Ecologist Special Report: The Pillaging of Nicaragua's Bosawás Biosphere Reserve

A young Miskitu girl stands before an armed indigenous resistance force in Muskitia, Nicaragua
Violent expansion of the agricultural frontier in Nicaragua has produced devastating consequences for Indigenous Peoples and is fostering destructive long-term climate change impacts. COURTNEY PARKER reports
Nicaragua has lost a reported 60% of its surface water sources, and almost half of its underground sources, due to climate change-driven drought and industrial pollution. To date, at least 100 rivers and their tributaries have dried up

Pillaging of Nicaragua's Bosawás Biosphere Reserve - the largest tropical rainforest in the western hemisphere after the Amazon - persists at rates around 200-280 acres per day, according to an estimate published in Time Magazine. With encroaching destruction driven by a sinister triad of corporate, colonial, and government interests, most progress that has been made - largely through indigenous stewardship of community forests - has been the result of indigenous resistance.

Under reestablished Sandinista rule, which has brought only small-scale efforts at reforestation, Nicaragua's biodiverse forest cover continues to disappear at a quickening pace, further threatening species such as rare jaguars, spider monkeys and the few remaining Baird's tapirs. Miskitu and Mayanga Indigenous Peoples in the region called on President Barack Obama in 2013 to support their fight for preservation.

Indigenous Miskitu and Mayangna have been battling the nationalization of their traditional territories against the Sandinistas in one form or another since at least the 1970s. While attempts at compromises and concessions were made by both sides along the way, the human rights and environmental crises central to this struggle have once again come to a head. Recent escalations have generated unthinkable violence and humanitarian disasters as illegal armed settlers known as ‘Colonos' progressively encroach upon indigenous territories, terrorizing the legal inhabitants under a violent siege.

The Miskitu Council of Elders - via a statement submitted by Ottis Lam Hoppington, Chief of the Elders, and Carlos Rivas Thomas, who represented the Elders at the UN - explained that the territory under grave threat by Colonos consists of sacred sites; they described how the real material value the land holds for its Indigenous Peoples is in maintaining a link between the physical and the spiritual, "and life itself."

In this official statement issued on August 22, 2016 the Elders proclaimed:

           "Since ancient times we've [cared for] our forests, because apart from being our only means of sustenance, we understand that any alteration to [them] attracts risks; alters our form of life; puts existence itself at risk; causes drastic changes [to] the climate; alters the ecosystem; and breaks our link with our ancestors.

            [For] little more than five years, [we] have experienced the largest internal colonization [of] our history. The presence of ‘Colonos' has drastically altered our form of life. In such a short time [the invasion] has destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of our forests, which has led to [the drying of] our rivers, [causing] the animals [to] migrate and the climate to alter, and us to emigrate. Our large forests are now deserts, occupied for the livestock, and [we] can do nothing to curb the advance of the settlers as they have the support of the Government of Nicaragua and [we] are alone.

Nicaragua has lost a reported 60% of its surface water sources, and almost half of its underground sources, due to climate change-driven drought and industrial pollution. To date, at least 100 rivers and their tributaries have dried up

             Since June of 2015, our communities have [been] experiencing [increased] violence, persecution and [other crime] from [the settlers] and part of the Government. With the support of no one, we have survived on our own."

Former Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Dr Jaime Incer Barquero, told the IPS news agency that by March 2016 the country had lost 60% of its surface water sources, and almost half of its underground sources, due to climate change-driven drought and industrial pollution. To date, at least 100 rivers and their tributaries have dried up.

Local scientist, Jadder Lewis noted area lobster populations - a crucial subsistence food and chief export - presenting at unprecedentedly low volumes; he also cited increasing endangerment of area coral reefs rooted in regional deforestation and other unsustainable resource exploitation. Lewis projects the current deforestation rate to actually be as high as 40,000 hectares per year.

If the notoriously controversial Chinese-backed Nicaragua Trans-Oceanic Canal indeed comes to fruition, related infrastructure and construction will destroy another 1 million acres of Nicaragua's climate change mitigating rainforests and wetlands. According to the Environmental Resources Management consultancy, the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, as well as the Cerro Silva and Punta Gorda reserves, experienced a higher rate of environmental deterioration between 2009 and 2011 - under Sandinista rule - than in the previous 26 years.

Academics, nonprofits, and activists expressing moral and scientific objections to canal plans have found their rights systematically violated as Ortega, who is set to run virtually unopposed in the upcoming November election (with his wife as vice-president) has become increasingly reactive to the slightest of criticisms. On September 13th, addressing an audience at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, Jimmy Carter expressed, "The Sandinistas have established...not a democracy...but a way to maintain power." On September 21st, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill known as the ‘Nica Act' which mandates U.S. opposition on any loans to Nicaragua from allied organizations.

One Costa Rican analyst posited Nicaragua's recent acquisition of 80 million dollars' worth of Russian war tanks as defensive posturing in anticipation of widespread civil unrest from canal protest movements and resistance to colonial occupation in the north.

Interestingly, Sandinista activity concerning the autonomous nation of Muskitia increasingly mirrors Chinese policy on Tibet - evident in the way the FSLN attacks and discredits Miskitu leadership; their refusal to respect Muskitia sovereignty; and the covert yet violent invasion of their territory as colonizers aligned with the FSLN and its populist base invade Miskitu lands while Sandinista soldiers intimidate and threaten anyone who gets in their way. Indigenous leadership or outside observers who dare criticize the FSLN in this regard are branded puppets of ‘U.S. imperialism'.

It's a set of moves straight out of the China vs. Tibetan independence movement playbook. Yet Ortega's new brand of ‘Christian Socialist Solidarity' also suggests a concurrent shift towards a more theocratic model of governance, in some ways analogous to the government of Iran - another country who, along with Russia and China, is hoping to get a stake in the proposed canal.

Propaganda rolled out by state-sponsored and crony media outlets of the Bolivarian left portray Nicaragua as a leader in ‘consensus-based' decision-making with respect to indigenous rights. This would likely come as news to Nicaragua's indigenous communities, such as the Miskitu, who feel increasingly alienated from the centralized government as health and education services on the frontier collapse amid escalating violence. Surrounding cities forced to absorb the internally displaced receive no government subsidies; and, newly displaced Indigenous Miskitu are often forced to live as virtual beggars among their own, more urban, extended communities.

Statements collected from indigenous leader, Brooklyn Rivera, contextualize recent escalations in violence and the role of the Sandinista regime.

              "The Sandinistas are the mestizos on the Pacific side, they had 
[no rights to] Muskitia land; they encroached on the territory until the war
occurred in 1979 and tried to control everything, but they did not understand
or respect the customs of the Indigenous Peoples. They felt they were gods
 and wanted to fulfill all their desires. Then, the people rebelled because
[we] had a different way of living - from the ancient times - with very
different customs than the mestizos. So, the conflict started, the war started,
the Sandinistas led us to the war that lasted 10 years. [We fought] for our
lives, to protect our land, to protect our communities; we had many
difficulties but we managed to overcome that.

                After the Sandinistas lost the elections and were out of power for fifteen years, they came and talked to the people and asked to be forgiven for their faults of the past, because they caused a lot of damage to people - murdered, burned them - they then made many promises to the people to rebuild the communities again, especially in the Coco River, and also, to respect the rights of the communities. That is why we signed an agreement that lasted 11 years where it is said that we would support the opportunity for them to return to power, and that was the agreement that was signed. We supported the Sandinistas twice, led by Daniel Ortega, for the elections of 2006 and 2011 by giving them our votes. But we are now in a different situation, because now Daniel and the Sandinistas feel that [the] indigenous are like a stone in their shoe, so they are looking to eradicate the Indigenous Peoples and introduce mestizos settlers in the Rio Coco and also in coastal areas, eradicating the indigenous Miskitos and Mayangnas, to no longer have more conflicts with us.

               The Sandinistas are advised by the people of Cuba to not give any opportunity for minority populations, because they think that Indigenous Peoples are their enemies and we, along with the (Gringos) American people, will rebel against them. That's why it is better for them to destroy the Miskitus, so that in Nicaragua there will not be any minority populations and everyone will be equal and there will only be mestizos. So they want to impose the Colonos; and not only that, but they are also imposing leaders in the communities from their political party.

               The inhabitants of the communities have the right to choose their sindicos, their judges, but [the Sandinistas] do not respect that and only choose people from their own political party - people who will obey them, people who follow them. And these leaders are against the population, so they will continue destroying the communities and in that way eradicate them; and, that is one method of how they try to do it. The other method is the destruction of our natural resources, our forests and our marine resources. It is a great pressure on the resources, [and as they] become extinct, they are destroying our way of life. So we try to go against that, we are fighting so our lifestyles do not disappear, so that everything remains the same as our ancestors left us. So, that is the current struggle we have.

               Behind the settlers, there are companies with millions of dollars, and the government. The Sandinista government supports the Colonos who come to take our natural resources, our forests, our lands, introduce livestock, and destroy our resources. These people invade our coastal areas to the Coco River. That's why the population is getting organized. Indigenous Peoples are organizing together to defend their rights, to defend their territory, to prevent the Colonos from continuing to invade our lands.

               Now, they are also attacking the leaders of the [YATAMA] organization; that is another strategy that helps them to eradicate us: killing the leaders; creating persecution of leaders so the population does not have their support; because if the population needs to rise up and their leaders are not leading them, that's impossible. So they are attacking the leaders, that's how they are trying to break us: destroy the leaders, destroy the organization, and destroy YATAMA. Those are their methods: destroying our land; destroying our natural resources; destroying the people in the organization, killing them, [terrorizing] them. These methods are what they call ‘strategy' to eradicate Miskitus and the [YATAMA] organization."

Nicaragua is a country full of paradoxes. Prostitution is legal, yet abortion is completely banned. The ruling party takes political cues from communist Cuba, yet Ortega embraces neoliberal economics and development models with unabashed enthusiasm. Sandinista government enthusiasts wax about indigenous rights and environmental responsibility...all the while, fleeing Indigenous refugees, and their ancestral land considered the ‘lungs of Mesoamerica', struggle to catch their breath.

(Special thanks to Dr. Laura Hobson Herlihy for administrating the interview with Brooklyn Rivera, and Mark Rivas for coordinating the statement from the Elders.)

 This Author

Courtney Parker, MNPO is a freelance journalist and PhD candidate at the University of Georgia College of Public Health