The rapacious fire that continues to gobble its way up the skirts of Masaya Volcano, devouring some 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of secondary forest and forcing authorities to close the national park, is the latest blazing example of Nicaragua sending its natural resources up in smoke.
So far this year, Nicaragua has lost an alarming 15,500 hectares (38,300 acres) of woodlands, fields and protected areas to wildfires set by dimwitted hunters, farmers, ranchers, clodhoppers, arsonists and fools. The amount of fiery destruction caused in the first four months of 2013 represents a 144% increase from last year’s dry season, according to the National System for the Prevention, Mitigation and Response to Natural Disasters (SINPRED).
The government reports that 60% of the damage caused by wildfires this year— 9,084 hectares, or 22,450 acres—has occurred inside protected forests.
The Masaya Volcano fire, which reportedly has destroyed 250 years of boscage inside the country’s most popular national park, is thought to have been set by some numbskull who was trying to hunt iguanas by setting fire to the underbrush to smoke out the animals. A Masaya man who works as a tour guide has reportedly been detained by police for questioning, as more than a hundred firefighters continue to battle the conflagration, now in its third week.
Wildfires are burning bright throughout Nicaragua. According to a report published by SINAPRED at the beginning of the month, authorities and community volunteers snuffed out 10 wildfires during the first weekend of April in the departments of Managua, León, Matagalpa, Madriz and Rivas. Those fires alone claimed more than 1,800 acres of primary and secondary forest—just in one weekend.
Indeed, Nicaraguans are burning their country’s forests with a determination that would be admirable if applied to more productive endeavors. Even before setting Masaya Volcano ablaze earlier this month, Nicaraguan fire-starters had lit more than 140 wildfires during the first three months of the year, including 66 forest fires that destroyed more than 17,842 acres of protected woodlands, according to SINAPRED.
The government’s efforts to prevent wildfires are complicated by cultural tradition and ignorance. Most of the fires are set intentionally to clear forest for crops and cattle, to harvest sugarcane and peanuts, to hunt animals, or to occupy land, according to the government. Other fires are caused by stupid human behaviors such lighting trees ablaze to harvest honey from beehives, or flicking lit cigarettes into dry underbrush with no regard for the basic principles of cause and effect.
“We have to work hard, work hard making people aware so that next year we can achieve, with the efforts of everyone, a reduction in the amount of wildfires set in the months of January through April,” first lady Rosario Murillo told her family’s media outlets last week.
Luckily, Mother Nature herself will be stepping in shortly to dampen Nicaraguans’ pyromaniacal proclivities. The rainy season starts in May, giving Nicaragua’s beleaguered forests another seven-month reprieve.
Commission formed to protect Bosawas
While the government hasn’t had much luck preventing forest fires, the Sandinista administration is starting to roll up its sleeves when it comes to combating deforestation in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, which represents a tenuous 14% of Nicaragua’s territory.
Since 2009, the Mayangna indigenous nation that inhabits Bosawás has documented the illegal invasion of nearly 11,500 squatters who have moved into the woods like locusts, destroying more than 150,000 hectares of (370,658 acres) of virgin forest. The leaders of the Mayangna territories have called for a state of emergency in Bosawás and trekked to Managua last February to ask for a meeting with President Daniel Ortega.
The president refused to meet with the indigenous leaders, but a month later ordered the creation of a new inter-institutional commission to study the issue of land invasions and deforestation in Bosawás. The commission, comprised of the Army, Police, UNESCO officials, forestry officials from INAFOR, environmental ministry officials from MARENA, emergency relief officials from SINAPRED and the regional political leaders from the Caribbean coast, was integrated two weeks ago.
According to Murillo, the commission will prepare a report for Ortega and ask international organizations to visit and help evaluate the damage done to Bosawás. In other words, the government commission will prepare the same report that the Mayangna tried to present to President Ortega in February.
“We need to see how we can make an international call to save Bosawás and involve everyone, involve all the families and the communities and the youth in particular because we have to care for this patrimony and appreciate it and protect it,” Murillo said, ignoring the international call made last month by the indigenous nation.
The government is also involving the military in the battle for the woods. The Army’s Ecological Battalion deployed in 2011 is doing its part to confiscate illegally cut timber on the Caribbean coast. In the first four month of 2013, the green battalion has confiscated 98,000 board feet of illegally felled timber, after confiscated 572,000 board feet of illegal wood last year, according to a report published last week in El Nuevo Diario.
But the problem is so extensive, even efforts to implement a military solution to illegal deforestation have been inadequate, according to Nicaraguan environmentalist leader Kamilo Lara. He applauds the army battalion’s efforts to slow the destructive advances of the so-called “lumber mafia” operating on the Caribbean coast, but says the problem of deforestation caused by fires and cutting is “enormous” and culturally deep-rooted.
“The advance of the agricultural frontier has to do with farmers and ranchers viewing the woods as the enemy,” Lara says.
Lara says the Sandinista government appears to be taking the problem of deforestation more seriously than previous administrations, but stresses that the issue still isn’t being given the urgency it deserves. If Nicaragua doesn’t get a handle on wildfires and clear-cutting that are destroying its forests, the government’s future plans for megaprojects such as the Grand Canal of Nicaragua will dry up along with the country’s watershed.
Plus, Lara notes, Nicaragua is already highly vulnerable to the adverse affects of climate change; by destroying its natural resources, the country is only making itself more defenseless to future attacks from Mother Nature.
“If we don’t change our behavior, the consequences will be catastrophic,” Lara says.