In 1985, President Daniel Ortega proposed that the troubled border region with Costa Rica – Central America’s largest and wettest tract of rainforest – be declared an international park for peace and gave it the name Si-a-Paz: “Yes to Peace.”
This work was interrupted by the war and, as poverty increased because of the weakening economy, rural dwellers turned more and more to forests for fuel wood and supplemental food, thus depleting previously abundant stocks. At the end of the war the Nicaraguan government was able to dedicate more money to conservation and the Si-a-Paz project went ahead. Its aim is to enable people to make a living in one place, to involve them in conservation efforts and provide them with ecologically sustainable livelihoods so that they won’t have to keep eating away at the forest’s receding edge. Si-a-Paz planners want to wrap buffer zones of low-input agriculture and agroforestry around core habitats, with whole communities integrated into the park design.
The Nicaraguan army has been asked by the president to create a specialist unit – the Ecological Battalion – to guard 70 reserves and protected natural areas in the country, co-operating with the Attorney-General’s Office, the Environment Ministry and INAFOR to safeguard Nicaragua’s natural resources. A large reserve Bosawas, suffers from massive forest fires and another, Indio Maiz, faces rampant deforestation and forest fires associated with illegal settlers clearing the land for cultivation.
Sociologist Javier Meléndez has reservations about the policy: “The army can escort the authorities, patrol the reserves and be at hand to help state institutions when called upon. But they must not be the final arbiters of justice in the mountains. That would be dangerous,” he said. President Ortega’s adviser on environmental affairs, Jaime Incer Barquero, advocates immediate protection for the threatened reserves: “if we do not demonstrate that we are capable of protecting the Bosawás reserve, it might lose its status as a Biosphere Reserve, and we would be labelled as a country that plunders its environment.”
A precedent and model
In What is Proper Soldiering? Brigadier–General Michael Harbottle wrote about the work of Major-General Eustace D’Souza with the Indian army at three levels. At the micro level, territorial Eco Battalions were created for the protection of forests and restoration of degraded areas:
”The personnel are all ex-servicemen recruited from areas in which they are expected to operate. Two such battalions are operating in the Himalayas where the environmental degradation is serious and widespread. Another is deployed along the Ganga Canal in the Rajasthan Desert which draws on water from the major rivers with their sources in the Himalayas. Their task is to plant indigenous trees, prevent further deforestation and stem the spread of desertification.
“They combine their role as territorial reserve units of the army with that of conservationists. Organised and manned by a permanent staff of the regular army, the units operate on the basis of two monthly periods of call up when the territorial soldiers undergo their annual training commitment. Besides their normal military training they also undertake environmental projects. In one instance an enlightened commanding officer and his second in command decided to ‘green’ their sprawling cantonment area ‘which was wholly devoid of vegetation, tree cover and water. The project was completed on a no-cost basis and the area transformed from bare hills into an imposing forest.”
Note: this post does not imply that all other aspects of Nicaragua’s social, environmental & economic practice are equally beneficial.