Roughly a decade ago, I embarked on an adventure into the rainforests of northern Nicaragua to film a documentary about the music and culture of the Mayangna Indians. The Mayangna are a small Indigenous group who live in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve—the 3rd largest forest reserve in the world. I partnered with Nicaraguan filmmaker Camilo de Castro on the documentary project, called El Canto de Bosawas.
At the time, I was unaware of the rate at which primary forests like those in Bosawas were being decimated. I was also ignorant of the complexity of factors leading to tropical forest loss. I had become desensitized from years of doom and gloom media about deforestation in the Amazon, full of abstract numbers and statistics about a land far, far away. A tired narrative generating few positive outcomes.
As we traveled upriver into the heart of Bosawas, I anticipated an awe-inspiring encounter with nature’s untouched beauty. However, I was struck by a disheartening sight: along the riverbank, cattle grazed on vast stretches of open pasture. I was confused. Where was the dense jungle full of howler monkeys, great green macaws, and the elusive Quetzal? Where were the towering Ceiba and giant fig trees with their massive buttress roots?
After two grueling days of travel in dugout canoe—over countless rapids and in torrential downpours—we did reach the core area of the reserve. There, rays of sunlight filtered through the dense canopy. An assortment of bird calls punctuated the rhythmic hum of cicadas. And the early morning mist created the breathtaking tableau I had envisioned.
Reflecting on my journey into the Bosawas reserve, I realized the barren landscape that we traversed was part of the ever-expanding agricultural frontier—the transition zone where wilderness is converted into farmland. And the engine driving the expansion? Cattle ranching.
Beef is Nicaragua’s second-largest export, and cattle ranching is the primary cause of deforestation in the country. Over the past 40 years, Nicaragua has lost nearly 60% of its forests - one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Unfortunately, with so much of the country already converted into farmland, the remaining intact forests are found within indigenous territories like Bosawas. Now, indigenous groups are on the frontlines of the fight to preserve what remains of these critical biodiversity hotspots.
In 2014, we screened El Canto de Bosawas in theaters, schools and communities all over Nicaragua. It was a hit. People loved it. In fact, it became the most successful documentary ever made and released in Nicaragua. Audiences were transported to a part of the country they had never seen before, and they were inspired to take action via a youth environmental movement called Misión Bosawas.
Encouraged by the film’s reception, Camilo and I decided to make a more ambitious film with more depth, information and scope with the potential for even greater impact.
In 2016, we began filming PATROL, a character-driven documentary that follows the Indigenous Rama and Afro-descendent Kriol communities in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve who are fighting to protect their ancestral lands - and way of life - from the increasing threat of illegal cattle ranching.
We embedded with Rama and Kriol forest rangers on patrols in the reserve as they confronted illegal settlers, documented illegal cattle farms, demarcated their territorial boundary, and constructed ranger outposts. We explored and documented hidden corners of the forest that had never been captured before. Over the course of several years working together, we developed a very close friendship — and a love for the reserve.
In order to tell a complete story, Camilo and I wanted to show the rancher way of life along the agricultural frontier. We were fortunate to gain the trust of a family of illegal cattle ranchers who live several miles inside the reserve’s western boundary. In their small community, farmers raise and fatten cows, and then take them to nearby towns where they are sold at “auction houses.” In these communities - and at the auction houses - there is no government regulation or oversight. Ranchers operate with full impunity, and the cows raised illegally in protected areas and on indigenous lands enter the supply chain. The beef is eventually exported to countries like the United States and ends up on the dinner plates of unsuspecting consumers.
With this film and impact campaign, we hope to bring awareness to the plight of the Rama and Kriol, as well as stop the sale of commodities affiliated with deforestation. We must hold the Nicaraguan government and the beef industry accountable for their complicity in human rights and environmental abuses. And above all, we must join the fight to protect the last wild places on this planet.
When I look back at those verdant pine forests of my childhood, I am filled with hope. Eighty years ago, they too were barren fields of sunbaked clay, the soil depleted from aggressive agricultural practices. Today, the forests have rebounded, and there is more forest cover now than a century ago. Before we can allow the Earth to heal itself, we must first stop the disease. Those childhood forests will always be a reminder that change is possible. And it’s possible in our lifetime. For that reason, I am filled with hope for Bosawas, I am filled with hope for Indio Maíz, and I am filled with hope for the other great forests on this planet.