By José Adán Silva
Ignacia Matute looks back nostalgically on the days when the hills around her home in northwestern Nicaragua were blanketed in green, and she woke every morning to the sounds of birds singing in the treetops and the rushing waters of the nearly Coco River.
Her present day surroundings are a far cry from this idyllic memory: the river is severely depleted and its waters are dangerously polluted along some stretches of its original course, while the forests have been decimated by fires and years of indiscriminate logging to supply furniture manufacturers and provide firewood for local homes.
But the future holds new promise for Matute, deputy mayor of Ocotal, the capital of the department of Nueva Segovia. She and the other residents of her community have learned that it is possible to restore the river to its former levels through responsible and integrated management of the watershed area along the border with Honduras.
Matute is participating in a binational project for the recovery and sustainable use of natural resources and the waterways that feed the Coco River, the longest in Central America, which winds along the border between Nicaragua and Honduras.
The river flows northeast along a stretch of 822 km until flowing into the Caribbean Sea, and forms a natural border between the two countries
The project, “Strengthening local capacities for integrated management of water resources from the Coco River Basin between Honduras and Nicaragua”, is being implemented by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) with funding from the European Union, in collaboration with local government authorities, civil society organizations, national authorities and other UN agencies.
Based in the area around the upper middle stretch of the river basin, specifically in the municipalities that make up Nueva Segovia in Nicaragua and El Paraíso in Honduras, the project is aimed at teaching local communities and authorities how to best cultivate and manage this watershed area, subjected to uncontrolled depredation over the last two decades.
The coordinator of the project in Nicaragua, Lucio Rossini, told Tierramérica that it also included a review of the laws governing natural resources in both countries, in order to develop cross-border environmental arrangements which, after three years of studies and analysis, culminated in a series of binational and local programs.
“We have nine watershed management plans underway, which will cover an area of approximately 5,200 sq km, where around 170,000 people live,” he reported.
Through the investment of 1.7 million dollars, the project’s objectives include ensuring the supply of drinking water and its use for food production, the conservation of forests, the sustainable use of natural resources, the production of renewable energy, and the development of tourism activities, Rossini added.
The project has been underway since April 2009, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Environment Programme, Giusseppe Mancinelli, the UNOPS deputy regional director in Panama for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Tierramérica.
For his part, Nazario Espósito, a representative of UNOPS-Nicaragua, highlighted the fact that the project will help the two countries adopt initiatives for the achievement of environmental targets and objectives established at UN summits and conferences with relation to water resources and coastal areas.
“Our goals are environmental sustainability and adaptation to climate change in the region, and improvement of the socioeconomic conditions and quality of life of the 1,200 families living in the upper and lower micro-basins of the Coco River, in the two countries involved,” Espósito told Tierramérica.
The severe deterioration of the Coco River and the surrounding area is partially the result of the conditions of extreme poverty faced by local communities, said Domingo Rivas, a specialist in watershed and soil management at the National Agrarian University of Nicaragua, who carried out the socio-environmental diagnostic assessment for the project.
“There is a sufficient amount of water despite a decrease in the river’s flow due to the effects of deforestation, but in some of its sources there is a high level of fecal coliform contamination because of a lack of adequate hygienic conditions and education among the local population,” he explained to Tierramérica.
His study confirmed the degradation of natural resources in large stretches of the river basin, a lack of planning and integrated resource management, water pollution, soil erosion, and deforestation of pine and broadleaf forests.
Rivas noted that the average income of the population in the region ranges between 600 and 800 dollars annually per family.
Socioeconomic conditions are alarming in the department of Nueva Segovia: 78 percent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line, 50 percent have no access to safe drinking water, and 27 percent are illiterate, according to the executive director of the Association of Municipalities of Nueva Segovia, Oscar Mendoza Bustamante.
“These statistics help explain the degradation of natural resources,” he commented to Tierramérica.
For Matute, although the dream of seeing the river of her childhood restored to its former splendor is perhaps not fully realistic, there is still good reason to feel enthusiastic about the project.
“The most important thing about this effort is the struggle for the good use and protection of the river, because without water, all of our activities would come to a standstill,” she observed.