In Latin America’s Second Largest Rainforest, an Indigenous Tribe Fights for Its Land

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Nicaraguan soldiers of an ecological battalion of the Nicaraguan Army are sworn in by Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega (out of frame) , in Managua on Nov. 30, 2011.

Deep inside the verdant expanse of Nicaragua’s Bosawás Biosphere Reserve—the western hemisphere’s second largest rainforest—a group of Mayangna indigenous warriors wielding spears, bows, snakes and reputed magical powers are being ordered to stand down after two weeks of preparing for battle against encroaching land invaders.

Leaders of the Mayangna Nation, the traditional guardians of the Bosawás, say they’re giving Nicaragua’s Sandinista government one last chance to oust the “colonists”—a group of timber traffickers, gold miners, farmers, cattle ranchers and land swindlers who the Mayangnas say are devouring the forest like a swarm of locusts. If the government is incapable of stopping the ravaging of indigenous communal lands, the Mayangnas say they’ll take matters into their own hands. “We think the government finally realizes how serious the problem is and will remove the invaders from the forest. But if they don’t act, we are prepared to move in immediately and do it for them,” Mayangna president Gustavo Sebastian Lino told TIME. “This is about our survival.”

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Over the past five years, some 11,500 Nicaraguan settlers—including groups thought to have political ties to powerful timber-trafficking organizations—have pillaged Central America’s largest forest at the appalling rate of 200-280 acres per day, according to various estimates. Two out of every three trees cut down in Nicaragua is felled inside the Bosawás, a UNESCO-protected biosphere that represents 14% of the national territory. The so-called “lungs of Mesoamerica” are now partially collapsed; Mayangna leaders claim 370,600 acres—one-tenth of the entire rainforest—has been cleared in the past five years, including 12% of the forest’s nucleus. “If the government doesn’t act now, in 10 years there will be nothing left to protect,” says Mayangna representative Jaymond Robins.

Simmering tensions came to a head on April 24, when a Mayangna patrol in the indigenous territory of Sauni As, one of the largest of the nine indigenous territories inside the Bosawás Reserve, happened upon a group of mestizo land invaders who had just converted a 35-acre swath of virgin forest into cow pasture. The timber traffickers opened fire on the Mayangna group, killing indigenous leader Charley Taylor. That’s when war drums started to echo through the forest.

One of the original indigenous peoples of Nicaragua, the Mayangna inhabited the area along the Mosquito Coast for centuries, until 17th century raids by Miskitu tribes and Spanish conquistadors pushed them further inland to the forested refuge of Bosawás, where they remain today. Isolated from the rest of Nicaragua, many of the 11,500 members of the Mayangna nation maintain a traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, steeped in a mysticism inspired by their ancestral surroundings. Now they claim deforestation and encroachment by outside invaders is threatening the delicate balance of life in the forest.

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The government’s commitment to the environment was questioned after President Daniel Ortega refused to meet with indigenous leaders last February, despite the Mayangna’s celebrity backing by prominent Nicaraguan activist Bianca Jagger. But Sandinista officials finally responded to the problem in May by forming a special commission and deploying police to forcibly remove the first group of land invaders—180 colonists occupying the indigenous territory of Sauni Tuahka, one of the most deforested regions of Bosawás. Seven squatters were arrested and are being charged for illegally trafficking indigenous communal lands as the government starts to target a network of corrupt public notaries who were falsifying sales titles.

“These [colonists] are pretending to be poor farmers who need the land to plant food, but they are really land traffickers who are backed by some very powerful economic interest groups,” says indigenous lawmaker Brooklyn Rivera, president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Indigenous and Afro-Descendant Affairs. The colonists themselves claim to be landless farmers who are just trying to survive by clearing a plot of unused land. But historically, behind most Nicaraguan land grabs are corrupt politicians or businessmen eager to pocket a nice profit through extortion or illegal sales of timber and land.

Though the Mayangna are celebrating the government’s sudden lurch to action, community leaders say recovering the forest is going to be a long process—starting with the removal of the 2,500 colonists still occupying the heart of the reserve. And once the settlers are gone, they need to stay gone, indigenous leaders insist. “Many times, the people get evicted by the police but as soon as the authorities are gone, they come right back,” Lino says. “We need a permanent security presence in the forest to prevent that from happening.”

The Nicaraguan Army last year deployed the region’s first-ever “Ecological Battalion” in an attempt to provide a military solution to rampant deforestation. The Army has made some impressive busts, confiscating nearly 670,000 board feet of illegally felled wood in less than a year and a half. But deforestation is accelerating—by a 144% in just the past five months, according to the government.

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Part of the problem are cultural attitudes toward the forest. “The advance of the agricultural frontier has to do with farmers and ranchers viewing the woods as their enemy,” environmentalist Kamilo Lara says. And when it comes fighting that “enemy,” fire is the weapon of choice. Nicaraguan arsonists have already lit more than 140 wildfires during the first three months of this year, including 66 forest fires that destroyed more than 17,842 acres of protected woodlands, according to the government.

Over decades, that behavior becomes catastrophic. In 1983, 63% of Nicaragua was covered by primary forest. Today, it’s less than 41%, according to government data. At the current rate of deforestation, by 2030 only 25% of the country will still be wooded as the canopied hillsides of Bosawás are converted into cow-munch and bean fields. That’s good news for Nicaraguan farmers and herders, but bad news for the rest of the country. Nicaragua is eagerly pursuing long-term development plans to build an inter-oceanic canal and Central America’s largest hydroelectric plant—two projects that require massive amounts of water, so destroying the country’s watershed is a bad idea.

The government, with the recent support of UNESCO, appears to be taking the matter more seriously, announcing a nationwide reforestation campaign to plant 10 million trees. That’s a start, indigenous leaders say, but Nicaragua can’t afford to blow it.

“We are confident that the government is now responding to the situation, but we have to keep the pressure up,” Mayangna president Lino says. “Once the last tree is cut and the last fish is caught, the indigenous people will lose their way of life.”

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