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Social and Environmental Issues in Nicaragua

The social and environmental issues in Nicaragua are heavily intertwined with the growing economic problems in the country. The economic crisis of the 1980s, coupled with the Contra War, has worsened the greatest social problems Nicaragua has faced in the past few decades, namely unemployment, underemployment and poverty. Rampant poverty and unemployment have lead to housing shortages, malnutrition and rising crime and illiteracy. An estimated 48 percent of Nicaraguans live in poverty; the statistics for unemployment and underemployment are just as high, reaching 50 percent of the population.

In the big cities such as Managua, the urban poor live in slums made of cardboard and sleep on dirt floors; many people do not have access to safe drinking water or sanitary plumbing systems. The cramped living conditions of the slums allow for the rapid spread of diseases such as pneumonia, gastroenteritis and diarrhea -- easily curable aliments in most developed countries that have proven to be fatal to Nicaraguans, due to the inaccessibility of affordable and adequate health care.

Although the urban areas of Nicaragua may have inadequate social services, the rural areas are where services such as health, water, education and sanitation are nearly nonexistent.

Education in Nicaragua is technically free, but there are always hidden costs for uniforms and books that many people can not afford to pay. Numerous families living in the countryside do not send their children to school. Instead, the young ones are put to work to help support their families.

There were some improvements in health care and education made during the Sandinista regime, particularly in the rural areas. Any ground gain was slowly lost again as what little money the government had was diverted from social programs into funding the war with the Contras.

The economic crisis of the 1980s left the country in dire straits. After years of hyperinflation, salaries became nonexistent. Many Nicaraguans were forced to supplement their so-called salaries by working in the black market or as street vendors and taxicab drivers.

Rising unemployment and underemployment led directly to the rise in crime, gangs and violence in the 1990s as people used any means necessary to get what they needed to survive.

The economic situation in Nicaragua has been getting better.  The country has been following an International Monetary Fund program, with the goal of creating more jobs, decreasing poverty and opening the economy to foreign trade.

Many international organizations have also stepped in to help out. In 2005, the United Nation classified Nicaragua as a Heavily Indebted Poor Country, and forgave some of the country's foreign debt. Around the same time, Nicaragua also signed the DR-CAFTA (Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement). The agreement has arguably created thousands of jobs for those previously unemployed, 90 percent of the workers are single, uneducated mothers with no other means of support. (Critics point out that the wages are so low that many women remain poverty stricken.)

Due to the immensity of problems with poverty and unemployment, the environmental degradation of Nicaragua’s lakes and forests went largely gone unnoticed before the 1980s. Nicaragua’s enormous foreign debt has also contributed to the destruction of natural resources—Nicaragua lost 21 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2005.

The biggest environmental problems facing Nicaragua are all due to human causes: deforestation, pollution caused by agricultural production, water pollution, over-fishing and poor land management. Deforestation in Nicaragua occurs at a rampant rate; the country's forest cover is at 4 million hectares or half of the estimated 8 million hectares that Nicaragua had in the 1950s.

Nicaragua’s tropical forests are disappearing ten times as fast as the Amazon rain forest in Brazil. If the rate were to continue at the same speed, scientists estimate that Nicaragua's rain forest will disappear between 2010 and 2021.

Urgent steps need to be taken to save the tropical forests or Nicaragua may face the same fate as its neighbor El Salvador, where only three percent of the original forest cover remains. Approximately 75 percent of Nicaraguan forests have already been turned into crop and pasture land

The use of pesticides such as DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) increased dramatically during the Sandinista regime, resulting in widespread environmental contamination in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas used DDT to control malaria and sold pesticides to farmers for little to nothing. While pesticides meant farmers could grow more, their use also resulted in environmental damage from toxic runoff.

During the Somoza dictatorship, industrial plants were allowed to dump toxic waste into Lake Managua. As a result, many of Nicaragua’s lakes and rivers were severely contaminated. The combination of sewage and chemical wastes means Lake Managua is unsuitable for swimming, fishing, or providing drinking water.

The combination of pollution and over fishing has destroyed a once-thriving fishing industry in lakes such as Managua. Endangered or extinct marine species in Nicaragua include the American Crocodile, a form of freshwater shark, and all of the Green Sea, Hawkbill, Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles.

In an effort to correct the poor usage of natural resources, Nicaragua created the Nicaraguan Institute for Natural Resources and Environment (IRENA) in the 1980s. The institute has established both the Bosawas Natural Resources Reserve and Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve. The two parks form the largest forest reserves in Central America and protect many species such as jaguars, tapirs, howler monkeys, frogs, rare birds and orchids. Nicaragua is also home to 74 other protected land areas.

However, even with these efforts, Nicaraguan is still facing numerous hurtles when it comes to protecting the country's rain forests and revitalizing both damanged lands and waters. 

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Nicaragua : When to Visit, When to go, Nicaragua Food and Drink, When to Go to Big Corn Island, Day tours in Nicaragua, Travel Insurance in Nicaragua, When to Go to Laguna de Perlas, Hostels in Nicaragua, Safety and Coffee in Niacaragua.

By Michelle Lillie
I am currently living on my fourth continent. I think that backpacks are one of the greatest inventions of all times. I adhere to the idea that if...
10 Mar 2009

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