Nicaragua News Bulletin (December 29, 2015)

1. Nicaraguans celebrate a tranquil Christmas
2. SICA reaches agreement on Cuban migrants
3. Monitoring of volcanoes continues; government holds final disaster drill of 2015
4. Economic briefs: Inflation rate remains low; five years of 4% growth; hotel employment up; fires at two cigar plants
5. Goals for clean energy on track
6. Officials struggle to preserve forests in three zones
7. Ranchers switching to biogas from wood and propane

1. Nicaraguans celebrate tranquil Christmas

In the days before Christmas, thousands of people crowded into Managua’s bus terminals to board busses for their home towns in different parts of the country. Juan Rodriguez, a supervisor with the Ministry of Transportation, said that between 25,000 and 27,000 people would be taking almost 300 buses from the Mercado Mayoreo (Wholesale Market) to distant departmental capitals in the north and central parts of the country. Supervisors were present at the markets to make sure that the buses were not overloaded and that they left on schedule.

President Daniel Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo said in their holiday message, “At the time when Nicaraguans are celebrating together a tranquil Christmas according to our sacred beliefs and traditions, we greet you with renewed hope and permanent solidarity.” They said that they hoped that Christmas “would bring the happiness of giving, the satisfaction of receiving, and the security of knowing that we are made for dialogue, understanding, and hope.” In his Christmas midnight mass sermon, Managua Archbishop Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes called for “humility and mercy” within the family and “peace and comprehension” in the nation’s political system.

The National Police reported on Dec. 26 that there had been fewer homicides and fewer deaths and injuries from accidents over the Christmas holiday than last year. There were two homicides compared to seven last year; traffic accidents were down from 131 in 2014 to 120 last week with four deaths compared to six last year. The Police had deployed 13,000 officers, including 1,000 volunteers, around the country to assure a safe holiday. A prohibition was issued which forbade civilians to carry weapons on Dec. 24, 25 and 31 as well as Jan. 1. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 23, 25, 27)

2. SICA reaches agreement on Cuban migrants

On Dec. 29 in Guatemala City, members of the Central American Integration System (SICA)—plus Mexico, the United States and Ecuador—agreed on a pilot program to transfer some of the thousands of Cuban migrants in Costa Rica to El Salvador and from there to Mexico from where they will make their way to the United States. A statement from the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry said, “It was agreed to carry out a pilot program of humanitarian transfer in the first week of January. A working group has been formed that will be responsible for the necessary coordination.” A communique from the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry stated that the Cuban migrants would fly from Costa Rica to El Salvador where they would take buses to Mexico. Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said that the program would benefit only those Cubans who have a visa. Costa Rica issued 8,000 special transit visas to Cubans between Nov. 14 and last week when it ended the visa program.

The migrants have travelled from Cuba to Ecuador by air and from Ecuador to Costa Rica by land with the goal of getting to the United States to take advantage of the special privilege given to Cuban migrants by US law. On Nov. 15, Nicaragua closed its borders to the immigrants. Guatemala expressed the views of several of the Central American governments saying that the migrants are not political refugees nor have they been affected by war or natural disasters; rather they are migrating for economic reasons or to reunite their families, just like Guatemalan migrants to the United States. Therefore, there should be no difference in how they are treated by US authorities, according to a Guatemalan spokesperson, who said that 102,000 Guatemalans had been deported this year while Cubans are given asylum.

The words of Pope Francis on Dec. 26 may have influenced the SICA meeting participants to come to an agreement on the issue. He said, “My thoughts are directed at this moment toward the numerous Cuban migrants in difficulty in Central America, many of whom are victims of human trafficking. I invite the countries of the region to redouble with generosity all necessary efforts to find a rapid solution to this humanitarian drama.” (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 29; Informe Pastran, Dec. 28)

3. Monitoring of volcanoes continues; government holds final disaster drill of 2015

Nicaraguan authorities remain alert to volcanic activity even though relative calm prevailed on Dec. 28 in the three volcanoes that have been active during the last two months. Momotombo began its first big eruption in 110 years on Dec. 1 and has had sporadic activity since, including on Christmas Day when it expelled gasses and caused 18 small earth tremblers. Telica’s activity, which was intense in November, has diminished and the lava near the mouth of the Masaya Volcano is descending back into the crater while expulsion of gas remains stable and seismic activity is low to moderate, according to authorities. But, on Dec. 25, Concepcion Volcano on the island of Ometepe began to show signs of activity. The government announced on Dec. 26 that a permanent station has been installed at the foot of Momotombo to monitor levels of sulfur dioxide from the volcano. Scientists are also using webcams to monitor the mountain.

In Nicaragua, volcanic activity is closely related to the movement of tectonic plates: The Cocos Plate is sliding under the Caribbean Plate which has formed the chain of volcanoes called the Maribios in western Nicaragua and which makes the country vulnerable to earthquakes. On Dec. 23, the country remembered the cataclysmic earthquake on that day in 1972 when most of Managua was destroyed and over 10,000 people died. Damages were estimated at over one billion dollars in 1972 currency and, as Informe Pastran noted, “Managua was never the same again.”

The government held four disaster drills during 2015, the last one on Dec. 22 in which 2,000 towns and neighborhoods participated. The Nicaraguan System for the Prevention, Mitigation and Attention to Disasters (SINAPRED) said that the drill prepared citizens to respond to an earthquake, volcanic eruptions, and a tsunami in the Pacific coastal region, floods and landslides in the central highlands, and hurricanes and floods on the Caribbean side of the country. In District V of Managua, residents responded to scenarios that included collapsed houses with victim rescues, obstructed streets, fires, and floods with the help of the Fire Department, the Red Cross, the National Police and the Humanitarian Rescue Unit of the Army. (Informe Pastran, Dec. 22, 23, 28; El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 22, 24, 25, 27, 28)

4. Economic briefs: Inflation rate remains low; five years of 4% growth; hotel employment up; fires at two cigar plants

The “basic basket” of 53 products, Nicaragua’s equivalent of a cost-of-living index, rose slightly less than one-tenth of a percent between October and November according to the Central Bank. Cumulatively for the first 11 months the cost rose 0.7% demonstrating a remarkable stability for family food and household goods over the course of 2015. The Central Bank reported that until November annual inflation stands at 2.06% compared to 6.55% the previous year. The government estimates 2015’s inflation rate will be under 4% after December’s typically higher inflation rate is added in. The cost of the basic basket in November was US$442.5. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 26)

For the first time since the 1990s, Nicaragua has completed five consecutive years with a growth rate above 4%. Jose Adan Aguerri, president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) said, “For us this is an achievement of the country, of the private sector, and of the consensus among the government, businesspeople and workers.” The annual growth in GDP in the ten years before 2010 fluctuated between 2.8% and 3.1% while since 2010 it has averaged 4.7%. Aguerri noted that the growth in formal employment in 2015 was 8.2% compared to 5.4% in 2014. Economist Nestor Avendaño said, “Nicaragua has entered into a period of annual economic growth of between 5% and 6% in 2015, although this is not enough to reduce the underemployment and poverty of the Nicaraguan people.” He noted that Nicaragua’s GDP was expected to grow by 5.1% to US$12.460 billion with a GDP per capita of US$2,016. He added that this growth was reduced by drought and a fall in international commodity prices. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 24; Informe Pastran, Dec. 23)

Hotel owners of all sizes said that they had had to hire more employees to handle the increase in tourism over the Christmas holiday. Hector Jimenez, president of the Association of Small Hotels, said that members of the organization had to hire between 30 and 40% more staff this year. He said that occupancy rates were between 90 and 100% in all the association hotels. Silvia de Levy, president of the National Chamber of Tourism (CANATUR) said that outside Managua hotel occupancy rates were at 100% while in Managua they were around 80%. Last year 1.4 million foreign tourists visited Nicaragua generating US$445.5 million, a figure that could be surpassed this year. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 28)

Fires ravaged two tobacco drying plants, one in Esteli and the other in Jalapa, on Dec. 25th with the causes of the fires still unknown and losses estimated at US$1 million. The Jalapa fire occurred in the morning at La Mia Cooperative and burned a large wooden building used for drying tobacco. The Esteli fire, which is being investigated by the Fire Department and the Police, started at about 7:00pm and besides burning a tobacco drying structure, also destroyed six tractors. The A.J. Fernandez Cigars Company, which in 2014 produced a cigar classed as the “Best Cigar in the World” by the Cigar Journal magazine, employed 1,400 people in the tobacco fields, in sorting the tobacco, and in the production of cigars. Nicaragua’s cigar producers employ 30,000 people making cigars in 51 plants. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 28)

5. Goals for clean energy on track

2015 is ending with Nicaragua’s goal to achieve 90% clean energy production by 2020 clearly achievable. Looking even farther, the government expects to attract US$4 billion in investments for renewable energy projects over the next 15 years, particularly in the solar energy field with the legal framework for it passed in 2015. The Ministry of Energy and Mines is preparing plans to install more than 1,400 solar panels in Caribbean Coast communities and to tie the municipality of Puerto Cabezas into the national electricity grid.

The Alejandro Davila Bolaños Hospital announced that it will install 500 solar panels to reduce costs and cut pollution. The Nicaragua Military Hospital is also solarizing with assistance from the Austrian government. It is expecting to cut energy costs by 30%. And the Nicaragua Central University is spending US$182,000 to install 120 solar panels at its central campus. Canadian Solar has announced that it is building the largest solar energy farm in Nicaragua in Tipitapa which will produce 3.1 megawatts of electricity. Multiple other solar projects previously reported in the Nicaragua News Bulletin will continue to drive Nicaragua’s conversion to clean energy. Some of the biggest changes are being seen in rural Nicaragua as access to electricity, potable water, health centers, hospitals, schools and social programs continue to expand and change the lives of the poorest of the poor. (Informe Pastran, Dec. 28)

6. Officials struggle to preserve forests in three zones

Col. Marvin Paniagua, commander of the Ecological Battalion of the Nicaraguan Army, reported on Dec. 24 that the Battalion confiscated over 150,000 board feet of timber this year in over 9,000 operations on land and water in the Mining Triangle and Prinzapolka areas in the North Caribbean Autonomous Region. Paniagua said, “In spite of the fact that we now have traceability in the forestry wood supply chain which we supposed would reduce trafficking in illegal wood, we still have timber trafficking on our roads and highways with the greatest traffic in Alamikamba and Rosita.” He added, “They are not penetrating through Siuna but rather they are entering through Mulukuku to Alamikamba, then to Rosita and finally Bonanza. Or they come through Waslala, El Naranjo, and the zones of Saslaya or San Jose de Bocay which gives them access to parts of the Bosawas Reserve.” Paniagua added that they had captured four traffickers in indigenous land who had illegally “sold” 3,500 acres of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. He said that the offenders are being prosecuted.

Meanwhile, the Rio Grande de Carazo, which flows into the Pacific in the Department of Carazo, is slowing dying as a result of overuse of its waters for irrigation to grow sugar cane, deforestation of its watersheds, and garbage dumping along its shores. The river is now eight kilometers shorter than it was a few short years ago in spite of sporadic campaigns of reforestation and cleanup. Julia Hernandez, delegate for Carazo of the Environment Ministry, said that a1992 plan would have led to an equilibrium between economic development and environmental protection but efforts ended in about the year 2000. Enrique Hernandez, delegate of the Forestry Institute for Carazo, said that his agency patrols the area and prosecutes those who chop down trees under Law 559, the Special Law on Crimes against the Environment, but that “It is impossible to be permanently guarding the whole area.”

In related news, 13 foci of pine bark beetles in the forests of Mozonte and San Fernando in the Department of Nueva Segovia are under control according to Gerald Zeledon, an environmental official in the municipality of San Fernando. Zeledon explained that so far, the beetle that they have found in San Fernando is of the genus Ips and not the more dangerous Dendroctonus frontalis which destroyed 33,262 hectares of pine forests in Nueva Sevovia (53% of the department’s pines) between 1999 and 2003. “So far only between ten and 15 trees have been killed,” he said. However, the feared Dendroctonus frontalis is attacking trees in the municipality of Mozonte but officials there believe it is now under control although it has attacked between 300 and 400 trees. Eden Ortez said that the infected trees have to be chopped down, piled up and burned. Any salvageable wood must be fumigated before it is removed from the area. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 22, 24, 28)

7. Ranchers switching to biogas from wood and propane

El Nuevo Diario featured Rio San Juan restaurateur/rancher Freddy Sevilla to demonstrate the benefits of cooking with biogas over propane or wood burning stoves. Installation of a biodigester on his farm has allowed him to switch from chemical to organic fertilizers while cutting his consumption of wood and propane by 70%. But the biggest benefit has been the health of his family. He made the switch after the family doctor told him the respiratory illnesses within his family could not be fully resolved until they stopped breathing wood smoke.

On the national level, 500 ranch families have switched to biogas with the help of the Nicaragua Biogas Program (PBN). Biogas has improved their living conditions, increased productivity, and saved them money that would have gone to chemical fertilizers, firewood and propane. It also reduces the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. PBN subsidizes US$480 of the cost of conversion, performs quality control on construction of biodigesters, and provides training and technical assistance. The program is funded with US$6.2 million from the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund and the Nordic Development Fund among others. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 22)

Labels: Nicaragua News Bulletin