MANAGUA, Nicaragua— Deep inside the leafy thicket of Nicaragua’s isolated Cerro Wawashang — a verdant and undulating nature reserve in the heart of the steamy South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) — Nicaragua’s newly commissioned Ecological Battalion recently struck its first blow in the army’s campaign to break a different type of international smuggling ring: timber traffickers.
In a country with 71 nature reserves and 803 million acres of thick, primary forest, Nicaragua’s precious hardwood trees have become lucrative a commodity in the black market for lumber. And until now, the forests have been easy pickings. As recently as 2006, Nicaragua’s cash-strapped Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources had only a handful of park guards to patrol a combined protected area the size of El Salvador.
When a tree falls in the forest in Nicaragua, usually no one is around to hear it. And that’s what has made the work of timber traffickers so productive and destructive in Central America’s biggest country.
Deforestation among Nicaragua’s biggest environmental woes
Since 1983, Nicaragua’s forest cover has been depleted from 63 percent to less than 41 percent of the country’s area, according to government data. That translates into a forest cover of 32,541 square kilometers. At the rate of deforestation, 25 percent of Nicaragua’s will be wooded by 2030, and reserves like Wawashang will be reduced to scrub bush and cow pasture.
The Nicaraguan government turned to a military solution to deforestation.
On Nov. 30, 2011, the Nicaraguan Army unveiled the world’s first Ecological Battalion, a special military division tasked with protecting Nicaragua’s natural resources as a matter of national security. The unit’s 580 soldiers are divided into seven companies, with an annual budget of $6.2 million.
“Nicaraguans should feel a sense of national pride for the extraordinary natural resources we have,” said Army Gen. Julio César Aviles during the battalion’s November 2011 inauguration. He said that protecting Nicaragua’s environment is part of upholding the constitutional right to “live in a healthy environment,” and that it’s the state’s obligation to “preserve, conserve and rescue the environment and natural resources.”
Battalion scores its first victory
On Jan. 5, the Ecological Battalion was deployed on its first mission, codenamed “Green Gold.” Less than two weeks later, the army’s green team scored its first victory by netting nearly 112,000 cubic feet of illegal lumber cut from precious hardwoods inside the Wawashang Reserve, a 572,000-acre protected area. The wood, which already had been cut into planks by gas-powered chainsaws, was found hidden under jungle brush to avoid being seen from the air.
The Ecological Battalion found the site after being tipped off by local farmers whose suspicions were aroused by the constant stream of people sneaking in and out of the reserve on riverboats carrying chainsaws. Working in conjunction with a government team of forestry experts and state prosecutors, the Ecological Battalion secured the site and is now investigating the whereabouts of the timber traffickers.
“The wood was cut recently, and it was cut for industrial use,” said Col. Néstor López, the army’s chief of civil operations, which coordinates the Ecological Battalion. “There are unscrupulous people who are taking advantage of the economic limitations of the people in this region. And in the end, it’s the outsiders who benefit while the local communities are left with this indiscriminate deforestation.”
López said the forest thieves have a modus operandi similar to drug traffickers. They throw small wads of cash at impoverished locals to form community networks to fell, cut and haul the precious hardwoods out of the jungle to sell for a hefty profit on the black market.
Forests key to ensuring Nicaragua’s energy security The Ecological Battalion represents an evolving understanding of what constitutes a threat to national security.
Law 750 reflects the important tie between conserving nature and conserving peace. It states that “any act or action that severely impacts the country’s environment will be a considered a threat to national security.”
The battalion’s mission also is about ensuring Nicaragua’s energy security as the country undergoes relies more and more on hydroelectric power.
“The Nicaraguan government is trying to change the matrix of its energy supply. To do so, we need to preserve our nature reserves and forests so we can have the water we need to run what will be Central America’s largest hydroelectric plant, Tumarín,” said Army Col. Juan Ramón Morales. “But if we don’t have forests, we won’t produce the rain we need to make this project sustainable. We can’t have a hydroelectric plant in the desert.”
Tumarín, the Brazilian-backed 253-megawatt hydro plant scheduled to come on line in 2015, will be Nicaragua’s biggest renewable energy source. But it won’t be the only one. Another 32 hydroelectric projects are in the works, nine of them set to produce more than 30 megawatts each, according to government projections.
All those hydroelectric projects, both big and small, have one thing in common: they need water to work. Water exists when forests do. The Ecological Battalion isn’t focused on preventing the illegal felling of trees, but also on reforesting areas that already have been invaded by traffickers.
Working with officials from Nicaragua’s Forestry Institute, the Ecological Battalion has created a network of 28 nurseries to plant 560,000 trees in reserves that have been hurt by deforestation.
“This is a noble mission in every sense of the word,” López said. “This mission is transcendental; we are creating a new model that is friendly with nature and protects the motherland.”
The world is changing, he says, and so too are the threats to national security. A mission to protect nature works, he says, because it’s in the army’s nature to be green.
“We wear olive drab and camouflage,” López said. “Our color is green by nature. Now we have to make it by conscience, too.”