World Wildlife Day 2020

Conserving Biological and Cultural Diversity in Nicaragua

By Fabricio Díaz Santos | March 3, 2020

Coco River landscape. Photo credit: Fabricio Diaz Santos/WCS

Historical documents, dating from the arrival of Spanish colonists to Central America to the beginning of the 16th century, 18th and 19th centuries all the way up to the first part of the 20th century, help us understand the actors and elements present in the early days of Central America’s young republics.

Wild Nicaragua overflowed with natural forests and biodiversity. The uplands of the Caribbean slope were blanketed by exuberant rainforests and inhabited by Mayangna groups along main rivers in the Northeast. At lower elevations, the most extensive mosaic of pine-dotted savannas, riparian broadleaf forests, and coastal wetlands in Mesoamerica was occupied mainly by Miskitu and Afro-descendent cultures.

The historical documents that I read in high school stimulated my desire to know these landscapes and people. I pursued that calling and, fortunately, that became possible during my university studies. My Master’s research focused on the ecology and diversity of the forests of the Caribe.

More than 100 years after Thomas Belt, Ephraim Squier, and Julius Froebel, recorded their observations of the forested interior — added to by the more recent travels of Walter Lehmann, Eduard Conzemius and Archie Carr — I had the opportunity to know at least part of the life and sights that these inspirational figures had experienced.

When I arrived for the first time at the Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve in southeast Nicaragua in 1995–96, and again when I became acquainted with the Indigenous Territories of Bosawas in the northeast in 2006, human settlements were dozens of kilometers away from the wildlands. In vast areas, human presence was limited to occasional hunting.

“Every day an environmental crisis becomes more apparent — one that pits the conservation of nature and the environment against an unsustainable model of economic development.”

Much has changed in these areas now, but that they continue to represent two of the five remaining largest forest blocks of Mesoamerica is both a source of pride and privilege for a small country like Nicaragua.

Despite the conservation challenges confronting these forested landscapes of Nicaragua, I can testify that they still provide basic necessities to the Indigenous communities that live in them conducting sustainable hunting and natural resource extraction for self-consumption.

Indigenous team conducting bird surveys. Photo credit: Fabricio Diaz Santos/WCS

In these places, the availability of living natural resources still shapes the lifestyles of the communities who have lived in these forests for centuries. These communities embrace conservation of the forests’ biodiversity and the vital ecosystem services they provide, and are key and committed allies in conservation.

Every day an environmental crisis becomes more apparent — one that pits the conservation of nature and the environment against an unsustainable model of economic development under the rules of the market. In the Moskitia, this too often means leveling forests for extensive agriculture, in particular pastures for livestock.

This trend towards irrational use and wasteful squandering of natural resources began with the arrival of colonists from other regions of the country, and has now been described and documented in a century’s worth of written documents.

Indigenous communities are the most vulnerable actors in this dynamic of conservation versus economic development. Much of my effort has been focused on working with Indigenous communities to build local scientific capacity, and support the management goals and protection of their territories — emphasizing conservation of the forest and biodiversity as crucial elements of local peoples’ way of life and continued aspirations of human development within a globalized world.

Empowerment of Indigenous communities has been made possible by the legal structure of the semi-autonomous regions of the Caribbean slope, which recognizes, values, and authorizes Indigenous governments and local authorities. The indigenous territories of Bosawas Biosphere Reserve where I work received community land titles over a decade ago.

“Despite the conservation challenges confronting these forested landscapes of Nicaragua, I can testify that they still provide basic necessities to the Indigenous communities that live in them.”

In the face of pressure from ranchers and farmers, I have worked to support the management goals of the Indigenous territories in their coordination with the Nicaraguan government, exercising their right to defend their territories against presence of illegal encroachers.

Fabricio Diaz Santos showing videos of native wildlife at a communal meeting. Photo credit: Fabricio Diaz Santos/WCS

A primary focus of mine has been to link and preserve the natural and cultural values of the Nicaraguan Moskitia with the adjacent Honduran Moskitia. Such a linkage embraces the idea of one bi-national Moskitia Forest, which although challenging to access, boasts mountains, river rapids, and tall forests.

The long-term viability of regional populations of white-lipped peccaries, jaguar, giant anteaters, tapirs, and harpy eagles — as well as all the original resident biodiversity of the Caribbean slope of Mesoamerica — depends on successful human-nature coexistence in this important region.

One of my goals is to help Miskitu and Mayangna communities preserve a secure landscape to fulfill their basic needs. We should support their economic and food security aspirations through sustainable livelihoods compatible with forest and wildlife conservation. Those include cacao produced in agroforestal systems and low impact livestock management using silvopastoral systems.

The goal is that the territories harbor intact forest and wildlife communities, preserving at least some of the Indigenous traditions and ancestral interactions with the environment.

As Nicaraguans, we face numerous challenges in conserving the Moskitia of the northeast. Key priorities include sustainable management of natural resources, active protection of the Indigenous territories under the existing legal frameworks, and support from the government of Nicaragua.

“The successful conservation of the spectacular bi-national cultural and biological diversity of the Moskitia can serve as a local and global model.”

Mesoamerica now has few remaining examples of the vast ecosystems of the Caribbean slope as they existed centuries and even just decades ago. The successful conservation of the spectacular bi-national cultural and biological diversity of the Moskitia can serve as a local and global model for integrating the positive forces of economic development with the conservation of national heritage.

With collaboration and hard work, we can harness the benefits of the conservation of these landscapes and the biodiversity they contain for the future generations of Nicaraguans and Mesoamerica. This World Wildlife Day, let’s commit to seeing that these rich ecosystems continue to support both the wildlife and the traditional peoples who call these areas home.

Fabricio Díaz Santos is coordinator of the Nicaragua jaguar program for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). He was recently honored with a Disney Conservation Hero Award for his work.

Communities for Conservation

A WCS blog on securing nature for people and wildlife.

Wildlife Conservation Society

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

Communities for Conservation

A WCS blog on securing nature for people and wildlife.

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