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Violence hits Nicaraguan rainforest as land invasions mount

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 3 May 2013 17:00 GMT
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CREDIT: Mayangna community
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Leaders of Nicaragua's indigenous Mayangna community are battling an invasion of land speculators and small farmers into the Biosawas Biosphere Reserve, the second largest rainforest in the Americas, they said this week.

Conflict between the Mayangnas, who have formal land title to the cloud forest, and the invaders has led to the death of several indigenous people, said Aricio Genero, president of the Mayangna nation. The dead included one leader killed in a shoot-out in late April, after a Mayangna scouting party came across outsiders who had cleared 20 hectares of the forest, he said.

Since 2010, invaders into the forest, which lies on both sides of the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, have destroyed around 150,000 hectares of the biodiversity-rich forest, turning much of it into pasture to meet growing demand for beef and dairy products.

Mayanga leaders say they will march on Managua, the capital, next week to demand that Nicaragua's government responds to their calls for help to expel the "colonos" or "colonists". The forest, a UNESCO-recognised biosphere reserve, is jointly managed by indigenous communities and the government.

"The government has a responsibility to protect property rights," Genero said in a telephone interview. "We are simply asking that our rights be respected. We’re willing to work together with the government."

Many "colonos" are believed to be landless peasants from the north of the country and former Contra rebels, said Taymond Robins, a technical adviser to the Mayangna nation. He said the forest, where the Mayanga people have lived for centuries, was turning into "a sort of Wild West, marked by land invasions, armed conflict, social instability, illegal land sales, illegal logging and illegal extraction of mineral wealth. And the government is failing to act".

Genero, the Mayangna leader, said he believed most of the invaders were land speculators. "These are people who have gotten land from the government elsewhere but sold it and then they have moved into our land," he said.

Around 40,000 Mayangna people live in 72 communities within the forest, which covers 8,100 square kilometers, Genero said.

WIDESPREAD FOREST CONFLICT

Such conflicts, already well known from the Amazon region, are becoming more frequent around the world as demand for food, timber and land to support a growing population runs up against efforts to protect rainforests, which absorb carbon emissions and help stabilize weather. The world’s dwindling rainforests are also home to some of the world’s richest biodiversity, and to indigenous groups who have lived in and managed them for centuries.

A range of studies show that preserving forests is the cheapest and most effective way to slow climate change.

Efforts to slow forest losses to agriculture and logging have had a few successes, particularly in countries such as Brazil and Costa Rica, but forest loss is widespread or accelerating in many other parts of the world, from Central and West Africa to Asian and Pacific nations such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Nicaragua’s government recognizes the rights of the Mayangna people to the Biosawas Biosphere Reserve, and "our president has always talked of his interest in defending (the environment)," Genero said. But local officials have not acted to stop the land invasions, he said, so "our communities are organizing now to try to stop the 'colonos' ourselves," in part by pressing national and international political leaders to enforce the law.

The issue is important for more than just Nicaragua, Genero said, as "the forest we own is of interest to humanity as a whole".

"We, the Mayangna people, never protested in the past," he added. "It's not our style. But every year, every day, our forest is more and more invaded."

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