World Rainforest Movement

Nicaragua: Reforestation as Part of Community-Based Farm Planning in Rio San Juan

The Department of Rio San Juan is located near the southern frontier of Nicaragua, bordering Costa Rica, and the municipality of El Castillo is on the river between the Lake of Nicaragua and the Caribbean. During the eighties, the United States attacked us with a low intensity war that eroded the economy and uprooted Nicaraguan families. At the end of the war, during the nineties, twelve thousand people from Costa Rica and other parts of the country, immigrated to the Municipality. This mass migration made it even more necessary to adequately plan management of the scant community resources: its population and its forests.

A project was implemented to improve the population’s conditions and quality of life, providing them with elements and instruments to enhance their living space, establishing the bases for sustainable development and consolidating their settlement in the zone. This was necessary because the two major projects already existing in the region, the oil palm and the medicinal plant Cephaelis ipecacuanha, were no longer economically viable due to the speculative drop in international prices for these products.

Logging in the zone is a lucrative activity for the large companies, but not for the peasants, who own the forest. Over the past decade, deforestation has approached 70% of the forest area, causing significant changes in the microclimate, water courses and ecosystems. The suitability of the land for forestation has led to the alternatives of planting trees for water protection and the introduction of fruit tree species.

We decided to work with 250 farms, in a participatory process, considering that the environment is composed of human beings and the rest of the environment. To consider that the environment does not include human beings is a non-scientific absurdity.

Participatory farm planning took place between the farm inhabitants and the resource people (forestry and agricultural/livestock technicians) under the supervision of a woman, in order to strengthen the almost absent gender component. Using seven steps, they defined the farm of today, the potential farm and the dream farm. This planning made it possible to define the area presently occupied by the forest for its management, the area devoted to agriculture, the area for grazing land and the river-banks having a potential for reforestation.

During the first year, 30 nurseries were established, using seeds gathered locally. This generated income and economic interest in the forest, both in gathering and as a local store of selected biodiversity and its redistribution in the region.

From the start, great interest was shown by the population in planting fruit trees (1). This seemed reasonable and ensured the care of the trees as these have a known use and are of real direct benefit to the producer. As mentioned earlier on, logging in Rio San Juan has essentially benefited the logging companies, as it is hard for the population to obtain logging permits, even in their own farms. The result has been reforestation of 132 has with native wood species and 626 has with fruit trees.

The conjunction of protected spaces by the peasants also made it possible to set up small collective reserves which, although remaining the property of individual peasants, on bordering the outer limits of the farms, de facto became micro reserves (50 to 200 hectares that are not used for livestock, agriculture or forestry activities, due to difficulty in accessing them).

A geographical information system was designed and set up, in order to systematise data from the farms. It has not been possible to consolidate this information because the project only lasted two years and there was no funding to ensure its continuity. More than 700 hectares were planted and large amounts of fruit will be produced. Plans have to be made for the 30 thousand tons of fruit that will be available in the municipality in three years time.

The participatory process led to priorities being established by the population and made it possible to reforest and protect 363 sources of water in addition to the drinking water sources in the settlements of Buena Vista, El Castillo and Laureano Mairena. The school areas in Buena Vista, Marcelo, Marlon Zelaya and Sábalos were also reforested.

One of the problems that arose is that, in spite of having land available for reforestation, the population had its doubts about planting trees and carrying out forest management, as they are sure it will be the logging companies that will benefit from this task. The clearest proof is that 80% of the plants requested by the population were fruit trees, which they can use without interference from external interests.

International processes such as debt swapping for forests or exchange of carbon sinks have been mentioned by officials from the capital city to the local population, but they have their doubts on the validity of these proposals.

If, on the one hand, there were no regulations hindering use of timber by the population that owns the land and, on the other real incentives were given to the producers to plant trees for timber, perhaps a change would be possible. So far, what has happened is that, for example, the Austrian government supports the region in the operation of a saw mill with a view to increase plantation of trees for timber, but when they log they only pay a symbolic US$ 25 per tree to the owner of the farm.

Summing up, reforestation has a potential for participatory processes of social environmental enhancement, both due to its short term effects and due to the results we can expect in the long term for conservation and sustainable forest use, although real incentives need to be generated for the peasants, sharing benefits as required by the Biological Diversity Convention.

(1) List of fruit tree species used: Avocado, Mango, Orange, Mandarin, Lemon, Lime, Coffee Shrub, Pear, Cacao, Peach Palm, Papaya, Cachimant, Coconut, Banana

By Daniel Querol, e-mail: