Mayangna – Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, Nicaragua

©Paule Gros
Fishing from a boat with a bow and arrow

Summary: The BOSAWAS Biosphere reserve in north-central Nicaragua is one of the centrepieces of the 'Heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor'. The area is renowned for its rich biodiversity and numerous rare or endangered species. Occurring there are some of the last populations in Central America of Giant Anteater, Baird’s Tapir, Central American Spider Monkey, Jaguar, Harpy Eagle and American Crocodile, and among the world’s last populations of Baird's Tapir and Central American Spider Monkey.

This territory is also the home of the indigenous Mayangna, or Sumu, people, who have lived here for centuries. They have developed an intricate and extensive knowledge of the local flora and fauna and have shaped the biological system through their cultural practices.

Today these interlinked biological and cultural systems are under threat by a rapidly advancing agricultural frontier, increasing contamination of watercourses originating outside the reserve, illegal logging, as well as some trade in endangered animal and plant species. The LINKS project seeks to ensure that the knowledge possessed by the Mayangna, as well as their unique ecological, social and cultural relationship with the natural environment, are appropriately recognized and fully incorporated into the design and implementation of resource management processes in the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve.

As a first step to understanding Mayangna relationships with their natural environment, the animals, plants and other natural entities that Mayangna people recognize were compiled in a book entitled 'Conocimientos tradicionales del pueblo Mayangna sobre la convivencia hombre y naturaleza: Peces y Tortugas'. This project was undertaken in cooperation with the International Center for Tropical Ecology (ICTE) at the University of Missouri Saint Louis (USA) and with support by the Norwegian Embassy in Nicaragua.

After extensive consultation and in agreement with the local Mayangna leadership, the documentation focused initially on fishes and turtles, two important food sources in the reserve. We compiled a photo library of the thirty-two taxa of fish and six turtles that the Mayangna identify. For each of these animals, we documented Mayangna names, knowledge and know how on natural history, harvesting techniques and use, as well as legends and myths, using both one-to-one interviews and interactive assemblies. We also investigated the correspondences between Mayangna and other naming systems, including scientific terms for these taxa, as well as names in the Miskitu language and locally spoken Spanish. This was part of a broader endeavour through which names were collected for 787 plants and animals, organised into nineteen Mayangna categories.

This project was initially carried out by the habitants of the Lakus River, one of the five Mayangna groups in BOSAWAS, under the joint supervision of Nacilio Miguel of Arangdak, Lakus, and Dr. Paule Gros Faculty Associate with ICTE. It later extended to the entire Mayangna community within BOSAWAS. The encyclopedia was launched in its Spanish language version in January 2010 in Paris and in its Mayangna language version in Managua on 29 July 2010.

In 2010, the project entered into a major new phase, during which materials on local knowledge in the Mayangna language will be developed, with a view to introducing them into the school curriculum in BOSAWAS and eventually elsewhere in Nicaragua. Ultimately, it is expected that by bringing recognition to their knowledge and practices, and demonstrating their influential role in natural resource management, the Mayangna people will be conferred an increasingly prominent role in the sustainable development of the region.  For more on the indigenous education component of the Mayangna project, please go here.

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