Indigenous groups say the Nicaraguan government should do more to protect the massive but quickly disappearing Bosawás Biosphere Reserve.
MATAGALPA — The 20,000-square-kilometer Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in northern Nicaragua is as biologically rich as it is expansive, covering about 15% of the national territory. It is also home to various indigenous communities. And yet — despite its designation in 1991 as a UNESCO World Heritage site — the largely unexplored jungle area is under serious threat from illegal settlement and logging, the Nicaraguan daily El Nuevo Diario reports.
The government estimates that there are at least 34,000 settlers squatting on indigenous and protected land within the reserve. To address the problem, it launched a so-called "Action Plan" five years ago that combines tighter security and stronger environmental standards within the reserve and economic development of nearby areas. Army operations have targeted timber traffickers and illegal land dealers in the area.
The local Miskito and Mayangna indigenous groups, however, say it's not enough. Leaders from the communities recently met with officials from the government, army, and national police to plan a more effective response. But they've also taken matters into their own hands, organizing patrols to detain settlers found in their territory.
"If we don't do something together, soon there will be no reserve, no water, no animals," said indigenous leaders in a joint statement to the Nicaraguan government. "Bosawás will become a desert."
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Illegal settlement dates back to at least 1968 — before most of the park was first protected in 1971 — when the closure of nearby mines forced many laid-off miners to the hills of Bosawás in search of work in artisanal mining or agriculture. The most recent influx, from 2000 to 2006, was driven by local politicians campaigning on promises of opening up the reserve to legal settlement, leading some indigenous leaders to sell off land to settlers and timber companies.
While many settlers paid for the land they now occupy, a 2003 law establishing indigenous control of territory within the biosphere reserve doomed most settlers' hopes of gaining legal deeds to their land. The majority of settlers now arrive through one of five main routes stretching into the reserve from nearby towns, including the regional centers of Jinotega and Matagalpa.
The situation on the ground has become increasingly volatile, with both settlers and natives committed to defending their land at any cost. There have been numerous reports of violence and even deaths in the region. In the meantime, logging and human encroachment continue to take a toll on what some call the "lungs of Central America," damaging some parts of the reserve irreparably.