The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve: We’re losing this national treasure
.The disastrous fire that destroyed thousands of hectares
of the Caribbean Coast’s Indio Maíz Reserve in April 2018
ignited environmental awareness in Managua’s youth
and was prologue to the civic rebellion still in resistance today.
Preventing the disasters regularly caused in the reserve
by land merchants, cattle ranchers, settlers, loggers, miners
and mono-croppers should be a priority in any “country plan.”
All of us have a responsibility to save this natural treasure.
Amaru Ruiz Alemán
In late September, in the community of Nueva Quezada in the department of Río San Juan, the Nicaraguan Army detained 18 members of the Rama Kriol Territorial Government (GTRK) for several hours. When the group explained that they were part of an expedition to conduct an environmental assessment in the Indio Maíz reserve, they were rudely berated, with one soldier sneering: “There are quite a few of you using that excuse.”
The GTRK president, Teodoro McCrea Williams, was among those detained. When he complained about the illegal and arbitrary detention, identifying himself as the authority for the area, a police officer admonished him: “There’s no territorial or communal government here. Daniel Ortega is the only authority in Nicaragua, there’s no other government.”
Becky McCrea, the Rama people’s first woman lawyer and the GTRK’s legal adviser, said the expedition was able .....to confirm that non-indigenous families had settled on communal lands and were engaged in illegal agricultural and livestock activities.
Indio Maíz and Bosawás
are two important symbols
The Indio Maíz and Bosawás biological reserves are symbols of the environmental struggle in Nicaragua. The indigenous Rama and Afro-descendant Kriol peoples own 80% of the land in the Indio Maíz reserve, which forms part of the Biosphere Reserve of South East Nicaragua, and they do indeed have their own legal government.
In 2012, after the GTRK signed an agreement with state institutions for the reserve’s joint care and management, the first joint patrols were conducted, involving community leaders, officials from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) and members of the Police and Army. The First Biosphere Forum was held a year later, where these state institutions, the River Foundation (Fundación del Río) and the GTRK signed joint agreements.
All this progress and these interactions were rolled back and finally blocked in June 2013 when the Ortega government granted Chinese businessman Wang Jing a concession to a large swath of the land where the reserve is located, for the construction of an interoceanic canal through Nicaragua. The project never became reality; if it had, it would have resulted in a very serious environmental disaster.
2015: “Let’s save Indio Maíz,
the lungs of Central America”
With the granting of the canal concession, any coordination between state institutions and civil society organizations—which firmly opposed this megaproject—was cancelled. Signed agreements were discontinued and pressure was brought to bear against environmental organizations. Despite this, the indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, together with environmental organizations, continued conducting monitoring expeditions, such as the recent one illegally obstructed by the Army and Police.
In 2014, the Union of Environmental Organizations of South East Nicaragua (UOA) was created to bring together cacao and tourism cooperatives, drinking water committees, communal governments and the River Foundation. The UOA promoted the Indio Maíz Civic Battalion to continue monitoring and safeguarding the reserve and in 2015 launched the campaign “Let’s save the Indio Maíz Reserve, the lungs of Central America,” elevating the issue to national awareness. In 2017, a meeting of all the social stakeholders united in the reserve’s defense was held at the Central American University (UCA), fostering links between likeminded students, scientists, academics and environmentalists.
April 2018: environmental
After endless warnings from environmental organizations calling attention to the risks Hurricane Otto had caused in the reserve in late 2016, a fire started on April 3, 2018, in the Río San Juan Wildlife Refuge, one of the protected ecosystems associated with the Indio Maíz reserve.
That same day, the River Foundation and the Greytown and Indian River Communal Governments alerted national authorities to the forest fire. The national media and people on the social networks publicized the environmental drama.
For three days there was no response from the central government, which minimized the scale of the fire and its consequences. University students from the UCA and other youth groups started protests in Managua. As usual, these were repressed by the Sandinista Youth and police officers. The government then refused to accept collaboration from Costa Rican firefighters, further stoking the young people’s outrage.
This fire and the environmental awareness shown by the young people’s protests—which continued nonstop for several days until a downpour finally put out flames in the Reserve on April 13—were the immediate precursors to the demonstrations that began the April 18 civic insurrection of a major segment of the national population.
Jungles and tropical forests:
Wonderlands of life
The Indio Maíz biological reserve is a wonderland of life, as are all the planet’s jungles and tropical forests. They house over 30 million species of plants and animals: half the Earth’s fauna and at least two thirds of all plant species. Just one hectare of tropical forest can contain 1,000 trees of up to 300 different species.
In addition, jungles and tropical forests store water like a giant sponge. The trees that inhabit the forest extract water from the soil and return it to the atmosphere in the form of mist and clouds, which later produce rain. Trees absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) and release into the air the oxygen we breathe. It is estimated that a single mature leafy tree daily produces the oxygen needed by two to ten people.
Trees sequester a large amount of CO2, the gas that causes the greenhouse effect produced when we humans burn oil and coal, polluting the atmosphere and contributing to global warming (climate change), the effects of which are already being felt in Nicaragua and throughout Central America, with highly damaging consequences for production and health.
For all these reasons, cutting down trees is considered the second most important cause of climate change. Deforestation does far more damage than that caused by all world transport and is responsible for 18% to 25% of annual global CO2 emissions.
They are the ancestral home
of many indigenous peoples
For thousands of years indigenous peoples from all over the planet have lived in harmony with forests and tropical jungles. They depend on this, their natural and ancestral home, for food and healing.
Jungles and forests are an almost inexhaustible source of medicines. More than 25% of the medicines we now buy in pharmacies come from tropical forest plants, despite the fact that we’re currently only using 1% of the plants that grow in these forests.
In addition, tropical forests are the source of many of the foods we eat—dried fruits, bananas, coffee, spices—and some industrial products such as rubber, resins, fibers, etc.
Losing a tropical forest therefore isn’t just losing trees and animals; it’s also losing incalculably valuable assets for the future of the country where they’re found, and for the future of all humanity.
Within their rich cultures, indigenous peoples have long known how to protect forests and jungles. However, they are being dispossessed of their ancestral lands by the advances of “civilization,” under the pretext of “development,” and by settlers, cattle ranchers, loggers and prospectors for gold and oil, as governments stand by or sometimes even contribute to the plunder through their actions or inaction.
In the case of the Indio Maíz reserve, there has been complicity with those destroying it. The government’s response has always been to either ignore or divide the GTRK, and to persecute or dismiss the environmental organizations that for years have denounced the environmental crimes destroying their home.
destruction of our forests
At the turn of the 20th century more than half of Nicaragua was covered in forests but, little by little, this wonderland of greenery, freshness and life has been disappearing. In the 1950s, the increase in cotton plantations cleared 386 square miles of forest annually and pesticides were used extensively. The entire western half of the country was deforested and polluted, causing death and chronic diseases in thousands of people.
Deforestation continued over the 20th century and has only increased in the 21st. From 2000 to 2015, we lost 27% of the forested area we had at the beginning of the 20th century, as 5,792 square miles of the country were deforested. Under the current government, forests have been cut down throughout the country and with even greater intensity.
In an interview with Radio Corporación on September 11, the director of the Humboldt Center, Víctor Campos, stated that 14,479 square miles of forest were cut down in Nicaragua between 2011 and 2018 and there’s been an increase of about 9,075 square miles in the land used to graze cattle. “This gives us an idea,” he said, “of how we are destroying our land and our forests, transforming our country into an enormous pasture.”
Campos explained that 21% of the deforestation caused in those years—almost 3,150 square miles—occurred in the two reserves that are symbolic of Nicaragua’s environmental struggle: Bosawás and Indio Maíz.
2002: Indio Maíz “houses
sites with no human alteration”
Our country has two biosphere reserves, recognized by UNESCO since 1999. One is Bosawás and the other is Río San Juan, which includes a historic monument (the Immaculate Conception fortress), a national monument (the Solentiname archipelago), two wildlife reserves (Río San Juan and Los Guatuzos), three nature reserves (Cerro Silva, Punta Gorda and Serranía de Yolaina) and one biological reserve (Indio Maíz).
Biosphere reserves are areas unaltered by human activity that must be preserved as they represent one or more ecosystems inhabited by species representative of national biodiversity, including those considered endemic, threatened or in danger of extinction.
The classification “biological” applies to a reserve that has such a variety of life—ecosystems and species—that, in order to preserve all that richness, only three kinds of activities can be developed there: environmental education to promote its conservation; scientific research and the monitoring of species to learn more about and be better able to conserve and protect them; and protection and control to safeguard it from loggers and land grabbers.
In 2002, a scientific expedition went into the Indio Maíz reserve. In its conclusions, it reported that “We found a forest in an excellent state of conservation pertaining to a large, forested area that houses sites with no human alteration. It is probably one of the few natural strongholds of the Atlantic isthmus’ eco-region of rainforests that conserves its vegetation cover unaltered... Human activity is not discernible in the landscape, except in some of the lower areas on the banks of the main rivers.”
That’s how it was in 2002, but it’s not like that anymore. Today we are far indeed from reaching those conclusions.
The Rama and Kriol
peoples’ ancestral land
The Indio Maíz reserve is between the Indian and Corn rivers, and extends over an area of about 1,020 square miles. Because this reserve is so important for Nicaragua and for humanity, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2003.
About 80% of the Indio Maíz reserve forms part of the ancestral lands of the Rama and Kriol peoples. To defend their rights, these two peoples established an alliance to form the Rama and Kriol Territorial Government. Both communities fight for the conservation of their culture and defend their land, which is threatened by the advance of the agricultural frontier, the invasion of settlers, ranchers and miners, and by monocropping—large extensions that produce a single export crop (cane sugar, palm oil, coffee, meat)—. Of the nine communities comprising this alliance, three are inside the Indio Maíz Reserve: Indian River, Corn River and Greytown.
Government institutions are
supporting the invaders
Despite being a national treasure trove, not a day has passed since the Indio Maíz was declared a reserve in 1999 without it being invaded by people engaged mainly in livestock husbandry and agriculture. Over 23 square miles of forest have been appropriated and destroyed every year, with the authorities doing nothing to halt the destruction… or doing everything to help it.
Between 2017 and 2020, the Ministry of Education built at least ten schools in the forested area of the reserve. The Ministry of Health decided to set up a health center in the core area of the reserve, despite peasant communities asking that it be placed in the buffer zone. The Nicaraguan Electricity Transmission Utility (ENATREL) ensures the invaders have electricity. MARENA has permitted the construction of pathways in the middle of the jungle. And the municipal mayor’s office in El Castillo has provided materials to open at least 32 access routes right into the reserve.
Each of these public investments backs the invaders, endorses the destruction they unleash and encourages more people to come every day to invade this valuable land.
Through their actions, government institutions permit and even encourage the invasion of the reserve, legitimizing illegal activities. They promise impunity in exchange for votes and loyalty to the party, while neither the Army nor the Police comply with the mandate to safeguard this valuable area. If the laws were followed, these officials would be serving sentences of six months to three years in jail for what they’re doing, because their actions are clearly defined in the law as environmental crimes.
Ranchers are the
All governments—especially this one, where all state institutions are controlled by the party and family in power—have implemented unsustainable agrarian policies throughout the country, including territories as important as the Indio Maíz biological reserve.
Monocropping, land grabbing and extractive activities have been promoted, as have extensive agricultural and livestock practices, all of which push the agricultural frontier farther every year, destroying larger areas of the reserve’s forest and polluting its soils and waters.
The agricultural frontier advances through clear-cutting and burning the forest to convert the land to crop plantations or pasture for livestock. Unlicensed land merchants enter the reserve with falsified land titles, mark lanes and subdivide the forest into lots to sell to ranchers and settlers.
Ranchers, who are big destroyers of the reserve, buy anywhere from 140 to 2,100 hectares of these lands at low prices. They deforest between 28 and 280 hectares a year, depending on their economic capacity. Once the pasture is established, they bring in cattle for fattening and, a few months later, take them out of the reserve to market. Because this activity is illegal—the land isn’t theirs and they have no right to engage in any economic activity inside the reserve—they “launder” these cattle with tags acquired from the Institute for Agricultural-Livestock Protection and Health (IPSA).
The IPSA tag means that the meat from these cattle is “legal,” meeting the requirements of having been raised with environmentally sustainable criteria: the tag “certifies” this.
The IPSA tag is a
tool of corruption
According to the River Foundation’s research, there are four routes to national slaughterhouses for cattle fattened in the Indio Maíz. All four are located in the reserve’s buffer zone: two in the municipality of El Castillo and two in Nueva Guinea. There’s also a fifth route, through which cattle are smuggled into Costa Rica.
The cattle’s exit is ensured by a network of buyers, scales and illegal documentation that makes it easy to mask their provenance. Once “laundered,” the cattle are sold to national slaughterhouses (Macesa, Carnes San Martín, Novaterra and Sukarne), which market the meat in Nicaragua and abroad.
The research indicates that Willi Flores, coordinator for the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry’s Bovine Traceability Program, has declared to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that this program “enables compliance with the legal requirements established by buyers and control organizations from different foreign markets, and the maintenance and opening of new markets for Nicaraguan meat.” However, the traceability program, coordinated by IPSA and involving the mayor’s offices of the two municipalities and the Police, has failed in its main goal: to help conserve the reserve’s forests.
This is how the ear tag, a system intended to certify where and how the livestock have been raised in order to ensure good practices, becomes a tool for corruption in a mafia-style “business” that is destroying the reserve.
“Cattle laundering” at the
expense of our forests
The River Foundation’s study confirms that the country’s slaughterhouse owners and livestock associations show little interest in ensuring that the cattle they buy really come from authorized places and not from protected areas.
This is especially worrying as these companies should ensure that their meat has not been obtained at the cost of the country’s last remaining forests. They should also be interested in offering consumers meat coming from more sustainable processes, based on the international commitments Nicaragua has acquired.
The cattle business is very lucrative. The cattle herd in our country has grown rapidly: from 2.6 million head in 2002 to 6.5 million head by 2017. This increase in the number of cattle, and the corruption that allows them to be fattened in protected areas, has resulted in 521 square miles of forest disappearing every year between 2015 and 2019, the largest deforestation in Nicaragua’s history, much worse than that caused during Spanish colonial times or those of Somoza.
Two of the main buyers of Nicaraguan meat in the United States are Cargill and Nestlé. They use it to make hamburgers and pet food concentrate. What would consumers do if they knew that by eating a hamburger or feeding their dogs and cats they are helping destroy one of the five most important forests on the American continent? Wouldn’t it be important to start an international campaign to denounce “cattle laundering” in Nicaragua?
Settlers are the
While ranchers are the large-scale destroyers of the reserve, settlers have the same impact but just on a smaller scale. Most of thems are small-scale mestizo farmers who come from municipalities further inland: Chontales, Nueva Guinea, Bluefields and Rama. They go into the forested area in search of land and occupy it, or buy between 35 and 70 hectares from the mafia dealing illegally in land.
They do the same as the ranchers: cut down the forest, burn it and use the land to plant corn, beans, cassava, quequisque, bananas, etc.
In addition to opting for an unsustainable project—because two or three years after the trees are destroyed these lands lose their fertility and no longer produce anything—their burning causes large fires every year, such as that of April 2018, which laid waste to over 20 square miles of the reserve. In 2020, there have been 400 fires that destroyed over 23 square miles of the reserve.
Once the burned land stops producing, the settler who bought it sells it to a rancher who plants pasture grass to fatten cattle; the settler moves on, cutting down and burning more forest to plant on new land.
It’s an endless cycle of destruction, where the authorities either do nothing or are complicit in different ways that perpetuate the cycle. It also must be said that this whole criminal process is sanctioned by both Evangelical and Catholic churches, which support the settlers’ invasion by building chapels.
“Nothing is going
to happen to you”
For years, the Rama and Kriol Territorial Government and different environmental organizations have denounced this widespread corruption, which involves ranchers, cattle transporters, slaughterhouses, settlers, land merchants, Police, Army, and both municipal governments and the national government.
Although the lands and the forests on them are the indigenous peoples’ ancestral property, they continue to be perceived as “unexploited,” in the belief that land is “for producing, as ordained by God.” Moreover, several of the large-scale farmers and ranchers are protected by and allied with the government, so they act with impunity. It’s as if the authorities were telling them, “Come and help yourself to what you want; it isn’t ours and what you’re doing may be illegal, but nothing will happen to you…”
The damage caused
by logging mafias
The exploitation and plundering of natural resources are also serious problems destroying the Indio Maíz reserve.
There are logging mafias, and the extraction of lumber turns out to be a phenomenal business: whether in planks or in logs, this business is often in the hands of those who value their connections with the government of the day to obtain permits. They, too, deforest with total impunity.
The most affected tree species are Ceiba or Kapok, Spanish Cedar, Crabwood, Nanciton and Cebo. They also cut the Cabbage Bark or River Almond tree, which is vital for the survival of the Green Macaw, a species in danger of extinction. Without this tree the bird has no way to feed or make its nests in summer.
One of the deforesting strategies is to make use of the fires the settlers and ranchers set every year. The destruction caused by hurricanes—such as that from Otto in 2016— is also used as a pretext to ask for permits and “make use” of the trees that fell. Once the permit is in hand, they bring in machinery and take out not only what has fallen, but also what is still standing.
Scientific studies have shown that, if left untouched, areas of the reserve affected by hurricanes will recover on their own in about twenty years. But when people intervene to “make use of what has fallen” it does a lot of damage: the logging business affects the forest’s natural regeneration, because the machinery they use, both to cut down trees and to remove fallen lumber, damages smaller trees and species of lesser economic value.
The Rama and Kriol Territorial Government, scientists and environmental organizations have denounced the practice of “making use of what has fallen” and have asked that permits not be given for this purpose. The government has never listened to them.
Extracting timber from the reserve also leads to loss of biodiversity, impoverishes the soil and seriously affects the hydrologic cycle. In deforested areas it rains less; soils erode, losing quality; and when it rains the soil is washed into rivers and streams, killing fish and insects.
In addition, these sediments are washed into the sea and there they gradually destroy the coral reefs where a large number of incalculably valuable marine species grow and reproduce.
The damage caused
by gold fever
Greed and the reserve’s lack of protection have also attracted dozens of güiriseros (small-scale miners) who go into the Indio Maíz in search of gold. More than 100 artisanal systems for grinding the low-grade ore and extracting the gold have been found in the reserve’s buffer zone. There are even some mills already inside the reserve. This method of mining uses mercury to wash the mineral, which poisons the waters and kills the life in them, also damaging the health of people who drink downstream.
In April of this year, Rama and Kriol indigenous and Afro-descendant communities reported that their rivers are being poisoned by invaders who use chemicals to fish, and various studies conducted by US researchers have confirmed this use of poison in the reserve’s waterways. not only the fish, large and small, but also crustaceans, aquatic insects and others that are the foundation of the food chain for all animals that depend on these waters.
The government took no action on the communities’ report.
A treasure house of biodiversity
The Indio Maíz biological reserve contains innumerable species of insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and mammals that inhabit or transit through this area.
A total of 65 species of mammals has been recorded: peccaries and tapirs, very important wildcats such as jaguars, pumas and ocelots, and there are places where manatees live and reproduce. In addition, 221 species of birds have been identified, some in danger of extinction and in total or partial closed season, such as the Harpy eagle, green macaw, three-wattled bellbird and the great curassow; and, 55 species of reptiles, 34 of amphibians, 26 of fish and 149 of insects have been classified.
This great wealth is exploited by illegal hunters and fishermen who set up poaching camps. In more than 100 of the camps detected, wildcats are killed and their skins cured, peccaries and curassows are hunted, and macaws and toucans captured to be later sold.
Extractivism and monocropping:
Another recipe for disaster
In order to “develop” Nicaragua, governments, especially the current one, have not only opted for extractivism, an economic model that consists of extracting all available natural resources (timber, gold, oil, etc.) They also promote monocropping with no concern for the environmental and social damage this practice may cause. Areas of forest are being converted into extensive plantations for agro-export, and future generations will live in a desert.
Monocropping of any species damages biodiversity and the environment, impoverishes soils, destroys secondary forests, pollutes rivers, streams and springs, and affects people’s health.
The monocropping most frequently seen in the Indio Maíz reserve’s buffer zone are the thousands of hectares dedicated to African palm, gmelina, robusta coffee, pineapples and oranges.
For monocropping African palm and gmelina in the municipality of El Castillo, and robusta coffee and pineapple in Nueva Guinea, land has been grabbed there, dislodging families already there and driving them into the core area of the reserve, contributing to the expansion of the agricultural frontier.
The enormous growth of areas dedicated to mono¬cropping has driven thousands of families from their lands. They sell what they had then move on in search of other lands or become day laborers for the new owners.
African palm is in totally uncontrolled expansion. In 2000, 4,561 hectares were planted with palm, mainly in the Caribbean region. By 2016 there were already 48,142 hectares, an increase of 955% in the area planted. According to an Inter-American Development Bank study, between 2010 and 2016 African palm replaced both forest (24.5%) and agricultural land use (72.9%).
African palm and monocropping in general in the rainforest demands large amounts of pesticides, among them glyphosate, which is mostly marketed as the herbi¬cides Roundup and Ranger Pro, produced by Monsanto. Glyphosate is already banned in many countries due to evidence that it causes cancer and chronic kidney failure. In June 2020, Bayer, which bought Monsanto in 2018, agreed to pay US $11 billion in compensation to 75% of the victims of this herbicide in the United States.
We need a government that
will prevent this destruction
This is where we are with the story of an environmental drama that led us to make the national appeal “Let’s save Indio Maíz” in 2015. To date, 76% of the reserve is well preserved but the rapid destruction caused by all these environmental crimes is seriously threatening it.
Although the Rama and Kriol communities know how to take care of Indio Maíz for their descendants and for all humanity, we are in danger of losing this natural treasure. If we are to save it, we also urgently need to restore a State and a government that will prevent its destruction.
Amaru Ruiz is the president of the Fundación del Río (River Foundation). In December 2018, the Ortega-Murillo regime annulled this environmental organization’s legal status and in August 2020 confiscated its properties in the Indio Maíz reserve’s buffer zone, in retaliation for its denunciations of the regime’s environmental neglect.