A personal experience of climate change and environmental issues in Central America

A personal experience of climate change and environmental issues in Central America
Costa Rica, a developing country without mineral resources, has environmental and climate change policies which should be an example to Australia. It is a leader in environmental sustainability and performance. Nicaragua is very poor and highly susceptible to climate change.

I have recently returned from a 6 week trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This was not for an elective nor volunteer work – it was essentially my last hoorah before becoming a ‘real adult’ and dealing with holidays that don’t last for two months! Both countries have exquisite natural beauty and diverse flora and fauna. Nicaragua is known as the country of lakes and volcanoes, whilst Costa Rica has lusciously green mountain ranges that separate the Pacific Coast from the Caribbean Coast.

In Costa Rica, I visited Monteverde, a cloud forest reserve, in which I saw dozens of hummingbirds, climbed strangler fig trees and ran a 25km gruelling trail race. I also travelled to a number of national parks featuring volcanoes; Carara National Park, where I saw scarlet macaws and spent a long time watching ants bustling along the forest floor; Manuel Antonio National Park, where I saw a sloth and many monkeys. In Nicaragua, I stayed in a treehouse in a cloud forest, located on the side of Mombacho Volcano and I swam in Laguna de Apoyo, a lagoon formed inside an extinct collapsed volcano crater. A highlight was seeing in the New Year on Ometepe Island, which is an island in Lake Nicaragua, consisting of two volcanoes. These two Central American countries are incredibly rich in biodiversity, however this is threatened by human activity.

Climate change threatens to decrease precipitation in Central America in both the wet season and the dry season which will deplete water resources for all kinds of use, affecting food security and availability of drinking water, as well as affecting hydroelectric power, which accounts for 75.8% of Costa Rican and 13.8% of Nicaraguan electricity production. A sea level rise of up to one metre would also affect availability of drinking water and potentially displace populations living on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. The whole of Central America faces increased vulnerability to extreme weather events along the lines of the 2005 Hurricane ‘Stan’, which caused 1,500 deaths. Nicaragua is particularly vulnerable, as around half the population lives below the poverty line and around 20% live below the extreme poverty line.

Costa Rica’s response to the threat of climate change presented itself on my second day in Central America when I visited the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. There is currently an exhibition titled Inteligencia Natural, an entire section of the museum focusing on people’s ability to interpret how nature functions and the consequences of climate change, with a particular focus on natural solutions to the issues we face. It was interesting to note that this exhibition centred on adaptation to climate change, rather than mitigation; being such a small country which already relies on renewable sources for over 93% of energy, there is little Costa Rica can do to mitigate climate change. However, Costa Rica is rated by the Climate Action Tracker as one of the few countries considered to be acting sufficiently to mitigate climate change, with a very ambitious target of becoming neutral by 2021.

Nicaragua however faces a more immediate ecological threat: the proposed canal through the southern part of the country and Lake Nicaragua by the Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company, which has now entered the study phase of development and plans to begin construction in December of this year. A recent commentary in Nature by Professor Axel Meyer and Professor Jorge Huete-Pérez, expresses grave concern for the ecological and social impacts of this project. Lake Nicaragua is the largest drinking reservoir in the region and excavation will destroy 400,000 hectares of rainforest and wetlands. Much of the biodiversity the project threatens is unique to that area of the world. The project will also lead to the upheaval of autonomous Indigenous groups, which could reignite civil unrest. Thus, the authors of this commentary are calling on the international community of conservationists, sociologists and scientists to place pressure on the Nicaraguan government to undertake an independent review and halt the project should the assessment find that the detriments to the natural resources, indigenous communities and biodiversity outweigh the economic benefits of the canal.

I intend to travel back to Nicaragua in November to undertake my elective and I will no doubt visit more spectacular places. I sincerely hope that the cultural, social and environmental richness that I experience is preserved for many future generations of Nicas.

Alice McGushin
National Student Representative – DEA



Climate Action Tracker. 2013. Costa Rica, http://climateactiontracker.org/countries/costarica.html

Comisión Centroamericana de Ambiente y Desarrollo & Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana. 2010. Regional Strategy on Climate Change: Executive Document. http://www.uncsd2012.org/content/documents/regionalstrategyelsalvador.pdf

Macro Economy Meter. http://mecometer.com

Magrin, G., C. Gay García, D. Cruz Choque, J.C. Giménez, A.R. Moreno, G.J. Nagy, C. Nobre and A. Villamizar. 2007. Latin America. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 581-615. http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg2/ar4-wg2-chapter13.pdf

Meyer, A & Huete-Perez, J. 2014, ‘Conservation: Nicaragua Canal could wreak environmental ruin’, Nature, vol. 506, no. 7488, pp. 287-289.

The World Bank. 2014. Nicaragua: Poverty Assessment. http://go.worldbank.org/0TPHYXCZX0

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