Nicaragua Research Trip
February 16, 2011
Dear Brooklyn Bridge Forest Supporters,
Having just returned from the tropics and still recovering from hundreds of fire ant and other mysterious insect bites, I wanted to write immediately with exciting news. The trip to Nicaragua surpassed my hopes for a quick immersion in the complex realities of sustainable forestry. Dozens of people from many walks of life received our project with real enthusiasm—whether Nicaragua is the BBF’s ultimate home or not.
Here’s a short summary of what we saw and heard; jump the bullets for the long story:
• Nicaragua has the largest area of standing rain forest in the Western Hemisphere after the Amazon, but deforestation is progressing rapidly.
• Deforestation is due to agricultural expansion, mostly by small-scale farmers. Converting forests to cow pasture is currently the easiest (and often only) way to survive off of the land.
• In many senses, indigenous people represent the intact forest within the local economy. They have considerable autonomy over decisions impacting the intact forests, and a real cultural interest in preserving these forests, but limited economic development options.
• Working directly with these people is critical to maintaining and increasing rainforest cover. Everyone we spoke to in Nicaragua insisted that sustainable development was a must for both indigenous people and forest protection.
• Numerous sustainable forestry initiatives exist in Nicaragua, and all suffer from meager start-up capital, undeveloped international markets for certified sustainable wood products, and/or lack of viable entrepreneurship models.
Exploring Sustainable Forestry in Nicaragua:
After landing in Managua, our journey began south of the beach town of San Juan Del Sur. We were met by Aram Terry of Maderas Sostenibles, who took us out to several tree plantations that grow a mix of native and non-native species. Tree plantations (both monoculture and mixed species) offer carbon-capture and biodiversity benefits over open pasture, to be sure, but don’t fully address the need for rainforest protection. Seeing any reforestation in action, however, was encouraging. Land that had been cow pasture only five years ago was now beginning to look like a forest, which is certainly a step in the right direction.
From the southwest corner of the country we traveled north through Managua to visit one of Nicaragua’s forestry gurus. Adrian Ubeda is a sawmill owner who has worked in virtually every aspect of forestry and timber for over 30 years. Adrian nurtures a lifelong interest in creating community enterprises, and he was able to share with us a plan based on his decades of hands-on, practical experience. Great, we thought—esp. given that so many well-meaning projects suffer from an imbalance of idealism and realism. We weren’t disappointed. Adrian’s model for a 4500-hectare “perpetual forest” employing and supporting 50 indigenous families became the base plan we refined over the rest of the trip.
From Managua we boarded a single-prop plane bound for the RAAN area, the frontier where most of Nicaragua’s intact rainforest remains. The flight promised to be depressing. To get to RAAN you fly over hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that were once rainforest—some until quite recently. Our plane landed on a small dirt strip outside Rosita, a lively, tiny town that put the Wild West frozen in time in mind. But rather than hitching our horses and ducking into the saloon we set out to explore some community forestry initiatives that are already underway.
Standing for hours—yes, hours—in the back of a Land Cruiser, we bucked and bounced our way to the community center of the Layasika people. This group has been working on a Rainforest Alliance and FSC-certified community forestry project for 4 years. With some “Miskito” language translation we were able to discuss the goals and challenges of their project, and present the idea of partnering with Brooklyn Bridge Forest. This idea was met with much enthusiasm, as two of the greatest challenges the Layasika face are 1) lack of seed capital and 2) how to boost the market value of sustainably harvested wood and wood products. The BBF is poised to provide the first and accomplish the second.
Then we traveled deeper into the forest to see some small-scale logging, both FSC-certified and uncertified. Much of this forest region was devastated by Hurricane Felix in 2007, and as the government struggles to balance the extraction of windfall timber with conventional logging, regulations remain in flux. We were able to witness firsthand the impact of timber extraction—the process of removing trees or timber from a forest—and compare it to the “slash-and-burn” conversion of rainforest to pasture we had seen on the edge of the forest not too far away. Small-scale felling and extraction of “chain-saw timber” seemed vastly preferable to the alternative. It also supported a roughly equal number of families.
But the question remained, Do sustainable forestry projects ensure that the area won’t be converted to agriculture?
After several days exploring the RAAN area around Rosita, we headed back to Managua to discuss Brooklyn Bridge Forest with several other experts in sustainable forestry. We met with representatives of Futuro Forestal and the president of JAGWOOD. These organizations have invested tremendously in the issues of tropical forest protection and expansion by creating and supporting truly sustainable community and business models. Through these meetings it became very clear that the defining feature of a successful project (in terms of forest protection) was long-term planning for the wellbeing of the local people. This in turn requires a balance of incentives and oversight, start-up capital, and most importantly, a market that supports the additional cost/value of small-scale sustainable timber yields. Currently, certified forest methods increase the costs for local people, often without a corresponding increase in wood price to these forest owners. This reduces the incentive to use sustainable methods, or even to keep the forests intact and standing at all.
We were also able to visit the showroom of Simplemente Madera, a social entrepreneurship business featuring locally crafted wood furniture made from sustainably harvested, reclaimed, and plantation-grown wood. Let me just say that as an architect, I found their products gorgeous. They’re beautifully designed and constructed. Please visit their site; I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
All in all, the trip was immensely eye-opening. The challenges that we face in our project and the cause of rainforest protection are enormous. But as several representatives said, the problem is real and new answers are urgently needed. More than ever we believe that a partnership between the Brooklyn Bridge boardwalk and a local forestry initiative may be part of the solution for rainforest protection.
Brooklyn Bridge Forest