In Nicaragua, a staggering diversity and density of trees on farms
Nicaragua is making progress. Although it is among the poorest countries in Latin America by GDP, its economy has grown by 4% a year for a decade. It is also ranked the sixth-safest country on the sub-continent.
To continue to grow and satisfy its youth, however, Nicaragua grapples with fundamental challenges – among them, deforestation, climate change, ganadero (cattle) culture and the regional demand for beef. In particular, as the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) has learnt from interviews:
- In the Dry Corridor, land degradation, drought, excessive rain and floods are pushing populations east, with consequences that are often grave. “The Pacific system of burning is being taken to the humid zone where it is even more dangerous and destroys the soil very fast, and colonists and indigenous groups are clashing,” said one Nicaraguan forester. The humid zone includes the beleaguered Bosawas UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Dry Corridor is a set of ecosystems in Central America’s dry tropical forests that in Nicaragua covers the Pacific Coast lowlands and most of the central pre-mountain region.
- Climate change is forcing some coffee growing areas to switch to cocoa, a trend further exacerbated by coffee rust. “La roya exploded two years ago. We are going from one perennial to another. We are also thinking about going from arabica to robusta coffee,” said an agriculturalist. Cocoa is expanding too in the Caribbean Coastal zone, which is home to 71.6% of Nicaragua’s forest, according to the National Forest Inventory.
- Cattle rearing continues to consume forest. “For 50 years we have been replacing forest with ranches,” said a second forester. “No one pays a farmer to keep their forest. But they can get $5 per head a month from a cattle owner to keep animals on their farm. Meat is exported to the US, Mexico and Venezuela. The question is how to make it sustainable.” “Ranches without trees” occupy 16% or 2.1 million ha of the country’s land surface and, notes the Inventory, incentives and policies governing livestock will be “strategic to whether forest cover grows or falls”.
Nicaragua’s forest cover is now thought to stand at a precarious 25% or 3.24 million ha, having fallen by 31% between 1990 and 2010 – a loss of about 70,000 ha/year. The government, however, has pledged to restore 2.9 million hectares and arrest the agricultural frontier, according to Minister for National Policies Paul Oquist.
There are myriad other positive signs. In a newspaper article, for instance, on the diminished flow of the River Coco, the President’s scientific advisor, Dr. Jaime Barquero, intoned that “The headwaters must be principally consecrated to the production of water. If clouds pass an area that is peeled of trees, they do not throw down a drop.” “Protecting the water resource is huge for them. The government is convinced by trees,” confirmed InterAmerican Development Bank economist Marion Le Pommellec.
It was in this context that ICRAF’s Dr. Geovanna Carreno and Dr. Jenny Ordonez measured the quantity, variety and value of the trees on 120 farms in the Waslala-Dalia-Siuna transect. “We had noticed,” said Carreno, “that although much forest had been transformed for agriculture and ranching, a quick glance showed a mosaic where trees were present.” They found that an average farm of 8.6 ha harbored a startling diversity and density of trees: 45 different species and 74 trees/ha. Even fields of maize, beans, and rice and pastures had an average of 12-30 tree species and 33-45 trees/ha.
In 2016 Dr. Ordonez returned these findings to some of the farmers. “When you ask farmers how many trees they have, they give very low figures,” she said. “Yet they have many and benefit greatly from them. We wanted them to know.”
On his 8.7 ha farm, Don Virgilio Diaz, 67, had a staggering 63 tree species — 38 of them fruit species — and a total of 405 trees. “We calculate that if you had to buy the fruit and timber that you harvest yearly for personal use, it would cost you about 37,000 cordobas (USD $1307),” Ordonez told him. Laughing, Don Virgilio said, “I did not know. When you don’t buy things, you do not count.”
To Doña Paulina Gomez, 58, Ordonez said, “Many fincas have no fruit in the dry season, but you do. It is very important because you have young children here. You also have 43 t of carbon in the shade trees of your coffee. People like you with trees on your farm are doing a service for the world.” Dona Paulina replied, “What really strikes me is the fruit. It’s not everyone that gets 11,000 cordoba (USD$388) of fruit a year.”
Don Miguel Peralta, 62, had 34 timber species, 24 firewood species and 29 fruit species. “It’s good to have this,” he said of the folder Ordonez gave him. “I will look at it with the family. We say we have nothing but we have. You can sell your farm for a better price if you have trees because people need wood to build a house.”
“These findings are important because with small improvements in management, the farmers could benefit even more,” said Ordonez. “They are also important for policy, which usually does not take trees outside of forests into account. Yet they can provide ecosystem services, such as watershed protection, while enhancing agricultural production.”
Besides enriching policies, the findings might also assist the government to work side by side with the critically important livestock sector to increase silvopastoralism. Meanwhile, for Nicaragua’s climate-shocked Dryland Corridor, the zone most vulnerable to crop failure and out migration, ICRAF proposes a similar study and likely approaches such as farmer-managed natural regeneration of trees.
See www.paisagecentinela.org for more information about the region.