses environmental policy – a notable difference from the earlier North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the United States, Mexico and Canada, which included no such provisions.
CAFTA countries will also benefit from $20 million in multilateral aid to strengthen environmental enforcement, more than double the environmental funding provided under NAFTA .
Even more revolutionary under CAFTA is a provision that allows just about anyone, from citizens to public officials, to file environmental complaints with any signatory government or online with the regional CAFTA Environmental Affairs Secretariat.
After a complaint is filed, only one government’s approval is needed for a case to be opened.
Nicaragua recently passed a decree to implement the environmental citizen-complaint mechanism, which allows anyone to file complaints – even by e-mail – against the government or any other organization that fails to follow environmental laws, according to Rene Castellon of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA).
But Araujo acknowledged that CAFTA, still considered an ideologically controversial agreement among some sectors, faces major challenges to becoming an instrument to enforce environmental regulations. First of all, experts note, most people are unaware of CAFTA’s environmental mechanisms and so they have gone mostly unused so far.
“Whether you agree with CAFTA or not, we encourage you to try the mechanism to see if it works,” Araujo said.
Though Nicaragua has implemented the environmental complaint mechanism, Araujo said the country will have a hard time putting it to use since MARENA recently eliminated its trade office due to lack of funds. MARENA still needs to establish a technical unit to address citizen complaints under CAFTA, which Castellon said will be done in the form of a Web site.
In the meantime, citizens or organizations can file complaints directly with the CAFTA Environmental Affairs Secretariat online at www.misaa.ws.
Nicaragua was the first CAFTA signatory to create a committee to implement environmental obligations under CAFTA, Araujo said. CAFTA has entered into force in all signee countries – including Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, the United States and the Dominican Republic – with the exception of Costa Rica, where the CAFTA agenda is still being debated.
The Secretariat last year received its first complaint from the Humane Society International alleging that the Dominican Republic – CAFTA’s seventh member state – has failed to meet its obligations to protect endangered sea turtles in that country.
The Secretariat recommended in August that the CAFTA Environmental Council, which consists of the environment ministers of each Central American country and a representative of the U.S. Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science (OES), vote in favor of an investigation, but the council has yet to meet on the case.
In Nicaragua, Araujo said that the recent creation of an environmental office in the Ministry of Industry, Development and Commerce (MIFIC) is a step in the right direction toward implementing CAFTA’s goal to get businesses to think about the environment.
“CAFTA is planting the seed for the creation of a regional environmental citizen,” Araujo said.
MARENA Deputy Minister Roberto Araquistain said support under CAFTA is already helping Nicaragua to clean up its contaminated watersheds. In July, a team of U.S. environmental experts came down to Nicaragua to start charting a plan to protect LakeCocibolca’s contaminated watershed under CAFTA (NT, July 2).
Another delegation will visit early next year, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency liaison Al Korgi.
“Management of watersheds and the reduction of contamination are all major issues for our nation,” Araquistain said.
Korgi said that under CAFTA, signatory governments can be taken to international arbitration court for not meeting their own laws, including environmental standards.
“The ministries of (CAFTA) countries are definitely paying more attention to the environment now, they’re aware of the potential to be liable and to be sued,” Korgi told The Nica Times in a phone interview from Atlanta.
Find out more about the CAFTA Environmental Affairs Secretariat at Web site, www.misaa.ws,which will soon be navigable in English.