Deep inside the sticky jungle of Cerro Wawashang, a verdant and undulating nature reserve in the heart of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), Nicaragua’s newest military unit, “The Ecological Battalion,” has struck its first blow in the army’s new war on deforestation.
Operation “Green Gold,” the Ecological Battalion’s inaugural Loraxic mission, netted 111,800 feet of illegal lumber cut from precious hardwoods inside the Wawashang Reserve. Working in conjunction with a mixed government team of forestry experts and state prosecutors, the Ecological Battalion is reportedly on the trail of a gang of timber traffickers who have been felling trees and smuggling hardwoods out of the jungle on small riverboats.
“The wood was recently cut by chainsaws, and it was cut for industrial use,” Coronel Néstor López, the army’s chief of civil operations, told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an interview. “There are unscrupulous people who are taking advantage of the economic limitations of the people in this region. And in the end, it’s the outsiders who benefit while the local communities are left with the indiscriminate deforestation.”
Col. López says the forest freebooters have a modus operandi similar to drug traffickers. They throw small wads of cash at impoverished locals to form community networks to fell, cut and haul the precious hardwoods out of the jungle to sell for a pretty profit to black-market wood hucksters.
The current rate of deforestation in Wawashang is so critical the army projects the entire 231,500-hectare forest will be reduced to scrub brush and cow munch within 20 years if indiscriminate cutting is not stopped.
Unfortunately, Wawashang is a microcosm for what’s happening on a much more appalling scale throughout the rest the country.
In 1983, 63% of Nicaragua was covered by primary forest. Today, it’s less than 41%, according to government data. At the current rate of deforestation, by 2030 only 25% of the country will still be wooded and once-frondescent hillsides like Wawashang will be reduced to bovine buffets.
That’s good news for cows, but bad news for Nicaragua. It also means that the country’s renewable energy revolution—that long-term government plan to switch the country to 50% hydroelectric power within the next five years—could dry up before it starts.
“The Nicaraguan government is trying to change the matrix of its energy supply, and to do so we need to preserve and conserve our nature reserves and forests so we can have the water we need to run what will be Central America’s largest hydroelectric plant, Tumarín,” said Army Coronel Juan Ramón Morales. “But if we don’t have forests, we won’t produce the rain we need to make this project sustainable.”
Morales added, “We can’t have a hydroelectric plant in the desert.”
Tumarín, the Brazilian-backed 253-megawatt hydro plant scheduled to come on line in 2015, will be Nicaragua’s biggest renewable energy source. But it won’t be the only one. According to the government, there are nine hydroelectric projects in the works that will produce more than 30 megawatts of power, and an additional 23 projects that will produce less than 30 megawatts.
All those hydroelectric projects, both big and small, have one thing in common: they need water to work. And water only exists when forests do.
World’s first green battalion
To protect the forests and watersheds of Nicaragua’s 71 protected nature reserves—the lungs and arteries that give life to the country—President Daniel Ortega last December formed the Ecological Battalion, a unit of 580 soldiers divided into seven companies.
The battalion, the first of its kind in the world, represents a change in military paradigm and a recognition that deforestation, pollution and climate change represent emerging non-conventional threats to Nicaragua’s national security.
Indeed, that recognition is now reflected in the Constitution, under Law 750, which states, “Any act or action that severely impacts the environment of the country will be a considered a threat to national security.”
Last December, Ortega inaugurated the Ecological Battalion, a $6.2 million effort that only has $2 million in allocated funding (the battalion is scrambling to make up the difference before second-semester paychecks are due.)
But what it lacks in funding, it makes up for in mistica.
“We have to continue fighting this battle with certainty and security, even when we have adversaries who are and will continue to threaten our natural resources; we have the strength and the historic right to defend ourselves, with the conviction that in this struggle we will achieve many victories,” Ortega said during the inauguration of the Ecological Battalion late last year.
For Coronel López, the military’s new environmental mission is the right one for Nicaragua’s armed forces.
“This is a noble mission in ever sense of the word,” the coronel told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “This mission is transcendental; we are creating a new model that is friendly with nature and protects the motherland.”
The world is changing, he says, and so too are the threats to national security. Luckily, green is in the army’s color palette.
“We wear olive drab and camouflage,” López said. “Our color is green by nature. Now we have to make it by conscience, too.”