June 2, 2012, 9:04 am
Source: CIA World Factbook
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The volcanoes ConcepciĆ³n and Maderas on the island of Ometpe within Lago de Nicaragua. Source: Adrian Sampson/Flickr

Nicaragua is a Central American nationof five-and-three-qaurters million people located between Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. Its eastern coast fronts the Caribbean Sea while its western coast fronts the Pacific Ocean.

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and contains the largest freshwater body in Central America, Lago de Nicaragua

Its main environmental issues include:

It is also susceptible to hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.

The Pacific coast of Nicaragua was settled as a Spanish colony from Panama in the early 16th century. Independence from Spain was declared in 1821 and the country became an independent republic in 1838.

Britain occupied the Caribbean Coast in the first half of the 19th century, but gradually ceded control of the region in subsequent decades.

Violent opposition to governmental manipulation and corruption spread to all classes by 1978 and resulted in a short-lived civil war that brought the Marxist Sandinista guerrillas to power in 1979.

Nicaraguan aid to leftist rebels in El Salvador caused the US to sponsor anti-Sandinista contra guerrillas through much of the 1980s.

After losing free and fair elections in 1990, 1996, and 2001, former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega Saavedra. was elected president in 2006 and reelected in 2011. The 2008 municipal elections, 2010 regional elections, and November 2011 presidential elections were marred by widespread irregularities.

Nicaragua's infrastructure and economy - hard hit by the earlier civil war and by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 - are slowly being rebuilt, but democratic institutions have been weakened under the Ortega administration.


Location: Central America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, between Costa Rica and Honduras

Geographic Coordinates: 13 00 N, 85 00 W

Area: 129,494 sq km (120,254 sq km land and 9,240 sq km water)

Coastline: 910 km

Maritime Claims:

Territorial sea to 12 nautical miles;
a contiguous zone to 24 nautical miles; and
continental shelf to natural prolongation

Terrain: Extensive Atlantic coastal plains rising to central interior mountains; narrow Pacific coastal plain interrupted by volcanoes

Natural Hazards: destructive earthquakes, volcanoes; landslides.; extremely susceptible to hurricanes.

Volcanism: significant volcanic activity; Cerro Negro (elev. 728 m), which last erupted in 1999, is one of Nicaragua's most active volcanoes; its lava flows and ash have been known to cause significant damage to farmland and buildings; other historically active volcanoes include Concepcion, Cosiguina, Las Pilas, Masaya, Momotombo, San Cristobal, and Telica

Concepción volcano, as seen from Maderas volcano. Source: Adrian Sampson/Flickr

Climate: Tropical in lowlands, cooler in highlands

Capital: Managua

Topography of Nicaragua. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Ecology and Biodiversity

Rainforest in Nicaragua covers more than 20,000 km2, particularly on the Atlantic lowlands.

1. Southern Mesoamerican Pacific mangroves
    (Rio Negro-Rio San Sun mangroves and
    Southern Dry Pacific Coast mangroves)

2. Central American dry forests

3. Central American pine-oak forests

4. Central American montane forests

5. Central American Atlantic Moist Forests

6. Miskito pine forests

7. Mesoamerican Gulf-Caribbean mangroves
    (Mosquitia-Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast

8. Cayos Miskitos-San Andres and Providencia moist forests

9. Isthmian-Atlantic moist forests

10. Costa Rican seasonal moist forests

All of Nicaragua is included in the Mesoamerica Biodiversity Hotspot.

Source: World Wildlife Fund


Protected Areas

See Protected Areas of Nicaragua

In the north are the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve and to the south is the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, which protects 2,500 km² of the Atlantic Rainforest. These two areas are very rich in biodiversity. There are 5 species of felines, including jaguar and cougar; 3 species of primates, spider monkey, howler monkey and capuchin monkey; 1 species of tapir, called Danto by the Nicaraguans; 3 species of anteaters and many more.

Mombacho Vulcano Natural Reserve. Source: Keith/Wikimedia Commons

People and Society

Population: 5,727,707 (July 2012 est.)

Most Nicaraguans are of both European and indigenous ancestry, and the culture of the country reflects the mixed Ibero-European and indigenous heritage of its people. Only the indigenous of the eastern half of the country remain ethnically distinct and retain their tribal customs and languages. A large black minority, of Afro-Caribbean origin, is concentrated along the Caribbean coast. In the mid-1980s, the central government divided the eastern half of the country--the former department of Zelaya--into two autonomous regions and granted the people of the region limited self-rule under an elected regional council of 45 deputies and an indirectly-elected governor.

Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, but Evangelical Protestantism has experienced rapid growth over the past 10 years. There are strong Anglican and Moravian communities on the Caribbean coast, and a small Muslim population exists in Managua and in the larger cities along the Pacific coast. Buddhist and Jewish communities are small. Most Nicaraguans live in the Pacific lowlands and the adjacent interior highlands. The population is 58% urban.

Ethnic groups: mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 69%, white 17%, black 9%, Amerindian 5%

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 31.7% (male 913,905/female 879,818)
15-64 years: 63.8% (male 1,743,591/female 1,874,025)
65 years and over: 4.5% (male 116,153/female 138,809) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 1.067% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 19.12 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 5.04 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate:  -3.4 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth:  72.18 years 

male: 70.07 years
female: 74.39 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 2.08 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Spanish 97.5% (official), Miskito 1.7%, other 0.8% (1995 census) (note: English and indigenous languages on Atlantic coast)

Literacy: 67.5%

Urbanization: 57% of total population (2010) growing at a 2% annual rate of change (2010-15 est.)


Nicaragua takes its name from Nicarao, chief of the indigenous tribe that lived around present-day Lake Nicaragua during the late 1400s and early 1500s. In 1524, Hernandez de Cordoba founded the first Spanish permanent settlements in the region, including two of Nicaragua's principal towns: Granada on Lake Nicaragua, and Leon, located west of Lake Managua. Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821, briefly becoming a part of the Mexican Empire and then a member of a federation of independent Central American provinces. In 1838, Nicaragua became an independent republic.

Much of Nicaragua's political history since independence has been characterized by the rivalry between the Liberal elite of Leon and the Conservative elite of Granada, which frequently led to civil war. Initially invited by the Liberals in 1855 to join their struggle against the Conservatives, an American named William Walker and his "Filibusterers" seized the presidency in 1856. Walker’s troops and Nicaraguan troops fought a historic battle at San Jacinto hacienda on September 14, 1856, which is now celebrated as a national holiday. In 1857, the Liberals and Conservatives united to drive Walker out of office. Three decades of Conservative rule followed. In 1893, Jose Santos Zelaya took advantage of divisions within the Conservative ranks and led a Liberal revolt that carried him to power. Zelaya ended a longstanding dispute with Britain over the Caribbean coast in 1894, and formally reincorporated that region into Nicaragua, establishing Nicaragua’s present-day boundaries.

By 1909, political differences and rivalries again emerged over plans for a trans-isthmian canal and concessions granted to American investors in Nicaragua. In 1909 the United States provided political support to Conservative-led forces rebelling against President Zelaya and intervened militarily to protect American lives and property. With the exception of a 9-month period in 1925-26, the United States maintained troops in Nicaragua from 1912 until 1933. From 1927 until 1933, U.S. Marines stationed in Nicaragua engaged in an effort to capture rebel forces led by Augusto Sandino, a Liberal general who had rejected a 1927 negotiated agreement brokered by the United States to end the conflict between Liberals and Conservatives.

After the departure of U.S. troops in 1933, National Guard Commander Anastasio Somoza Garcia outmaneuvered his political opponents--including Sandino, who was assassinated by National Guard officers--and took over the presidency in 1936. Somoza and his two sons who succeeded him sought to maintain close ties with the United States. The Somoza dynasty, beset by corruption, ended in 1979 with a massive uprising led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which had conducted a low-scale guerrilla war against the Somoza regime since the early 1960s.

Soon after taking power the FSLN pushed out rival factions and established an authoritarian dictatorship under leadership of Daniel Ortega. U.S.-Nicaraguan relations deteriorated rapidly as the regime nationalized many private industries, confiscated private property, supported Central American guerrilla movements, and maintained links to international terrorists, including the Colombian guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) separatist group, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The United States suspended aid to Nicaragua in 1981. Later the Ronald Reagan administration provided assistance to the Nicaraguan resistance (Contras) and in 1985 imposed an embargo on U.S.-Nicaraguan trade.

In response to both domestic and international pressure, Ortega’s Sandinista regime entered into negotiations with the Nicaraguan resistance leaders and ultimately agreed to nationwide elections in February 1990. In these elections, Nicaraguans elected as their President the National Opposition Union (UNO) candidate, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of the slain journalist and editor of the daily newspaper La Prensa, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. She defeated Ortega, the Sandinista Party candidate.

During President Chamorro's nearly 7 years in office, her government achieved major progress toward consolidating democratic institutions, advancing national reconciliation, stabilizing the economy, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and reducing human rights violations. Despite a number of irregularities--which were due largely to logistical difficulties and a complicated electoral law--the October 20, 1996 presidential, legislative, and mayoral elections were judged free and fair by international observers and by the national electoral observer group Etica y Transparencia (Ethics and Transparency). This time Nicaraguans elected former Managua Mayor Arnoldo Aleman, leader of the center-right Liberal Alliance. Aleman defeated Sandinista Party candidate Daniel Ortega.

The first transfer of power in modern Nicaraguan history from one democratically-elected president to another took place on January 10, 1997, when the Aleman government was inaugurated. Aleman’s administration was marred by graft and corruption. At the end of his term, Aleman entered into a political pact (el Pacto) with Daniel Ortega to divide control of state institutions between them and perpetuate themselves in power.

Nicaragua held presidential and legislative elections in November 2001. Enrique Bolanos of the Liberal Constitutional Party was elected to the Nicaraguan presidency on November 4, 2001, defeating Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega by 14 percentage points. President Bolanos was inaugurated on January 10, 2002. His administration sought to deliver on campaign promises to reinvigorate the economy, create jobs, fight corruption, and support efforts against terrorism. However, political attacks from both the left and the right severely blunted his administration’s efforts to shrink traditional sources and bases of political patronage and corruption.

FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega won the presidential elections of November 5, 2006, with 38% of the vote, defeating a divided opposition. ALN candidate Eduardo Montealegre garnered 29%; Jose Rizo of the PLC received 26%; and MRS' Edmundo Jarquin polled fourth with 6%. Ortega was inaugurated on January 10, 2007.

The November 2008 municipal, March 2010 regional, and November 2011 presidential and legislative elections were marred by significant irregularities and were denounced by domestic and international observers as severely flawed. The FSLN-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) claimed that Daniel Ortega was re-elected with 62% of the vote and that the FSLN party received 63 seats in the National Assembly to claim a legislative supermajority. International and domestic organizations also raised concerns regarding the constitutional legitimacy of Ortega’s reelection.


Government Type: Republic

Nicaragua is a constitutional republic with an executive branch that has exerted increasing control over the legislative, judicial, and electoral branches of government. In 1995, the executive and legislative branches negotiated a reform of the 1987 Sandinista constitution, which gave extensive new powers and independence to the legislature--the National Assembly--including permitting the Assembly to override a presidential veto with a simple majority vote and eliminating the president's ability to pocket-veto a bill.

Nicaragua's constitution guarantees freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and association, religion, and movement within the country, as well as foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. In the run-up to the November 2011 presidential and legislative elections the government made attempts to limit some of these rights, including limiting free and open discussion in the media and academia, electoral observation by credible domestic and international organizations, and the right to peaceful assembly. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on birth, nationality, political belief, race, gender, language, religion, opinion, national origin, and economic or social condition. All public and private sector workers, except the military, public safety workers, and police, are entitled to form and join unions of their own choosing. Most of Nicaragua’s labor force is involved in the informal service and agricultural sectors and the majority of workers in these sectors are not unionized. However, the formal manufacturing and government/public sectors are heavily unionized. Workers have the right to strike. Collective bargaining is becoming more common in the private sector.

The president and the members of the unicameral National Assembly are elected to concurrent 5-year terms. The National Assembly consists of 92 total deputies (90 elected from party lists drawn at the regional and national levels, plus the outgoing president and the second-place finisher in the most recent presidential election).

The constitution provides the Assembly with sole power to elect Supreme Court judges, CSE magistrates, and other national level public officials. However, in January 2010 President Ortega issued a decree that indefinitely extended the terms of these incumbent officials. As a result, as of May 2010 about two dozen of these officials remained in their positions despite the fact that their terms had expired, including several Supreme Court judges. After Liberal judges boycotted the Supreme Court for several months, Ortega replaced them in August 2010 with five Sandinista and two Liberal justices.

Capital:  Managua - 934,000 (2009)

Administrative divisions: 15 departments (departamentos, singular - departamento) and 2 autonomous regions* (regiones autonomistas, singular - region autonoma); Atlantico Norte*, Atlantico Sur*, Boaco, Carazo, Chinandega, Chontales, Esteli, Granada, Jinotega, Leon, Madriz, Managua, Masaya, Matagalpa, Nueva Segovia, Rio San Juan, Rivas

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Independence Date:  15 September 1821 (from Spain)

Legal System:  Nicaragua accepts compulsory International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction with reservations; but is a non-party state to the International criminal court (ICCt).

The Supreme Court supervises the functioning of the still largely ineffective, often partisan, and overburdened judicial system. In 2000, the Ortega-Aleman pact orchestrated expansion of the Supreme Court from 12 to 16 justices. The National Assembly elects Supreme Court justices to staggered 5-year terms. Led by a council of seven magistrates, the Supreme Electoral Council is the co-equal branch of government responsible for organizing and conducting elections, plebiscites, and referendums. The National Assembly elects the CSE magistrates and their alternates to 5-year terms. A 2000 constitutional amendment expanded the number of CSE magistrates from five to seven and gave the PLC and the FSLN a freer hand to name party activists to the Council, prompting allegations that both parties were politicizing electoral institutions and processes and excluding smaller political parties.

International Environmental Agreements

Nicaragua is party to international agreements on Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands, and Whaling.

Foreign Relations

Nicaragua traditionally pursues an independent foreign policy. Since returning to power in 2007, Daniel Ortega has sought to build closer ties with Iran, Russia, and the ALBA states, especially Venezuela. Immediately after his inauguration Ortega formally joined ALBA. In 2008, Ortega made Nicaragua the second country to grant diplomatic recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the breakaway “independent republics” of Georgia.

Nicaragua has had territorial disputes with Honduras, Colombia, and Costa Rica. The dispute with Honduras was resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague in October 2007, and President Ortega and Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales met on October 8, 2007 to recognize the finality of the decision. Also in 2007, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador reached an agreement on fishing rights in the Gulf of Fonseca, though the actual border demarcation remains unresolved, by mutual agreement. In December 2007, the ICJ issued an interim decision on the Colombia-Nicaragua dispute that granted sovereignty of the San Andres archipelago to Colombia, but urged both parties to work toward a mutually satisfactory resolution regarding the surrounding waters.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua have long-disputed issues related to their boundary. An 1858 treaty fixed the boundary on the river’s southern bank, and a subsequent arbitration finding validated that treaty. A 2009 ICJ decision also accepted the river’s southern bank as the boundary. In October 2010, Costa Rica accused Nicaraguan troops of invading Costa Rican territory and protested Nicaragua’s dredging operations in the San Juan River, claiming that the dredging was causing irreparable environmental damage. In a provisional ruling, the ICJ allowed dredging operations to continue but asked that both parties remove security forces from the disputed territory. A final ruling could take several years.

At the 1994 Summit of the Americas, Nicaragua joined six Central American neighbors in signing the Alliance for Sustainable Development, known as the Conjunta Centroamerica-USA, or CONCAUSA, to promote sustainable economic development in the region.


Total Renewable Water Resources: 196.7 cu km (2000)

Freshwater Withdrawal1.3 cu km/yr (15% domestic, 2% industrial, 83% agricultural)

Per Capita Freshwater Withdrawal: 237 cu m/yr (2000)

Access to improved sources of drinking water: 85% of population

Access to improved sanitation facilities: 52% of population


Agricultural products: coffee, bananas, sugarcane, cotton, rice, corn, tobacco, sesame, soya, beans; beef, veal, pork, poultry, dairy products; shrimp, lobsters

Irrigated Land: 610 sq km (2008)


Natural Resources:  gold, silver, copper, tungsten, lead, zinc, timber, fish

Land Use:

arable land: 14.81%
permanent crops: 1.82%
other: 83.37% (2005)


Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Hemisphere, has widespread underemployment and poverty.

In 2011, the economy grew by 4%, according to official government sources, largely due to an increase in demand for Nicaraguan exports abroad and increased consumer spending at home. Official unemployment in 2010 was 8%, but 65% of all workers earn a living in the informal sector, where underemployment is high. In 2011, Nicaraguans received $912 million in remittances from abroad, the majority from the United States and Costa Rica.

Because Nicaragua has abundant arable land and water resources, agriculture will always be an important component of the economy. Close to one-third of GDP is derived from agriculture, timber, and fishing. Opportunities exist in food and timber processing and preparation for export. Currently, most agriculture is small-scale and labor intensive. Livestock and dairy production have seen steady growth over the past decade and have taken the greatest advantage of free trade agreements. Many export products, especially coffee and gold, have benefited from the recent rise in international commodity prices.

Social indicators for Nicaragua have improved since 1991. In 2011, the estimated population of Nicaragua was 5.89 million; life expectancy at birth is 73 years. Prenatal care coverage has steadily improved and infant mortality has dropped from 52 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1991 to 22.64 per 1,000 in 2011. The country has achieved 85% vaccination coverage, and since 2004, infectious disease has fallen from fourth to fifth place among the leading causes of death, with the number of such deaths down nearly 50% since 1996. In 2009, the Ministry of Education and the National Institute of Information Development reported school enrollment as 92.6%. Nicaragua's score on the United Nations Human Development Index rose by 30% from 1990 to 2011 (from 0.454 to 0.589). Despite these statistical gains, the benefits of economic development have been uneven. Blackouts, water shortages, and high energy prices disproportionately affect the poorest in the population. About 46% of the population lives below the national poverty line. About 16% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

President Ortega’s stated objective is to implement “21st Century socialism” in Nicaragua, which he further defines as a mixed economy, guided by Christian and socialist ideals. He has used funds provided by Venezuela through the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) to increase the role of the FSLN party in the economy, including the purchase of a hotel, cattle ranch, television station, gasoline filling stations, construction equipment, and electricity generators. At the same time, President Ortega has maintained many of the legal and regulatory underpinnings of the market-based economic model of his predecessors, despite rhetoric decrying the "neo-liberal economic model," and along with it capitalism and the United States, which he refers to as the imperial power.

Nicaragua signed a 3-year Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in October 2007. As part of the IMF program, the Government of Nicaragua agreed to implement free market policies linked to targets on fiscal discipline, poverty spending, and energy regulation. The lack of transparency surrounding ALBA funds, channeled through state-run enterprises rather than the official budget, has become a serious issue for the IMF and international donors. In November 2010, the IMF approved a 1-year extension of the arrangement. The extension allowed for the disbursement of the remaining $36 million dollars in 2011, but the program was contingent on the publication of additional information about off-budget expenditures.

Nicaragua has stayed current with the U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which entered into force for Nicaragua on April 1, 2006. Nicaraguan exports to the United States, which account for two-thirds of Nicaragua’s total exports, were $2.6 billion in 2011, up 120% since 2005. Textiles and apparel account for about half of all exports to the United States, while automobile wiring harnesses add another 10%. Other leading export products are coffee, meat, cigars, gold, seafood, sugar, and fresh fruit and vegetables, all of which have seen remarkable growth since CAFTA-DR went into effect. U.S. exports to Nicaragua, meanwhile, were $924 million in 2010, up 57% from 2005.

Despite important protections for investment included in CAFTA-DR, the investment climate has steadily worsened since Ortega took office. President Ortega's decision to support radical regimes such as Iran and Cuba, his harsh rhetoric against the United States and capitalism, and his use of government institutions to persecute political enemies and their businesses have had a negative effect on perceptions of country risk. The government reported foreign investment inflows of $880.6 million in 2011, mostly in energy and telecommunications. There are over 120 companies operating in Nicaragua with some relation to a U.S. company, either as wholly or partly-owned subsidiaries, franchisees, or exclusive distributors of U.S. products. The largest are in energy, financial services, textiles/apparel, manufacturing, and fisheries.

Poor enforcement of property rights deters both foreign and domestic investment, especially in real estate development and tourism. Conflicting claims and weak enforcement of property rights has invited property disputes and litigation. The court system is widely believed to be corrupt and subject to political influence. Establishing verifiable title history is often entangled in legalities relating to the expropriation of 28,000 properties by the revolutionary government that Ortega led in the 1980s. Authorities seldom challenge illegal property seizures by private parties, occasionally undertaken in collaboration with corrupt municipal officials.

The US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has been in effect since April 2006 and has expanded export opportunities for many agricultural and manufactured goods. Textiles and apparel account for nearly 60% of Nicaragua's exports, but increases in the minimum wage during the Ortega administration will likely erode its comparative advantage in this industry. Ortega's promotion of mixed business initiatives, owned by the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan state oil firms, together with the weak rule of law, could undermine the investment climate for domestic and international private firms in the near-term.

Nicaragua relies on international economic assistance to meet internal- and external-debt financing obligations. Foreign donors have curtailed this funding, however, in response to November 2008 electoral fraud. In early 2004, Nicaragua secured some $4.5 billion in foreign debt reduction under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Managua still struggles with a high public debt burden, however, it succeeded in reducing that burden substantially in 2011.

The economy grew at a rate of about 4% in 2011.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $18.77 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $7.08 billion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $3,200 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 20.3%
industry: 23.4%
services: 56.3% (2011 est.)

Industries: food processing, chemicals, machinery and metal products, textiles, clothing, petroleum refining and distribution, beverages, footwear, wood

Natural Resources: gold, silver, copper, tungsten, lead, zinc, timber, fish

Currency: Cordobas (NIO)



Agency, C., Fund, W., International, C., & Department, U. (2012). Nicaragua. Retrieved from


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