- There is evidence of disturbing trends in illegal colonization and deforestation inside the IMBR. Satellite images, interviews with locals, and ground-truthing at key locations unveil proof that the Indio Maíz may be destined to unravel.
- Deforestation within the boundaries of the IMBR claimed about 2,434 hectares (about 6,015 acres) between 2001-2014. A satellite image analysis shows that deforestation extends approximately 10.3 kilometers (6.1 miles) from the western boundary of the reserve inward.
- Nicaragua’s current government has been in power over ten years and has shown increasing disregard for its own environmental laws and the agencies tasked with their enforcement. This is evident in the case of the IMBR.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Indigenous territories and nature reserves in Nicaragua have undergone precipitous declines in forest cover since 2001. The remote Indio Maíz Biological Reserve (IMBR) has, fortunately, escaped most of the onslaught – until recently.
Now, there is evidence of disturbing trends in illegal colonization and deforestation inside the IMBR. Satellite images, interviews with locals, and ground-truthing at key locations unveil proof that the Indio Maíz may be destined to unravel.
Deforestation within the boundaries of the IMBR claimed about 2,434 hectares (about 6,015 acres) between 2001-2014. A satellite image analysis shows that deforestation extends approximately 10.3 kilometers (6.1 miles) from the western boundary of the reserve inward (see Fig. 1, more here). The images reveal that large patches of clearings, and smaller intervening fragments of forest, have replaced the closed-canopy landscape of earlier years. In forays into the IMBR interior, we documented recent clearings, showing that the deforestation continues unabated (see photo 1).
Local informants describe a situation that belies the IMBR’s reputation as an area of unbroken wilderness. We interviewed 11 individuals with firsthand knowledge of the current situation, or who have family members or acquaintances living inside or near the border of the IMBR. They report that there are upwards of seven settlements, comprised of small concentrations of homes plus a number of homesteads sparsely distributed around the surrounding area. Informants estimate that there may be 200 families, with about nine members each, for a total of about 1,800 individuals.
Drivers of deforestation in the IMBR include rapidly expanding agro-industries in Nicaragua and the associated migration of smallholder agriculturalists from the IMBR buffer zone and other nearby areas. Informants explained that the corporations Palcasa and Maderas Cultivadas de Centroamerica have actively purchased farms to expand their holdings in the El Castillo Region. Oil palm plantations currently occupy about 5,500 hectares (close to 13,600 acres; see this article and photo 2), and may increase under the current favorable market conditions. Gmelina plantations, according to informants, are expanding even faster than oil palm in the region. This is purportedly related to satisfying a growing demand for crates used in banana and pineapple shipping in Costa Rica (see photo 3).
Oil palm and gmelina plantations are not the only forces behind the march of deforestation in the IMBR. Indeed, according to local informants, the most common livelihood by settlers is cattle ranching. While some ranches are small (between seven and 35 hectares, or 17 and 87 acres), there are accounts of opportunistic ranchers clearing ranches up to 280 hectares (about 692 acres) in extension, serving herd sizes that range from five to 200 head of cattle. Informants describe a landscape that is almost entirely denuded, with sparse forest patches interrupting vast expanses of pasture.
Cattle are reportedly herded out along trails to Las Maravillas, a gateway to the IMBR interior, then sold into domestic and export markets. Likewise, farmers trade cash crops such as rice, beans, corn, and other vegetables, plus small quantities of swine and poultry, in Las Maravillas. Market days are bustling, and there is no effort to conceal the activities carried out in the protected area (see photo 4). According to accounts, the land grabs and forest clearing simply go unpunished.
What is driving the migration of cattle ranchers into the IMBR? The answer may lie in the geographical origin of the majority of the settlers. Informants report that most of the colonizers come from Nueva Guinea, an area with a history of frontier expansion and cattle ranching. This area is slated for the creation of a large reservoir associated with the controversial proposal to build an inter-oceanic canal across Nicaragua. This may be sparking farmers to relocate (see this interactive map). Peasants, uncertain about whether or not their lands will be expropriated for the canal project, stake their claim to lands inside the Reserve. After five years of occupancy, squatter laws should grant settlers title to the property. In short, farmers may be looking for ways to preserve their livelihood and lifestyles under a very uncertain future.
Nicaragua’s current government has been in power over ten years and has shown increasing disregard for its own environmental laws and the agencies tasked with their enforcement. This is evident in the case of the IMBR. For instance, until recently, Las Maravillas was the location of active outposts for the Nicaraguan military and MARENA (the ministry of the environment), both charged with protecting the IMBR. However, the military outpost closed in 2010 and the MARENA outpost is, according to reports, rarely staffed. Another MARENA outpost, located within the IMBR boundaries, was altogether abandoned in about 2010 (see photo 5). Since that time, efforts by residents to call attention to incursions have been met with silence by the authorities.
The Ortega administration has gradually tightened its grip on the press, non-governmental organizations, and U.S. government officials working in the country (read more here and here). This has impeded dissemination of information both inside and outside Nicaragua. Online resources such as Global Forest Watch, as well as free online mapping software, provide tools for both the media and concerned parties to circumvent obstacles that they may face. This may be the best hope for unveiling — and thwarting — the unraveling of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.
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