Environmental Sustainability Issues in Nicaragua

As both the largest country in Central America and the least populated, Nicaragua has the opportunity to enforce environmental protection laws and conserve a relatively large amount of natural resources. However, a variety of forces are driving deforestation and rapidly increasing pollution. The conversion of forests to agricultural land (for commercial agriculture and cattle pastures) and substantial logging with little or no government regulation are having a severe environmental impact. In general, ecological concerns can be concentrated into four main areas: land rights, water access, deforestation, and pesticide use.

Land Rights

After centuries of power grabbing and territory inequity, the Sandinista revolutionary government in 1979 embarked on an uphill struggle for agrarian reform and land rights. However, when the conservative political party took over in 1990, the switch back to a market economy again redistributed the parceled land. In many cases the land was simply reversed back to the same private and corporate ownership. For example, in 1983 the Sandinista government set aside a nature preserve in the San Cristobal-Casitas volcanic complex to protect the remaining forest cover. Due to policy shifts, 85 percent of the land that formed part of the reserve on the San Cristobal-Casitas volcano now belongs to one private owner. Government control of the remaining 15 percent is all but nonexistent. Landless peasants, large coffee growers, and cattle ranches are slowly settling into these public lands such as San Cristobal, and the government is failing to stop it.

Most of Nicaragua's land issues constitute an expanding gap between landless farmers and commercial logging, mining, and agricultural interests. In this sense, access and rights to land in Nicaragua become human rights concerns as well as environmental issues. When the Chamorro government created the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in 1991, the territory encompassed 1.8 million acres—7 percent of Nicaragua's land, including a rich section of rainforest. However, they neglected to inform the Mayangna and Miskito indigenous peoples who lived there that the land was now federally protected (and hence, off limits from their traditional uses of fishing, hunting, and crop raising).

Because the Mayangna and Miskito did not own papers for their land, the debate was brought to court. Nicaragua's Civil Code mandates that all land that is not officially titled becomes state land. The law presented an enormous loophole by which the Nicaraguan constitution and the 1987 indigenous people's autonomy law could not dispute. Several prominent nonprofits fought to establish the indigenous communities' legal claims, including the U.S. Nature Conservancy.

Recently, two surprise victories for indigenous peoples' land rights were accomplished by grassroots movements:

  • In September 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—the highest tribunal in the Americas—determined that the Mayangna community of Awas Tingni had customary rights to property. The Nicaraguan government was ruled to have violated these rights by granting concessions to a Korean lumber company. The Awas Tingni had been fighting for their land since 1992.
  • In December 2002, the Demarcation Law Regarding the Properties of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Atlantic Coast, Bocay, Coco and Indio Maiz Rivers was enacted. The new law allows indigenous peoples' "free determination of the use of their territories and the management of all natural resources found on their land" (NNEC, 2003).

Yet recent reports indicate half of Nicaraguan farmers do not own the land they work, or own only small, low-quality parcels. A more equitable distribution of land, and regulations enforcing and supporting sustainable agriculture could accomplish a great deal toward alleviating both poverty and environmental degradation.

Water Access

Known as the "Land of Lakes and Volcanoes," and reveling in its status in Central America as the country with the most fresh water, Nicaragua has very little safe drinking water. Those who cannot afford to purchase water are extremely vulnerable to a variety of health issues.

Nicaragua has been debating the results of water privatization for several years—a decision that widened the disparity of wealth in Nicaragua. In 2003, the Nicaraguan National Assembly passed a moratorium on any privatization of water resources until a national water law was approved. Two separate bills on the subject are currently pending in the National Assembly, making it illegal to extend any concessions on water (NNEC, 2006).


Around 75 percent of Nicaraguan forests have already been transformed into crop and pasture land, and at least 50 percent of that deforestation has occurred since 1950. Yet there is still hope for preservation. The Atlantic Coast region in Nicaragua has the largest remaining rainforests in Central America. Together with neighboring forests in Honduras, the Indio-Maíz Biosphere Reserve in southeastern Nicaragua and the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in northeastern Nicaragua encompass pristine and intact rainforests that lie at the center of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.

The Nicaragua Network Environmental Committee points out, "As was demonstrated by the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch, deforestation in Nicaragua is not only an environmental issue, but is also an urgent social issue … the hurricane's damage was greatly exacerbated by previous deforestation. The severe floods and landslides in both Honduras and Nicaragua occurred mainly in regions with steep slopes that had been denuded of their forest cover" (NNEC, 1999).

Pesticide Use

Export agriculture in Central America has long been a booming business for U.S. corporations. Yet pesticides employed at fruit and cotton plantations and other export crops throughout the last 40 years contributed to health problems for entire generations. In March 2004, workers in the banana industry brought a lawsuit to the Los Angeles Superior Court against Dole, Dow, Occidental, and Shell, among other corporations, claiming that exposure to DBCP made them sterile. DBCP, or dibromochloropropane, is used as a soil fumigant and was banned in the United States in 1979. Yet U.S. chemical companies continued to use it overseas it until the mid-1980s.

Health problems reported include atrophy of the testes; skin and breast cancer; liver, pancreas, and kidney problems; nervous disorders; and miscarriages. About 22,000 former workers and family members were estimated to be affected. By the end of 2005, over 1,000 former banana workers had reportedly died from pesticide-related diseases. At the end of 2006, court orders against several multinational companies in Nicaragua (headquartered in the United States) were still awaiting implementation or were the subject of repeated appeals by the multinational companies.

Cotton, once one of Nicaragua's major exports and the second most pesticide-laden crop in the world, is another typical case story of the pesticide problem: A United Nations study estimated that the social and environmental costs of insecticide use in Nicaragua during the cotton boom approached $200 million per year (compared to $141 million in cotton income at the peak of Nicaragua's cotton boom). The Pesticide Action Network North America reported,

"In the 1977/1978 season, at the height of Nicaragua's cotton boom, cotton was grown on 463,000 hectares. But massive quantities of toxic insecticides were used in the process, leading to a range of new problems. Several previously minor pests became major problems as pesticides eliminated the beneficial insects that held the pests in check. In addition, insect resistance to pesticides seriously weakened the efficacy of many chemicals. In response, farmers applied so many chemicals that, by the late 1980s, pesticides accounted for approximately 50% of production costs. Besides making cotton production financially unviable, pesticides also introduced serious health and environmental problems, including farm worker poisonings, fish kills, and deep well contamination. By 1990, Nicaragua's cotton production had declined to 35,000 hectares, less than one-fifth its previous level."

FSD partner organizations in Nicaragua often seek to maximize their influence by combining areas of environmental focus with other areas, such as youth education or community development. FSD interns and volunteers support environmental initiatives within local NGOs that span a vast array of subjects that address resource usage. Whether you assist trainings in sustainable agriculture, educate youth on pollution and deforestation, or support organic farmers in making use of microcredit, FSD will provide you the training and guidance for your efforts to make a lasting impact on a community.

Read more about Environmental Sustainability programs and opportunities initiated by our Community Partners in Nicaragua.

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