Democracy to rule in Nicaragua's parks

Posted: 13 June 2002

Author: Diane Jukofsky and Nuria Bolaños

The act of declaring a new national park or reserve is far easier than the costly and complicated work of actually protecting and managing the area. The result worldwide is a growing number of "paper parks," which show up on maps but are protected parks in name only. Now Nicaragua is trying a new approach.

With 76 designated protected areas encompassing about 18 per cent of its territory, Nicaragua has decided to experiment by inviting help from the residents and grassroots conservation groups living outside reserve borders.

A pilot project that aims to involve these local players in decisions related to the reserves in their backyards is now under way in six protected areas. Nicaragua's environment and natural resources ministry (MARENA for its name in Spanish) and conservationist groups are eager to see this experiment in park democracy succeed, though they acknowledge the challenge of getting many diverse groups to cooperate with one another.

The four-year project, called the Comanagement of Protected Areas Project (COMAP), was in 2001 with a 3.2 million dollar grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). According to Milton Camacho, Director of Integrated Protected Areas Management for MARENA, COMAP is promoting "the best way to manage protected areas, by sharing responsibility for them among the government, state, and civil society."

Nearly 90 per cent of Nicaragua's protected areas are privately owned. The landowners are often farmers who don't hold legal land titles but migrated to forested land and cleared it, a traditional way of claiming possession in Central America. A particular COMAP challenge is bringing these farmers together with national and municipal government officials, local civic leaders and conservationists to reach consensus on how everyone can benefit from a nearby reserve, while ensuring its survival as a healthy ecosystem.

The six pilot areas represent a range of Nicaragua's ecosystems, from Pacific Coast mangroves to mountaintop pine and oak forest. They safeguard habitat for numerous wildlife species, but are also ringed by rural communities. Because of their natural beauty and wealth of resources, MARENA believes they have strong potential as nature travel destinations, and so can offer income opportunities to local residents. In fact, the country's tourism institute is also a partner in the COMAP pilot areas.

Just 18 miles south of Managua, the Chocoyero-El Brujo nature reserve is closer to a large urban area than any other COMAP site. The Center for Action and Support of Rural Development (CENADE for its name in Spanish) received a $200,000 grant to lead the comanagement process for Chocyero-El Brujo. CENADE biologist Edgar Castañeda says that an initial problem has been to bring together community members and local officials in a co-management committee to discuss how the nature reserve should be managed, when it is still unclear whether they or MARENA will have the final say. Still, he believes the project is having an important influence by promoting democracy among people unaccustomed to making decisions by consensus.

"We all talk about how the government has to decentralize and be more democratic, but when it comes time to put this into practice, the communities, landowners, and nongovernment organizations don't know how to do this any more than the central government does," Castañeda says.

Camacho adds that resistance to group decision-making is partly in reaction to Nicaragua's 10 years of civil conflict, which ended in 1990. "Many people are afraid of organizing and working in cooperatives," he explains, "because they fear there will be one strong leader who will be the only one to benefit and the communities will be forgotten," which he says happened frequently during the 1980s.

While the Chocoyero-El Brujo reserve is small, at just 455 acres (184 hectares), it is an important watershed that provides potable water to thousands. Castañeda says that the co-management committee understands the potential value of the reserve's watershed, but doesn't know how to convert that value into economic gain for the benefit of the community, since water has always been free. The financial worth of another of the reserve's natural assets is more tangible: each year some 10,000 people visit Chocoyero-El Brujo and the two crashing waterfalls that give the reserve its name.

The US-based company Associates in Rural Development (ARD), which works in rural development around the world, is helping MARENA administer COMAP. Carlos Rivas Altamonte, ARD technical advisor, believes that COMAP will be successful if it can encourage communities to take responsibility for natural resource protection. "Often, in the name of poverty people do damaging activities in protected areas," he says. "But even when there is no poverty or hunger, people continue to act destructively. We must do what's needed to ensure that local residents themselves become the principal protectors of a reserve."

Diane Jukofsky is director of the Rainforest Alliance's Neotropics Communications. She also manages and edits Eco-Index, a searchable almanac of conservation initiatives in Mexico and Central America. Nuria Bolaños is an assistant with the Rainforest Alliance's Neotropics Communications and an editor of Eco-Index.Search for more information about this project at Eco-Index