Central America Weakens Forest Shield Against Future Droughts

Costa Rica increased its forest cover, but some wetlands and areas in the north of the country have been affected by deforestation and drought. The high use of agrochemicals and fertilisers in agro-industrial activities and logging in neighboring lands damaged the Palo Verde wetland and the surrounding forests. Credit: Miriet Abrego / IPS
  • by DANIEL SALAZAR (san jose)
  • Inter Press Service

Supposedly, the pest that was destroying the pines would stop spreading with the rains, but the rainy season came and there was no rain. He told IPS that apart from fewer trees, his town also has less water, the soil has eroded and some of the neighboring communities face drought.

This is not the only problem causing them to run out of water.

In Honduras, forest coverage shrank by almost a third, from 57 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2015, explained by an increase of monoculture, extractive projects, livestock production and shifting cultivation. It is the Central American country with the greatest decline in forest cover, in a region where all of the countries, with the exception of Costa Rica, are destroying their forests.

According to the State of the Region Programme, the 2017 environmental statistics published this month, since 2000 Central America has lost forest cover and wetlands, vital to the preservation of aquifers, which coincided with a widespread regional increase in greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

It is not good news, said Alberto Mora, the State of the Region research coordinator, who noted that the region could have 68 departments or provinces suffering severe aridity towards the end of the century, compared to fewer than 20 today.

Mora also stressed that demand for drinking water could grow by 1,600 percent by the year 2100, according to the study prepared by the State of the Nation of Costa Rica, an interdisciplinary body of experts funded by the country's public universities.

"This greatly exacerbates the impacts of global warming and rising temperatures, on ecosystems and their species. It is really a serious problem in Central America," he told IPS.

Fewer trees, less food

Baca, an environmental engineer active in the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth, explained that farmers are moving higher up the mountains, because the soil they used to farm is no longer fertile. Using the slash-and-burn technique, they grow their staple foods.

But also, he said, "we have very long droughts and, without rainy seasons, the peasant farmers can't plant their food crops, which gives rise to emergency situations in terms of food security."

To the west of Honduras, in neighboring Guatemala, losses are also reported in forest cover. In 2000, 39 percent of the territory was covered by trees; that proportion had fallen to 33 percent by 2015.

Although fewer and fewer hectares of forest are cut down in that country, the problem persists and continues to generate serious food security challenges.

Agricultural engineer Ogden Rodas, coordinator of FAO's Forest and Farm Facility in that country, explained to IPS from Guatemala City that the loss of forests is affecting Guatemala's ability to obtain food in multiple ways.

Currently, he said, peasant and indigenous communities have less food from seeds, roots, fruits or leaves and fewer jobs, which were previously generated in activities such as weeding and pruning.

Their ability to put food on their tables is also affected, as the destruction of the forest cover impacts on the water cycles, affecting irrigated agriculture.

Rodas believes that her country needs to strengthen governance, the management of agribusiness crops such as sugar cane and African oil palm, to create alternatives for forest-dwelling communities and develop strategies for the sustainable use of firewood, a problem common to the entire region.

In Honduras, another FAO specialist, René Acosta, told IPS from Tegucigalpa that the government has committed to reforesting up to one million hectares by 2030, but the task will only be possible if it is coordinated with all the actors involved, and incentives and ecotourism business capabilities are generated.

Costa Rica increases its forest cover

The forest cover in Central America decreased from 46 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2015. Forest cover shrank from 32 to 26 percent in Nicaragua, from 66 to 62 percent in Panama, and from 16 to 13 percent in El Salvador.

The exception was Costa Rica where more than half (54 percent) of the land is covered by trees, compared to 47 percent 15 years ago.

Pieter Van Lierop, subregional forestry officer and team leader of the FAO Natural Resources, Risk Management and Climate Change Group in Costa Rica, explained that there are many factors driving this process.

The progress made is due, he said, "in part to the priority put in this country on its forest policy."

"Another factor is the structural changes in agriculture, which have reduced the pressure to convert forests into agricultural land and have led to an increase in the area covered by secondary forests and to legal controls to prevent the change from natural forest to other uses for the land," he said.

Some sustainable practices contribute to this increase in forested areas in the country.

For example, there has been a programme of payment for environmental services in place for two decades, financed by a tax on fossil fuels, among other sources.

The State pays the equivalent of 300 dollars every five years for each privately-owned hectare of protected forest and 1,128 dollars to owners who wish to create a secondary forest on their farms.

"What have we gained with this? That many more people come to see the forests," said Gilmar Navarrrete, one of the heads of the programme of the.National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO).

"Hurricane Otto also hit recently: if we didn't have the forest cover we have, the impact would have been very serious," he told IPS.

There are other programmes in place. Lourdes Salazar works in Paquera, Lepanto and Cóbano, in northwest Costa Rica, with 83 farmers in a programme financed by the non-governmental Fundecooperación and supported by other public institutions.

"We work together with farmers because we want them to adapt to climate change, establish improved pastures, and change their mentality. We want them to let fruit trees grow, as well as timber trees for shade, which will also help them produce more," the agricultural engineer told IPS.

Salazar takes part in a 10 million dollar project which aims to impact 400 farms around five hectares in size, which each farmer must reforest while raising cattle and pigs and growing organic produce.

"The farmers themselves say it's more beneficial. If there was only one tree in a pasture all the cows would huddle there. Why not leave more trees? They have been learning that they produce more when they implement this type of practices," said Salazar.

© Inter Press Service (2017) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service