DATE: January 2, 2005


Dr. Jaime Incer Barquero’s name is almost synonymous with the ecological and conservation movements in Nicaragua. Born in Boaco, Jaime Incer studied at the Instituto Pedagógico de Managua, and graduated with a degree in Pharmacy and Chemistry from the Universidad Autónoma de Leon in 1959. He completed postgraduate studies at the University of Michigan, in the United States, receiving his doctorate in Biological Sciences in 1963. Dr. Incer went on to receive international recognition as a distinguished biologist, having explored, catalogued, and fought hard to conserve the country’s variegated natural habitats for four decades. Dr. Incer has recorded, observed, and photographed Nicaragua, by land, sea, and air, and has worn the dual professional hats of professor and policymaker. As an educator, he was a research professor in the Fulbright Program in the Geography and Anthropology Department at Louisiana State University, and a visiting professor in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also served as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences at the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua. As Nicaragua’s Minister of the Environment under President Violeta Chamorro from 1990-1994, Dr. Incer expanded the country’s nature preserves and championed environmental issues. Currently, Dr. Incer serves as President of the Nicaraguan Institute of Geography and History; the President of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Sustainable Development (FUNDENIC); and Vice-President of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Nature Conservation (COCIBOLCA). Now, with an eye toward developing the country’s economy while keeping alive and intact Nicaragua’s rich ecological patrimony, Dr. Incer has accepted the role of Senior Environmental Affairs Advisor for CINN. Recently Joseph Tangredi and Francisco D’Escoto of CINN had an opportunity to talk to Dr. Jaime Incer, about Nicaragua’s environment, his unique and varied career, and the role of the Dry Canal in Nicaragua’s future.

Q – Thinking back to your earlier years, what was it that motivated you to study natural science in the first place?

A – Personal curiosity and continual inquiry, considering the attraction of Nicaragua as a tropical country, rich in natural scenery and resources.

Q – Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America in terms of land area. Is it also the most diverse in terms of climate and ecosystems?

A – Costa Rica is the most diverse in terms of climate zoning, since it has higher elevations which provide additional habitats for species diversity. But the Nicaraguan tropical ecosystems are more extensive and have larger lakes and forests, pine savannas, and numerous wetlands along the Caribbean coast, besides Bosawás, the largest rain forest Biosphere Reserve in Central America. From the canal perspective, Nicaragua has ideal conditions to build a dry canal since its territory is the flattest in the Central American isthmus, facing two oceans nearby. A great potential of geothermal energy exists in the Pacific side, and the tropical rivers in the Caribbean versant have enough water for hydroelectric generation.

Q – What do you do in Nicaragua to motivate young people and encourage their interest in science?

A – You will notice that since I graduated from the University of Michigan, almost 40 years ago, and then returned to Nicaragua, I have been involved in education, teaching courses related to biological sciences, organizing environmental and natural resources departments at the two most important universities, and also promoting conservation ideas throughout the country. At the same time, I was exploring and studying the country’s geography; surveying, planning and promoting the national protected area system. Even right now I am preparing a new science curriculum for high school students, writing textbooks, and training teachers in accordance with the new reforms of the education system in Nicaragua.

Q – Recently you were honored by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) with the Packard Award, in recognition of your work on behalf of environmental conservation in Nicaragua. Among other accomplishments, this award was given to recognize your effort to found the Masaya Volcano National Park. When and how did you begin that effort? What are the benefits of the park for the people of Nicaragua?

A – Volcán Masaya was the first national park established in Nicaragua, 25 years ago. At that time I acted as director of the new school of Natural Resources at the University Centro Americana in Managua, and obtained the financial support from Banco Central de Nicaragua, as well as technical assistance from the FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization), to establish the park. I was aware of the great possibilities of the park, located in the center of the most populated area of the country, offering spectacular volcanic phenomena, a singular ecology and interesting history. Besides, the volcano is quite accessible, close to the most transited road in the country. That park represented the first effort to combine conservation and education to the Nicaraguan people, and research and tourism for potential visitors. As minister of the environment, in the early 90’s, I expanded the park system by declaring other potential areas as parkland, which I recognized during my years of exploring the country. I also promoted, with the other Central American ministers, the idea of connecting some protected areas to establish the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which runs today from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the Panama-Colombia frontier.

Q – During your tenure as Nicaragua’s Minister of the Environment, you established nature reserves at Bosawás and Indio Maíz. What is unique about the natural environment in these places?

A – Both reserves are the largest rain forest areas in Nicaragua, and about the most pristine ecosystems still found in the humid tropics of Central America. Their locations, near the northern and southern borders of Nicaragua respectively, allowed the connections with other similar areas in Honduras and Costa Rica, and with those in the interior of Nicaragua. On the other hand, Bosawás is home to the Sumu or Mayangna Indians, so I convinced President Chamorro in 1990 to set apart the area as a Biological Reserve, preventing it from being claimed by the former “contras” which demanded from her government such unique and extensive rain forest, with the purpose of exploiting all the timber and converting the entire area into agricultural land.

Q – In the past several years, you have worked on the National Strategy for Sustainable Development in Nicaragua. What will be the benefit of this approach 25 or 50 years in the future?

A – We do not have to wait for such a time to come. As an immediate consequence of that Strategy, approved by the National Development Council (CONADES), we now have the General Environmental Law, as well as some other promising regulations and projects, related to forests, water and other natural resources. Now, people in Nicaragua have more concern about national and municipal conservation plans and support private ecotourism initiatives which can mean better social and economic benefits for themselves than before, in accordance with the new agenda of the National Development Plan proposed recently by the Government for the next 25 years. Local as well as foreign investors are now adjusting their plans to a longer and more sustainable vision, taking the territorial considerations of the Plan as an important part of the expected success of what they’re investing in.

Q – With the development of the Dry Canal, many new economic opportunities will open up for Nicaragua. How do we balance these economic opportunities for the future of the country with the need to preserve the environment and the country’s natural wealth?

A – We need to learn that ecology and economy are not opposed concepts. It is as important to produce in order to conserve, as it is to conserve in order to produce. Constructing the Dry Canal can take both requirements into consideration. Some of the benefits expected for the operation of the Project should be ploughed back into improving the economy for the Nicaraguan people as well as the ecology in the areas surrounding the Canal, by implementing so-called “environmental services”. For example, for the Canal to operate safely, it is necessary to restore and manage the watersheds alongside it, at least in the most vulnerable areas, where the tracks can be affected by flooding, erosion and sedimentation. That will provide permanent working opportunities to the people nearby. It will also restore and keep the forest coverage alongside such areas, provide for better soil conservation practices, and the abandonment of slash-and-burn agricultural methods. This means that in order to protect the nature of the Project, it will be mandatory to also protect the project of Nature.

Q – Some have proposed building a “wet canal” in Nicaragua – a water canal across the country. Are environmental drawbacks inherent in that idea?

A – At the beginning I was opposed to such a project, although it has been an historical aspiration of Nicaragua since colonial times. One hundred years ago Nicaragua competed with Panama for such a project. Of course, there are some environmental concerns about building a modern “wet canal”, especially when dredging some parts of Lake Nicaragua’s bottom. On the other hand, the wet canal route (Bluefields Bay – Lake Nicaragua – Rivas isthmus), is planned to cross entirely a territory where the original ecology disappeared a long time ago, under the effects of colonization, deforestation, extensive grazing and agricultural practices. For those reasons it would be advisable to reforest the entire southern half of the country to infiltrate much water (which Panama’s narrow isthmus cannot provide to enlarge its own canal), in order to sustain the gigantic hydraulic operations a Nicaraguan wet canal would need to allow post-Panamax ships to go over the locks. I consider that both the wet and the dry canal mega-projects, instead of being deleterious to the environment, can contribute to restoring the tropical forests and watershed ecology of the country, or at least to reduce its ever-increasing destructive trend, since the government of Nicaragua doesn’t have the immediate resources to do either option.