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Rebounding from Hurricane Otto in Nicaragua’s Most Ecologically Sensitive Rainforests

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The Raphia palm swamps were hit hard by Hurricane Otto.  The majority of the palm leaves blew over or broke off, exposing the trees sprinkled between the palms to the storm’s winds. (Photo by Camilo de Castro Belli)

By Chris Jordan, GWC’s Nicaragua Programs Director (with editorial help from Gerald R. Urquhart, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University)

November 24, 2016, is a day I will never forget. While many in the United States were sitting down to enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner, I was hunkered down with my forest patrol team in Nicaragua as Hurricane Otto lashed the rainforests around us. We received news of the hurricane via satellite communication about 12 hours before it was predicted to hit land—and we were already deep in the heart of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve in southeastern Nicaragua, in the middle of an expedition to evaluate the illegal advance of cattle ranchers and land traffickers. Our only option was to find a “safe” place and try to survive as the category 2 storm passed directly over us. We observed firsthand the power of a hurricane, and when the winds had passed, our beloved Indio Maíz Reserve was torn apart.

We do not yet have formal estimates of the damage, but our initial observations while walking out of the heart of the reserve on Nov. 25 and 26, combined with extensive photos from overflights via helicopter and plane, suggest that the area of affected forest is extensive. Indio Maíz is one of the largest tracts of lowland tropical rainforest left in Central America and an area of critical importance for a number of threatened and emblematic species, including Jaguars (Panthera onca), Baird’s Tapirs (Tapirus bairdii), and White-lipped Peccaries (Tayassu pecari).  The response of Nicaragua’s natural resources authorities to the hurricane over the next few months will determine whether Indio Maíz continues to be a vital safe haven for the biodiversity it harbors, or if its future will be one of continued—and irrevocable—disaster.

Global Wildlife Conservation Nicarauga Programs Director Chris Jordan assessing damage to the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve from Hurricane Otto.
Global Wildlife Conservation Nicaragua Programs Director Chris Jordan assessing damage to the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve from Hurricane Otto. (Photo by Aracelly Thomas)

Looking ahead actually requires that we look back in time at Nicaragua’s two other recent large and well-documented hurricanes: Category 4 Hurricane Joan (1988 with >250 km/h wind gusts), and Category 5 Hurricane Felix (2007 with >250 km/h winds). The responses to these events offer cautionary tales that can help us re-build in a way that limits ecological and cultural damage:

  • Access roads lead to illegal deforestation. After both Hurricane Joan and Hurricane Felix, the Nicaraguan government permitted timber companies to enter damaged forests to extract fallen timber. This process inevitably creates logging roads that lead into previously inaccessible forests. After Hurricane Joan, all extensively logged areas where access roads were built remained permanently deforested because the roads were poorly monitored. After the timber companies exited, illegal cattle ranching colonists took advantage of the improved access to convert remaining forests into cattle pastures.
  • Conversion of land is a more serious threat than hurricanes. The primary timber company responsible for this harvest, COMABLUSA, used permits for salvage logging to harvest standing trees and never reforested the denuded landscapes where they worked. Post-hurricane Felix saw a similar outcome in northern Nicaragua, and the roads and infrastructure associated with timber harvest increased access to forests and fomented the colonization of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve and adjacent indigenous territories by illegal cattle ranchers. The permanent conversion of forest to cattle pastures associated with such colonization of Nicaragua’s reserves poses a much larger long-term threat to Central American biodiversity and climate stabilization than damage of forests at the hands of fires or hurricanes.
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TCucaracha Hill in Indio Maíz is one of the most significantly damaged locations.  Very few trees were left unscathed by Hurricane Otto. (Photo by Camilo de Castro Belli)
  • Timber extraction should be limited to local indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. Commercial timber extraction after Joan and Felix did not significantly improve the economic situation of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast impoverished indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples and rather tended to benefit large companies and already wealthy Nicaraguans. The Nicaraguan government should heed the demands of communal indigenous and Afro-descendant leaders who have already said that they will oppose any permits given to companies or citizens to extract lumber from the 70 percent of Indio Maíz that falls within their territory. To control the invasion of Indio Maíz, only local indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples should be allowed to extract timber for the construction of damaged houses. Even this type of local timber extraction should be carefully regulated and prohibited in Raphia swamps to prevent accidental fires.
  • The risk of fire does not justify salvage logging in hurricane-damaged forests. After Hurricane Joan, as part of his dissertation Michigan State University assistant professor Gerald R. Urquhart found that there were extensive fires in about 90,000 hectares of the coastal palm swamps. Raphia palms previously dominated the swamps, and their leaves comprised a highly combustible fuel load post-hurricane. Local rice farmers accustomed to burning Raphia swamps before planting ignited these leaves, causing extensive fires that eliminated much of the flora and fauna of these wetlands. However, despite massive fires in these swamps, the fires did not actually spread into the adjacent lowland tropical rainforest. This historical experience undermines the main argument implemented thus far to encourage salvage logging in the affected lowland tropical rainforests of Indio Maíz—the fallen trees and leaves on the humid forest floor in Indio Maíz do not pose a significant forest fire risk. Rather than concentrating on salvage logging in broadleafed forests, to prevent extensive fires, natural resource managers in Indio Maíz must work to prevent agricultural fires in and around the Raphia-dominated coastal swamps, which constitute an important refuge for large mammal species such as White-lipped Peccaries. Local Kriol leaders in Greytown have already begun talking with their community to avoid expansive fires in coastal swamps.
Rama forest ranger Armando John drives his boat along the Indian River with the hurricane-damaged forest surrounding him.
Rama forest ranger Armando John drives his boat along the Indian River with the hurricane-damaged forest surrounding him. (Photo by Camilo de Castro Belli)
  • Salvage logging could actually disrupt the natural regrowth of the forest. Not only are fallen trees in the humid lowland tropical rainforest a minimal fire hazard, most of them actually stay alive. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Joan, only 18 percent of the forest’s trees had leaves. Yet within four months after the hurricane, 77 percent of trees had regrown their leaves, including almost two-thirds of fallen trees and over three-quarters of trees whose trunks snapped in half, according to a 1991 publication by Yih et al. Because of the high rates of regeneration of snapped off and fallen trees, species associated with primary forests—instead of secondary species that would reduce the ecosystem–dominated the regeneration of Nicaragua’s lowland tropical forest after Hurricane Joan. This allowed the forest to retain its full tree species richness and regenerate with the species composition of a primary forest. Salvage logging would seem to prevent regrowth of primary forest species, making it more difficult for wildlife species associated with primary forests to survive in the short term in Indio Maíz. Salvage logging in Indio Maíz will likely directly cause explosions of secondary pioneer species and declines in total tree species richness in the reserve.

Although primary forest obligate wildlife species, especially birds and bats, may suffer in the short-term after Hurricane Otto, we are optimistic that Indio Maíz will remain a core area for a host of threatened, endangered and emblematic species. Based on studies that looked at past hurricanes in Nicaragua, it seems that we can expect that within five years, Indio Maíz’s canopy will once again close completely and the understory will become “as dark as in a primary forest” (Vandermeer et al. 1996). Hurricanes have caused a cycle of destruction and regrowth that have historically shaped the Caribbean forests of Central America. Some researchers have even proposed the theory that hurricanes help preserve biodiversity in forests. That means that Hurricane Otto in and of itself is not the death of Indio Maíz. In fact, if authorities work with local people to prohibit salvage logging and prevent the colonization of the reserve and its permanent conversion to cattle pasture, Hurricane Otto will instead mark a type of rebirth for this critical cog in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.

References:

Torrez Garcia.  http://www.laprensa.com.ni/2016/12/03/nacionales/2144766-indigenas-no-permitiran-extraccion-madera-indio-maiz

Urquhart, G. R. 1997. Disturbance and Regeneration of Swamp Forests in Nicaragua: Evidence from Ecology and Paleoecology.  Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Yih, K., D.H. Boucher, J.H. Vandermeer, and N. Zamora. 1991. Recovery of the rain forest of Southeastern Nicaragua after Destruction by Hurricane Joan.  Biotropica. 23(3):106-113

Vandermeer, J., D. Boucher, I. Perfecto, and I.G. de la Cerda. 1996. A theory of disturbance and species diversity: evidence from Nicaragua after Hurricane Joan. Biotropica. 28(4a):600-613