Collective action on terrain where things are getting complicated: Case of Peñas Blancas

Collective action on terrain where things are getting complicated: Case of Peñas Blancas

René Mendoza V. 

The framework of coordination, science, ecology and economics, along with collective action, worked for reading the case of Miraflor in the last article. Now we are studying the case of Peñas Blancas (municipality of El Cuá), located over 1,000 meters high, part of the Peñas Blancas Sierra Reserve (of Cuá, La Dalia and Rancho Grande), declared a protected area in 1991, and incorporated as one of the six protected areas of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve in 2001. It is a zone with biodiversity and hundreds of springs of water that produce 27 rivers in the central northern part of the country (“Macizo Peñas Blancas: Un pulmón de Nicaragua en peligro,” END 16/12/2012); with an NGO located in the same community doing research on biodiversity and providing tourism and water services, and a foundation of musicians, committed to the community. It is an area of peasants and farmers who arrived between 1930 and 1940 in a “domino effect” dynamic of the agrarian frontier, and increasingly since 1990 of large businessmen with coffee and/or private tourism. Why in a zone full of resources, organizations with a permanent presence, and a peasant-farmer history is the land being reconcentrated, and high chemical use agriculture emerging?

This zone, far from experiencing the tensions of the agricultural frontier of the country, where the struggle is for the control of the land in a productive space (see Mendoza, 2004, “Un espejo engañoso: imágenes de la frontera agrícola” en: ENVIO 265), transfers that struggle to the environmental field (Gómez, Munk, y Castillo, 2011, “Governance in use and access of natural resources in the territorial dynamics of the Peñas Blancas Sierra-Nicaragua” in: RIMISP, Cuaderno Trabajo 82). This transfer has to do with the interpretation that prevails of the environmental law that is damaging to small producers, forces financial institutions to withdraw from the area, creates insecurity about the legality of the property, and reinforces the concentration of the land in the nucleus and buffer zone areas of the Sierra. As a result, 95.6% of the landowners of Peñas Blancas have less than 50mz of land and control 43% of the area of that zone; while only 4.3% of the owners have more than 50 mz of land and control 56.8% of the land. This situation at the municipal level (El Cuá) is even worse: 84.8% of the owners control 29.4% of the total land.

This zone is an expression of the clash of interests. There is a business sector with a logic of financial accumulation that is increasing their coffee areas and/or tourism businesses. A second group, with a financial rationality, is acquiring large extensions of forests with water sources, capturing resources from international aid and offering tourism services; it is a model that started embracing the peasant way, and organized a cooperative to combine agroforestry and community tourism, but over the years the model was taken over by an NGO and they quit being members and leaders of the cooperative, thus abandoning the organized peasant way. The third and most recently formed group seeks to create personal change on the issue of the environment, create music and develop organic agriculture, and teach courses on capoeira and English in the community; the resemblance to the beginnings of the first group stand out, who also started with a big community and environmental  commitment, even though the first group did not emphasize “personal change”. The fourth group, an expression of the peasant way, formed a cooperative that offers ecotourism services in harmony with their mission of protecting the sierra (“Guardianes del Macizo”, LP 11/03/2014), with members that are diversifying their agricultural and non-agricultural activities, and families that offer community tourism. Other groups work on different activities (e.g. furniture, bread), intensive agriculture (e.g. vegetables), responding to the demands of the market.

These groups with different  and even contradictory interests also are expressions of different approaches. The first and second group coincide in their logic of financial accumulation, but differ in their strategy, the second group accumulates through environmental conservation.

The second and third group share their approach of environmental conservation and their perspective of change. The leader of the third group says that he flew over Bosawas and that “ most of the rivers are bordered by grazing lands.. that all the nuclei of the reserve are isolated… and that the loss of biodiversity and potable water is inevitable.” Change, continued the leader, is at “the most personal and micro level possible” and points out the task for the present: (he named the leader of the second group), a great teacher and guide says that the only thing to do are “Noah´s Ark’s…I feel exactly the same…We need to ensure water sources, produce organic food… And for that reason he advises: “Organize, get with a group… to buy land.”  Accordingly the second group already has their “Noah´s Ark”: large areas of forests with water; the third group is in the process of building their “Ark”. This perspective needs to be analyzed in the light of various approaches: 1) conservative theology interprets “Noah´s Ark” separating a “just” family with animals and the rest of society (and animals) that perish before the flood that God sends as a punishment for their “violence and evil”; 2) neoliberalism separates the individual from the structural, it is the individual and not society that generates change, individual freedom is its maximum (Hayek, F.A., 1982, Law, Legislation, and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy); 3) traditional ecology conceives biodiversity as compact forests and large areas based on the paradigm of equilibrium (Odum, E, 1971, Fundamentals of Ecology); 4) the “throw away” ideology that comes from the large ranching estates (See Fauné, 2014, “En la Nicaragua campesina se han ido acumulando engaños”, en: ENVIO 386), from which the peasantry would be “discarded” under the interpretation that they deforest, and that is why you have to “buy their land”, so that their farms might be “discarded” and replaced by plantations and large estates.

The fourth group expresses an opposing approach. “They say that the quetzal only lives high in the forest, but I see it on my farm, they travel from one side to the other to sleep, eat and make their nests. Also the hummingbirds do the same, they eat, sleep and make their nests in my garden (A. Cruz). “The forest is still here and our farms have trees, thanks to us the peasants” (F. Cruz). An agroforestry system where “coffee is the principal driver of survival…combined with community tourism”, (F. Casco, president of the cooperative). This underlies other ideas: 1) the peasant way as a route that diversifies crops combined with trees and patches of forests, and they do it in family networks and organized in cooperatives – the “Noah´s Arks” would be the thousands of farms of peasant families; 2) new ecology approach based on non-equilibrium, where biodiversity has a bigger future, not in large areas of compact forests, but in interconnected patches of forests and agroforestry systems (Botkin, D, 1990, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century).

This clash of interests and ideas express different routes and underlying tensions. The patriarchs of yesterday used to say that they were buying land off of the peasants in order to give them jobs, that they were helping them; history showed that the small producers made better use of the soil than the large estates and mono-cropping systems that made the countryside more susceptible to diseases. Today the modern patriarchs say that they are buying land from them to ”take care of their water”, and if they find resistance in the fourth group, they are discredited: “you do not understand, your problem as a cooperative is coffee and credit, it is not tourism.” Nevertheless, the peasant-farmer way seems to be fundamental to dealing with the crisis of climate change; it requires that science and economics not be controlled by the same group, and even less that economics uses ecology as a means to dispossess peasant families. The challenge for the peasantry would be: organize yourselves with your group, improve your farm and do not sell it!

The terrain is getting even more complicated. Taking into account the importance of the peasant way for environmental sustainability, how can bridges be built between the different groups? How can the external actors, be they tourists or aid agencies, contribute to this, instead of being destructive of the peasant way?


* René Mendoza ( has a PhD in development studies. This article is based on the thesis of European students, and in studies and the facilitation of innovation processes in the zone on the part of the author, , Edgar Fernández and Abemelet García –collaborators of the Winds of Peace Foundation (