Hurricane Mitch spreads environmental gospel

Many thought they were employing good preservationmethods till Mitchhit. Now they are adapting to new ways.

Felix Martnez Surez points up the river valley from his home in the northern Nicaraguan mountains to a solid patch of dark-green forest, wedged between light-green swatches of deforested land.

"That's our watershed. We get our water and some wood there, and we even have deer that are rarer all the time around here, so we take good care of it," he says. "That forest is our life."

Already working with a local development group on watershed and soil conservation before last October's hurricane Mitch, the small community of Colocondo where Mr. Martnez ekes out a farm living thought it was doing everything right to avoid disaster.

Colocondo jealously protected its community forest lands, and was implementing the mulching and terracing farming methods advised by agronomists from the Augustino Sandino Foundation in nearby Estel.

But then along came hurricane Mitch, teaching Colocondo something about environmental interdependence. "Our forest lands held really well, but the community up river from ours had cut about all its forests, and they had a lot of slides," says Martnez. "We ended up losing our riverbanks and 10 [of 35] houses."

Colocondo is one of hundreds of Central American communities that found out the hard way what environmental and development experts have been preaching for years: that the natural capacity of fierce storms like Mitch to cause damage is greatly augmented by human activities like deforestation, watershed destruction, and indiscriminate land use.

With the clouds of a new rain and hurricane season back in Central America, Martnez and other landowners in Colocondo are determined to stick with their protective environmental methods, while replanting the wooded riverbanks that Mitch took out. But they are also wondering if more of their neighbors are now convinced of the importance of doing the same.

For experts across Central America, the environmental challenge is one of the most difficult the region faces. Mitch has spawned some new interest in practices that can help slow or even reverse environmental damage, they say. But extreme poverty, population growth, and complacency with recent decades of land clearing and seasonal burning also mean that those working to promote change and inculcate an understanding of sustainable land use have their work cut out for them.

"It's not going to happen with billboards and radio spots," says David Mann, who coordinates development projects for various American church-based charities in Condega, Nicaragua. "There's always a handful of farmers who grasp the sense of some new ideas and go with them," he adds. "But even after Mitch just talking about the need for change isn't going to do much, because it's a song they've all heard sung before."

What can work, Mr. Mann says, is providing an example. After Mitch much of Nicaragua and Honduras was hit by a severe drought, and many farmers lost what crops they were able to plant.

But one farmer in his area who had started mulching in old crop plants and overgrowth instead of burning them off retained enough moisture in his soil to harvest corn - and that caused heads to turn.

What was initially the example of one woman is also bringing important change to Suyapa, Honduras, a hillside town on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa.

Five months ago, Justa Nuez agreed to replace her traditional wood-gobbling, smoke-belching cooking stove with a new low-wood-consumption model designed in the US. Today Mrs. Nuez cooks the same tortillas and beans burning half as much wood.

But more important is how her modest-looking innovation has caused so much interest among the women living around her. Now Nuez spends her days supervising the installation of additional stoves.

Five hundred of the low-wood-consumption stoves, designed by Oregon engineer Larry Wynarski, were donated by the Rotary Club of Oak Ridge, Tenn., for installation in Honduras. A Fort Collins, Colorado-based conservation organization called Trees, Water, and People is working with the Honduran Association for Development (AHDESA), a nongovernmental organization, to install the stoves and explain the philosophy behind them.

Neighbor Ramona Lagos was initially drawn to the new stove because she figured she could save money on wood - which she has. "I used to spend 30 lempiras [about $2] a week on wood," she says, "but now I get by on 10" - a significant savings for the poor families of Suyapa.

But as Nuez's and the neighbor women's focus has broadened beyond the economic interest of spending less money on wood to preserving forests, they've gradually launched into community action.

"We haven't stopped at putting in the stoves. Now we talk about the importance of trees and how we can take care of them," Nuez says. She has organized a group of 50 women who spend their Saturdays hiking an hour up into the nearby mountain to check on Suyapa's last forested watershed, clear out stream beds, and take note of any tree-cutting. "Next we're going to begin reforesting," she says, noting the town already has a tree nursery started.

Yet as eager as AHDESA's development director, Ignacio Osorto, is to show off the progress in Suyapa, he acknowledges that not all his organization's projects go so well. He cites heavy local resistance to a watershed protection project in another valley outside Tegucigalpa. "Seventy percent of Honduras is forested land and less than a quarter is really apt for agricultural use, but we continue cutting the forests to create pastures and cropland," says Mr. Osorto. "It's a mistaken development path." Emphasis should be put on developing ways that people can make a living through sustainable forest use, he adds. But it has neither been public policy nor is it what rural Hondurans seem to want. "They don't want to live in forests, they want their piece of agricultural land."

Back in northern Nicaragua, Francisco Rodrguez of Estel's Sandino Foundation faults government - Nicaragua's, but others in Central America as well - for not acting as if they take their own words seriously. "They're on the radio and TV talking about conserving the forests, but then they do little or nothing to protect reserves or stop the big woodcutting concessions."

Since Mitch, both Honduras and Nicaragua have been hit by scandals in their forest-management agencies over illegal tree-cutting for under-the-table payments. At least such corruption is now causing scandals, some critics have noted, instead of just being accepted.

For Mr. Rodriguez, reversing Central America's environmental deterioration will require forming the same kind of partnership between rural dwellers and a new governmental vision of development that some private organizations have already been establishing.

In the valleys around Estel, it long has been common to see roadside stacks of wood that families were trying to sell, sometimes their only source of income. But Rodriguez says those stacks have practically disappeared from the roads where his organization has been working with communities on alternative development projects. "It's not enough to try to convince people that it's in their interest to do things differently," he says. "You have to help provide the alternative income sources so they can change their ways."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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