INSIGHTS: The Miskitos' Forest in Nicaragua

By Gilberto Lopes

LAYASIKSA, Nicaragua, June 2, 2004 (ENS) - These ancestral lands in the Nicaraguan Atlantic region have been the scene of amazing commercial operations for the past century. A hundred years ago, gold, silver, zinc, wood, and bananas were carried from the interior lands by river to the Caribbean ports, and then to Europe and the United States. Moskitia, an indigenous territory shared by Nicaragua and Honduras, moved its resources through those wonderful rivers that divide it into complicated arabesques.

The North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) spans 58,000 square kilometers, a bit larger than Costa Rica, the neighboring country. However, in the RAAN there are only 231,000 inhabitants, in comparison to the four million people in Costa Rica.

Most residents of the RAAN are Miskitos, but Sumos - an indigenous group - and Hispanics are also found there.

RAAN, Central America’s largest, most intact lowland tropical forest and coastal ecosystem, receives only 0.93 percent of the state budget. In Prinzapolka – once an emporium where minerals, cedar and mahogany were commercialized - the per capita annual income is only about US$28.


Pristine forest in Nicaragua's RAAN ecosystem (Photo courtesy Municipality of Prinzapolka)
“Here we can find almost the 60 percent of Nicaraguan pristine forests,” explains Centuriano Knight, leader of the indigenous organization Yatama, and a member of the local government. “This area is the richest one in forest and marine resources, however, it is the poorest one in the country,” complains Knight.

It was already night when we arrived at Layasiksa, a small town south of Puerto Cabezas. Tonight, we are going to sleep on hammocks. No electricity, no running water, no phones. Houses are scattered around on stakes. Domestic animals – pigs, poultry, and cows - stroll around, feeding on anything. Men go fishing and hunting, women also.

There are 136 families in Layasiksa, less than a thousand people. The village is located next to where the Kukalaya River enters a lagoon to continue its way to the Woutha Lagoon, and then to the emerald Caribbean waters. Settlers cultivate beans, corn and cassava for their own benefit. Here no one receives a salary but the teacher and the nurse.

The community profits from 35,000 hectares of forests, and of them, 4,500 hectares are under a management plan. In addition, Layasiksa has signed an agreement with PRADA, a large plywood manufacturer, for the concession of 5,000 hectares to be managed as a certified operation.

This is where WWF Central America, the global conservation organization, has begun the implementation of a program to protect the Miskito’s forests. “We began three main lines of work - to assess forest resources, design a plan to manage them, and evaluate the environmental impacts,” explains Steve Gretzinger, forest director for WWF Central America.

“But what are we going to do with the wood?” asks Gretzinger. The communal forests are rich in hardwoods and Caribbean pine. So far, the commercialization alternatives are concessions to lumber enterprises, sales of round wood and sawn wood, and craft or furniture manufacturing.

“Traditionally, lumber enterprises have arrived to the RAAN, and paid less than $14 per tree. In 1999, before the management plan was implemented, they cut down around 800 mahogany and cedar trees, and no one received a cent for them,” says Ronaldo Ocampo, a 25 year old Miskito leader and member of the Communal Forest Committee from Layasiksa.

Now, only 4,000 hectares of untouched forests are left, and they plan to keep them so.

A century ago, loads of precious woods and minerals were sent to the European and North American markets even though, nowadays, those markets are reluctant to accept woods from tropical forests. Ecological conscience has created a certain scruple among European conservation groups worrying about the destruction of tropical forests.

If wood cannot be used, forests are worthless for the Miskito communities. Wood is still illegally cut and taken to selected markets avid for a product which is each day becoming scarcer.

The creation of pastures for raising cattle is another reason to eliminate forests in the Atlantic region.

Layasiksa has the first forest management plan approved by the Nicaraguan government. This plan covers harvesting 200 and 204 hectares a year for last and this year, respectively. A management plan aims to harvest trees that have reached maturity. The idea is not only to use wood that otherwise will decay, but also to open space for growing trees.

A sustainable management plan intends to avoid forest destruction, and to help the Miskitos overcome extreme poverty.

Resposible management is not enough, though. It is necessary to guarantee that benefits reach the communities. Wood needs to get to important markets, to furniture factories, to tourist enterprises, to governmental facilities. The point is to get a green seal. During the past few years, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has been promoting certification of well-managed forests and the use of certified wood over traditionally harvested wood.


Logs from the RAAN headed for market (Photo courtesy InterAmerican Development Bank)
The Mesoamerican and Caribbean Wood Group, Jagwood+, was created to promote the use and commercialization of certified forest products. “The goal is to encourage the sales of FSC certified forest products, and to open new markets,” said Gretzinger at a recent meeting in Managua.

In Nicaragua, the Holiday Inn Select Hotel, Desarrollo Forestal, Lolo Morales Furniture, Exchange [MSOFFICE1] and Ecoforestal, have committed themselves to give preference to products made with FSC certified woods, especially if they come from the RAAN.

This commitment may be decisive in strengthening the mechanisms for rational harvesting of wood.

The community leader, Ronaldo, talks about certification and how to select trees to be felled. For a few weeks, Miskito leaders gather to learn about forest conservation and simple management practices, and afterwards, they explain to their people what they have learned.

People from Layasiksa are aware of the long way ahead to consolidate the process. Conflicts among communities, ancient traditions, technical and administrative problems in project management are situations that need to be solved if forest certification is to be realized.

Though there is no better alternative than responsible management, Miskitos already know that forests are their life insurance, not only because of wood, but also because of associated social and ecological benefits.

Responsible forest management, promoted in this isolated community by WWF, is the best alternative to alleviate poverty and protect the environment, because trees are going to be cut down by illegal loggers or neighborhood communities if the Miskitos from Layasiksa don’t stand firm.

“WWF is helping us with an strategic plan to care for our land, a land of wisdom, of precious trees that deserve protection,” says Rufino Johnson of the Layasiksa local government and responsible for natural resources.

“If the management plan goes smoothly, we will get US$50,000 dollars this year, US$15,000 to cover expenses and the rest to pay a nurse, buy medicines, and for scholarships to young students.”

The recently approved Nicaraguan National Plan for Development proposes the creation of industrial clusters to promote development. The forest sector conforms to one of those clusters. Carlos Zuńiga, from the Presidential Committee for Competitiveness, says that WWF is the ideal partner to encourage the forest cluster.

We are all in the same boat. What other alternative would permit the development of those impoverished communities, and ensure a rational use of their natural resources? So far, there is none.

{Gilberto Lopes is a freelance Brazilian journalist based in Costa Rica. This article is provided by WWF Central America.}