Delgado said that over ten years ago, there was more support from the government and the international community for environmental conservation projects within the Bosawás reserve. With support from the Humboldt Environmental Center and international aid, there were forest rangers who patrolled the core zones and prevented environmental crimes from taking place.

However, Delgado said that the projects have fallen apart since 2011 or 2012 because of political problems with the central government. According to Humboldt Environmental Center, the budget allocated for environmental protection and regulation makes up less than 1 percent of the country’s national budget, a number that decreases year after year.

“The government supports development here in the reserve, but there is no money available for protecting the environment,” Delgado said. “They support us with laws, but they don’t put any money forward to enforce them.”

Mongabay reached out to Nicaragua’s Ministry of Environment for comment, but received no response.

Food vs. forest

Maria Cristina Guiterrez is a mestizo farmer who lives with her husband and five children in the Bosawás buffer zone, where they grow corn and beans, and raise cattle on a 20-hectare property. According to Guiterrez, the Bosawás nature reserve attracts farmers from other regions of the country because it is particularly fertile and holds abundant water resources.

“We came here because we saw that this land was more fertile than where we lived before,” Guiterrez said. “The land here is very productive. It’s possible to grow crops without fertilizer. In many other parts of the country, it’s impossible to grow anything without expensive fertilizers because the soil has been overused.”

Guiterrez said that it’s common for small-scale farmers to sell their lands closer to the edge of the reserve, and then migrate farther into the rainforest where the land is cheaper. “When we arrived here, there was a lot more forest, but then the cattle ranchers and farmers came buying up the land and cutting down the trees.”

Cattle graze beside the Bocay River. Photo by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay.

Denis Celedon is the municipal coordinator in Ayapal, a frontier town located in the Bosawás reserve buffer zone and on the Bocay River that enters the Mayagna territory. Celedon said that Nicaragua is focused on increasing food production for domestic consumption and foreign markets.

“We’re a country that mostly produces food. In the developed countries, there is more technology and the people are more interested in producing money, but here the only thing we’re able to produce is food,” Celedon said.

Celedon said that the municipal government supports “sustainable” development projects, including agroforestry, and promoting crop rotation practices to protect the soil. He claimed the municipal government also encourages farmers to consider hog farming instead of engaging in more impactful cattle ranching.

At the same time, Celedon said that the municipality is focused on producing money and expanding the economy. He said the mestizos farmers who are settled in the reserve’s buffer zone support the construction of roads, and have even offered to put up their own funds to build them.

“The people are very anxious to grow their families and to work the land,” Celedon said. “The agricultural frontier has advanced significantly, but with difficulty we will stop it.” He added that they would try to reduce land conversion by promoting more sustainable agriculture.

Celedon said that there are also problems with illegal marijuana cultivation, mostly for domestic markets. However, the narco-trafficking problem is nowhere near as severe as it is across the northern border in Honduras where powerful drug trafficking organizations are wreaking environmental havoc on the Mosquitia rainforest region through extensive cattle ranching.

Beef and milk are important export products for the Nicaraguan economy. The Nicaragua Agricultural Ministry reported beef exports generated $230 million USD between January and June 2019, growing 2.5 percent over the same period the year before. This pales in comparison to the export of dairy products, however, which jumped 40 percent between 2018 and 2019. The top destination for Nicaragua’s beef exports is the United States, although other Latin American countries also import Nicaragua’s beef and milk products.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland show Nicaragua lost 1.5 million hectares (3.7 acres) of tree cover between 2001 and 2018. In other words, the country lost around 19 percent of its forests in less than 20 years. The Humboldt Environmental Center, an environmental climate and forest monitoring non-profit, found there has been an increase in agricultural burns and forest fires during this time period. The organization reported 3,889 fire outbreaks occurred in the first four months of 2019, of which 16 percent were in protected areas.

Fire is used to clear forest in mountainous areas. Photo by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay.

In April 2018, a fire at Nicaragua’s second-largest natural reserve Indio-Maíz burned over 5,400 hectares (13,000 acres) of forest before it was extinguished by rains. During that time, protesters took to the streets to demand President Daniel Ortega’s government take action to put out the fire. The government’s heavy-handed response against the protesters combined with a subsequent attempt to scale down social security benefits sparked a nationwide protest movement that resulted in hundreds of deaths.

Delgado said that the forests of Bosawás are not only important to his people, but are important for regulating the climate and producing water supplies for the entire country of Nicaragua, and the Central American region.

“We’re not the only ones who depend on the environment for survival,” Delgado said. “We are waiting on help because with climate change affecting peoples’ lives in the rest of Nicaragua and all the other countries around the world, we need to maintain this forest for everyone’s future.”


Banner image: Rivers are used as the main form of transportation in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Taran Volckhausen for Mongabay.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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