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 A man feeds his cow in Ticuantepe Town, Nicaragua, August 10, 2007. © 2007 Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas

Nicaragua’s Indio Maíz reserve is a protected rainforest roughly the size of Rhode Island. It teems with life: weeping fig trees, jaguars, passion flower butterflies, and charismatic rainbow-billed toucans. The tranquil rivers that run through this rainforest also sustain herds of gentle manatees, the sea cows.

Despite the rich biodiversity of Indio Maiz, Margarito Mcrea, a member of the Indigenous Rama people whose ancestral territory makes up most of the reserve, describes his fears of losing it all. “I don’t want my children to see trees or animals only in pictures,” he says in PATROL, a new documentary film that portrays his community’s struggle to save the reserve.

Indio Maíz is shrinking at an alarming rate. Dr. Christopher Jordan, a conservationist and ally to local communities, warns that the rainforest could be gone in five years if the current rate of destruction continues. By 2019, nearly 13,000 hectares were being illegally used for agriculture inside the reserve, and it has only increased since.

While the U.S. government has responded to Nicaragua’s human rights crisis, mostly through targeted sanctions, it has done little to address the role that U.S. trade has in the environmental crisis in Nicaragua’s rainforests. The cows illegally grazing in Indio Maíz may end up as beef on U.S. dinner plates: the U.S. is by far the largest importer of beef from Nicaragua, and also the main destination for the country’s leather exports.

The reserve is under intense pressure from unlawful encroachment by cattle ranchers. And what’s happening in Indio Maíz mirrors the national picture. Overall, between 1983 and 2015, Nicaragua lost more than half of its forest cover as pastures more than doubled, according to government data.

At least 67 percent of the land used for cattle ranching across the country is illegally occupied, according to Fundación del Río, a Nicaraguan environmental group. Their investigation in 2020 found that corruption is rife in the government’s cattle traceability program, which routinely “launders” cattle unlawfully raised in Indio Maíz to pass them off as legal.

The Rama Indigenous people and Kriol Afro-descendent communities who live in the reserve have organized to protect the rainforest — their livelihoods and culture are intimately connected to their traditional territory. Forming patrols of forest rangers, they find illegal farms, team up with journalists to track down the owners, and meet with government officials and business leaders to press for better enforcement of environmental laws.

If cattle ranchers were the only problem, their work would be difficult enough. Beef is among Nicaragua’s top three exports, along with coffee and gold, according to the central bank’s figures.

But they also face one of the most repressive governments in the region. President Daniel Ortega is largely regarded as a dictator whose crackdown on dissent has led to the jailing and killing of hundreds of people, and a wholesale assault on civil society since 2018. That includes canceling the legal registration of Fundación del Río and forcing its director, Amaru Ruiz, into exile. The director of Patrol also had to flee the country, and both he and Ruiz were stripped of their nationality and their belongings were confiscated.

By Ruiz’s account, the government has dissolved 160 environmental organizations in the past five years, undercutting support for conservation of Indio Maíz and other protected areas. Ortega’s government has also loosened logging regulations and welcomed foreign investment in cattle.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers have proposed a law that could address the U.S. market’s role in Nicaragua’s environmental crisis.

The Fostering Overseas Rule of Law and Environmentally Sound Trade Act (FOREST Act), introduced in the last Congress, would restrict the import of agricultural commodities such as beef, leather and palm oil that are grown on illegally deforested land, including where violations of the land rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities land are involved. Drafters are looking to reintroduce the bill this year.

Under the FOREST Act, the U.S. government would identify high-risk countries and require U.S. companies importing from those countries to take additional measures to ensure their supply chain is free from illegal deforestation and associated human rights abuses. As part of its risk assessment, the government would consult civil society, offering an important avenue for environmental defenders and Indigenous peoples to report illegal and harmful practices in industrial agriculture.

With an abusive, corrupt government in Nicaragua reportedly complicit in the destruction of the reserve, and the U.S. the largest customer for the country’s cattle products, the proposed FOREST Act may offer the best possible hope in the struggle to save Indio Maíz.

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