Nicaragua’s forests going up in smoke

Wildfires set by Nicaraguans have consumed 144% more forest this year than last

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.

advance of the agricultural frontier into Bosawás (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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.

Big Haul: Nicaragua’s Ecological Battalion nets illegally cut lumber (courtesy army)

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.


  • Jon Cloke

    “wildfires set by dimwitted hunters, farmers, ranchers, clodhoppers, arsonists and fools” – really? Or, desperately poor people trying to make a living as best they can?

    What a thoroughly patronizing article, written (I strongly suspect) by someone for whom hunger is something they’ve never experienced…

    And if these fires are being set through greed, what are those people doing except following the examples of their ‘elites’ in the FSLN and the PLC? Last time I remember seeing any figures (2001-ish) MARENA was giving out thousands of illegal logging ‘licences’ to just about anyone who had enough money for the bribe – I doubt that’s changed much.

    So much more convenient to blame the ignorant hoi polloi, though, isn’t it?

  • Derryl Hermanutz

    I agree with Jon Cloke. Every developed nation cleared its forests to make way for agriculture and industry. Now gentrified developed world populations want to pull up the ladder and force developing nations to preserve “nature”. People become environmentally sensitive AFTER they are rich enough to feel that their basic livelihood is secure. Poor Nicas do not feel secure because they are not secure, so they do what they can to make a living for themselves. I don’t like seeing forests burned either, but because l am unable to provide those Nicas an alternate way to make a living my gentrified sensibilities will just have to put up or shut up. Maybe over decades Nicaragua can build up an ecotourism market like Costa Rica, but that doesn’t help the present generation of Nicas. Or should poor campesinos sacrifice themselves in order to preserve pristine nature for wealthy foreigners?

    • Abu

      Derryl, that is really a note you published! Complete prooof of lack of understanding. Sorry, but it is as I say. At first your numbers aren’t correct: germany for example has a much higher percentage of wood cover than Nicaragua. But that is not the important thing. You have to consider that we are in the TROPICS, and half of Nicaragua is moreover HUMID TROPICS. Wioth cutting down gthe forest in the humid tropics you don’t make a living, you just make living impossible for your kids and grand kids.

      You say you have no alternate way for the Nicas to make a living. Bueno, I have! We are doing ecological agriculture in the eastern half of Nicaragua, which means ecological diversified agroforestry. Soil and water are safe with this, no fire necessary (it never is) and especially not possible among trees. Good yields of cocoa, coffee (robusta), vanilla, ginger, borojó, citrus, coco, mamón chino, arazá, jackfruit, sheep, geese, ducks, chicken, pigs and a real lot more. No need to migrate, no need to sell to cattle ranchers, production year round and all pure health. And organic agriculture in the humid tropics produces more than the conventional one. We do not have won more than 1 % of the farmers, because government, NGOs, external cooperation, universities, all invest in projects of short duration to show their “successes”. They serve the widespread “cortoplacismo”. Working ecologically is at first a thing of attitude, knowledge, open-mindedness, in short: education, and then training. This costs a lot of money, and we have to work really hard to find it. Diesel-palm-planters like Ramón Ortiz get even development money. We have to fight for every peso, because our model brings money to the campesinos and not to the rich, the politicians and the foreigners.

      • Levi

        Abu, I am looking to possibly relocate to Nicaragua to practice sustainable farming/permaculture. I had not heard about eco farming happening in eastern Nica. I would love to hear more from you. Would you mind emailing me at levihall85 at so we can chat? Thank you!

        • Indio Jones

          Levi, google it. You will find Permaculture all over Nicaragua. Names to note: Kevin Shea, Christopher Shank.

          • Larry

            Indio Jones is the alter-ego of Kevin Shea. It is still shameless self promotion, even if you do it with your alter-ego Kevin. Google kevin shea 911 and see.

  • Nica Tomas

    A much-needed critical story on the stupid and senseless burning of Nicaragua’s nature preserves which needed to be published. About a month ago, I watched in horror from across the Laguna de Apoyo as large fires continued to burn a number of hectares half way down the side of the eastern rim of the forest surrounding the lake closest to Granada…and this was no brush clearing episode. The flames were highly visible from Catarina…especially at night…so horrible and frightening to see even from several miles away. This is not an issue about “gentrified vs. the poor”…nor about tourism…nor about hunger…but one of education and safety and helping to build a better future for all Nicaraguans as well as those who want to help raise the standards of living for everyone and boosting the economy so that folks don’t have to destroy and scar their lands and hunt for endangered “food” just to survive. It’s a sad day when one selfish person with one match can destroy all of the bountiful forests with its dead wood and fallen limbs so desperately needed by his neighbors who struggle daily to find and carry firewood for their cookstoves and bread ovens. What’s next? Howler Monkey soup? Iguana kabobs? 676 types of bird soup…one for each of Nicaragua’s endangered bird species?
    At that rate, there won’t be anything left to attract folks to come and support Nicaragua growing and positive future.

  • lisa b

    This post came through my reader notifications, and as I read it, I thought, “This person is quite passionate about what is happening to Nicaragua.” When I looked back up to see who wrote it, I actually smiled and said, ‘Good for you, Tim.”

    I lived in Central America for ten years (I now live in South America) and know how dangerous any fire, (especially in Guanacaste/Costa Rica and up through that area of Nicaragua) can be at the end of the dry season. Combined with the strong winds of that area, a small fire whips into a wildfire in minutes. It’s scary, and anyone who has grown up there knows that. I understand hunger as well, and if the fire was set out of hunger, that person has learned not to ever do that again.

    Yes, it is very easy to take either side of this, but since it has already happened, the best thing is to ask, ‘What can we do about this?” Get past the egos and try to look forward to how to keep that from happening again.

    I agree, our forefathers raped our own landscape to put in farmland, pastures, even cities, and the corp of engineers learned too late that trying to harness the Mississippi river sometimes backfires. (The Rising Tide/John Barry) We carry our wisdom forward and try to make a difference. Sometimes it’s so close to home, so much in our backyard, that our passion and distress of seeing our beloved landscape go up in flames can prompt us into saying things that we later wish we could have stated better, but we do become more proactive, which is better than apathy. watching, saying nothing but, ‘that’s too bad,’ is almost as bad as what happened…. we awaken when it hits in our back yard; for me, it was watching the mangroves being pushed into the river and seeing a wall of sterile boulders replace those mature trees. two years later, not one new tree has sprouted there.

    Today, Earth Day, is a perfect day to bring attention to what is wrong, as we are all stewards of this earth. We should also address what each of us can do to help.

    “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” Robert Green Ingersoll

  • Abu

    And moreover these fires help ecotourism a lot, you bet! Nicaragua speaks proudly of its tourist attractions and at the same time it burns them down, it contaminates them all over the country, accompanied by NOISE NOISE NOISE everywhere and 24 hours a day. After the ecology batallion, which always only confiscates trees already cut down, the fire extinguisher brigade should appear soon.

  • Sonia Diaz

    I understand the frustrations of the critics’ reactions to this story. Your comment, “…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…” is tactless and offensive, especially to the rural poor. I am a professional working in the environmental field in Nicaragua and we try our best to educate campesinos on alternative forms of energy so that they do not need to chop or burn anything down. I think it is time for the Nicaragua Dispatch to do a more investigative reporting on home-grown NGOs that are teaching sustainable agricultural methods to Nicaragua’s farmers and children in the school system. It is only there where we can all create a green revolution. The government’s lack of interest and corruption is heart-wrenching and sickening. I hope things change, but like I said, it must start from the grassroots; from the people, not whiny bourgeois environmentalists from the North. Please right something constructive…as actions speak much loader than words. I would also really like to know what is happening with Bosawas and understand how the international community can help.

    • Tim Rogers

      Sonia, if you have a local NGO that is doing good work in Nicaragua, we’d love to hear about it. ND has an open invitation to all NGOs that are engaged in community work/ social justice/ environmental activism / or any other grassroots project or good deed to write a story for us to let readers know about the work and projects they are engaged in here. Dozens of NGOs have already taken advantage of this space to inform others of their work in the country. You’re more than welcome to do the same. I don’t have time to write personal letters to everyone involved in grassroots work in Nicaragua to invite them to participate in Nicaragua Dispatch, but you can consider this my personal invitation to you. Keep up the good work—and let us know what you’re up to and how folks can get involved.

    • Indio Jones

      Provide me some of your educational materials and posters. I will post them at and near O Parks, WildLife, and Recreation in Ostional.

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  • Indio Jones

    As a swashbuckling steward of the diminished dry tropical forests in Ostional, I create plan, install, and evaluate firebreaks. Last year we installed some low quality posters from INAFOR. These forests and the flora and fauna within have been subjected to tree burning for honey, unmonitored controlled fire methods, mobile hunters ignoring signs and burning private property. We recently installed camera traps to discover that we have pumas, deer, ocelots, and of course hunters with guns, accelerants, and slingshots on our private property. I support a solution. TED conferences note that there are cattle-raising methods that improve life conditions and have a positive impact, and on the other side there are food forests that also provide humans along with wildlife. I bow to the scientists, economists, and secularists to find, adopt, sustain, and enforce a creative solution.