Bosawas is an enormous, incredible nature reserve in Northern Nicaragua and home to many indigenous communities. They are all being destroyed, destroyed very fast. You need to know about this even if you have never been to Nicaragua. Their death will affect us all. But you may well not even heard of Bosawas, nor of its inhabitants. I have lived in Nicaragua for nearly 10 years (and been visiting regularly since 1988) and it has only recently entered my consciousness in any real way. Just as it is disappearing! Estimates vary as to how long it can survive but no one puts it above 20 years.
But this reserve is of vital importance to us all. It is no exaggeration to say that it is of life-giving importance to every other living creature in the world. Together with the worlds other forests, it basically provides the air that we breathe, the water that we drink and the soil we need to give us food. It also happens to be a place of indescribable beauty and home to an incredible array of biodiversity. Does all (or any) of that make it worth saving?
You would think so…….A few basic facts… it is the second largest rainforest outside the Amazon (largest in Central America), roughly the size of El Salvador (around 14% of Nicaragua’s territory). There is a nucleus and what is called a buffer zone – together they add up to 21,000 sq kms for those looking for more exact figures! Because of its international importance, Bosawas was declared a UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1997.
For generations, Bosawas has been home to the Miskito and Mayangna (Suma) indigenous peoples. Ironically, they were more content to live under the British protectorate as subjugated but nonetheless independent nations than to be incorporated into the Nicaraguan state (a process which began in the early 20th century). Many indigenous still perceive the Nicaraguan state (under whatever government) to be a colonizing force.
King and Queen of Miskitia (british style!)
During a delegation (organized by Nicaragua Network) in March 2014, we spoke to several indigenous leaders and visited a number of communities. There is no doubt that their forest is perceived in a very different way from how we Westerners might perceive it. Actually, to say it is perceived is not right…..the forest is not, for the indigenous, an environment to be looked at, considered or even protected (much less exploited) it is, simply, home and all that implies. The forest provides not just the necessities of life – shelter, food, medicines, but – as a good home does – an all pervading identity. To destroy the forest is to destroy its people. And, as one of the leaders told us, “people from Managua” (read outsiders!) “see the forest as an enemy, only any good once it is chopped down”. Below is one of the leaders we spoke to.
A Mayanagna Leader
Both the forest and its peoples are under a number of different but interwoven threats. It is, of course, the desire to make fast money (lots of it) that forms the most obvious motivation behind the destruction but the cattle and the gold would not make anyone money without consumers. The Mayangna Sauni As received legal title to their land in 2006, much of which is deep inside the Bosawas reserve. The Sauni As create different “zones” which they put to a variety of uses – conservation, hunting, agriculture, water use, sacred areas, artisanal mining. Houses are small, built around a communal area of grass where a few cows and pigs may be grazing. There are no large herds. In fact, the activities are all on a small, subsistence scale, done with the objective of causing as little damage as possible. It is no paradise but it is sustainable.
In 2006, the Nicaraguan government began to grant titles to the land where the Mayangna haved actually lived for thousands of years. But legal title is one thing. Protecting your land from illegal invasions is another. Since 2007, colonizers have been arriving in ever increasing numbers from parts of Nicaragua where the ability to farm productively has been wiped out, often by drought (Boaco, Chontales for example). They move in, cut and burn the forest, build houses. Mostly the cleared land is used for cattle ranching. But the soil that is left behind after burning the trees is usually very thin and lacking in nutrients. So the grass that grows is poor and cannot support the numbers of cattle brought in for more than a year or so. So the farmers have to move on and start again….burning and cutting trees. Often the cut wood is not even utilized, just left around to rot! We were told of farmers who had cleared over 50 hectares of original forest in just a month! The area photographed below was pristine forest just a year ago.
To quote Emiliano Comejo Dixon, president of the Mayangna Young Environmentalists, “If the government institutions do not act firmly, soon the Bosawas Nature Reserve will be one big cattle ranch.”
Bank of the Bonanza river eroded by cattle
Dixon goes on “In 2008, 11 mestizo colonizing families lived within the Mayangnas’ land in the Bosawas. Today there are 103. The colonizers clear protected forest for crops and grazing. While the Sandinista government is responding – two colonizers were recently found guilty of land usurpation – insufficient resources have been allocated to patrol the territory and new colonizers are arriving at a faster pace than the government is removing them”
The problem is exacerbated, as Dixon mentions, by criminal lawyers and people who act as intermediaries but are actually land traffickers, selling Mayangna land to unsuspecting campesinos. In recent years, some of them have been arrested but not enough to prevent the Mayangna taking the law into their own hands and driving settlers out with the use of force.
As well as the land invasions and cattle, the forest is being decimated by logging, both legal and illegal. Over one third was lost to deforestation between 1987 and 2010. For example, exports of granadillo – a precious wood used to make musical instruments and furniture – grew from just over $100,000 to $6 million between 2008 and 2011.Plus Bosawas has been a particular target for illegal timber extraction (worth $100 billion worldwide). This trade is run by “wood mafias” operating with the help of corrupt officials and transporters. Honduras is the first destination and Honduran armed criminals have actively cashed in on the trade. There are also links between illegal logging and the trafficking of drugs…several of the indigenous groups spoke to us of “our villages being swamped with drugs”.
Below – legal extraction of precious woods
As if all this is not enough, the area around the reserve has been recently declared one enormous mining concession. The beneficiaries are international companies, mostly based in Canada. Mostly gold, but they are looking to see if there are other exploitable minerals. This is Wikipedia has to say about the impact of industrial scale gold mining“includes erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes. In some cases, additional forest logging is done in the vicinity of mines to increase the available room for the storage of the created debris and soil. Besides creating environmental damage, the contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals also affects the health of the local population”. You can watch Mayangna children playing in a river just downstream from a gold mining area.
Below – panning for gold in Rosita.
One of the companies located in the appropriately named town of Bonanza (right on the edge of Bosawas) Is HEMCO. Reading their website you would think all the problems are now solved by technological developments. To quote them “Direct application of cyanide solution in 7 agitator tanks is used as a recovery method. In this stage the reagents dissolve the gold and silver. The gold is later recovered through the Merril Crowe system (precipitation with powdered zinc) and is sent for separation to 6 filter presses. The solid product or precipitate is then diffused to obtain the metal Dore, which contains gold (25%), silver (45%) and impurities (30%). A washing stage against the current in two parallel batteries of 4 thickener tanks ensures maximum recovery of precious metals. The last tanks discharge a waste low in valuable metals and low concentrations of chemical substances into a pond for industrial residues. The solutions are then reused in the ore reduction process making it a closed circuit”.
It all sounds very impressive though the mere mention of cyanide sends a shiver down the spine! The idea of a “closed circuit” precludes any possibility of a leak which is a dangerous assumption anywhere but especially in a country very susceptible to earthquakes.
In any case, several of the indigenous leaders commented to us that these concessions were given without consultation with them. The Humboldt Centre reports that in 2012 and 2013 the number of mining concessions in Nicaragua grew by 24% over 2011 and that currently over 13% of the country is under concession for mineral extraction!
The role of the government and government agencies in all of this is, to say the least, ambivalent. On the one hand, the Mayangna together with other indigenous groups were granted legal title to their land and the Ecological Battalion (the BECO) of the army was formed to help protect Bosawas from invasions, logging and so on.
On the other hand, there is evidence of government involvement in some of the destructive activities. Alba Forestal is partly government owned and is certainly logging in the area. The newspaper La Prensa asked on March 13th 2014 “how many tons of wood is Alba Forestal taking out of Bosawas? Which country is its destination? Why are they taking out mahogany and other precious woods when it is prohibited by law?” La Prensa says it got no answers.
But the major driving force behind the destruction of the world’s last remaining forests (and one could equally apply this to the wrecking of our oceans and other ecosystems) is the increasing consumption levels. We may lament the extinction of another forest animal or the poisoning of our seas but we do not make the link with the beef or the processed foods (which use a great deal of palm oil) we consume or the waste we generate.
No one illustrates this ambivalence better than Dr Paul Oqist. As the Sandinista government’s representative to world climate change forums, he is very concerned about the effect on Nicaragua of climate change. But, as a Sandinista Minister of State, he is also a prime mover behind the drive for more exports. Quoted in an interview with tortillaconsal, he says “Let’s look at an example of access to new markets, the case of beef exports, which has grown by 107% …from $148 million in 2006, to $400 million in 2011. Looking at destinations, the first is Venezuela, both in terms of beef as well as livestock; then there are the traditional markets…United States…. Mexico does not even figure in this list…yet Mexico is investing $100 million here in SuKarne so as to export Nicaraguan beef to Mexico. The Russian Federation has already sent experts to certify Nicaraguan abattoirs, because Russia wants to import Nicaraguan beef. Our beef is of excellent quality, which is why they fetch excellent prices”.
It is inevitable that increasing the number of cattle or looking for more gold to mine will affect areas of land thus far unexploited. Where else are the farmers and miners to go? And of course this is happening all over the world though the end products may be different. The fastest disappearing forests are those of Indonesia and here it is the demand for palm oil and paper that is largely responsible
So…..to put it succinctly. We, especially in the West, are consuming more beef (as well as more of everything else) – the raising of which consumes more rainforest. The death of the rainforest leads directly to worsening climate change through a double whammy – the trees release all their stored up carbon dioxide as they are cut down and, once felled, no longer can absorb the greenhouse gases and emit oxygen. And climate change is already with us – melting ice glaciers and permafrost, raising sea levels and temperatures worldwide. None of this can now be avoided, only mitigated by swift and decisive action on the part of ALL OF US. WE can plead with the big palm oil companies (Kellogg, PepsiCo for example) to use “rainforest friendly palm oil (if it exists which I very much doubt) but the great corporations will only change their ways in response to consumer pressure. And in this case consumer pressure is to NOT CONSUME!!
Naomi Klein puts it well in an essay in The Nation “Late capitalism teaches us to create ourselves through our consumer choices: shopping is how we form our identities, find community and express ourselves. Thus, telling people that they can’t shop as much as they want to because the planet’s support systems are overburdened can be understood as a kind of attack, akin to telling them that they cannot truly be themselves. This is likely why, of the original “Three Rs”—reduce, reuse, recycle—only the third has ever gotten any traction, since it allows us to keep on shopping as long as we put the refuse in the right box. The other two, which require that we consume less, were pretty much dead on arrival.”
Everybody likes to find someone else to blame whether it be a government not acting fast enough, corrupt public officials and lawyers, greedy individuals and corporations, campesinos who know no better than to slash and burn . And, certainly in the case of Bosawas, there is some truth in all of these. Interestingly, though, the role of consumers rarely if ever figures on anybodys blame list. Maybe because as Klein says, consuming is to a large extent who we are these days (and this is increasingly true even for the most remote indigenous peoples). We all need to think more, talk more and ACT more to stop this vicious and damaging process. In the case of consumers (that’s us!), that would imply simply consuming less.