Unholy Trinity of Public Land Management

This is a story of poverty, development and progress. It starts 50 – 40 years ago. Nicaragua has always been ‘too far from heaven and too close to hell.’ At first, this hell was Spain and its brutal colonial system. Then it was United States intervention, and from 1937 to 1979 it was the Somoza dictatorship, which was supported until nearly the very end by Uncle Sam. Elitism and peasant oppression were so bad during the dictatorship that Somoza and his cronies owned half the country’s arable land (The Jaguar Smile, Salman Rushdie). This left the vast peasant population with very little. They were literally dirt poor.

So between 50 and 40 years ago families in search of land to farm settled on the slopes of Telica Volcano. The land is unproductive. The area is extremely isolated. And of course they live in danger from the volcano. Water is extremely scarce because of the volcanic crust, and the water sources that do exist have become contaminated with arsenic (from fertilizers and pesticides, I assume) Conditions were just so dire during the dictatorship they had no other options. And scattered among a dozen small, remote communities approximately 1,300 inhabitants still remain to this day.

When you think of a remote volcano-side community you may think of an indigenous community, or maybe that the inhabitants are the descendants of mestizos that have been there since the colonial era. This is not the case. The elders are first generation Telicans. They have known poverty their whole lives. And to make matters worse, land rights are very opaque. Many of them do not have title to their land. Land ownership is more restricted on public reserves (the volcano is a national park), and sale of land is technically prohibited. These conditions conspire to make these small communities (some of the smallest have approximately 45 people) essentially stuck. They have no mobility. Generation after generation they have to continue toiling away on their small unproductive bean and corn farms. Some people have less than one acre of land.

These conditions were not exclusive to Telica. To some extent, it happened all over the country. In the hinterlands of the municipality of León, by Cerro Negro, Las Pilas, and El Hoyo volcanoes this also took place, to my knowledge, and I am sure there are countless other examples around the country, albeit not all by volcanoes. These are the people that you hear about who live off of less than $2 a day. Their communities lack electricity, fresh water, road access, basic health care, and full educational services. They are extremely vulnerable people, and to some extent, remain to this day ignored by the government and civil society in larger population centers.

These conditions have persisted over 50 years. However, in the last ten years, the last few years especially, tourism has grown in popularity along the volcanoes. More and more foreigners are visiting Cerro Negro to go volcano boarding and visiting Telica for hiking and lava viewing. The government is the official steward of this protected land. For the most part the government have not established a presence, proactively conserved the land, or provided basic tourist services. This certainly aggravated the tour operators, who operate from the city of León and were taking home most of the tourism profits. The locals in a number of communities, seeing an opportunity, had the idea of organizing themselves into rural tourism cooperatives. They provide basic services such as trail maintenance, and charge an entrance fee to the volcanoes.


At first the tour operators welcomed the cooperatives because they were providing basic levels of maintenance services. However, as the cooperatives saw more profit potential and raised their fees, the tour operators began to get upset. They complained to the government that the tour operators were over-charging given the level of services being provided. The government also got on the case of the cooperatives, because they wanted a piece of the pie. They saw that the cooperatives were earning money for public land management, and began demanding up to 70% of the profits. This is the unholy trinity of public land management.

Without fairly defining which parties have primacy in land use and property rights I see no resolution. If the government were to get its 70% the cooperatives would fold, and I highly doubt that the government would actually start providing the services in lieu. Then the tour operators would complain about the poor conditions of the reserves, which is what compelled the cooperatives to associate in the first place. It is an unholy trinity whose solution lies in responsible and effective public management of the lands, but it seems that political institutions have no incentive for this sort of behavior. Land management policy is far more focused on preserving the status of large landowners so they can continue to reap the benefits of the land.

Every community has taken a different approach to resolving the issues, and none of them have achieved complete peace among all of the parties yet. In the case of Telica, the government exerted its rights as the steward of the land and took away the cooperative’s ability to charge for tourism access. However, the cooperative had been maintaining four-wheeler access roads and represent the citizens most directly impacted by tourism and environmental issues in the reserve. They had to get a piece of the pie. The resolution was that the cooperative would be contracted by the municipality for road maintenance and for security at the crater. In order for the income from these services to match the entrance fees that they were formally earning, the government had to raise the entrance fee to $6 per foreigner (the law allows for a $10 maximum) plus $2 per vehicle. The rest of the money would go to wages for official park guards and environmental programs, such as equipment for volunteer brush fire prevention brigades (which the members of the cooperative would have to serve on).

The unholy trinity continues. With the raising of the fee the tour operators are once again crying foul. In addition, the government has designated the cooperative the official manager of the camping area, where they are planning on charging $5 per person (I am urging them to rethink that and charge a smaller fee per tent, or come up with alternative arrangements with the tour operators, such as assuring garbage removal or profit reinvestment in the local communities). These fees are going to deeply cut into the margins of the tour operators and if they raise fees may stunt tourism growth in León.

I can understand the complaints of the tour operators. From their point-of-view, for a massive increase in entrance fees (entrance and camping together used to cost $5, and there was no vehicle fee) all they are getting is a “life-guard” at the crater that they don’t deem as necessary, since they already have trained guides (the competence of their guides is in question, but that’s for a different blog post). However, I don’t think that the tour operators are taking into account the responsibility of the government to protect the local environment, and how entrance fees will go directly to that end (through the park guards, who track illegal deforestation, and the volunteer fire prevention brigades). Tourism is not the only good that the protected areas produce. People live on these volcanoes, whether they ought to or not, and natural conservation is a public good in and of itself.

Philosophically, I tend to regard the current plan as quite fair. The steward of the land is exerting control on behalf of its constituents and prioritizing their well-being. To some extent, land use and property rights are being placed in the hands of the local population, which seems fair, given that their well-being is very closely linked to the land. In its implementation, the current plan could certainly be improved. The local government approved a revenue distribution plan based on percentages. Environmental programs would get a certain percent of revenue, and the cooperative would get a certain fixed percent of revenues. For the moment this rubs them the wrong way because the pie is still small and they were earning more before when they charged the entrance fee and kept everything. But most of the services being provided are man-hours. Rather than percentages, fixed Córdoba amounts should be set, and adjusted over time if the amount of work required or prevailing wages changes. Any surplus should be used by government for additional social and environmental programs.

I think this percentage-based system simply reflects the weaknesses of the government employees to grapple with the issues and conceptualize a fair solution.The man in charge of the sustainable tourism project for the municipality is the town’s water guy. When they started the project there was no municipal tourism office. He was put in charge because he had a good working relationship with the NGO (which happens to do a lot of water work). He used Excel to create a spreadsheet outlining the apportionment of funds. At a meeting I attended, by just looking at a print-out of the spreadsheet and asking a few question I found an error in his calculations that had a material impact on the final amounts (full disclosure: I used to validate models professionally, and it feels so good to be able to use the word “material” without an accounting jumping down my throat and telling me I can’t use that word).  The government workers may not have been well versed in Excel or hold masters degrees, let alone bachelors. Nicaragua is an under-educated country, and municipal management is lacking as a result. If education improves I hope that public administration will improve as well.

IMG_3474The story is different at Cerro Negro. The government has granted a concession to the tourism cooperative. The cooperative is responsible for all management and maintenance, and charges $5 per international tourist. They are making a lot of money, and as one would expect, the tour agencies are not happy about the situation and are constantly pressuring the City of León and the Institute of Tourism to not let the cooperative raise the entrance fee. The tour agencies complain that the trails are not well maintained and that the cooperative does not provide any waste collection. Tour operators are expected to haul out all of their own refuse. And since the cooperative has a legal concession, they want to further restrict the services that the tour operators can provide (guiding, equipment, transportation) and charge for it themselves, further exploiting their monopoly. If they go through with these plans I foresee an unholy trinity conflagration and the cooperative eventually losing their concession, and having to operate under the new Telica contractor model.

Tourism can certainly be used as one tool by impoverished rural communities to generate supplemental income. I doubt that tourism can be a panacea, but it can be a great benefit. However, the government needs to step forward in its role as public land managers and administer it responsibly, bearing in mind the needs of impoverished local and tourists alike. Land use and property rights should be assigned to locals so that they strike a balance that generates more income and conserves the environment. If not, the unholy trinity of public land management will abound and mismatched pricing and services will adversely affect the tourism development of Nicaragua.

I love this picture. I took it during a fascinating meeting between the municipality of Telica, the cooperative, and an NGO. Up at the volcano we always meet under that big Ceiba tree for shade. But I can't help but thinking that in a few hundred years anthropologists studying Nicaragua will find my picture and say, "Villagers welcomed all guests under the Ceiba tree because it symbolized friendship. They would place a turkey into the middle of their meeting circle to symbolize respect." In reality the turkey just wandered into our meeting and made a gobble-gobble ruckus.

I love this picture. I took it during a fascinating meeting between the municipality of Telica, the cooperative, and an NGO. Up at the volcano we always meet under that big Ceiba tree for shade. But I can’t help but thinking that in a few hundred years anthropologists studying Nicaragua will find my picture and say, “Villagers welcomed all guests under the Ceiba tree because it symbolized friendship. They would place a turkey into the middle of their meeting circle to symbolize respect.” In reality the turkey just wandered into the middle of our meeting and made a gobble-gobble ruckus.

This entry was posted in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Unholy Trinity of Public Land Management

  1. Pingback: I’ve Been Censored… | Incidents of Travel

  2. Pingback: The Saga of Telica | Incidents of Travel

  3. Pingback: It Takes a Village | Incidents of Travel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *