A Special Alert from the Environmental Task Force of the Nicaragua Network (For more information, contact us at email@example.com or (202) 544-5355)
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.
As a citizen of the United States, 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 forests.
|Pataxó recover traditional lands|
Brazil will soon celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese. Nevertheless, for the indigenous peoples living in what later became Brazil, this is not a day for celebration. The arrival of the Europeans meant the beginning of their genocide and the destruction of the environment in the rich land of the "pau Brazil". When Brazil became an independent state, the situation of indigenous peoples did not improve and in many cases became even worse. The Federal Constitution of 1988 finally recognized the indigenous peoples' cultural and territorial rights, but they are in fact more often than not ignored.
Last August 19, the Pataxo indigenous people, who live in the southern region of the state of Bahia, decided to recover Monte Pascoal National Park, which is part of their traditional territory. The presence of the Pataxo in the region was already documented in year 1500 and later by several historical testimonies from 1805 on. They had lived in that area until 1951 when they were victims of a massacre. The survivors were expelled from their land and confined in areas where they lived in misery and humiliation. This was yet another dark episode in Brazilian history which, as many others where the victims were black slaves or landless peasants, was soon hidden and forgotten. The Pataxo's traditional territory was later transformed into Monte Pascoal National Park, allegedly with the aim of protecting the Mata Atlantica forest.
The Ministry of the Environment and some media have tried to discredit the Pataxo to the eyes of public opinion by accusing them of destroying the forest, while in fact the Pataxo have played an important role in the conservation of the Mata Atlantica forest in the region. On the other hand, loggers have for years been openly extracting the most valuable trees from the National Park, with the police turning a blind eye on their activities.
This action cannot then be considered an illegal occupation. On the contrary, the Pataxo are exercising their rights, recognized by the Brazilian Constitution under "indigenous traditional occupation". This means that they have the original right of occupation and that land titling and other judicial decisions affecting the area must be considered illegal. In spite of this, the Brazilian Indigenous National Fund (FUNAI), instead of protecting the indigenous peoples' rights -as it is mandated to- is now trying to seduce the Pataxo by proposing them to abandon their lands in return for some consumer goods.
The Brazilian authorities' international discourse on the need to protect the country's forests has got in fact little in common with what is happening on the ground. The activity of big logging companies, together with uncontroled urbanization, have nearly completely destroyed the Mata Atlantica; vast areas of the Amazon forest disappear every year to the hands of commercial agriculture, cattle raising and industrial logging; indigenous peoples' lands are usurped by tree plantation companies (the struggle of the Tupinikim and Guarani against giant Aracruz Celulose in Espirito Santo is a paradigmatic example); most "protected areas" exist only on paper. And those who really want to protect the forests -since they constitute their vital space- are considered "invaders." The Pataxo have recovered their territory and this action implies a major step to ensure that in the future they will not be subjected to a life of misery and humiliation and will be finally able to live in dignity. But for this to happen they now need support.
We request all our friends to send letters of support for their plight addressed to CIMI-Equipe Extremo Sul: firstname.lastname@example.org
Signatories needed by
Monday morning September 20, US Pacific Time, please send your name and organization to email@example.com
September 21, 1999
Dear Mr. Yasuda
With all the problems associated with this project, it is
quite clear that any release of JEXIM funds would be premature. We urge you to undertake a
thorough and public reassessment of the economic, social and environment impacts of the
project before disbursing any additional funds. To do otherwise could jeopardize JEXIM's
reputation, which would be funding a project that is seriously flawed, endangering the
lives and livelihoods of thousands of people downstream and upstream of the dam site.
We, members of the Executive Commission of the Tupinikim and Guarani and the Indigenous Association Tupinikim and Guarani, want to inform our friends and the public opinion by means of this letter about the present situation of our communities.
More than one year ago we signed in Brasilia an Agreement with the company Aracruz Celulose, in the presence of FUNAI and the Public Prosecution Service (afterwards the Public Prosecution Service retired from the Agreement). This Agreement suspended, temporarily, a struggle of many years to get back our traditional lands, which are in the hands of the company.
They took us to Brasilia in order to separate us from our communities and our supporting organisations. Meanwhile, our villages were occupied by strongly armed federal police forces to impede that our relatives could continue the demarcation of our lands. During the negotiations, they put pressure on us to sign an Agreement with the Company.
Many people think that we exchanged land for projects and money. This is not true. We have not abandoned the struggle for the extension of our lands. The pressure that they put on us at the time of the Agreement forced us to give respite to Aracruz Celulose and one day we will take up the struggle again for the rest of the 13.579 hectares. The agreement will not impede us to do this because the lands are ours.
Our communities have been disgusted with the agreement but decided to accept it hoping that with the extension of the lands with 2.571 hectares and with the money obtained they could improve the precarious situation of our families.
According to the Agreement, Aracruz Celulose must transfer 10 million dollars during the period of 20 years, besides the payment of electricity and water in a period of approximately 2 years and R$ 7,980 (Brazilian reals) to NISI-ES to be utilised for health, education and farming activities.
Until this moment we received R$ 600,000 which were divided between the 300 families of Tupinikim and Guarani to serve the most urgent necessities such as housing, clothing and food, and approximately R$ 1,200,000 were used in community projects and the structuring of the Indigenous Association. The water and electricity bills have been paid and the money for the NISI-ES has been transferred.
In spite of the fact that the agreement was an imposition of the federal government to serve the interests of Aracruz Celulose, we try to use the money to promote the self-sufficiency of our communities. At this moment we already have around 100,000 coffee seedlings planted and irrigated and we have started to plant coconut and passion fruit. Our goal is to produce some income for our families in the near future. Also we already yielded a lot of maize and beans and other products for consumption of the communities. We invested in equipment (irrigation, tractors, cars) and constructed dams to improve the water supply. We succeeded in creating work for a part of the men and women of the communities, who receive a small remuneration until there is some economic return from our planted lands.
About 1,800 hectares of the 2,571 hectares of lands that we conquered are covered with eucalyptus plantations. This year we started to sell the production of about 250 hectares to Aracruz Celulose and other buyers. We are discussing with our communities what to do with the lands after cutting the eucalyptus trees. There exists a strong wish to extend every time more the amount of planted lands for food crops and to start reforestation, especially in the areas around the springs and small rivers, which have been severely affected by the continuing planting of eucalyptus.
Finally, we have succeeded in structuring our own Association in order to administrate the projects that are being implemented. Many difficulties exist, since all of this is a new experience for us.
Our aim is the self-sufficiency of our communities and one of the goals is to have 5,000 coffee seedlings for each family (1,500,000 seedlings in total) in a maximum period of 10 years, knowing that the number of families is growing all the time. The financial resources, transfered each semester and always of the same amount, are not sufficient to reach this goal and to offer work and income to all the people. The rises of the prices of the materials have made this situation worse. Besides this, we are not succeeding in getting work outside our lands because everybody now says, "the Indians are rich".
At the same time, we have a greater difficulty in getting financial support from our partners, who allege lack of money because of the economic crisis, and because of the fact that we have money. This obliges us to apply part of our financial resources to health and education activities, hindering even more the aim of self-sufficiency of the communities.
We are conscious of the fact that we were hindered when the Agreement was signed, because during the negotiations there was only talk about dollars and not about Brazilian reals. By the way, the company always spreads the news of the Agreement talking about dollars. For us only the first transfer would be converted in reals, and the remaining amount would be left in dollars and converted at every new transfer. But at the moment that the Agreement was written, things were put on paper differently. Besides this, only the transfered amount is corrected each semester to take inflation and salaries into account, while the remaining amount is not, and will be eaten soon by inflation.
In face of this situation and being pressed every time more by the communities, we sat down with the company to review some parts of the Agreement. The company was totally insensitive to our arguments and inflexible in the position of not changing the terms of the Agreement. That decision made the communities and ourselves more disgusted.
Both Aracruz Celulose and us know that the Agreement can be dissolved at any moment by one of the parts involved. Concerning our part we can affirm that, at this moment, we do not pretend to dissolve the Agreement. We only want to correct some parts.
In the face of this impasse we inform you that we will continue claiming from the company the continuity of the negotiations and we want to ask the support of our allies and of the public opinion in this phase of our struggle. We ask you to spread this letter as much as possible.
Caieiras Velhas, 3 September 1999
Executive Commission of the Tupiniquin and Guarani Comissão Tupinikim e Guarani
Indigenous Association Tupiniquin and Guarani Associação Indígena Tupiniquin e Guarani
Address for correspondence:
Rua principal s/n
Tel/Fax: 00 55 27 2502700
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