Help Protect Nicaragua's Imperiled Forests

A Special Alert from the Environmental Task Force of the Nicaragua Network

President Arnoldo Aleman's recent decision to cancel the moratorium on the cutting and exporting of mahogany and other threatened tropical hardwood species has been cause for great alarm among Nicaraguan environmentalists.Your letters are urgently needed to encourage the protection of Nicaragua's threatened forests.


The fate of Nicaragua's people and its forests are inextricably intertwined. Although deforestation is not often prioritized as an urgent social issue, its results include climatic changes, droughts, drinking water shortages, crop losses and malnutrition, soil erosion, flooding, sedimentation that destroys marine resources, fuelwood shortages, and ultimately, increased poverty and potential for military conflicts. These connections were made painfully clear during Hurricane Mitch, when landslides on the deforested
slopes of Nicaragua and Honduras led to great losses of crops, fertile soils, and human life.

Despite rampant deforestation in recent decades, Nicaragua still retains the largest extent of rainforest in any of the Central American nations. This rainforest supports an incredible amount of biological diversity, and includes some of Central America's best remaining habitat for tapir, jaguar and four other cat species, three types of monkeys, peccaries, agoutis, pacas, anteaters, sloths, and a great variety of birds. Nicaragua's rainforest also contains the most coveted of Central America's endangered precious hardwoods, including mahogany and royal cedar.

Yet Nicaragua's forest cover is being diminished at an alarming rate. Between 1950 and 1990 the nation's forest cover was reduced by half, and today deforestation is spiraling out of control. Even Nicaragua's largest natural areas, the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve and the Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve, are threatened by illegal logging. The claim is frequently cited that if current rates of deforestation are allowed to continue, Nicaragua's remaining broadleaf forests will be all but gone within ten to twenty years. Ten to twenty years.

Responding to Nicaragua's rapid deforestation, in 1997 President Aleman instituted a ban on the export of the nation's most lucrative timber species, the precious hardwoods mahogany, royal cedar, and pochote. In 1998 this ban was extended to include not just the export, but also the overall cutting of the precious hardwoods for a period of at least five years. At the time, critics questioned the logic of the ban, considering that it was being initiated at the same time that cuts in government spending on environmental enforcement would render the ban difficult to enforce.

As predicted, the logging moratorium has been poorly enforced and highly ineffective. In fact, illegal logging has only become more widespread since the ban was instituted. This August, in response to widespread criticism for the government's inability to control deforestation, President Aleman unilaterally cancelled the ban on cutting and exporting the endangered tree species, and is instead attempting to impose a 7.5% tax on the trade in precious woods. Many observers claim that the problem was not with the ban itself, but with its lack of enforcement, and that the ban's cancellation will only accelerate the destruction of Nicaragua's remaining forests. Rather than curtailing deforestation, the new tax is likely to be passed along to landowners by timber exporters, or to result in expanded logging operations in order to make up for profits lost to the tax. In addition, the new tax on precious woods is being challenged as unconstitutional, on the basis that the President failed to obtain approval from the National Assembly.

The Prize: Mahogany

Mahogany is one of the tallest trees in the Nicaraguan rainforest, its umbrella-shaped crown reaching to over 200 feet high and emerging above the surrounding canopy. Use of mahogany dates back to pre-Columbian times, when indigenous peoples of the Americas used the durable and beautiful wood for dugout canoes. European ship builders and cabinet makers quickly discovered the virtues of trees in the mahogany family, and up to the present day the most important of Nicaragua's timber exports are mahogany (caoba) and royal cedar (cedro royal). Throughout its natural range, from Mexico to Brazil and Bolivia, mahogany has been highly exploited, and today the species is threatened not only by outright elimination, but also by genetic degradation, after centuries of having the largest most robust individuals harvested. In addition, as with many tropical trees, mahogany occurs at a very low density in the rainforest, with mature trees rarely averaging more than one per hectare (one hectare is 100 meters by 100 meters, or about 2.5 acres). Mahogany also has a low rate of natural regeneration, requiring from 60-100 years to reach commercial maturity, and has been highly susceptible to pests when cultivated in plantations.

But this goes beyond mahogany

Since mahogany and related precious woods are the main impetus behind most tropical logging operations, the controversy about the moratorium and its cancellation extends in significance far beyond the potential extinction of a few more tropical rainforest species. Nearly all mahogany is harvested from intact old-growth forests, and even though logging companies espouse the rhetoric that their logging is highly selective and leaves the rest of the forest unharmed, this is not the case. Not only does the removal of a forest's mature mahogany trees eliminate the seed sources necessary for the species' regeneration, but logging operations leave behind the seed of destruction for the remaining forest - roads. Much of the colonization of rainforest by agriculturalists and ranchers is facilitated by the transportation arteries carved out by mechanized logging operations. Thus the exploitation of one species can lead to the extinction of untold numbers of other species. Logging companies also often build sawmills that encourage cutting of other species after the precious woods are gone, and initiate an unsustainable cycle of short-term economic orientation that ultimately leaves a region impoverished. Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast has a long history of this type of boom-and-bust economic activity. The bulk of the Coast's rich resources have been exported, with little lasting benefit to the region's communities.

Since most of Nicaragua's remaining natural forest lies within indigenous territories of the Miskito, Mayangna, and Rama, the mahogany ban is also an indigenous rights issue. Although the region's indigenous communities have historically practiced communal rather than private land ownership, most communities have never been granted official titles to their lands. In the absence of these titles, the central government has often treated the communal lands as "national land" and granted resource extraction concessions to foreign companies. (An example of this was the huge logging concession granted to the Korean company SOLCARSA that was opposed by the Nicaragua Network's Environmental Task Force and other organizations and eventually terminated in 1998.) In the wake of the controversy surrounding the SOLCARSA concession and others, the government has been reluctant to grant concessions, and logging has been proceeding along other lines. Yet the lack of land demarcation and titling remains the issue of foremost concern for Nicaragua's indigenous communities and until resolved will be potentially explosive. 

The ban in practice: A "lumber Mafia"

As was predicted, the logging moratorium was hampered by a lack of enforcement and served only to increase large-scale corruption and the development of a "lumber Mafia" that is currently operating within Nicaragua.

In addition to the shortage of MARENA (Nicaragua's environmental ministry) officials available to enforce the logging moratorium, the fine established for extraction of the precious hardwoods was so low that illegal logging remained quite lucrative. While the fine for cutting the hardwoods was set at $40 per cubic meter of wood, the woods can sell for more than $400 per cubic meter on the international market. As a result, the absurd situation was created in which not only did the illegal trade remain profitable, but some loggers even paid the $40 per cubic meter fines to MARENA officials up-front, before the cutting commenced. As the salaries of MARENA staff are so low, these quasi-legal activities provided them with a clear financial incentive.

In light of the allegation that during the ban's short life government officials actually gave permission to several companies to export the precious woods, the moratorium's failure was especially predictable. According to the Nicaraguan NGO Centro Humboldt, 96 businesses have been "legally" exploiting the precious woods, including 35 companies involved in exports. The largest of these companies is said to be the Dominican company, MADENSA, which has reportedly been "logging indiscriminately" on indigenous lands along the Rio Prinzapolka and elsewhere, and exporting millions of dollars of mahogany annually.

Another mode under which the lumber Mafia is reported to operate is by simple intimidation and theft of lumber, especially from the communal lands of indigenous people. As described in a 1999 newspaper account, loggers will often trespass on the lands of others with "a chainsaw in one hand and an AK-47 rifle in the other". The widespread poverty and lack of enforcement has created an atmosphere of lawlessness, in which those with the most guns prevail.

Unfortunately, illegal logging is becoming more prevalent on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. Given the complications that have made it more difficult for logging companies to receive legal forestry concessions, such as unresolved indigenous land claims and opposition by environmental organizations, many logging operations are simply evading the law. The result of these trends is that logging activity in the Atlantic Coast region is widespread, largely unrecorded, and simply out of control. The situation in Nicaragua's forests could easily escalate to the level of Brazil's forests, where members of several indigenous groups such as the Ticuna Indians have been killed for confronting lumber pirates.

What can be done?

The threats to Nicaragua's forests are complex, abundant, and as previously described, urgent. To truly address these problems will require concerted effort on a variety of levels, including promotion of economic alternatives to deforestation (both in Nicaragua and in the U.S.), reform of the global economic order (combating initiatives such as the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and the WTO's proposed "global free logging agreement"), and extensive reforestation. In the immediate sense, letters are needed in response to the current crises facing Nicaragua's forests and the cancellation of the ban on logging mahogany and other precious woods.  

Letters should address the following points:

1. The need to settle indigenous land demarcation and promote sustainable resource management. Both the World Bank and Nicaragua's central government need to be pressured by the international solidarity and environmental movements into enacting a land demarcation and titling process that reflects the interests of Nicaragua's indigenous peoples and forests. Beyond land demarcation and titling, Nicaragua's indigenous peoples will need long-term technical and economic assistance in sustainable resource management.

Decades of imperialism, war, isolation, and natural disasters have left indigenous communities among the poorest in all of Nicaragua. Even if land titles are secured, unless indigenous communities are provided with technical assistance, access to markets, and financial incentives to protect forests, there is a great risk that the familiar pattern of unsustainable plunder of natural resources for short-term survival will prevail.

2. The need to reinstate the logging ban, but with effective enforcement this time. The Nicaraguan government and lending and development agencies need to financially support a commitment to enforcing the logging ban. As long as "austerity measures" aimed at shrinking the public sector result in weakened environmental monitoring and enforcement, the destruction of Nicaragua's forests will continue unchecked. The logging ban should stay in place until indigenous land demarcation has been resolved, so that indigenous communities can truly control the use of resources on their traditional lands. Certain types of international aid should be contingent on the Nicaraguan government's demonstrated commitment to resolve land demarcation issues and enforce forestry regulations.

3. The need to create a workable forest policy, with input from civil society. A sustainable forestry policy is needed that is based on input from NGOs, community and indigenous organizations, and all other parties that have a role in the forest industry. Any policy that ignores these players is unlikely to succeed. The only sustainable forest policy for Nicaragua will be one that prioritizes local control over control by large corporations, especially those that are foreign-owned.

Copy this letter or write a letter in your own words and send it to President Aleman either by airmail or by fax. Put $1.00 postage on your letter if it weighs one ounce.

President Arnoldo Aleman
Casa Presidencial
Avenida Bolivar
Managua, Nicaragua
Fax: 011 (505) 228-7911

Dear President Aleman,

I am deeply concerned about your recent decision to cancel the moratorium on the logging and export of mahogany and other precious woods. Although I know that the logging ban was ineffective, I fear that the ban's cancellation at this point will only accelerate the destruction of Nicaragua's forests. In the absence of any sustainable forestry policy or effective enforcement of existing laws, cancellation of the ban will likely have negative effects such as depleting Nicaragua's rich biological diversity, violating indigenous rights to control of natural resources, and exacerbating the existing problems of land degradation and rural poverty.

Apparently the recent increase in Nicaragua's uncontrolled illegal logging has been due not to the moratorium itself, but to blatant corruption and the lack of effective enforcement. In light of the recent reports in the Nicaraguan press that the central government has been granting permission to several logging companies to cut and export the very hardwoods that have been banned, it is no surprise that the moratorium has not been working. The lack of resources devoted to training and employing a sufficient number of forest guards, and to earnestly enforcing a strict code of ethics amongst these guards is also certainly a factor in the ban's failure up to now.

As a concerned citizen of planet Earth, I encourage you to reinstate the ban on the logging and export of mahogany and other precious woods, but to truly enforce the law. The ban should be kept in place and strictly enforced at least until the matters of indigenous land demarcation are satisfactorily settled. The Autonomy Law and Nicaraguan constitution recognize the rights of the nation's indigenous communities to communal land ownership and natural resource use. The central government's procrastination on the issuance of communal land titles, while simultaneously permitting illegal logging on traditional indigenous lands is a violation of both the nation's environmental regulations and basic human rights.

I encourage you further to accept the offers of civil society to work together with the Nicaraguan government to design and implement a truly sustainable forest policy. Any sound long-term policy would be oriented toward maximizing the value placed on living forests in Nicaragua. This might include carbon offset programs and programs that provide incentives for small enterprises such as furniture making that add value to forest products before they are shipped abroad. These approaches stand in sharp contrast with the current irrational policy that allows foreign owned companies such as MADENSA to indiscriminately exploit and export the nation's biological riches.

I am also imploring my own government and international lending agencies to provide assistance to Nicaragua that will allow for better enforcement of environmental standards at all levels of government. Furthermore, I am requesting that the lending institutions and development agencies limit funding for Nicaragua until your central government demonstrates a sincere commitment to protecting the nation's forests and indigenous rights. It is my hope that the people of Nicaragua and other nations can work together in order to both improve the living standards of the Nicaraguan people and to protect the nation's remaining



Source: ACERCA Fri, 10 Sep 1999 

Action for Community & Ecology in the Rainforests of Central America
POB 57
Burlington, VT 05402 USA
(802) 864-8203 Fax

ACERCA is a project of the Alliance for Global Justice
and a member of the Native Forest Network

(For more information, contact us at or (202) 544-5355)