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U.S. sanctions on Nicaragua will increase emissions that cause climate change| GUEST COMMENTARY

Farm workers pick coffee beans from several small coffee farms through out the city of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
Farm workers pick coffee beans from several small coffee farms through out the city of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and home to large rainforests, including the second largest one in the Western Hemisphere. Trees reverse net greenhouse gas emissions by taking up carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in soils, residues and canopy. U.S. trade policies with Nicaragua could significantly affect global greenhouse gas emissions if its rainforests are destroyed and are directly and indirectly detrimental to preserving Nicaragua’s forests.

Nicaragua was a signer of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), but the U.S. applied sanctions on Nicaragua interrupting free trade. These sanctions prevent Nicaragua from obtaining loans from international lending authorities. There is a new bill called the RENACER Act, which passed in the Senate without discussion, and is now before the House. This bill would impose harsh economic sanctions on the country to create conditions to encourage a coup d’etat.

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The U.S.-backed neoliberal governments that ruled Nicaragua from 1990 to 2006 sold 20% of the forests in Nicaragua to international logging companies and beef exporters. Despite the intentions of the U.S. State Department, the Sandinista party won elections in 2007, and the new government issued land titles to Indigenous populations. The Sandinistas also participated in international carbon-trading programs and used proceeds to incentivize the planting of 1.2 million hectares of forests and other trees throughout urban and rural settings. Programs in agroecology promoted soil conservation and incorporation of trees in horticulture and grazing systems improving agricultural and environmental efficiency.

Nicaraguan agriculture is now less susceptible to damage from the increased number and intensity of hurricanes brought about by climate change, while producing 90% of the country’s food. U.S. sanctions target all government programs, which in Nicaragua, are focused on poverty reduction, food distribution, medical care and building infrastructure as well as protecting the environment. Interference with the government disproportionally affects the poor since wealthier people can afford to participate in the private sector of the economy.

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Given the popularity of the Sandinistas as compared to the neoliberal opposition supported by the U.S. government, it is unlikely that the sanctions will bring about a change in leadership in the near term. Nonetheless, the sanctions have the potential to have a large impact on Nicaragua’s forests. It is the small military and police force that are charged with protecting land resources and Indigenous people who live in the forested areas, and U.S. sanctions directly target those entities. The police and military also acted heroically to evacuate and protect people during the two level 4 to 5 hurricanes last year. The latest round of sanctions before U.S. Congress will completely embargo supplies to the military and police from imported goods from the U.S., for example. Other U.S. sanctions block international funding for programs in Nicaragua that support reforestation. Because the U.S. sanctions are broad and vague and the enforcement is arbitrary and severe, there has been and will continue to be overenforcement in which investors avoid Nicaragua all together. The economic damage being done by the sanctions will eventually force the Nicaraguans to choose between feeding their population and preserving their forests, as they will likely no longer be able to do both.

Nicaragua is a very small country and its greenhouse gas emissions per capita are about one eighth as high as those in the U.S. Nonetheless, the country has been having a positive impact on net greenhouse gas reduction by reforesting land that was deforested under previous U.S.-backed governments. U.S. sanctions directly impede those efforts and will likely result in greater deforestation in Nicaragua and cause a net increase in greenhouse gases going into the environment. U.S. policy toward Nicaragua is just one example of a wider U.S. policy to support neoliberal governments throughout Latin America and the world, and collectively these relationships must be considered for their substantial effects on climate change.

Richard Kohn (rkohn@umd.edu) is a professor within the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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