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Chemical spill in Nicaraguan reserve raises questions about industrial mining regulations

  • Chemicals leaked from a processing plant run by Colombian mining company Hemco, which operates inside the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve and an autonomous region controlled by several Indigenous groups.
  • Community leaders expressed their concern about pollution in the Kukalaya and Tungki rivers, where residents washing laundry reported itchiness after coming in contact with the water.
  • Mining concessions have spread significantly over the last several years as the Nicaraguan government, facing increasing international sanctions, looks for new revenue sources. But weak environmental regulations have drawn criticism.

A recent chemical spill in a protected reserve in northern Nicaragua is raising concerns about the contamination of several river ecosystems and the public health fallout for thousands of Indigenous people living nearby.

Earlier this month, chemicals believed to be cyanide leaked from a processing plant run by Colombian gold mining company Hemco in Bonanza, a town located inside an autonomous region controlled by several Indigenous groups. The plant also sits within the buffer zone of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, the country’s largest protected area.

Although a Hemco statement said the spill was addressed immediately, community leaders reported pollution in the Kukalaya and Tungki rivers, where residents washing laundry complained of itchiness after coming in contact with the water.

Indigenous communities have for years struggled with water scarcity due to climate change and contamination from mining operations, both industrial and artisanal. Despite that the rivers are some of the only sources of clean water, leaders published a statement urging people to avoid bathing, drinking, doing laundry or giving the water to livestock for the next month.

The Hemco plant in Nicaragua. (Photo courtesy of Hemco)

“We understand very clearly that the rights of Indigenous peoples are being violated here,” an Indigenous community leader, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns in the country, told Mongabay.

He said previous chemical spills sourced to industrial mining operations have left dead fish on the banks of the rivers. And while the government performs testing on the water before clearing it for human consumption, residents worry the tests are skewed to avoid stalling mining production.

“This company is like a monster,” he said. “When it wants to destroy, it destroys.”

Hemco said it’s in the process of evaluating the situation and its causes. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and Ministry of Energy and Mines also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Community leaders said they want more transparency from the company and government. “We need to know the dimensions of the spill, where it’s headed…So far, they haven’t made that information public,” said Amaru Ruiz Alemán, president of environmental organization Fundación del Río.


The 2-million-hectare (4.9-million-acre) Bosawás Biosphere Reserve borders the Northern Caribbean Coast Autonomous Zone (RANN), a constitutionally mandated jurisdiction governed by Indigenous groups like the Mayangna and Miskito and home to rainforests that have come under increasing threat over the last several decades.

Mongabay has reported widespread deforestation in the area driven by cattle ranching, illegal logging and artisanal mining. Non-Indigenous land invaders, known locally as colonos, have been largely responsible for these activities, which have had a noticeable impact on the health of rivers.

But the country has also granted numerous industrial mining concessions to transnational companies in the Bosawás buffer zone, amounting to around 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of land in just the last few years, according to the Oakland Institute, a think tank.

“People tend to focus on the colonos and the settler violence but following the political privatization of mines in 1994, it’s been the transnational corporations that have gained control of the vast mining concessions in Nicaragua,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute.

Although the country has laws to regulate the industry, the government has turned a blind eye to environmental and human rights issues, according to the think tank.

“Indigenous communities face a duel threat. First the colonos were displacing them to carry out mining, but the second is the multinational mining corporations that threaten to displace them and poison the environment,” Mittal said.

Banner image: A mining site in Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Calibre Mining.

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