Nicaraguan Parks: an Adventure in Democracy

By Diane Jukofsky and Nuria Bolaos

MANAGUA, Nicaragua, May 31, 2002 (ENS) - Like most countries, Nicaragua has found that the political and commendable act of declaring a new national park or reserve is far easier than the costly and complicated work of actually protecting and managing the area. The result worldwide is a growing number of so-called paper parks, which show up on maps but are protected parks in name only.


Nicaragua's Mombacho volcano is a natural reserve with a cloud forest at its summit. (Photo courtesy USAID)
With 76 designated protected areas encompassing about 18 percent of its territory, Nicaragua has decided to experiment by inviting assistance and counsel from the most likely sources – the residents and grassroots conservation groups living outside reserve borders.

A pilot project that aims to involve these local players in decisions related to the reserves in their backyards is now under way in six protected areas nationwide. Nicaragua’s environment and natural resources ministry (MARENA for its name in Spanish) and conservationists are eager to see this experiment in park democracy succeed, but acknowledge the challenge of getting many diverse groups to cooperate with one another.

The four year project, called the Comanagement of Protected Areas Project (COMAP), was launched last year with a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Milton Camacho, Director of Integrated Protected Areas Management for MARENA, says that COMAP is promoting “the best way to manage protected areas, by sharing responsibility for them among the government, state, and civil society.”

Nearly 90 percent of Nicaragua’s protected areas are privately owned. The landowners are often farmers who do not hold legal land titles but rather migrated to forested land and cleared it, a traditional way of claiming possession in Central America.

A particular COMAP challenge is bringing these farmers together with national and municipal government officials, local civic leaders and conservationists to reach consensus on how everyone can benefit from a nearby reserve, while ensuring its survival as a healthy ecosystem.

The six pilot areas are located throughout the country and represent a range of Nicaragua’s ecosystems, from coastal mangroves to mountaintop pine and oak forest. They safeguard habitat for numerous wildlife species, but are also ringed by rural communities.

Just 18 miles south of Managua, the Chocoyero-El Brujo nature reserve is closer to a large urban area than any other COMAP site. The Center for Action and Support of Rural Development (CENADE for its name in Spanish) received a $200,000 grant to lead the comanagement process for the reserve.


Entrance to the Chocoyero-El Brujo nature reserve (Two photos courtesy CENADE)
CENADE biologist Edgar Mendoza says that an initial problem has been to bring together community members and local officials in a comanagement committee to discuss how the nature reserve should be managed. Still, he believes the project is having an important influence by promoting democracy among people unaccustomed to making decisions by consensus.

“We all talk about how the government has to decentralize and be more democratic, but when it comes time to put this into practice, the communities, landowners, and nongovernment organizations don’t know how to do this any more than the central government does,” Mendoza notes.

Camacho adds that resistance to group decision-making is partly in reaction to Nicaragua’s 10 years of civil conflict, which ended in 1990. “Many people are afraid of organizing and working in cooperatives,” he explains, “because they fear there will be one strong leader who will be the only one to benefit and the communities will be forgotten,” which he says happened frequently during the 1980s.


Waterfall in the Chocoyero-El Brujo nature reserve
While the Chocoyero-El Brujo reserve is small, at just 455 acres (184 hectares), it is an important watershed that provides potable water to thousands. It is also an important tourist attraction. Each year some 10,000 people visit Chocoyero-El Brujo and the two crashing waterfalls that give the reserve its name.

The U.S. based company Associates in Rural Development (ARD) is helping MARENA administer the Comanagement of Protected Areas Project. Carlos Rivas Almonte, ARD technical advisor, believes that COMAP will be successful if it can encourage communities to take responsibility for natural resource protection.

“Often, in the name of poverty people do damaging activities in protected areas,” he says. “But even when there is no poverty or hunger, people continue to act destructively. We must do what’s needed to ensure that local residents them-selves become the principal protectors of a reserve.”

{Published in cooperation with Eco-Exchange, a publication of the Rainforest Alliance.}