Lara Koritzke — former associate director of development for the Rainforest Alliance and current director of development and communications at ISEAL Alliance — writes about the Rainforest Alliance’s work with a group of indigenous communities in Nicaragua. Devastated by a 2007 hurricane, they are recovering from damage to their homes, crops and natural forests with perseverance, hard work and collaboration.
On September 4, 2007, Hurricane Felix struck Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN, for its name in Spanish) and left major ecological and socioeconomic damage in its wake. More than 25,000 impoverished families – mostly from the Moskito and Mayagna indigenous communities – were affected. Estimated damages to homes, crops and natural forests surpassed USD $1.3 billion and more than 3.7 million acres of biodiverse tropical forests were impacted.
Since 2005, the Rainforest Alliance has been helping communities in the region to manage their forests sustainably. In the wake of the hurricane, we also began working to build local businesses and encourage economic recovery. Four years later, 30 communities comprised of more than 2,000 people have benefitted from this work. In addition, seven new forestry cooperatives have been established with smart management plans and alliances with domestic wood product companies. A few highlights of this work…
Salvaging Post-Hurricane Wood and Fostering Natural Forest Re-Growth
A key aspect of working in the post-hurricane area: salvaging fallen or damaged timber while promoting the natural regeneration of the forest. Salvage operations are producing saleable commercial wood that provides immediate income for indigenous families while also forestalling the risk of permanent forest loss from fire, pests and conversion to other land uses. These risks will persist unless communities have an alternative revenue stream over the long-term and a real incentive to maintain forests in the face of growing pressures to convert them for livestock and agricultural operations.
The Awas Tingni Community: Conservation and Poverty Alleviation in Action
The Rainforest Alliance has been working closely with the Awas Tingni indigenous community to improve the livelihoods of its nearly 300 affected families (about 1,800 people) through the creation of a forest management plan for low-impact salvage harvesting operations. Such salvage operations reduce greenhouse gas emissions by ensuring that downed wood does not rot or burn. The Rainforest Alliance has also trained the community in value-added processing, and helped to facilitate the acquisition of small-scale carpentry equipment and a portable sawmill. Now, community members are employed in their own villages, producing pre-sawn boards made of mahogany and other high-demand hardwood species that command higher prices than raw logs alone.
Market Linkages with Wood Buyers Focused on Sustainability
With the Rainforest Alliance’s support, Awas Tingni has also developed alliances with buyers and brokers of wood products, including Nashville-based Gibson Musical Instruments and Maderas Preciosas Indígenas e Industriales de Nicaragua S.A. (MAPIINICSA), a Nicaraguan wood buyer focused on domestic furniture markets. Both companies are committed to purchasing sustainably harvested timber for their products.
The Rainforest Alliance has also helped the Awas Tingni community to create a new enterprise for their wood harvesting operations: the community-owned Yamaba forestry cooperative, now governed by a board made up of elected community members.
Job Creation and Other Benefits for Women and Children
The Yamaba cooperative and its salvage operations are also creating new jobs in the community. In 2010, the cooperative employed just 60 people; by 2011, that number had reached nearly 200, including 36 female employees. Sales of timber from the cooperative reached US $98,000 in 2010, and are projected to top US $400,000 by the close of the year. In addition to helping to develop the cooperative and increase incomes, the Rainforest Alliance is working with the group to ensure the effective and responsible allocation of newly generated funds.
Presently, the cooperative’s board of directors and its (newly created) Women’s Association are carefully considering the potential uses of the increased income. They include: re-investing in timber operations to increase sustainability; creating a fenced boundary to protect traditional lands from illegal loggers and poachers; providing additional support for the community school and its teachers; providing materials for the Women’s Association to create small artisan products for sale in local markets; and purchasing a community vehicle that can bring sick or pregnant community members to Puerto Cabezas — Awas Tingni is a 3-hour walk to the nearest bus stop, and Puerto Cabezas, the nearest town, is only accessible by bus.