Two new environmental laws in Nicaragua


The Nicaraguan National Assembly’s recent approval of separate bills to protect forests and punish environmental offenders has prompted debate on the government’s role in legislating conservation.

One of the laws, called the Special Law of Crimes Against the Environment and Natural Resources, makes it a criminal offense to undermine “conservation, protection, management, defense and improvement of natural resources.” Passed Oct. 26, it also establishes littering fines of US$50 to $1,000—a turnabout for a country that jokes its “national flower” is the discarded plastic bag, an all-too-familiar roadside sight. The law carries a maximum penalty of $20,000.

The second law—the main provision of which, a 10-year ban on new permits for cutting mahogany, cedar, pochote and mangrove trees, won passage on Nov. 4—seeks to curb illegal logging. Called the Logging Moratorium Law, the legislation is expected to be approved in its entirety by the end of the year. It is slated to be enforced by military personnel sent into protected areas and forests along the borders with Costa Rica and Honduras, where timber is frequently smuggled out of the country.

Taking the offensive

Government officials acknowledge that annually, some 30,000 acres (12,000 has) of primary forest are cleared in Nicaragua, in most cases illegally. The new measures form part of a government effort to become more aggressive about conservation. Says Congressman Jaime Morales, who chairs the National Assembly’s Environment and Natural Resources Commission: “You can’t have an effective defense without a good offense.”

Morales, who is credited with building support for the measures, notes that the logging moratorium and the crimes law follow enactment of other green legislation here in the past four years, including the Geothermal Resource Law, the Forestry Law and the Fishing Law.

Before year’s end, the National Assembly is expected to approve the General Water Law, an initiative drafted with technical help from UN and Mexican experts. The law will regulate water use by different sectors while prioritizing potable water supplies for domestic use. In its current form, Morales says, it would prevent the privatization of water supplies in Nicaragua.

“This government is absolutely environmentalist,” says Morales. “We’ve had the full support of the National Assembly, the President [Enrique Bolaños] and state institutions.”

Not everyone is applauding the government action. Some of the criticism—specifically concerning the logging ban—comes from environmental groups. David Morales, a forestry consultant with the Alexander Von Humboldt Center, says the logging ban might exacerbate illegal cutting. Such was the case in 1998, he argues, when a ban was imposed by the government of then-President Arnoldo Alemán. Illegal logging in many cases is a problem of bureaucracy, he says, observing that most artisans and furniture makers can’t be bothered with completing paperwork and waiting for government permission to cut down trees.

Enforcement questioned

David Morales says the government must focus its efforts on streamlining permit procedures and improving control of the logging it authorizes. Since Nicaraguan authorities thus far have proved unable to monitor government-approved logging effectively, he adds, it is unlikely they’ll enforce a logging ban.

Francisco Lemus, owner of a Nicaraguan logging company and a member of the National Logging Chamber’s board of directors, also argues that a moratorium won’t work.

“The logging industry only represents 3-5% of all the trees cut in Nicaragua each year,” he claims. “About 90% of the cutting is being done by farmers who are clearing land to plant crops. They aren’t even cutting the trees to sell the wood. They burn it all. They live in areas without roads and infrastructure so they couldn’t get the wood out if they wanted to.”

The National Logging Chamber estimates that the ban will force tens of thousands of Nicaraguans out of work, bringing economic hardship on entire sections of the country.

For Lisandro D’Leon, the government’s top environmental-crimes prosecutor, the ban is “a bitter but necessary pill to swallow so future generations will have forests.” Adds D’Leon: “At the rate we are going, Nicaragua will be without any forest in 10 to 15 years.”

D’Leon estimates illegal loggers generate 70-75% of Nicaraguan wood exports. The problem also worries legitimate timber operators.

U.S.-born Jimmy Lewis, owner of the Nicaraguan timber company Exotic Wood International, says he supports the moratorium if it truly curbs illegal logging. Black market cutting sullies the timber industry’s image and distorts market prices, he points out. But like many here, he questions the passage of green measures, such as the two new laws, in the absence of evidence that the government can make its legislation stick.

“Nicaragua already has laws on the books to prevent unregulated logging, they just don’t enforce them,” he says. “So instead of enforcing old laws, they are passing new laws.”

- Tim Rogers

Lisandro d’León Mairena
Attorney General’s Environmental Office
Managua, Nicaragua
Tel: +(505) 266-4416, 4401
Carlos Salomón García Bonilla
Environment and Natural Resources Commission
Managua, Nicaragua
Tel: +(505) 276-8442
Francisco Lemus
Madensa (timber exports)
Managua, Nicaragua
Tel: +(505) 270-5548
Fax: +(505) 270-5547
Jimmy Lewis
Exotic Wood International
Grenada, Nicaragua
Tel: +(505) 861-0791
David Morales
Forestry Consultant
Alexander Von Humboldt Center
Managua, Nicaragua