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Agricultural frontier advances in Nicaraguan biosphere reserve

  • The Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua encompasses some 1.8 million hectares, as well as smaller protected areas such as Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception, Bartola Nature Reserve, and the Solentiname Islands.
  • The Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve lost around 600,000 hectares of forest between 2011 and 2018.
  • Satellite data show forest loss has intensified in the northern and central parts of the reserve since 2018, and only fragmented portions of primary forest remain.
  • Sources said that the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the National Forestry Institute are responsible for ensuring the effective conservation of the country’s protected areas, but that they are not currently fulfilling their monitoring duties.

The Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Central America. It is also part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which extends from Mexico to the Colombian Amazon.

The reserve is located in the southeastern Nicaragua, specifically between the municipalities of El Castillo, San Juan de Nicaragua and San Carlos, in the department of Río San Juan. It is home to a nearly intact rainforest, which prompted the government to grant the area official protection in 1999.

This biosphere reserve encompasses smaller protected areas, including Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, Los Guatuzos Wildlife Refuge, the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception, Bartola Nature Reserve, and the Solentiname Islands. The Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve is a very particular ecosystem in Central America and conservation organizations, such as the Humboldt Centre, say it has been affected by mining and aggressive deforestation in recent years.

Deforestation near the San Juan River. Photo courtesy of Onda Local.

According to a study carried out by the Humboldt Centre, 1.4 million hectares of forest were lost in Nicaragua between 2011 and 2018, amounting to a rate of approximately 70,000 hectares per year. This was mainly driven by agriculture. Jurgen Guevara, an environmental consultant on extractive industries who worked for the Humboldt Centre until January 2021, told Mongabay that the Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve lost around 600,000 hectares of forest during the same period.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch show forest loss has intensified in the northern and central parts of the reserve since then. Only fragmented portions of primary forest remain, according to the data.

Satellite data show the Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve (light yellow) has lost much of its remaining primary forest between since 2001.
Satellite data show deforestation continued to eat away Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve’s once-largest tract of primary forest in 2021.

The Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve covers more than 1.8 million  hectares, with the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve its largest individual reserve at 300,000 hectares.

The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is the heart of the Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve and the second most important protected area in Nicaragua. In April 2018, days before the outbreak of social and political violence, a fire caused by agricultural practices devastated more than 5,000 hectares of Indio Maíz. According to Fundación del Río, an environmental organization that promotes conservation and development in the region, agricultural producers were responsible for the fire.

Jurgen Guevara has participated in environmental investigations that show the significant expansion of agriculture, not only into the biosphere reserve, but at the national level. He said that “a large part of the deforestation is specifically due to land-use change from forest to livestock farming and extensive agriculture.” According to Guevara, there is no certainty as to who is directly responsible for the deforestation, as it involves local and even government actors.

Sources said that the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and the National Forestry Institute are responsible for ensuring the effective conservation of the country’s protected areas, but that they are not currently fulfilling their monitoring duties.

“Given the current conditions in the country, we can’t know for certain the extent of the institutional framework and whether it’s working,” Guevara said. “We can obviously see that something is happening and this is reflected in the serious failures and in the data, mainly from research on loss of forest cover, but this scenario is quite complex.”

Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve. Photo courtesy of El Nuevo Diario.

Mongabay contacted the Nicaraguan government to request comment for this story, along with a copy of the National Forestry Institute’s deforestation data, but received no response.

Amaru Ruíz, president of Fundación del Río, told Mongabay that several environmental factors are causing the environmental deterioration of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, one of which is invasion into the protected area for agricultural purposes.

“Extractive activities, such as artisanal and industrial mining, are another factor,” Ruíz said. He added that in the Indio Maíz buffer zone, which is the largest protected area within the Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve, oil palm and coffee plantations are expanding and displacing families who have traditionally inhabited the buffer zone.

“People with economic and political power are grabbing land in the protected area, 70% of which belongs to the Rama-Kriol Indigenous people who have land titles,” Ruíz of Fundación del Río said.

An invaded reserve

The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is home to six Indigenous Rama communities and three Kriol communities of African descent. The nine communities have formed the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government (GTR-K), composed of two representatives from each community.

Amaru Ruíz explains that the GTR-K has created a “Sanitation Guide,” which clearly stipulates that the reserve’s area must continue to be used for conservation purposes and that non-Indigenous people who have settled in the area since 1987 must leave their territory. However, sources say the Rama and Kriol communities do not have the support of Daniel Ortega’s government to stop deforestation in the reserve.

Fire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve in 2018. Photo courtesy of El 19 Digital.

“There is negligence on the part of the Nicaraguan government in safeguarding what is established in the Constitution, which is the fulfillment or development of a healthy environment and the entire environmental legal framework,” Ruíz said.

Fundación del Río representatives said that there is no political will in Nicaragua to enforce the legal framework that guarantees the rights of Indigenous people and people of African descent, especially in terms of land tenure. They said this is leading to the environmental deterioration of the reserve.

According to Amaru Ruíz, municipalities facilitate invading groups, who take advantage of the communities’ needs by offering to provide them with roads, solar panels and schools. He said these services which should be provided by the government and not individuals in exchange for se of natural resources. Ruíz said this is a form of exploitation and destruction, which is not only experienced by the communities of the Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve, but also by many other communities throughout Central America.

According to data provided by Fundación del Río, by 2019 more than 12,649 hectares had been deforested in Indio Maíz due to encroachment.

Fundación del Río has been denouncing the illegal activities that have resulted in deforestation and misuse of land in the reserve for more than 30 years. Representatives say this has won them death threats and other forms of abuse by businesses and even government officials.

The Ortega government took advantage of the political crisis of 2018 to cancel Fundación del Río’s legal status, expropriating 22 properties, including community radio stations, biological stations, private biological reserves, offices, community hotels, and several facilities and assets the organization had for environmental education and conservation work with Indigenous, rural and African descendant communities.

Despite the repression and persecution that Fundación del Río’s members have reported, they continue to believe in the protection and conservation of the region’s environment. They say that for this reason, they continue to operate from outside the country.

Defending Kriol territory

The community of Graytown is located on the banks of the Indio River, the San Juan River, and the Caribbean Sea in southeastern Nicaragua.

The secretary of the Kriol communal government of Graytown, Dayanne Barberena, warns that the situation in Nicaragua’s protected areas is critical, due in large part to deforestation activities.

Forest in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Photo courtesy of Onda Local.

“This reserve [Indio Maíz] has forest trees and exotic trees, some of which still exist thanks to the care of forest rangers,” Barberena said. “We can find species that exist nowhere else, but which are also endemic, meaning they are at risk of extinction.”

According to Barberena, settlers who have come to the area argue that they have permission from the government – either from an official or someone who has served in the military – or that they have bought the land from land traffickers. She said invasions are continually occurring in the nearby outlying areas, but are now spreading into the hearts of the reserves.

Barberena said that traditionally native communities in the region managed forest resources, “but the work also involves advocating with the institutions of the Nicaraguan government to denounce anomalies and raise [communities’] voices against all violations of natural resources and human rights of all Indigenous people and African descendants of the Rama-Kriol territory.

But community representatives say that despite all their advocacy work, they have yet to receive a positive response from the Nicaraguan government.

 

Banner image: Illegal mining is affecting the Río San Juan Biosphere Reserve. Photo courtesy of Onda Local.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on September 3, 2021.

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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