ENVIRONMENT-NICARAGUA:  Indigenous Groups Sound Forest Fire Alarm

Environment-Nicaragua:Indigenous Groups Sound Forest Fire Alarm

12 March 2008

published by www.ipsnews.net

Nicaragua — Indigenous community leaders have sent a letter to theNicaraguan authorities requesting protection against the risk of a potentiallyhuge forest fire that would endanger about 60,000 families.

“The communities are afraid, but they are working hard to prevent acatastrophe. They know that with so many trees on the ground, a fire would meanthe end of their habitat forever,” said Brooklin Rivera, a congressman forthe indigenous Yatama party.

In September 2007, hurricane Felix swept through more than one million hectaresof forest, uprooting trees in its wake, and now the fire risk is threatening 12indigenous communities in Puerto Cabezas, a municipality on the Caribbean coastof Nicaragua, 445 kilometres northwest of Managua.

Rivera pointed out that the indigenous people burn limited areas of woodlandevery year to prepare the soil for cultivation.

“Small fires would break out, that were easily controlled. But we areinsisting, by means of local radio broadcasts, and by direct appeals fromreligious and community leaders and teachers, that no one should burn theirfields this year, because the forest could disappear in the blink of an eye,”Rivera told IPS.

Hurricane Felix devastated a swathe of jungle 75 kilometres wide and over 100kilometres long in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (R.A.A.N.) of Nicaragua,according to studies by the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR).

According to Rivera, the government is trying to prevent a conflagration byorganising and training community fire-fighting brigades. These are beingtrained by member institutions of the National System for the Prevention,Mitigation and Response to Disasters (SINAPRED).

A major problem faced by the communities is that the fallen trees are not beingput to use quickly enough.

“There’s enough timber to rebuild all the destroyed churches, schools andhouses three times over, but we haven’t the capacity at the moment to saw upall the trees,” Rivera said. Thirty industrial sawmills are needed, butonly five are up and running, he added.

According to statistics from the office of the president, hurricane Felixdestroyed 20,394 homes, 57 churches, 102 schools and 43 health centres, as wellas 1.3 million hectares of forest, including part of the Bosawas BiosphereReserve.

Colonel Mario Perezcassar, head of the Nicaraguan army’s civil defence body,expressed concern at the vulnerability of over 60,000 families in the disasterarea, which is peopled mainly by Miskito, Mayagna and other indigenous groups.There are 139 communities within the high-risk zone, he said.

“We are talking about highly combustible fuel. Over 15 million cubic metresof wood are drying or rotting, including conifers, which are resinous and highlyinflammable,” he said.

A shift in the weather has been a boon in the danger area. “Thank God, ithas been raining and that has lowered temperatures. But April will be a criticalmonth, because the rainy season will be over, and that’s when the fire riskwill be at its height,” Perezcassar said.

“We have trained 200 soldiers to act as forest firemen, and deployed themin the danger zone on a permanent basis,” he said. Ground patrols,reconnaissance flights and satellite monitoring are also being carried out todetect outbreaks of fire promptly.

But scientist Jaime Incer, winner of the 2006 National Geographic Society/BuffettAward for Leadership in Conservation in Latin America, said that these measureswere still inadequate.

“An iron-fisted approach is needed, along with an urgent awareness-raisingcampaign and a large, permanent presence to prevent campesinos (small farmers)from burning the land in this area,” he told IPS.

Incer stated that the authorities were underestimating the danger. A fire inthis area would not only affect Nicaragua, but also the whole of CentralAmerica, because one of the last natural “lungs” of the region wouldbe lost.

“This area is close to the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve and World HeritageSite, designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and CulturalOrganisation (UNESCO). One fire now could destroy thousands of years of naturalevolution,” the scientist said.

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