Nicaragua's Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, on the southern border with Costa Rica, is under assault. Illegal mining operations appear to be growing. Mercury and cyanide are polluting rivers. Thousands of hectares of forest cover are disappearing, and Indigenous community members are in constant danger of being killed.
The Fundación del Río (River Foundation), a conservation organization focused on Southeast Nicaragua, has been systematically reporting on the gradual environmental destruction of the Indio Maíz, a protected forest that is home to more than 1,000 species of birds, mammals, insects and amphibians.
The foundation, however, has run afoul of the Nicaraguan government, which stripped it of its legal status and seized the foundation's properties. The organization's president, Amaru Ruiz, has left for Costa Rica, alleging threats and attacks by the government.
InSight Crime sat down with Ruiz to discuss Nicaragua's poor track record of fighting environmental crime, efforts to halt illegal mining and deforestation and the ongoing work of Fundación del Río.
InSight Crime (IC): Over the past 30 years, Nicaragua’s forests have suffered from land being cleared by settlers and from illegal logging operations. What are the main illegal economies currently affecting the country’s protected nature reserves?
Amaru Ruiz (AR): The forests face different environmental stress factors. An important one is extensive livestock farming. Extensive livestock farming is one of the main factors that lead to deforestation and the invasion of protected communities and territories in Nicaragua. Mining is another extractive activity that is having an impact on protected areas as well as Indigenous territories. The growth of African palm is also generating changes in land use, deforestation processes and pollution, both in southeastern and northern Nicaragua.
IC: How have these activities evolved in recent years?
AR: There has been institutional support within the regime of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo to promote capital investment in mining and livestock. There are also large corporations involved in palm oil processing. While this foreign investment is supported, there is no process to allow environmental defenders to carry out their work. There is little political will to protect Nicaragua's forests.
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IC: How easy is it for a group of miners to set up illegal operations within protected territories? What preventive measures or obstacles do these groups face?
AR: We need to differentiate between industrial-scale mining and small artisanal mining. Many miners in smaller operations come from areas where such mining is a longstanding practice.
These miners move to other areas, such as the Indio Maíz Reserve, to look for gold with their families. They use cyanide and mercury to separate the gold from the rocks. They build artisan mills and start extracting minerals by hand, generating other environmental impacts as well. There has been total disinterest to address the growth of artisanal mining. Many of the materials extracted this way, including gold, are then purchased by mining companies.
IC: How are these artisanal mining activities illegal?
AR: All activities carried out by small artisanal mining operations today are illegal in protected territories because they have no authorization and no permission. They also occur within protected areas, where one needs a permit to exploit the subsoil. Permission needs to be given for the use of mercury or cyanide.
IC: How has Fundación del Río worked to track illegal mining, logging and other activities taking place in protected areas?
AR: As an organization, we have carried out a number of activities, including collecting information and studies about illegal extractive operations in protected areas, especially in southeastern Nicaragua.
For example, we have monitored how African palm cultivation has grown, we have inventoried illegal mining operations. We have publicly denounced these activities and have filed complaints with environmental authorities on the national level. We have also collaborated with the communal governments of Indigenous Rama communities, which own more than 70 percent of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. We have accompanied them, as they try to increase their security capabilities, in order to protect the Reserve.
IC: In November 2020, the Fundación del Río reported that around 2,000 miners were discovered at an illegal gold mining site in the El Castillo municipality, which makes up part of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Who is behind these operations and who supports them, both directly and indirectly?
AR: Most are families that work in artisanal mining who come from the country’s historic mining districts in La Libertad and the northern Caribbean area. They mobilize in these areas first, to explore. After they find some material indicating that there is gold, they obviously start with these illegal gold exploitation activities in these areas, resulting in contamination. So, they are artisanal miners, conducting illegal mining activities, that move into these territories.
IC: Colombia has seen a tragic amount of attacks on Indigenous leaders, as well as Peru and Brazil. To what extent do leaders in Nicaragua face such threats?
AR: The same violence seen in other countries against Indigenous communities and environmental defenders is also occurring in Nicaragua. At the beginning of 2020, we saw the deaths of Indigenous leaders defending their land rights. They were killed by settlers invading those areas.
Some environmental defenders have had to leave the country. They took away our organization’s legal status. I am exiled in Costa Rica. They have stripped other organizations of their legal status because they opposed this extractive model. The persecution and murder of environmental defenders is a reality in Nicaragua.
IC: In February 2020, it was reported that armed men attacked the Alal Indigenous community in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, with four Indigenous community members being killed and homes set on fire. What happened in this case?
AR: The invaders buy weapons to violently remove Indigenous communities and usurp their lands. A settler wanting to occupy this territory can only do so through violence. They form organizations with other settlers that have the same interest. This is how these murders occur. Some Indigenous communities have decided to defend themselves, which leads to these conflicts. The Miskito community in the north has also resisted. But the police and army have almost never tried to stop these armed groups.
IC: Do you believe that Nicaraguan authorities are turning a blind eye to transnational crime in Costa Rica?
AR: Environmental issues are not of interest to the Nicaraguan state. They are not interested in what is emerging along the border area with Costa Rica.
IC: As for this site, your organization recently pointed out that there was no viable way to legally challenge these types of operations in Nicaragua, and that such procedures would be lengthy and costly. What's this all about?
AR: In Nicaragua, we live in a system where the powers of the state are concentrated within a single person, who in this case is the president. Really, as they are environmental crimes, the person who should formally denounce the crimes committed by these families is the Attorney General’s Office, because these protected areas belong to the nation.
The Indigenous communities already looked into filing a complaint. They filed a complaint against a large livestock farmer operating within their territory, within the biological reserve. However, the case was overruled within the judicial system. It’s no use trying to establish this whole process and to spend on those legal processes if in the end, the judicial system is going to fail us.
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IC: Apart from illegal mining, what other environmental crimes have we seen recently in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve?
AR: All the growth in livestock farming, the issue of land use by settlers, the invasion of protected lands by settlers, fires, fish trafficking activities, in other words, people engaged in wild fish trafficking.
IC: How does fish trafficking work on the reserve?
AR: They enter the reserve, extract the resources and take them to market to sell. There are always middlemen, and there is always someone that traffics these fish on an international level. They are fish that have a high commercial value in the market.
IC: At the end of September, 18 black and Indigenous leaders, as well as lawyers and forest rangers from the Rama-Kriol indigenous community, were temporarily detained by the armed forces after documentation of environmental degradation and the usurpation of lands in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. The president of the territory, Teodoro Jaime McCrea Williams, was intercepted by the army and then released. How common are these types of situations? Why do the authorities do this?
AR: First, it is important to mention that these are human rights violations against Indigenous communities and the leaders within these territories. Secondly, there was the arbitrary detention of the leader Teodoro. They brought him to the police station, and he spent the night in police custody. The Nicaraguan Army is complicit in this, because on the one hand they stop the communal governments that do the monitoring work, and on the other hand they do not stop the real invaders who go into these territories looking to loot and destroy. So, there's a duality in terms of the army's performance.
IC: But this type of situation is quite typical for protected reserves in Nicaragua?
AR: This had never occurred before within the biological reserve, because what the communal governments do is inform the authorities when they go into these territories to protect the land. They already knew that they were going into these territories. For this reason, it is inexplicable how this situation occurred.
IC: It is evident that, in this case, the Rama-Kriol community has been proactive in preventing criminal groups from establishing operations on their territory, conducting patrols and monitoring on a regular basis. How have these communities been fighting illegal loggers and miners?
AR: They conduct monitoring patrol activities. They visit the families that have settled there, and they say that this is their territory and that they should leave. They file complaints and try to provide evidence of cases of invasion within the reserve. They have obviously presented formal accusations before national and international human rights agencies. They have presented cases before the judicial system. The Nicaraguan state should guarantee their protection and that of their territories, but that is not what is happening.