Extensive illegal cattle ranching destroys core area of Nicaragua’s Indio Maíz Biological Reserve

By Duyerling Ríos and Cristopher Mendoza on 28 August 2017 | Translated by Romina Castagnino

(This article is a collaboration between Mongabay-Latam and Onda Local in Nicaragua)

Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, Nicaragua – The howl of a spider monkey that swayed from branch to branch alerted a group of green macaws to our presence and eventually took flight and disappeared into the forest. From one moment to another, the gentle wind that refreshed us turned into an intimidating gale rocking millennial trees back and forth —some trees are taller than one hundred meters— and forced us to walk hastily until we arrived at the Chontaleño River. There we noticed fresh jaguar footprints which put us on alert. All this is part of the daily life and charm of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.

Seventy percent of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve is the indigenous territory of Rama and Afro-descendant Kriol people. The reserve is located between the municipalities of Bluefields, New Guinea, San Juan de Nicaragua and El Castillo, in the southeastern region of Nicaragua.

Forest in the core area of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve comprises about 2,639 km², slightly larger than Luxembourg. It is one of the most important tropical rainforests in Central America because it is home to a variety of endangered and threatened species. There are tapirs, jaguars, peccaries, manatees, and a great variety of birds, such as macaws, toucans, quetzals, bare-throated tiger heron, among others.

The humid tropical climate of the reserve generates diverse ecosystems and it filters the water from the San Juan River basin, one of the most important rivers of Nicaragua. Moreover, its trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which helps in the fight against climate change.

The reserve is a protected area; however, there are increasing complaints from people who watch people entering the forest with the intention of invading the land. These people have cleared forests and opened paths with chainsaws and machetes with the aim of claiming the land as their own. Some of them invade the forest to cultivate crops claiming to be in poverty and need. Others hoard land to feed cattle and increase their wealth. Both activities are illegal.

Indio Maíz invaders

The trade of cheese, bananas, corn, beans and especially livestock is a common activity in the local markets inside the buffer zone of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, an accessible place where farmers sell their agricultural products. One of the three “baqueanos” (local guides) that accompanied us said that it is a paradox that almost all goods, sellers and buyers, come from the same mountain.

Our trip to the interior of the reserve revealed the operating system of those who violate the way of life in Indio Maíz, and proved that its central ‘core’ is being deforested by various actors, such as the “La Haciendita” farm, as reported by the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government.

Deforestation around “La Haciendita.” Photo by Onda Local

Our trip began in Boca de Sábalos, a small town located in the municipality of El Castillo, Río San Juan, about 350 kilometers from Managua. We boarded a taxi van and half an hour later, the vehicle stopped in front of a wooden gate in the El Padilla community, at the end of the buffer area and one of the entrances to the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve’s core area.

When we entered the territory of Indio Maíz, the panorama was not as we imagined it. The area that once had tall trees and a great diversity of animals now only has vast extensions of pastures to feed cattle.

Our companions advised us to follow the “abra” (narrow path), which gives evidence of the frequent traffic of people and animals towards the core area of the Reserve. In the distance, one can see Cerro El Diablo and Llanto de la Culebra, near the Chontaleño River, our destination.

The trip from Boca Sábalos to the farm. Map courtesy Onda Local

After eleven hours of walking, we saw an extensive area full of logs, although the Chontaleño River was not visible. We suspected it was the 2,000-hectare farm which people talk about. We had three reasons for suspecting that: the branding marks and earrings of livestock, photographs of an iron with the initials “JSD” engraved and a denunciation letter of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government. Upon reaching the mouth of the river, we saw various cut trees and smoke, which indicated recent burning and deforestation in the area.

Fatigue forced us to rest on the trunk of a fallen tree. While resting, we could hear the voices of children and the neighing of a horse nearby; it was a family. They asked us: “Where are you going?” “We are going to the Chontaleño River,” we replied. They then said: “We are also going in that direction and I see that you are tired… If you want to, you can stay in my house that is nearby.” We accepted their offer.

We walked to La Haciendita, a farm that has been “controversial and denounced” in the past, according to the farm’s caretaker, who at first was uncomfortable and suspicious of us. He asked if we were officials from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) and then showed us a notification letter from the leaders of Rama-Kriol Territorial Government of February 27, 2017, informing them that this territory is a protected area and that they should leave.

The caretaker reviews the notification letter sent by the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government on February 27, 2017. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

On March 2, 2017, a group of rangers from the Rama-Kriol territory that patrol and organize trips to mark the boundaries of the indigenous territory, discovered more than 270 deforested hectares near the Bocana del Río Chontaleño, in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.

“La Haciendita.” Photo by Rangers of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government

Margarito McCrea of the Rama de Indian River community says they found cattle grazing. “Those are the most improved pastures that exist in Nicaragua. That man is not poor, he is rich I imagine,” said the ranger referring to the possible owner of the property.

The haciendita looks like a simple house from a rural village; however, to own one in the middle of the jungle is considered a luxury. That is where the caretaker lives with his family: a brother, his companions and his children.

When we arrived at his house, the caretaker looked more relaxed. He said that he was suspicious of our presence but clarified that he felt calmer after our conversation. He then prepared to sleep on the floor and invited us to do the same. A metallic iron—with initials “JSD” engraved—used to mark cattle with, hangs right at the top of where we tied the hammocks. It is the same iron that appeared in the photographs.

Reporters found a metallic iron with the initials JSD engraved. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

The farm has an area of 1,397 hectares on the banks of the Chontaleño River. This haciendita is dedicated to fattening cattle. More than 244 hectares of forest have been demolished to give rise to improved pasture of bombaza, toledo and marandú. In the corral we counted thirty steers, less than two years old. They assure us that at the moment they take care of 70 cattle; requiring 3.4 hectares per head of cattle. That exemplifies the country’s extensive cattle ranching model where large areas of land are dedicated to a small number of cattle, causing erosion and low productivity.

The hesitance that people have when referring to the owner of the farm is remarkable. “People are afraid of reprisal,” said a villager, who asked us to omit his name. “It is the strongest person right now… from Guinea. His last name is Solís. To be honest, I don’t know his name, nor have I been to his farm. He sends peons out of Guinea on his own… the Army has been on that land. But since they are millionaires, who knows what illegal business they have with the lieutenants… we know nothing of that. But there are some illegal things happening because there are chainsaws,” he added.

Corral of steers in the haciendita located within the core area of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

Elías Martínez from Boca de Escaleras mentioned that within the reserve the majority of people are poor and are engaged in agriculture and livestock ranching to survive. However, he recognizes the existence of powerful ranchers who destroy the forest in an accelerated way.

-“At least some Solises have good farms and good cattle too. Do people know them?” 

-“Yes… how would people not know them if they are wealthy and very recognized.”

The caretaker lets the horse and the two mules of the haciendita refresh in the river. “(Solís) could not find anyone to take care of that farm. It was abandoned for two years until I came here… I moved from Puerto (Cabezas) not knowing what it was like.”

The caretaker said that he has a three-year contract to work in the haciendita and that he gains three thousand córdobas (one hundred dollars) a month. He claimed to have exchanged his 14-hectare farm in the community of Sangni Laya (between Waspam and Puerto Cabezas) in exchange for 70 hectares in Indio Maíz, which Solís promised him at the end of the period.

The caretaker stopped watering the animals and paused the conversation to focus his attention on a group of four men who advanced timidly along the riverbank. They said nothing, abandoned the course of the river and followed the narrow path into the mountain.

A minute later, a lanky dog—one of the dogs they use to hunt—walked in front of twelve men, with shotguns and machetes. Three horses carried sacks of food. “How is it going?” one asked. “Very well,” we said and they replied, “Goodbye.” That was all they said.

The caretaker said he knows three of them. They are land traffickers, said one of our companions; they go to the reserve to mark land and sell it afterward. “I have to go tomorrow because these men can even try and get inside our land… they seem to come from the side of El Rama…” said the caretaker. He said that his boss also grows pasture on a 696-acres farm in Danta and that his patron asked him to clear the path to take livestock from the two farms: “We [cleared the path] in a week with three chainsaws.” Now, that path also serves as the entrance to new invaders.

The road that was cleared for cattle. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

Some go, others come

On our way back, we stopped at La Maravilla local market. There are different versions of those who see people entering and leaving the reserve. Francisco Guido, better known as “Chico Frito” —dedicated to identifying seeds and animals—witnessed the passing of incoming groups.

Good land at any cost

Virgilio Jiron Maliaños, from El Padilla, was weighing cattle on the scale in La Maravilla when we found him. To sell his cattle, he needs to feed them well, which is complicated inside the buffer zone of the reserve. “[The ground] is acidic; it makes the cattle want to eat scrap metal. Some animals eat flip flops, plastic, bags, and rubbish.”

Livestock on the scale of La Maravilla. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

For Virgilio the good land is inside the Reserve. “There are thousands and thousands of hectares already delimited in paddocks with bombaza, toledo and marandú, which are very good pastures…if you feed a [200 kilo} calf properly, in three months you will be able to sell it at 400 kilos.” With a humid climate and frequent rain, it is guaranteed that the grass will grow with the necessary nutrients to feed the cattle.

The boss

The Supreme Electoral Council in Nicaragua indicates that there is only one person named José Antonio Solís Durón, from Colonia San José, in the municipality of Nueva Guinea. Thanks to the clues provided by the interviewees, we were able to find him.

José Antonio Solís Durón is a young and wealthy man. They say that he is well-connected with judges and some members of the Nicaraguan Army. He is the son of Sofía Durón and Agustín Solís, although he says that he only has a mother since his father has already died.

An article from the newspaper La Prensa, 2001, indicates that Agustín Solís killed one of his partners, and he took refuge in “the mountain” until justice stopped pursuing him. In San José, it is still said that he paid a judge from San Carlos. Later, Solís was killed by his ex-partner’s brother, recounts the article.

Rain started in New Guinea. We hired a taxi to go to the community of San José—three hours from the village— to interview Solís Durón. On the way they told us that he was not at home; instead, he was in “La Hacienda” bar, on the outskirts of New Guinea.

A red double-cab Toyota Hilux was parked outside of the bar. The truck looked new, with luxury accessories and the plate M 195-942. The truck coincided with the description given by those who had seen Solís Durón selling cattle at La Maravilla. We found him drinking beer in the company of a man and a woman.

Short and white skinned but burned by the sun, Solís Durón had a pair of large gold rings on his right hand and a bright yellow watch on the left. Somewhat intrigued, he agreed to talk with the team of Mongabay and Onda Local.

Solís Durón acknowledged that his family owns a 700-hectare farm in the community of San José in Nueva Guinea.

He bought lands—140 hectares—on his own in the municipality of Siuna, in the North Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua and La Maravilla. In Siuna, he has cleared 13.9 hectares for cattle.

He stated that he also has a 349-hectare farm four hours from La Maravilla, but only referred to the one that he has in the sector of Danta and not the 1,397-hectares farm in the sector of the Chontaleño river, the one that we saw during our trip.

Livestock in the Danta sector. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

He denied having invaded the core area of Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. “No, the Reserve is a long distance from there. It’s about six hours from where I am. Look at that area where we are, it’s a buffer zone which used to be cared for when there was a liberal government; and now, everyone lives there. The reserve is respected,” he said.

The rancher tried to justify his presence in the area, claiming that it was already deforested. “Wherever I go it is already deforested,” he said.

Livestock in the haciendita within the core area of the Indio Maíz Reserve. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

Like the farm’s caretaker, Solís said he has often been accused of invading the reserve. He recalled the time a policeman dared to question him about it: “He began to investigate… ‘And where is that farm?’. ‘There in Danta,’ I said. You know, that is our everyday fight and if the government takes us out, they will have to take us all out…”

Solís Durón claimed to have bought the land about three years ago from friends that lived there for years. He bought it with the profits of the sowing of quequisque (a tuber). In 2016 that crop gave him a million córdobas (about $33,333). At that time, he obtained land at 5,000 córdobas ($166.66) per block. “What happens here is that people only delimit the mountains but have never worked them. It seems that if there is no money, they cannot work the land… people are poor…”

Map showing the location of the farm the haciendita by José Solís Durón

Why new lands?

Solís’ 698-hectare farm in the community of San José was no longer enough. It is not enough for the fattening of the animals, according to its owner. That is the reason why he had to look for more lands.

We asked him why did it occur to him to put a farm in such a distant place? Solís replied: “In here (Nueva Guinea) the land is very expensive. Forty thousand, fifty thousand pesos in the area; and we work hard. How will [we] buy that very expensive land? It is more favorable in the other area; we need to fight and see what happens.”

Solís insisted on justifying his presence in the area. He claimed that Hurricane Otto, as it passed through Nicaragua in November last year, “broke up the mountain. It destroyed everything, there are no more big trees there, there is no reserve,” he reiterated in a louder voice.

His position of denying he had invaded the reserve did not last very long. While showing off the efficiency of his workers, who work in a remote place under difficult conditions, he revealed that their farm is located near the El Chontaleño River. “It is by the Chontaleño…the thing is that the Chontaleño is long, passes through, and surely goes into the reserve…” The GPS references confirmed that the river is within the core area of Indio Maíz.

Río Chontaleño within the core area of the reserve. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

Even though Indio Maíz is a protected area, it does not prevent Solís Durón from entering with his cattle. Solís insisted that his lands are not in the protected area. He supported his claim with the possession of titles of property. We asked him if he has them and he answered: “Sincerely, there are no titles there […] As far as I know, everything that belongs to Bluefields (South Caribbean) does not give you a title. And in Siuna? No one has a title.”

Solís Durón has tried to legalize the haciendita. He has sought advice from lawyers, but said, “They get scared working on that case.”

Location and approximate area of the haciendita. Map courtesy of Onda Local

In addition, he said he felt threatened by the demand for the reorganization of the territory, which for years has been the flag of the Rama-Kriol Government.

However, sanitation is the last stage established by Law 445, Law of Communal Property Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and of the Rivers Bocay, Coco, Indio and Maíz, which in Article 59 establishes that each community, having obtained its title, may initiate the reorganization of its lands, in relation to third parties (settlers).

Solís has the idea that the Rama and the Kriol want to free themselves from Nicaragua, create their own state, and collect taxes, not knowing that the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government has the role of managing its territory according to the Law of Autonomy; and one of José Solís farms is located within the territory administered by the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government.

Lose or win

“Anyone who gets in there is at risk of losing [the land] or winning it if the government says it will get us out of there, no one is going to go against the state. Then there is a risk, if the government wants to let us work there, it will. When you get there, you’re at risk…in order to take us off the land, they will also take out the people of Samaria and Danta,” said Solís.

José Solís Durón reported that during the visits of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government last February, he was told that their intentions were not to remove anyone from the territory, but to encourage them to continue working there, only without deforesting the rivers because indigenous people live off fishing and animals.

However, on Tuesday, July 11, the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government publicly denounced the damages to the Reserve and demanded—together with the cattle guilds (FAGANIC and UPANIC)—that the law is complied with, and that the state intervenes immediately.

Press conference of the Rama-Kriol Territorial Government held on Tuesday, 11 July. Photo courtesy of Onda Local

Rama-Kriol Government leaders have emphasized that the demand of the indigenous Ramas and Afro-descendants is not that livestock activity disappears, but that they withdraw from protected areas. At the end of the day, their home will be the one that would disappear: the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.

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