Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/2021/Illegal Activities in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve: The Displacement of Miskito and Mayangna Indigenous Peoples

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Pis Pis River, Bosawas, Nicaragua

The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is located in the northeast of Nicaragua and occupies 7% of the country's total surface area.[1] It borders Honduras to the north, the department of Jinotega to the west and the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region to the east and south. The North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region will herein be referred to as RACCN for its name in Spanish, Región Autónoma de la Costa Caribe Norte. The reserve has an abundance of biodiversity and it is estimated that 13% of the world's known species can be found here.[2] It is where the fauna and flora of both North and South America can be found.[2] The reserve is not only home to animals, trees, and plants but it is also home to the Miskito and Mayangna people, who contribute to the protection and conservation of the forest while also depending on it economically.[2] The economy in the reserve is based on farming, hunting and foraging, fishing, husbandry, and mining. [2]


The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is home to the Indigenous peoples of what is today known as Nicaragua. The Miskito Nation and the Mayangna Nation both have ancestral claims to land that is now considered a UNESCO biosphere reserve.[2] Illegal activities in the biosphere reserve, such as mining and logging, have affected the Indigenous people of Nicaragua through deforestation, physical violence, and displacement.

Historical Context

The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is found on two areas of land, the department of Jinotega and the RACCN. The latter presents an issue as the existence of the biosphere reserve clashes with the land autonomy rights of the RACCN, as determined in the Constitution of Nicaragua.

Miskito Territory

Territorial History of the RACCN

What is considered Miskito territory has changed throughout time and has been defined by the British, the Americans, and the Mestizo governments of Nicaragua and Honduras. For the Miskito people themselves, Miskito territory is the eastern part of Nicaragua, made up of the RACCN and RACCS (South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region) and the eastern part of Honduras.[3] The western part of Nicaragua achieved independence from Spain in 1821[4] and did not include Miskito territory, which would take another 73 years to be annexed into Nicaragua. Annexed in 1894, under the government of José Santos Zelaya, the area came to be known as the Department of Zelaya.[5] At the time, Rigoberto Cabezas, a politician campaigned for the re-integration of the RACCN and RACCS to Nicaragua, though the area had never formally been part of Nicaragua. The Miskito people petitioned the British government for help, as they had been allies in the past, but were ignored and so the area eventually became part of Nicaraguan territory.[5] In 1960, the most northern part of Miskito territory was given to Honduras by the International Court of Justice.[6]

For the communities of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, the annexation into Nicaragua has meant marginalization by the government, the looting of the natural resources of the Atlantic Coast, and the erasure of traditional, political, cultural, and social institutions.[7]

The Creation of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve

During the Nicaragua Civil War in the 1980's, the Department of Zelaya was divided into two, RACCN and RACCS, and the two areas combined make up 32% of the total territory of Nicaragua.[8] The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve was created as a result of the Nicaraguan Civil War.[1] In an effort to stop resistance from the Indigenous population, the Sandinista government complied to the demands of land from Indigenous people. The subsequent Chamorro government created three conservation reserves in the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, one of these was the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.[1] The creation of these reserves was seen as an infringement of the region's territorial autonomy,[1] as Indigenous people had not been part of the decision to convert land into conservation reserves. The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve encroaches on territory that is considered the ancestral homeland of the Miskito and Mayangna people. Many of these rights exist only on paper and communities have been fighting for the titling of their territories. As of 2014, 21 territories had been titled.[7] Like the autonomy rights, the titling of land does not secure that land. Despite the constant infringement of rights, Nicaragua is known to have a progressive legal framework in regard to Indigenous people rights.[9]

Autonomy Rights

Nicaragua Constitution Article 180 and Article 181.[10]

  • Article 180

The communities of the Carribbean Coast have the inalienable right to live and develop themselves under the forms of political-administrative, social and cultural organization that correspond to their historic and cultural traditions

The members of Autonomous Regional Councils shall be elected by the people by universal, equal, direct, free and secret vote for a term of five years, in conformity with the law.

The State guarantees these communities the benefits of their natural resources, the effectiveness of their forms of communal property and the free election of their authorities and representatives.

Furthermore, it guarantees the preservation of their cultures and languages, religions and customs.

  • Article 181

The State shall organize by means of a law the regime of autonomy for the indigenous peoples and ethnic communities of the Atlantic Coast, which shall have to contain, among other rules: the functions of their government organs, their relation with the Executive and Legislative Power and with the municipalities, and the exercise of their rights. This law shall require for its approval and reform the majority established for the amendment of constitutional laws.

The concessions and contracts of rational exploitation of the natural resources granted by the State in the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast must have the approval of the corresponding Regional Autonomous Council.

The members of the Regional Autonomous Councils of the Atlantic Coast can lose their condition for the reasons and procedures established by law.

Historical Inaccuracies

Though most documents available online say that the creation of the reserve was an infringement of the rights of Indigenous people, the reserve was created with the petition and participation of Indigenous leaders, such as Brooklyn Rivera, the current leader of the YATAMA political party, Hazel Law, a former national deputy, Samuel Mercado, a Miskito leader, co-founder of YATAMA, and co-founder of PANA PANA, Armstrong Wiggins, the director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, DC, and Marcos Hoppington, a Miskito lawyer, who participated in the demarcation of the Indigenous territories. This was done during the government of Violeta Chamorro. Jaime Incer Barquero was the Minister of Natural Resources and made possible the creation of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve. The creation of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve was petitioned by the Indigenous people in order to prevent the government from granting concessions to mining and logging companies in the future; the creation of the reserve benefited the newly elected democratic government in terms of national and international reputation by appearing as a government that cared for the environment and Indigenous people.

The Importance of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve

The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve has a multitude of uses for different stakeholders and right holders. This has been the cause for much of the turmoil experienced in the area.

Economic Development

The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is rich in natural resources, especially timber and gold.[1] The use of these resources was seen as an escape from poverty following the civil war, for this reason, the government is unwilling to grant control of the area to Indigenous communities.[1]

Ancestral Heritage

Mayangna Home

The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is not just an area that has potential for economic development, it is also the ancestral home of the Mayangna and Miskito people. Through oral history of the Miskito Nation, it is said that Miskito people came from the south and settled in the area thousands of years ago. The Mayangna people also have ancestral claims to the land.

"This place has special value for the Mayangna people. It has an abundance of riches. That's why we settled in this place. We got together as a people and decided to stay here for the rest of our lives. In every place we have been, we have been mistreated, but here we don't want any more mistreatment. We are not leaving this place [...] it's as if we Mayangna were silenced - without voice." - Nirio Simion, Chief of the Sauni As Mayangna territory.[11]

Traditional Mayangna buildings in Bosawas are disappearing and the knowledge of sustainable ways of building Mayangna houses is also disappearing.[12] The Mayangna have always had an important relationship with nature, 94% of the Indigenous population living in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve depend on the forest for their livelihood.[12]

The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve remains largely unexplored. In the other three reserves in Honduras, that in combination with the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve make up the largest rainforest north of the Amazon, there is a city called "The White City" that was believed to be a fabled city for centuries.[13] The Mayangna and Miskito people knew of this city through oral history and the existence of the city predates the arrival of Europeans by centuries. This showcases the importance of the history and culture that is found in the Bosawas Biosophere Reserve and with the people that live there. According to oral history, there are other ruins of cities throughout the RACCN, which have yet to be found.


The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, together with the Patuca National Park in Honduras, the Tawhaka Asangni Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, and the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, all are considered as the heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC).[14] It is the largest rainforest north of the Amazon in South America and it is home to a large number of endangered species.[14] The Mayangna and Miskito people who live here have an extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna and have shaped the biological system through their cultural practices.[14]

Violence in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve

The Nicaragua Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) is responsible for the protection of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve from colonization and exploitation.[15] Both Indigenous people and new settlers depend on the resources in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve for their livelihood.

Bosawas Post-Civil War

During the Nicaragua Civil War, Indigenous people were displaced from their ancestral homes. The land was left to be occupied by combatants who then had to leave once Indigenous people were permitted to return in 1991.[15] The violence began immediately after the creation of the reserve. While Indigenous people viewed the reserve as a means to protect their land from exploitation, former combatants viewed the land as free to use and began encroaching. The former combatants, now considered settlers, were armed and MARENA was powerless to halt their trespassing.[15]

The difference between Indigenous people and settlers is too different to make it possible to share land. The most glaring difference is that of ethnicity. For the most part, Indigenous people tend to speak their languages, Mayangna and Miskito, while settlers speak Spanish. Indigenous people hold land communally, while colonists favour private property.[15] There is also a difference in agricultural practices and strategies implemented for long-term livelihood.[15]

"Each indigenous family farms in an area of <15 ha, which is a mosaic of forest succession stages, because the land is cropped for a year or so and then allowed to go back to forest. In contrast, colonists affect land in an often irreversible trend that begins with an annual crop and ends in pasture. The goal of the colonist occupation is to develop as much pasture as possible. Many colonists cut forest and plant pasture annually as a livelihood strategy- even without cattle-so as to sell such "improvements" to the next wave of colonists. This way of converting labor to cash is the frontier equivalent of having a job. Such land speculation is almost unknown among indigenous residents of Bosawas."[15]

Bosawas in Present Times

The violence in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve has only continued to escalate. Land grabbing is the major cause for deforestation and the displacement of Indigenous people. The number of Indigenous people kidnapped and killed doubled in 2020, making Nicaragua the most dangerous country to be an environmental defender.[16] Over 1000 Indigenous people have been displaced from the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.[16] Indigenous people have voiced their anger with the government from its lack of action in preventing land grabbing,[17] while others suspect the land grabbing to be a covert internal colonization by the government.[16]

"This is a land conflict. They want our lands for cattle farming and to destroy our forests." - Larry Solomon, a Mayangna lawyer.[17]

"They're exterminating us little by little and the state is doing nothing." - Gustavo Lino, highest ranking Mayangna leader.[17]

In 2021, the violence has only gotten worse. A dozen members of the Miskito and Mayangna people were tortured and killed by settlers.[18] The settlers are former combatants and have an interest in mining gold and logging timber. According to the Center for Justice and Human Rights on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, at least 50 Indigenous people have been killed since January 2021 until August 2021.[18]

It is not legal to hand out concessions for mining and logging, yet it occurs illegally, carried out by settlers, regardless of any laws. The mining and logging supports a local economy, excluding Indigenous people, due to the fact that since private companies and the government do not have rights to communally-held land, there is no opportunity for international business.

The Indigenous people in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve use timber to build homes, and practice artisanal mining.


The displacement of Indigenous people for the benefit of economic development is a wicked problem. No real change will happen until the Indigenous communities living in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve are given support by the government. Indigenous communities must be given an active role in decisions made that will impact the communities themselves. Partnerships with international organizations and Indigenous people from other countries will benefit communities in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 McGinnis, Michael Vincent (1998). Bioregionalism. London: Routledge. p. 177. ISBN 9780203984765.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, Nicaragua". UNESCO.
  3. Naylor, Robert A. (1989). Penny Ante Imperialism. The Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras, 1600-1914. A Case Study in British Informal Empire. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. pp. 410–412. ISBN 0838633234.
  4. "A Guide to the United States' History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: Central American Federation". Office of the Historian.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Hale, Charles R. (1994). Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987. Stanford University Press. p. 37. ISBN 0804722552.
  6. "Memorial Submitted by the Government of Nicaragua, vol. I: Maritime delimitation between Nicaragua and Honduras in the Caribbean Sea (Nicaragua v. Honduras)" (PDF). International Court of Justice. Archived from the original (PDF) on |archive-url= requires |archive-date= (help).
  7. 7.0 7.1 Larson, Anne M.; Soto, Fernanda; Mairena, Dennis; Moreno, Edda; Mairena, Eileen; Mendoza-Lewis, Jadder (2016). "The Challenge of 'Territory':Weaving the Social Fabric of Indigenous Communities in Nicaragua's Northern Caribbean Autonomous Region". Bulletin of Latin American Research. Vol 35: 322–337 – via Wiley Online Library.
  8. PANA PANA Document: Perfil Institucional. (2014)
  9. González, Miguel (November 2018). "Governance and governability: indigenous small-scale fisheries and autonomy in coastal Nicaragua" (PDF). Maritime Studies. Vol 17 – via ProQuest.
  10. "Nicaragua's Constitution of 1987 with Amendments through 2014" (PDF). Constitute. line feed character in |title= at position 28 (help)
  11. Documentary. (2014). El canto de BOSAWAS. Misión BOSAWAS.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Cimadomo, G.; González Meixuero, N.; Jamauca, J. L.; Castaño Gil, C.; Martín Sánchez, M. "DOCUMENTATION OF TRADITIONAL HOUSING IN MAYANGNA COMMUNITIES. BOSAWÁS BIOSPHERE RESERVE, NICARAGUA". International archives of the photogrammetry, remote sensing and spatial information sciences. Vol XLIV-M: 203–209 – via ProQuest.
  13. Preston, Douglas (2017). The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story. Grand Central Publishing. pp. Chapter 26. ISBN B01G1K1RTA Check |isbn= value: invalid character (help).
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 "Bosawás Biosphere Reserve (Nicaragua)". Latin America & Caribbean Geographic.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 Stocks, Anthony; McMahan, Benjamin; Taber, Peter. "Indigenous, Colonist, and Government Impacts on Nicaragua's Bosawas Reserve" (PDF). Conservation Biology. Vol 21: 1495–1505 – via JSTOR.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 "Nicaragua's Forgotten Deforestation Crisis". Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 "Nicaragua: Six indigenous people reportedly killed in attack". BBC. 30 January 2020.
  18. 18.0 18.1 "12 dead after attacks on Indigenous communities in Nicaragua". Associated Press. 25 August 2021.