Interview with Sergio Sánchez, Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Forestry Coordinator in Nicaragua

Interviewed by Pablo Hernández, Rainforest Alliance

“Forest management is a feasible and proven alternative for natural forest conservation, because it helps contain the advance of the agricultural frontier and land invasions, while improving quality of life for the communities.”

Hurricane DamageOn the morning of September 4, 2007 Hurricane Felix hit the northern Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and felled hundreds of thousands of hectares of broadleaf and pine forests. In total, approximately four million acres (1.6 million hectares) of forest were damaged, radically changing living conditions of local and indigenous communities in the region dependent on timber harvesting for their livelihoods. These communities are now faced with the challenge of reformulating their forest management plans to recover the timber they lost, and restore their forests in order to obtain certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

However, there were already significant obstacles to the development of sustainable forestry management in Nicaragua before this natural disaster occurred. Sergio Sánchez, forestry coordinator in Nicaragua for Rainforest Alliance, says that before Felix, there were plans to pursue FSC certification for 247,000 acres (100,000 hectares) of forest owned by indigenous communities in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). According to Sánchez, the plan was hampered by illegal logging, the implementation of laws that paralyzed new management plans, and the unchecked advance of the agricultural frontier.

Question: What is forest management?

Sergio SánchezSánchez: Forest management is a tool or instrument that outlines technical guidelines that ensure the sustainable management of a forest. It is a feasible and proven development alternative, because it helps contain the advance of the agricultural frontier and land invasions while improving quality of life for forest owners and local communities.

Q:  How were forest management laws paralyzed in Nicaragua before Hurricane Felix?

Sánchez: Before Felix, the state approved a Forestry Moratorium Law in June of 2006 to control illegal logging. This law halted all extraction of certain species such as mahogany, pine, pochote, ceiba, cedro real and others, which are all considered endangered. This directly affected the communities and forest owners whose main source of income was from harvesting timber. However, the illegal logging problem has not been resolved because forest management, not prohibiting the harvest of tree species, guarantees the recovery of the forest.

Q: What consequences did the Moratorium Law have for management plans already in process?

Sánchez: The community-based forestry management plans implemented by the indigenous communities of the RAAN with support from the Rainforest Alliance were severely affected because the certification process could not be continued and field operations were halted, leading to a serious impact on the local economy. Communities on the Caribbean coast like La Esperanza and Santa Fe were about to be certified but the Forestry Moratorium Law set back the process.

Q: What is your position regarding the approval of this law?

Sánchez: I feel it was a premature decision due to a lack of knowledge about forestry operations that use rivers as a means of transport. While fishing, some authority figure was shocked to see a large number of tree trunks in the water, having never before seen timber transport by river. This alarmed a lot of people and led to intervention by other authorities who did not have adequate information about forestry operations.

The law has caused economic difficulties for forest owners because it has reduced forest extraction activities. Communities like Awas Tingni were modifying their management plans in order to obtain certification when they were then affected by Hurricane Felix.

Q:  How have the communities recovered from the hurricane?

Sánchez:  Initially, they lost hope. But, after a few weeks we detected a change in attitude and noticed that they were regaining interest in organizing themselves to have greater impact as stakeholders in forest management, protection, and restoration. There are some unaffected areas that are concentrated in the municipality of Prinzapolka where the areas under management should be expanded and forest certification obtained.

Q: How did the Rainforest Alliance help to address the urgent situation in the RAAN?

Sánchez: We sent a technical team to make a preliminary evaluation and propose priority actions for the region. We assessed the damage and worked successfully with state-level organizations to provide training and technical assistance to the communities. We also coordinated with small and medium-sized furniture businesses, which provided humanitarian assistance to reconstruct housing in Bilwi, Puerto Cabezas, and the indigenous community of Awastigni.

Q: What are the next steps?

Sánchez: The Rainforest Alliance feels it is appropriate to evaluate the damage done to the forest and rescue “lost” timber using the “controlled wood” mechanism, an international standard that guarantees the origin of the wood, respect for indigenous rights, and protection of forests with high conservation value.  Moreover, possibilities for the design and implementation of an environmental services payment mechanism for the areas affected by the hurricane should be explored, which could ensure income for the next 40 to 60 years for indigenous families. In this way, these areas can receive income and conserve their forests while they are undergoing reconstruction.

We are also concerned about forest fire prevention and control, and want to prevent forests from becoming agricultural areas. We are also pursuing the creation of business alliances between communities and industries to link them with fair markets for certified wood.

Q: How effective do you think this strategy will be?

Sánchez: Resolving the immediate problems of the forestry sector is possible thanks to the positive attitude of the people. They have much clearer goals for protecting, using, and conserving the forest while also allowing it to recover. Obviously they require technical and financial support to begin executing their projects, and the Rainforest Alliance is doing everything possible to help them with this process.

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