You don’t see any butterflies, you don’t hear any birds. There is just a horrible silence and unbearable heat where ancestral forests once stood. It’s an apocalyptic scene.
This was a first-hand description given by Rosalia Gutiérrez from Nicaragua’s environment ministry in the aftermath of Hurricane Felix, which hit the Central American country on 4 September.
The Category 5 hurricane — the highest category of a tropical storm — hit the village of Sandy Bay in northeastern Nicaragua with winds gusts of up to 260 kilometres (161 miles) per hour, destroying homes and infrastructure along the way. At least 133 deaths have been attributed to Felix.
Wiped off the map
The ten communities that make up Sandy Bay — home to indigenous Miskitos — were wiped off the map.
“Like a giant weed-whacker, the hurricane stripped from its path large tracts of forests as if they were toothpicks, yanking them up by the roots, stripping them of their branches and leaving the soil completely bare,” Gutiérrez said.
Data from the lumber industry show that the hurricane knocked down about 6 million cubic metres of wood over 477,000 hectares of forests at an estimated loss of US$500 million.
Government officials are also concerned that the thousands of fallen trees will become fuel for forest fires with the arrival of the dry season, a threat that could be as damaging as the hurricane itself.
“Apart from the loss of trees and lumber, the rich biodiversity and ecosystems that are a source of sustenance for the indigenous communities were destroyed,” she added.
WWF has been working with Miskito communities for many years, assisting them with responsible forest management to conserve and make sustainable use of forest resources. Some indigenous communities had already become organized into forestry enterprises so that they could sell their lumber and furniture on the national and international markets.
WWF is working with these communities to begin an intensive reforestation campaign throughout the devastated zone as soon as possible.
Wildlife in the region, such as deer, sloths, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, small mammals like raccoons and pacas, and birds like toucans, parrots and the great curassow, were also exposed to the natural disaster. Many died, habitats were destroyed.
“The damage is even greater because the hurricane’s destruction of the ecosystems caused an imbalance in the food chain,” said Nadia Bood, a WWF coral reef expert.
“All kinds of habitat were affected, including the reef system of the Miskito Cays, the coastal zone, estuaries, wetlands, rivers, pine savannahs and broadleaf forests.”
In the coastal zone, coral reefs were ripped up from the bottom of the sea and left exposed. Coastal mangroves were also destroyed; their roots in the air, their branches under water. And the hurricane winds shifted the sand — where it used to be dry there are now lagoons, and where the water used to be deep it is now shallow.
The huge number of dead branches, leaves and animals that fell into the area’s water sources has also altered the water’s physical and chemical characteristics, causing the death of fish, turtles and other aquatic species.
There is an urgent need to remove the organic material deposited in the productive zones of the coastal wetlands, to allow the recovery of the mangrove ecosystems and, as soon as possible, begin the task of reforestation with native species to protect the soils and avoid wash-outs.
“Intact forests and coral reefs offer protection from hurricanes,” Bood said.
“Coral reefs weaken the force of the waves before they reach the coast and the mangrove forests that line the beaches reduce erosion of the littoral zone, protecting it from strong wave action on the shores.”
It will take many years for life to return to normal in the areas affected by Hurricane Felix, but WWF is committed to working with local authorities and organizations, as well as the indigenous communities with reconstruction efforts.
“It is important now to ensure that the devastated areas remain under the management and protection of the indigenous communities and that no change in land use occurs,” stressed Sylvia Marín, regional representative of WWF Central America.
“This will guarantee that the forests and wetlands can be regenerated to their natural state and continue providing important environmental services to the communities and the nation.”
For more information:
Spencer Ortiz, Forestry Programme Officer
WWF Central America
Tel: +1 505 270 3118