In Langscape Magazine Articles

Traditional Treasure: Local Knowledge for Climate Change Adaptation in Bangkukuk Taik, Nicaragua

by Marie Besses and Martina Luger

biocultural diversity

Rama woman carrying a calabash from which she will make a traditional bowl. Photo: Catalina Caraffo, 2014

It’s 7 a.m., still early enough to leave Bluefields with a panga (skiff boat). The captain is watching the sky with a little concern. A gentle breeze is blowing, and it’s important to leave early before the wind stirs up the sea causing large waves. It takes two hours to make the trip to the Rama Indian community of Bangkukuk Taik, located about fifty kilometers south of Bluefields, in the Southern Autonomous Region of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua.

We feel privileged to be part of this special mission of blueEnergy, one of the few nonprofit organizations working in the area. Our task focuses on documenting traditional agricultural knowledge and practices that are still being used by the Elders of Bangkukuk Taik. We are lucky to be accompanied by Barbara Assadi, an American ethnographer and probably the most knowledgeable person when it comes to Rama culture. Everybody wears their lifejackets, and as always, at the last minute, two community members ask for a ride.

Bangkukuk Taik means “Eagle Point” in the Rama language. The community is located in the vast Rama and Kriol territory and is part of the Cerro Silva nature reserve, a mosaic of coastal ecosystems, islands, wetlands, and rainforest with stunning biodiversity. Today there are less than two thousand Rama left, and most of the last speakers of the Rama language live in Bangkukuk Taik, hunting, fishing, and farming. “We live, we make a dori [traditional wooden boat], we plant, we go fishing, we hunt, and we talk Rama,” explains Juan Alvarado, a community Elder.

biocultural diversity

The nine communities of the Rama & Kriol Territory, Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Photo: blueEnergy, 2014

The Rama and Kriol territory is an isolated region. Communities are very scattered, with limited access to basic services like water, electricity, medical care, and education, and are frequently exposed to extreme weather events. The communities’ traditional development, based on their own cosmovision and ways of life, has been weakened by the encroachment of mainstream Nicaraguan society and the introduction of exogenous ideas of development. These new ideas led to the exploitation of the local people and environment and caused impoverishment and disruption of traditional organization and governance.

Therefore, the territory and its people are considered highly vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. On the other hand, the Rama have adapted their lifestyle to changes in local conditions and their environment for generations. The Elders of Bangkukuk Taik possess a wealth of traditional knowledge that has allowed for a self-sufficient life, using and maintaining local biodiversity in a sustainable way. We consider this traditional knowledge highly valuable for informing local adaptation processes, strategic planning, and policy development related to climate change. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is vital that this traditional knowledge be integrated with innovative techniques and technologies to respond to the new climate reality.

For an hour the landscape has been passing by. It is hard to imagine the coast as it was before. Miss Nelly, a Rama Elder who accompanies us, explains that we are near Wiring Kay where she was born on the beach. She does not know exactly how old she is but has seen many changes during her lifetime. Her family fled Wiring Kay as a result of invasion by people coming from the Pacific Coast in search of farmland. First, they cut down the forest, then wild animals such as parrots, peccaries, and jaguars left, replaced by pastures and cattle. “We can’t live like before, there are cows everywhere.”

biocultural diversity

Miss Nelly, Izy, and Clotilde resting in a coconut plantation near Bangkukuk Taik. Photo: blueEnergy, 2015

biocultural diversity

Welcoming words in Rama, Kriol, and Spanish for a community workshop facilitated by blueEnergy. Photo: blueEnergy, 2014

On the beach of Bangkukuk Taik, a community delegation awaits us, helping us carry our luggage to the communal house. First and most important is our conversation with the community leaders, discussing the purpose of our visit and organizing meetings with the Elders. Later, two elderly ladies, Miss Icy and Miss Clotilda, visit us, asking for “Miss Kolet.” They refer to Colette Grinevald, a French linguist who has been working on the Rama language for 30 years. It is because of her work with the Rama language project that her sons founded blueEnergy on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua eleven years ago. Years of collaboration with Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities manifest in a deep understanding of their realities and needs. We experience a remarkable atmosphere of trust that gives us access to the community. Barbara’s presence helps the Elders to share their wisdom with us. Lying in our hammocks at night we hear the nocturnal symphony, composed by the sound of the waves, cicadas, howler monkeys announcing the rain, and the cry of one of the last “tigers” (jaguars and other cats).

The communities’ traditional development, based on their own cosmovision and ways of life, has been weakened by the encroachment of mainstream Nicaraguan society.

Our day starts early. We visit Joseph Wilson, “Paup,” a forty-year-old community member, who still applies the traditional agricultural practices of his ancestors. Paup is one of the youngest Rama speakers. We find him in his garden in front of his house, where he grows a variety of edible and medicinal plants, which seem to be distributed randomly. “We got banana, coconut, pear, pineapple and cassava, fever grass, oregano, pepper, ginger, all them things in there,” Paup explains. “I like to see them things, see the plants grow. I want the plants close to not have to go far.” Paup tells us about his plans to expand his garden and reinforce the fence, since a large part of the land within the forest, traditionally used for farming, is occupied and deforested by invaders, threatening him with guns.

biocultural diversity

José Wilson, the youngest Rama speaker, also called “Paup,” next to his house. Photo: blueEnergy, 2014

Returning to the communal house, Pedro McCrea, his wife Cristina, and Juan Alvarado Benjamin, three Elders who live in Kane Kreek thirty minutes south of Bangkukuk Taik, wait for us. Kane Kreek was one of the traditional communities, but with the advance of the agricultural frontier, the Rama had to move. Pedro McCrea founded Bangkukuk Taik to convince the government to build a school. The trio takes us to their plantations, located half an hour by boat from the river mouth. According to Juan, this is where the soil is fertile. “When you see this type of land, is good land and you’re sure what you plant coming up.” Leaving the boat, we enter the forest. A multitude of trees surround us, providing shade. We recognize the sacred almond tree, used for medicine and food, the “Sleeping tree” for timber and medicine, and the “Roba (Rubber) tree” that the ancient Rama used to make waterproof clothing and bags. Along the way, Pedro stops near plants that look like giant pineapples: “In Rama language we call it Ngaabang, but in Kriol it named ‘sill grass.’ In old times Rama no buy thread, no buy rope, no buy fishing line, them use this and braid it. Small, cause it’s a strong something.”

Continuing our tour, the forest opens and we enter a small plantation. Pedro explains that he planted several varieties of bananas ten years ago: “There are red banana, kosko plantain, greytown and real-banana.” In between bananas, we observe large trees. Pedro explains that when the Rama open a new plot in the forest, they cut large trees selectively. “We don’t fall all the trees for protect the banana. Because if you fall all the trees the banana no stay long, it get burn. It’s too hot. Them trees keep it shade, cool.” He explains that trees that provide food, medicine, and timber are being preserved for their own use and for other forest dwellers. “We no destroy the woodland because we have it protect for the animals them. Because if we finish this, the animals them nothing to eat and go away. And we like to see them.” Cristina adds: “We have the Ibu tree for the animals them, for the baboon, the monkey, the wari (peccary) and the givenot (rodent) to eat that.” These Elders share a piece of Rama wisdom with us that ensured the conservation of local biodiversity and their own survival until now. They maintained a subtle balance with the ecosystems, allowing their use and recovery at the same time. Something that we call “sustainability,” the Rama perfectly understand.

biocultural diversity

Page from an illustrated educational guide on traditional Rama farming practices: cultivating small plots in the forest. Photo: blueEnergy, 2015

traditional Rama farming practices

Page from an illustrated educational guide on traditional Rama farming practices: suggestion for growing an intensive garden near the family home. Photo: blueEnergy, 2015

Following the three Elders who move confidently through the forest, we visit some more plantations, consisting of annual crops such as taro, corn, beans, bananas, and perennials like coconut, cacao, papaya, and orange trees that provide fruits for many years. Pedro explains that we reached the agricultural frontier. In fact, at the bottom of the plantation, instead of the forest we observe cattle on Indigenous land. Juan Alvarado explains that they tried to get to an agreement with these families, but some of them threaten and intimidate them, besides taking their produce. The three Elders look at the pasture in silence, and we can feel their hopelessness. It’s clear that today it’s not easy for Rama to maintain their means and ways of life. “Today we can’t let the place rest because now the forest cut down by the next people them, from the Pacific,” says Paup back in Bangkukuk Taik. The need for land is huge, and many Mestizo families migrate to the territory that Rama and Kriol share — even though it was demarcated and protected by law, which stipulates that Indigenous land can neither be sold nor bought. “We as Indians never sell our mother. Our mother is our land and we plan to left it for the future,” says José Luis, a community Elder.

In addition to the fragmentation of their territory, the Rama witness industrial boats indiscriminately extracting marine resources and third parties polluting the water with agrochemicals. As a result, they suffer from the loss of biodiversity and reduction of fishing — their main means of life. Adding to this, some effects of climate change like accelerated coastal erosion, changes in rainfall patterns and in fish migration are already manifesting. “Dry weather time coming now. Dry weather start from January and in May now it start dripping. But now dry weather is not dry weather, rain right there. Sometimes you lose your beans,” Angela, another Elder, confirms.

“We as Indians never sell our mother. Our mother is our land and we plan to left it for the future.”

Given this complex context, it is urgent for the community to adapt. Back in Bluefields, we analyze the identified traditional practices and their potential to reduce the vulnerability of production systems to current and possible future effects of climate change. Along with local experts, we identify innovative, complementary, and culturally appropriate techniques that can help the Rama to adapt to the new reality and an unpredictable future. Validating our results with the community Elders, we agree that the intensification and diversification of their home gardens, a safe source of food near the house, and the conservation of native seeds and varieties adapted to the local environment, are crucial to prepare for the effects of climate change. Crop rotation, in combination with leguminous plants and rigorous mulching, improves soil fertility quickly and allows intensive planting in small spaces, compensating for the loss of people’s ability to let the land go fallow, due to the encroachment of the agricultural frontier.

biocultural diversity

Colette Grinevald interviewing Rama speakers during the Rama Language Project. Photo: Unknown, circa 1985

To disseminate our findings within the territory, as well as among the Nicaraguan population in general  —  which mostly doesn’t know much about the Rama culture as a result of the historical marginalization and discrimination  —  we have produced an illustrative educational booklet and a documentary about the treasure that is the traditional knowledge of the Rama. The community is proud of seeing the result of their work with blueEnergy. “It about us and for us,” says Miss Nelly. For the Rama, preserving their traditional knowledge and livelihood as part of their cultural identity is very important to ensure the survival of future generations. Furthermore, their knowledge is indispensable as a basis for the design of local adaptation plans. The community wants to continue collaborating, conserving traditional plant varieties that are disappearing from their land, and sensitizing the younger generation to the value of traditional knowledge.

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Marie Besses is a French engineer volunteering for blueEnergy in Nicaragua. She works in the climate change department, leading field investigations, analyzing data, and disseminating the results of this current project in education, information, and social media. Her particular fields of interest are sustainable development and agro-ecology.

Martina Luger is an Austrian ecologist and climate change consultant. She works with blueEnergy and the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University in Nicaragua, through the Austrian NGO Horizont3000. She is dedicated to promoting investigation and monitoring of climate change issues and to capacity building related to climate change adaptation.


Further Reading

Martínez, R. (2005). Estrategia Talamanqueña de Manejo del Agroecosistema. WANI N°43, 68–80.

blueEnergyGroup. (2015). Tesoro tradicional: adaptación al cambio climático en Bangkukuk Taik [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eQt7RPPYuY

blueEnergy. (2015). Cartilla educativa: buenas prácticas de agricultura y pesca en la comunidad Rama de Bangkukuk Taik. Retrieved March 12, 2015, from http://www.turkulka.net/centro-de-documentacion#tab2

blueEnergy. (2015). Documento de trabajo: adaptación al cambio climático de la comunidad Rama de Bangkukuk Taik. Retrieved March 12, 2015, from http://www.turkulka.net/centro-de-documentacion#tab2

FAO. (2013). Asistencia a los países andinos en la reducción de riesgos y desastres en el sector agropecuario. Informe de política 10. Prácticas ancestrales de manejo de recursos naturales. Retrieved March 12, 2015, from http://www.fao.org/climatechange/55804/es/

GermaWatch. (2013, November). Who Suffers Most from Extreme Weather Events? Weather-Related Loss Events in 2012 and 1993 to 2012. Global Climate Risk Index 2014. Retrieved March 12, 2015, from http://germanwatch.org/en/7659


biocultural diversity

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