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'Our ambition is to generate economic value through conservation'

September 3, 2020

Javier Gutierrez Ramirez in foreground with sunset and mountain
Javier Gutiérrez Ramirez visits a project that is providing environmentally-friendly cookstoves to rural families in Isla Zapatera, near Nicaragua's west coast.

Javier Antonio Gutiérrez Ramírez is Nicaragua’s Vice Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, and the country’s GEF Operational Focal Point. He spends much of his time visiting rural communities to learn first-hand about conservation challenges and solutions. In an interview, he reflected on GEF-sponsored initiatives that are helping Nicaraguan families adopt forest-friendly practices while boosting their incomes.

What sparked your interest in environmental work?

My mother grew up in a rural community called Tisma. When I was a kid, we would visit often and stay on my grandfather’s farm. There was a large cotton plantation across the road. At the time, the price for cotton was high. The entire forest had been cut down for the plantation, creating lots of dust and erosion. Crop dusters would fly overhead to fumigate the cotton, swooping down and spraying pesticides. When we smelled the chemicals, we’d run inside the house. Environmental issues were all around us, but at the time there wasn’t much awareness about them. We didn’t have a lot of information.

When it came time for me to study, there was a degree in forest science offered at the National University of Costa Rica that sparked my interest. Back then, in the 1980s, we were starting to hear news from Costa Rica about environmental issues and the conservation of rivers and forests. I knew that if those issues were important to our neighbors, they would soon matter to us as well. 

What are the main environmental issues of importance to your country?

Nicaragua has the largest forests in Central America, they cover more than a third of the country and have incredible biodiversity. In the past, these forests have had more value when cut down. We are working to stop deforestation and the degradation of the forests. Our ambition is to generate economic value through conservation -- to provide shared benefits and economic alternatives that would not exist if the forests were destroyed.

We are seeking a balance that benefits nature and also provides livelihoods for families. We need to make sure that society recognizes the services the environment offers so that people will manage our natural resources in a sustainable way.

What are some examples of this balance that creates sustainable livelihoods?

In our country iguanas are a delicacy. But they have been overhunted, and hunters often start forest fires to drive the iguanas out of the canopy. Now, hunting iguanas in the wild is illegal. We have a program that helps farmers breed them in captivity. Each iguana farm is regulated and inspected by the Ministry. The farmers learn to care for the forest, they know their livelihoods depend on it. Some iguanas are introduced back into the wild, while others are sold. This generates economic opportunities for families in rural areas and also instills an interest in preserving forest habitats.

There’s another example on the Pacific coast, in the Chinandega region, where a women’s cooperative farms mollusks in the mangroves. As part of our strategy to promote the socioeconomic benefits of our natural resources, we provide them with training to set up mollusk nurseries.

This is a very poor region; some women are single mothers. The mangrove is their only source of income. It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘Don’t touch the mangrove.’ Instead, we provide quotas to reduce over-commercialization. And we offer workshops and guidance from marine biologists. The women recognize that the mangroves are essential to their livelihoods and they use them sustainably. They’re the first ones to report any illegal logging in the mangrove forest and they participate in restoration projects.

How has the GEF helped Nicaragua advance its environmental agenda?

The Lake Apanás watershed project, which was supported by the GEF, generates about 60 percent of our country’s energy. It’s very important to us. The GEF provided technical advice that enabled us to take an integrated management approach with a view toward biodiversity conservation, managing forests and protecting fragile ecosystems. The program also included an innovative initiative that paid farmers and the owners of private forest reserves, compensating them for carbon sequestration.

With the GEF we learned to incorporate many different stakeholders, as well as various ministries and Nicaragua’s electric company. It’s a highly participative approach that enabled us to accomplish more than we would have on our own as the environmental ministry. We’ve applied this holistic approach to other projects.

Javier Gutiérrez Ramírez standing with Nicaraguan forest rangers
Javier Gutiérrez Ramírez (center) visits forest rangers at the Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve. The reserve covers more than one million hectares and includes diverse ecosystems - from tropical forests and wetlands to tidal marshes, coastal lagoons and estuaries that provide habitats for threatened species.

Is there a project that’s especially close to your heart?

I get very excited about the issue of recycling. I have visited cooperatives of women who use recycled materials and waste to make art. They see things in the trash that I could never see. I’m amazed at their creativity. In fact, I have some of their artwork hanging in my living room.

Entire families make a living from collecting, sorting and recycling garbage. If it weren’t for them, we would have garbage in the streets. Their work is fundamental to keeping cities clean.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

I’ve learned that listening to rural and indigenous communities is essential to having a better understanding of social and environmental problems. Roughly 75 percent of our forests are in the hands of indigenous communities; they hold communal property titles. You cannot manage the land without taking them into account.

I’m in the field about three days a week. I travel around the country visiting families and projects. I’m in peoples’ homes to learn from them. It’s not about checking a box or just getting through the work plan.

Some families I visit are very poor, but they have all the same aspirations that we have in the city. They want to get ahead; they want to provide for their families and give their kids an education. Many times, they have high expectations of my visit. I come back to the office and try to find a solution to the problems they’ve presented. It creates a deep sense of commitment in me.

What environmental changes do you hope to see by the time you retire?

I hope to see less pollution, more green spaces, and a greater awareness about climate and the environment. I also would like developed countries, which typically are the largest greenhouse gas emitters, to take more ambitious actions to reduce their impact on climate change.

In Nicaragua we’re betting on young people to help build environmental consciousness. Much of our work is directed at the youth. They’re challenging the current models of production and consumption. They’re demanding change. That’s where the solution is.

Photos courtesy of Javier Gutiérrez Ramirez