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Roughly the size of New York state and with 5.6 million people, Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and its least densely settled. Paradoxically, it is also one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Fifty percent of its population lives below the poverty line, and a third is younger than 15 years old. Nicaragua can be divided into three environmental regions: the tropical, dry Pacific coastal plain, the Central Highlands, and the Caribbean Coastal Plain. These regions share common social and environmental concerns but also have specific problems of their own.
Deforestation is an issue throughout the country. An expanding agricultural frontier east of the more densely settled Pacific region responds to ebbs and flows in markets and governmental priorities. In the 1960s relocation projects sought to “bring light to the jungle” by moving peasants into the rain forest. Ongoing road building and illegal timber extraction continue to bring colonists and speculators to the indigenous lands of the Caribbean Coastal Plain. Another important cause of deforestation is fuelwood gathering. At least 90 percent of Nicaragua’s rural population and 60 percent of its urban population relies on wood or charcoal for cooking and heating. This unsustainable activity has no quick remedy in a country with no natural gas production.
Ninety percent of Nicaragua’s watersheds drain to the Caribbean through 11 major rivers. Their silt loads maintain the Nicaragua shelf, one of the most productive marine environments in the hemisphere. Traditionally providing an abundant livelihood for indigenous peoples, Nicaragua’s Caribbean fisheries have become big business. Poorly regulated exports of lobster averaged $25 million a year through the 1990s. Fishing canneries provide jobs but are not sustainable. Offshore coral reefs are noticeably declining.
Perhaps the biggest marine problem is the rapid decline of coastal mangrove forests, particularly along the Pacific coast. Here, shrimp farmers are clearing mangroves to make new ponds. In 2001, Nicaragua was the world’s 17th largest producer of farmed shrimp. Mangroves in the Gulf of Fonseca and elsewhere have also been cleared for firewood.
Water pollution linked to agriculture and ranching, untreated sewage, and soil erosion plague the 10 percent of Nicaragua’s fresh water that drains toward the Pacific, where two-thirds of the population lives. The most egregious water contaminants of lime, cyanide, and mercury associated with gold mining in Caribbean watersheds have been addressed, but problems of regulation and enforcement remain.
National parks and forest reserves abound in the Caribbean coast-on paper. The Bosawas Reserve in the northeast, home to Mayangna and Miskito Indians, is one of the largest contiguous areas of tropical rain forest north of the Amazon basin. Like its southern partner, the Sf-a-Paz (yes to peace) Biosphere Reserve, it is part of an innovative binational effort to protect shared borderlands. Both reserves are also central to the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a linked series of protected areas designed to spur isthmus coordination and reduce ecosystem fragmentation. Nicaragua is the linchpin in the corridor.
Environmental awareness is growing in Nicaragua, but meanwhile, poverty demands solutions. One project designed to deal with poverty is the so-called dry canal, a high speed rail and port system that would offer cargo ships willing to unload and reload an alternative to the Panama Canal. The proposed route cuts through the Sf-a-Paz Reserve and Rama Indian lands on the Caribbean coast-it is a desperate gambit intended to clear some forest to save the rest.
- Anne Larson, “Natural Resources and Decentralization in Nicaragua: Are Local Governments Up to the Job?,” World Development (v.30, 2002);
- Jerry Mueller, A Canary for the World: A Nicaraguan Environmental Primer (Nicaragua Network, 2000);
- Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua, 4th (Westview Press, 2003).