The tribes treat her better


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Mother Nature that is.

A new University of Idaho study shows indigenous people in Nicaragua’s Bosawas Reserve clear dramatically less forest than their non-indigenous neighbors. Indeed, on average, each non-indigenous farmer cleared nearly 17 times more forest in 2002 than their indigenous counterparts.

For some time analysts have debated whether indigenous peoples are more environmentally friendly than other groups. Indigenous rights advocates typically point to tribal cultures’ deep respect for nature and the fact they lived in forests for thousands of years without destroying them. Yet other groups say that these days indigenous groups are as likely as anyone to trash their forest to make a quick buck. In Beyond the Map: Indigenous and Colonist Impacts and Territorial Defense in Nicaragua’s Bosawas Reserve Tony Stocks, Ben McMahan, and Peter Taber use surveys and satellite images from the period 1986 to 2002 to see who is right.

The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve is an interesting case. Some 16,000 Mayangnas and Miskitus control the northern two-thirds of the reserve, with a similar number of non-indigenous colonists in the south. The Mayangnas and Miskitus are native to the area, while most colonists migrated there recently from nearby rural areas. All the groups are poor and none have roads to get to markets. Nonetheless, not only have the colonists cleared much more of their forest but the difference seems to be increasing.

The colonists deforest more because when they finish growing crops in a field they plant pasture there, instead of letting the land rest and then planting crops again, like the Mayangnas and Miskitus do. The colonists use some of the pasture to feed their cattle and some simply to claim the land as their private property. In contrast, the indigenous people keep their animals with them in their villages and manage their land communally.

The Idaho study doesn’t show indigenous people always manage resources more sustainably. This is just one case and other cases could be different. It does show that even with globalization and the spread of western values cultural differences still matter. Each group has its own rules and its own way of doing things, and some treat Mother Nature better than others.

The study also leaves little doubt that strengthening indigenous peoples’ control over their territories has helped conserve the forests of Bosawas. That is more than one can say for government efforts to keep the colonists out of the southern part of the reserve, which have been ineffective. So indigenous land rights may not be a silver bullet for conservation, but they are worth a try.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of the paper in pdf format and /or send comments or queries to the authors you can write Anthony Stocks at:

The full reference of the article is: Stocks, A., B. McMahan, and P. Taber. 2006. Beyond the Map: Indigenous and Colonist Impacts and Territorial Defense in Nicaragua’s Bosawas Reserve. Processed.