- Nicaragua’s Bosawás and Indio Maíz biosphere reserves both experienced deforestation at the hands of illegal loggers, miners and cattle ranchers last year.
- Deforestation of the country’s largest primary forests has been a violent, ugly process for Indigenous communities, who were granted land titles and self-governance in the area in the 1980s but don’t have the resources to protect themselves.
- Indigenous leaders and environmental defenders believe the situation will only get worse moving into 2023, as gold mining accelerates and the government cracks down on opponents.
It’s hard to know exactly what’s happening to the environment in Nicaragua. Data on everything from mining to deforestation to biodiversity loss is nearly impossible to get from the government. Hundreds of journalists and environmental defenders have been arrested or fled the country, including much of the newsroom of La Prensa, Nicaragua’s oldest newspaper. And many Indigenous people say they’re too frightened to speak openly about threats in their territory.
But all available signs suggest that 2022 was another bad year for the country’s forests, especially its two big biosphere reserves on the eastern and western borders, Bosawás and Indio Maíz. Preliminary satellite data show severe encroachment into primary forests by cattle ranching, mining and logging. It’s especially concerning for human rights advocates because both reserves sit within or adjacent to Indigenous autonomous zones meant to preserve land ownership and self-governance for Mayangna and Miskito peoples.
“The forest is Mother Earth for us because it’s the mother that provides what you need to survive, to feed and protect yourself,” said an Indigenous leader who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns.
In 2021, Bosawás experienced its third-highest level of tree cover loss in 10 years, according to satellite data from Global Forest Watch (GFW). Overall, the 2-million-hectare (4.9-million-acre) reserve lost 20% of its tree cover between 2011 and 2021. GFW analysts haven’t determined the exact area of forest lost in 2022, but initial mapping suggests the reserve’s deforestation rate may have jumped even higher last year, and satellite imagery shows clearings spreading deep into Bosawás’s remaining intact forest landscape. Indio Maíz, meanwhile, shows a similar pattern of deforestation eating away from the western and northern parts of the reserve throughout 2022.
Ranching is one of the biggest drivers of this deforestation, according to Indigenous advocates who spoke to Mongabay. Non-Indigenous squatters, known locally as colonos, settle in the area and clear primary forest to make room for cattle pastures. Beef is one the country’s largest exports, but critics caution there’s little oversight of the supply chain. They say cattle are moved between intermediary buyers before being sent to slaughterhouses, making it nearly impossible to know whether they were sourced from protected areas.
“If a rancher comes and takes up a thousand acres near a community, that community loses access to hunting, fishing and even clean water sources,” said Wari, an Indigenous rights advocate in Bosawás who asked to be identified only by his first name due to safety concerns.
Gold mining is another major driver, locals told Mongabay. They’ve counted hundreds of artisanal mines in the area, with more on the way. A study published in 2022 by Fundación del Rio found that mining concessions, many of them granted to Colombian and Canadian companies, now cover around 66% of the reserve.
The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Ministry of Energy and Mining, and the Ministry of Agriculture didn’t respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment for this article.
Some observers have suggested that, as the international community continues to constrict the Nicaraguan economy with sanctions, the government of President Daniel Ortega is leaning more and more on gold exports for revenue. It wouldn’t be the first time a Latin American country has turned to its natural resources as an economic safety net. A similar situation is playing out in Venezuela where, in 2016, President Nicolás Maduro opened up gold mining in the Amazon to bolster an economy suffering from hyperinflation and trade restrictions on oil.
Similarly, Nicaragua’s mining regulations are weak, and it’s hard to trace gold back to deforested areas once it enters the supply chain. The U.S. government tried to counteract this somewhat with additional sanctions in 2022 on state-owned mining company Empresa Nicaraguense de Minas and the General Directorate of Mines. But it’s unclear whether that will make a difference moving into 2023, economists say. Although the U.S. has purchased nearly 80% of Nicaragua’s gold in recent years, Canadian, Colombian and European companies are still upping their investments.
Deforestation of the country’s largest primary forests, and the subsequent displacement of Indigenous peoples, has been a violent, ugly process, according to Indigenous advocates. The Indigenous community leader who spoke to Mongabay described aggressive military patrols, arbitrary arrests of residents, and clashes with colonos, who he said are often willing to defend their new enterprises with kidnappings and gunfire.
2023 has reportedly already seen similar bloodshed. The Polo Lakia Sirpi and Francia Sirpi communities on the Caribbean coast are fighting illegal land sales. One confrontation in the Twi Yahbra territory resulted in the death of a colono and the injury of a resident, according to the Prilaka Community Foundation, an Indigenous advocacy group. The media and government don’t always report these events, so news from the ground comes from statements published by local leaders and spread through social media.
Sources say the government, especially the armed forces, are complicit. “Any Indigenous person or community member who speaks out, who resists, is going to be arrested,” the Indigenous leader said.
The Ortega government shuttered more than 100 NGOs last year, including environmental and Indigenous advocacy groups like the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, the Center for Justice and International Law, the Humbolt Center, and the Foundation for the Autonomy and Development of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. Some of these organizations have continued their work clandestinely or from abroad. But others have accepted defeat.
Indigenous communities on the edge of the agricultural frontier have stopped protesting as loudly, recognizing that a constant cycle of arrests is a waste of time and resources. For some, trying to fix a broken system no longer makes sense.
“The fighting spirit is still there,” said Juan Carlos Ocampo, an Indigenous rights advocate. “But the communities and Indigenous movements are in a process of readapting to a new context.”
Banner image: The Wany River in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
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