Nicaragua’s Other Crisis: Deforestation

Nicaragua’s Other Crisis: Deforestation

By Juan Delgado/Diálogo
January 14, 2022

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Nicaragua is home to the second largest tropical rainforest in the Western Hemisphere, after the Amazon. The Bosawás Biosphere Reserve is considered to be the richest biome on the planet, according to UNESCO. However, Nicaragua has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with a loss of one-fifth of its forest cover since the 2000s, the environmental news site Mongabay reported in June 2020, based on United Nations data.

Deforestation in the country has been attributed to illegal settlements in forested areas, indiscriminate logging, mining, and invasive cattle ranching, but recent reports indicate that the environmental damage has taken place with the consent of the Ortega-Murillo regime.

In a November 2021 report, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international journalistic investigative organization, linked the increase of deforestation in Nicaragua to the Ortega-Murillo regime and its increasing grip on power in the country. Data analyzed by Our World in Data, a scientific initiative led by academics at the University of Oxford, indicate that Nicaragua’s forests have been disappearing at an average annual rate of more than 2.5 percent between 2015 and 2020, when, according to OCCRP, the Ortega-Murillo regime took direct control of Nicaragua’s National Forestry Institute (INAFOR, in Spanish).

OCCRP investigations stem from a massive leak of INAFOR documents, which show how the regime’s alleged corrupt practices further the environmental damage. Corruption in INAFOR has been fueling this disaster, which the Ortega-Murillo regime has enabled. INAFOR data show that Rosario Murillo, as well as other public officials, have directly intervened in the agency’s work, using it to grant favors to politically connected companies.

“The regime has used the deforestation business to enrich its family capital; it has also modified environmental legislation to control […] forest extraction,” Amaru Ruiz, director of the Nicaraguan environmental organization Fundación del Río, who lives in exile in Costa Rica, said in an opinion piece published in the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa in May 2019.

In an interview with OCCRP, former Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Jaime Incer Barquero said that illegal land grabbing in indigenous territories, a key factor in deforestation, is done with the “consent of authorities at all levels.”

A former INAFOR official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agency would issue forestry permits, under the direction of the presidency for political reasons, to companies whose true owners are unknown. “Their job is to make it look legal, even though it isn’t,” the official told OCCRP.

In fact, Daniel Ortega, who refused to sign the Paris Agreement in 2017, claiming that it was not enough, according to a May 2017 report from The Washington Post, has been promoting activities that contribute greatly to deforestation.

“There has been institutional support from the regime […] to promote capital investment in mining and cattle ranching. Large corporations also take part in palm oil processing. There is little political will to protect Nicaragua’s forests,” Ruiz told the international organization InSight Crime in a January 2021 interview.

In its 2020 report Nicaragua’s Failed Revolution, the U.S.-based think tank Oakland Institute reveals that the Ortega-Murillo regime has offered potential investors more than 7 million hectares (equivalent to 60 percent of the national territory) for mining concessions and nearly 4 million hectares (30 percent of the territory) for forestry projects.

The Ortega-Murillo regime “has played an active role in encouraging the colonization of land on the Caribbean Coast [indigenous lands]. It has encouraged the gold rush by offering millions of hectares available for mining concessions, of which more than 800,000 hectares are in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve,” Lottie Cunningham Wren, president of the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, said.

The regime has been “blatantly ignoring the climate crisis and mass deforestation in the country,” the Oakland Institute said in its report, while PRONicaragua, Nicaragua’s official investment promotion agency, advertises Nicaragua as a country “with a nearly endless supply of ‘suitable’ land for forestry projects.”

“The country that has lost its forests at the fastest rate [in the world] is actually Nicaragua,” the OCCRP concludes. “Nicaragua’s forests could virtually disappear in a few decades if deforestation continues at this rate.”