Along with alleged human rights violations including crackdowns that have killed hundreds of civilian protesters, Nicaragua’s government also stands accused of widespread environmental abuses—such as overlooking the illicit clearing of rainforests. Critics are now questioning why one of the country’s top government ministers, Paul Oquist, holds a prominent leadership position on the Green Climate Fund (GCF), an international group that sponsors projects to reduce climate change damage in developing countries. Oquist is currently setting agenda priorities for the fund’s governing board meeting in October, when the group plans to sponsor a new round of projects.
Chartered by the United Nations in 2010, the GCF finances climate-friendly development ventures in the world’s poorest countries. Its 24-member governing board, led by two co-chairs, reviews project proposals and allocates a multibillion-dollar budget that is chiefly bankrolled by wealthy nations. During the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, the fund was deemed crucial for helping developing countries meet their emissions goals.
Nicaragua was among the final signatories to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate-control measures. The nation’s leaders had initially slammed the deal as insufficient to protect developing countries from climate change effects. During negotiations, Oquist—Nicaragua’s senior minister for national policy and the country’s climate envoy—called the deal “a path to failure” that would lead to “death and destruction.” But his position flipped after the U.S. pulled out of the pact. (The Trump administration has not fulfilled Washington’s pledge to contribute $3 billion to the GCF).
Nicaragua entered the Paris agreement in October 2017, declaring solidarity with other nations vulnerable to climate change. But some observers claim its government had an additional motive for joining the accord: to gain chairmanship on the GCF’s governing board, a position Nicaragua had long sought. In February the board approved Oquist as co-chair alongside Sweden’s Lennart Båge. The representative from Georgia, Teimuraz Murgulia, protested the decision because of Nicaragua’s initial reluctance to cooperate with the Paris agreement; Murgulia left the room as the board pushed ahead with the appointment. Oquist is now set to lead the board for the rest of 2018.
A number of environmental experts have questioned Oquist’s co-chair position, citing moral objections to Nicaragua’s alleged human rights violations—and an environmental policy that has left the nation’s flora and fauna “severely unprotected,” according to a 2013 study published in the Research Journal of the Costa Rican Distance State University. “We are facing the worst environmental management of our lifetimes,” says Jurguen Guevara, a forestry scientist at Centro Humboldt, a nongovernmental organization in Managua. “We have seen a complete weakening of environmental standards” in the past decade. A forest area totaling twice the size of Delaware has been slashed in the last five years, according to Guevara’s unpublished calculations based on satellite imagery. Most of the loss has occurred in Nicaragua’s Caribbean Lowlands, a remote rainforest area second only to the Amazon in biodiversity and size in the Western Hemisphere, according to Guevara.
Guevara and others say land-hungry farmers and ranchers have illegally encroached on protected reserves. “We call them colonists,” he says. “They come to the reserve bringing crops, deforestation and conflict.” By clearing trees for commercial agriculture, they also usurp the authority of local indigenous groups such as the Miskito, Mayangna and Rama, whose autonomous jurisdictions include most of the Caribbean Lowlands’ preserved areas. One of the largest reserves, Cerro Wawashang, lost 30 percent of its forest cover between 2000 and 2015, according to Thomas Albright, a geographer at the University of Nevada, Reno. And these alarming trends are accelerating—20 percent of the reserve’s remaining forest was felled between 2016 and 2017. “I’m just shocked,” Albright says. The federal government has not moved to halt the illicit destruction, according to eight scientists and a former government official who spoke to Scientific American on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety.
Brad Allgood is a U.S.-based filmmaker documenting the friction between rainforest colonizers and indigenous groups in Nicaragua. He says the authorities’ lack of enforcement encourages incursions into protected areas. Contrary to the government’s mandate under national law and the rainforest’s designation as a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme reserve, officials do not regularly patrol the protected land. “They do not stop people from entering, despite well-known entry points. They do not confront settlers or try to remove settlers from the reserve,” Allgood says. “There’s been very little action.” Several scientists, in Nicaragua and elsewhere, shared similar views of the situation.
In one case Allgood describes, investigators from the Rama-Kriol indigenous group gathered evidence that a commercial livestock operation had illegally appropriated more than 13 square miles in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve in southeastern Nicaragua. The investigators obtained satellite- and ground-based photos of cleared land, ear tags from cattle grazing on the terrain—even a video admission from the owner of the illicit farm. Indigenous territory leaders presented the evidence to the attorney general for prosecution. “They never heard back,” Allgood says, noting the law prescribes jail time for colonizing ranchers, “but the government has done absolutely nothing.” His accounts were corroborated by environmental scientists and activists familiar with the situation.
Popular discontent with Nicaragua’s environmental policies peaked in early April this year, following the government’s sluggish response to a forest fire in Indio Maíz. The blaze spread after a farmer lit an agricultural fire on illegally cleared land. (Natural ignition is extremely rare in a tropical rainforest.) The administration’s fire containment strategy was “completely hands-off,” Guevara says. Nicaragua rejected fire-fighting assistance from neighboring Costa Rica, and the conflagration eventually consumed a Manhattan-size swath of primary rainforest. Activists—mostly university students—took to the streets of Managua demanding the government move to contain the inferno. These marches ballooned three days later when Pres. Daniel Ortega announced reforms to social security. Guevara believes “the Indio Maíz fire was the spark that started all the protests.”
Demonstrations condemning Ortega’s leadership have continued in the months after the fire, prompting deadly attacks by pro-government paramilitary forces. Citing fears of retribution, a number of sources would only speak with Scientific American on condition of anonymity. “If you speak out against the government, you can be killed tomorrow,” says one scientist in Managua. “People are dying every day.” Violence surrounding the crackdown has killed more than 300 people, including dozens of children and teenagers. Health care workers say they have been fired after treating victims of violence and torture. Environmental scientists and activists contend the human rights crisis further strains the administration’s credibility as a leader of the GCF’s board.
Nicaragua’s political situation itself is also hastening the destruction of protected rainforest, according to some experts. One Nicaraguan scientist, who also asked not to be named, notes an uptick in reports of timber being illegally hauled out of protected reserves, stemming from a “void of governance.” The paltry environmental safeguards that existed before April’s explosion of protests and backlash have now vanished entirely, says the scientist, who worries that the “horrendous” forest destruction will alter regional climates—because fewer trees mean less moisture pumped from the soil into the atmosphere. Water quality is also deteriorating, the scientist fears, because trees filter pollutants and sediment from waterways. And creatures that depend on rainforest—including jaguars, tapirs and macaws—risk extirpation. “It’s important that the world knows what’s happening,” the scientist says. “The government needs to be a model for society. In this case, they have not fulfilled that.”
Nicaragua maintains a “policy of permanent destruction of natural resources,” according to an e-mailed statement from environmental scientist Jaime Incer Barquero, who directed the country’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources during the presidency of Violeta Chamorro in the 1990s. He noted that last year Ortega rescinded a law requiring an environmental impact assessment prior to the approval of new construction projects. Incer Barquero added the Green Climate Fund board’s appointment of Oquist is “a completely unfortunate act.”
Numerous experts unanimously agree Nicaragua’s government representatives do not deserve a leadership role in the GCF. “Nicaragua is not a good-faith actor,” says a scientist who directs a nongovernmental conservation organization in the country and spoke on condition of anonymity. The director adds that Ortega’s administration has pushed a “dishonest narrative” about its commitment to environmental protection—a narrative the GCF board fell for. “All they had to do was look at forest cover change in the last 15 years,” the director says. “Clearly they didn’t do that.”
Javier Manzanares, the deputy executive director of the Green Climate Fund, declined to discuss allegations of violence and environmental abuses by the Nicaraguan government. But he says Oquist is actively working alongside Båge to set the agenda for October’s meeting of the fund’s board. Oquist’s absence reportedly hindered progress during the board’s prior meeting in July. He and other Nicaraguan environmental officials declined to comment for this story.
As Oquist steers the GCF toward October’s pivotal meeting, environmental experts remain skeptical that it is in good hands. “How is it that this major leadership role went to the Nicaraguan government?” the director of the conservation NGO asks. “They tricked the world into thinking they cared about forests,” the director adds. “Why is the global community rewarding them?”