by John, Tufts 1+4 Participant

The Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve (IMBR) is what some people call “The Lung of Central America.” For good reason too: the reserve covers some 110 million acres (only slightly smaller than the state of Delaware.) Indio-Maiz has also been heralded as “the gem of Central American nature reserves” by biologists at UCLA. It was once seen as an “untouchable” reserve, protected by the national government with military stations all around the border registering all visitors, examining what fishermen catch in the river, and restricting access to the vast majority of the reserve. Even with all of this apparent protection, according to the Central America University the region has shrunk at a rate of 350,000 acres per year due to deforestation. What is happening here?
Ten years ago, IMBR was a densely covered rainforest, with a soaring canopy and wildlife around every tree trunk. My host dad worked as a cartographer in this time and spent time along the coastal border of the reserve. He walked along the entire eastern edge of the reserve, gathering census data for the local government. He explained what the reserve used to look like: an endless jungle as far as the eye could see, an uninterrupted, green ocean. At this time, the government had enacted laws to protect the reserve, including a buffer zone law. That is, it is prohibited to develop any ranch or farm within 100 meters of the reserve itself. Nowadays, the reserve is encroached on all sides by cattle farms and empty land waiting to be developed. The buffer zone continues to shrink without any response from the guards “protecting” the land.

After Hurricane Otto ravaged IMBR in 2016, the government  opened the reserve for fallen lumber extraction. This move caused further environmental damage as roads were carved through the reserve. Additionally, even after the legal lumber was extracted, lumber companies continued to use these roads to cut and extract protected trees from deep within the reserve. The military presence around the reserve, MARENA, did little to stop these actions. Their lack of action was often motivated by the money and governmental ties the companies had.

The most recent blatant invasion of IMBR is the Finca José Solis Durón, a 625 acre cattle farm located in its entirety inside the reserve. Living within the the reserve is illegal, even for the indigenous Rama-Kriol people–who have lived there for hundreds of years. The local Rama-Kriol government has legal power over the region, but with minimal power to enforce the law, they struggle to protect their lands from invaders like José Durón. The tribes have tried to remove Durón from the reserve, but he has resisted and claimed he is not breaking any law. Durón has acknowledged that he owns the ranch, but claims that he bought the land legally, even though national law prohibits the sale or purchase of land within the reserve. To effectively enforce their laws, the Rama-Kriol people rely on support from the national government and military agents. In the case of Durón, however, he has multiple high-ranking friends in the military rendering it unlikely any action will be taken against him.

The most recent onslaught against Indio-Maiz comes in the form of a forest fire that started in early April of 2018. The exact cause of the fire is not known, but environmental experts agree that it was most likely caused by someone entering the reserve and starting a fire. Whether this was a mindless accident, or a malicious attack on the reserve is unknown. The fire spread rapidly and devoured over 10,000 acres in less than a week. The government called for international aid and received help from countries through Central and North America. Even with this aid, the fire continued to spread uncontrolled. Many cite the lack of protection in the region as a source of the fire and blame the national government for not taking the preservation more seriously.

The Indio-Maiz Reserve is a magnificent, resilient body of tropical rainforest. It is one of the few (relatively) untouched sections of rainforest left in Central America, and in the Western Hemisphere. However, there is only so much destruction the jungle can take without unraveling. Between the lumber farming, introduction of cattle ranches, and natural disasters, the area is under incredible stress. Sadly, the government is more concerned with developing their economic future, a future that continues to focus on benefiting the politicians in power, than conserving the incredible natural resources that they have. If the current trajectory doesn’t change soon, the Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve will be left in history as another abused and bygone rainforest.

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