Little over a month since Hurricane Felix pounded Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean coast, experts are warning the huge windfall in local forests could fuel catastrophic wildfires in the coming dry season. But government officials, fearing that illegal logging in surviving forests will surge under the cover of storm cleanup, are requiring that felled trees only be used for post-storm reconstruction.
Felix hit the indigenous northeast corner of Nicaragua Sept. 4 as a Category 5 storm, killing over 300 people—most of them Miskito Indians—and destroying the homes of over 20,000 families. In an appeal for help before the United Nations on Sept. 24, the government estimated the total damage at US$850 million.
The hurricane also took a harsh ecological toll. Nicaraguan environmental officials say it flattened 25,000 acres (10,000 has) of coastal mangroves and vast swaths of primary forest. In all, an estimated 1.18 million acres (477,000 has) of forest was destroyed out of a total of 3.2 million acres (1.3 million has) of forestland that was damaged. The damaged areas include 15% of the Bosawas Reserve, Central America’s largest tract of virgin forest, where century-old trees lie strewn like fallen matchsticks.
Experts say the hurricane effectively accelerated Nicaragua’s deforestation by more than five years. “We lost everything, everything; not a single tree was left standing,” says Nicanor Polanco, whose Miskito Indian cooperative, Kisan Por La Paz, lost the entire 30,000-acre (12,000-ha) forest where it was working to secure environmental certification for its logging operations.
In the week following the storm, the sun beat down on land no longer protected by tree cover, leaving burned-out ridgelines under a tangle of trees felled by Felix’s 155-mile-an-hour (250-km-per-hour) winds.
Now a major question is what to do with the hundreds of thousands of fallen trees. The region’s governing authority, the Regional Council of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (Craan), issued a decree Sept. 8 ordering that all fallen timber be used for local reconstruction. The decree also called for “the immediate and indefinite suspension of all forestry permits and processing related to the extraction, transport and commercialization of forestry resources” in the region.
The central government, meanwhile, has called for a redoubling of efforts to enforce an existing prohibition on the logging of several species of hardwood popular in export markets. (See “Miskitos call Nicaraguan ban counterproductive”—EcoAméricas, Oct. ’06.)
Some argue that in the wake of the storm, indigenous communities should be allowed to harvest fallen timber and use income from its sale to begin their economic recovery.
At least initially, President Daniel Ortega panned the idea. Authorities fear that if the ban is lifted, a flood of timber sales will ensue, and officials won’t be able to tell whether the wood is coming from Felix’s windfall or from trees that have been illegally cut. “It would be a crime to suspend the moratorium,” Ortega said a week after the storm. “Instead, we have to reinforce it. I want the army and the police to make every effort to guarantee the moratorium, even though this will annoy some people who are unjustly criticizing [the law].”
Arguing for flexibility
In indigenous communities like Polanco’s, where 342 families live on the edge of the Bosawas Reserve, homes can be rebuilt with just a fraction of the fallen forest, Polanco says. The problem, he insists, is what will become of the other trees that have fallen if communities are not allowed to harvest the wood and sell it before it rots.
“We are the owners of this land; we need to sell the wood and make money to buy seeds and food,” he says. “The state can’t take care of us forever. What are the people going to eat?”
Jaime Guillén, a forestry consultant with the conservation group Rainforest Alliance, agrees the ban should be suspended temporarily. But he adds that safeguards are needed—for instance, avoiding the use of heavy equipment, which might tear up the ground, crushing seedlings and preventing regeneration of the forest. Says Guillén: “The only thing left in the forest is the soil, and it has to be protected.”
Harold Wilson, president of the autonomous region’s commission on the environment and natural resources, says one of the biggest challenges in the coming months will be to keep the damaged forests from catching fire. He says the Miskito Indians burn ground for planting or to drive deer and other small game out of hiding. He adds that Pacific coast ranchers might burn hurricane-damaged acreage to expand their pasture lands.
Wilson says the regional council is working with communities to stop seasonal burning, positioning fire brigades and calling on the central government to limit migration to the region. In all, the regional council is asking for more than US$13 million to equip 175 fire brigades, construct 20 fire towers and build a series of roads and bridges to access parts of the forest facing the highest fire risk.
- Tim Rogers