He is a Nicaraguan human rights activist. He is a biologist, researcher and environmentalist, and the president of Fundación del Río, an institution founded in 1990 focused on conservation and sustainable development in South East Nicaragua. The Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, one of the most important preserved areas in the country, falls within the foundation’s working area.
In addition to fostering the preservation of the protected areas in the South East of the country, Fundación del Río also promotes economical sustainable models, gives support to indigenous communities Rama and Kriol, offers environmental education via local radio stations and carries out research. The organisation is joining forces with farm and indigenous families in their fight against the Grand Interoceanic Canal megaproject and gives support to independent surveys on this controversial plan.
Amaru Ruiz was born in Managua and at 6 years old he moved to San Carlos, in the Río San Juan department. He graduated in Biology, has been awarded various postgraduate studies and also received a Masters’ degree on Social Corporate Responsibility, specialising on Human Rights. After attending university, he moved back to South East Nicaragua and joined Fundación del Río.
In addition to holding the presidency of the above-mentioned foundation, he is a member of Grupo Cocibolca, Articulación de Movimientos Sociales y Organizaciones de la Sociedad Civil and Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco. He is a long-time activist, researcher and teacher, and is a former organizer of Federación Red Nicaragüense por la Democracia y el Desarrollo Local.
Ruiz’s critical voice has been targeted many times since April 2018, together with other members of Fundación del Río. At the end of last year, Nicaragua’s National Assembly cancelled the foundation’s legal entity and occupied its premises (including Radio Humedales, a local radio station established in partnership with Associació d’Amistat San Miguelito-Sant Boi).
At the end of 2018, Ruiz left Nicaragua after receiving numerous threats, being attacked in his own house and having received intel from different sources that the government was planning to arrest and process him.
He has now been in exile in Costa Rica for 3 years, from where he continues to work in the environmental defence of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, accompanying indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples and promoting initiatives with exiled peasants in northern Costa Rica who are one of the concerns of the organisation that he works for. More than 6,000 people went into exile as a result of the country’s socio-political crisis.
Since his exile he has been promoting the National Environmental Agenda in order to present it to opposition candidates in Nicaragua with the aim of placing environmental issues on the political agenda so that decision-makers do not to forget the country’s environmental problems and incorporate the subject into their government programmes. In this way he aims to change the dynamics and political culture of abandoning environmental issues that is recurrent in Nicaragua.
Has Fundación del Río been heavily repressed by the government during the last year?
Yes, it has. Fundación del Río have been involved in the environmentalist fight and giving support to the most vulnerable for 30 years in South East Nicaragua. We are a government’s target due to our stance on the Grand Interoceanic Canal megaproject and condemning the authorities’ negligence in protecting the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve (IMBR).
The government have been negligent because they have not applied the environmental legal frame and they did not properly fight the fire started on April 2018, which led to the first protests.
What is the current situation of the foundation and its members?
It’s a difficult situation. Some collaborators are in Costa Rica because they have lost their job at the foundation. Most members are still in the country and they are in a precarious situation. However, our organisation will carry on its work as far as possible. We will keep fighting for justice and to gain back our assets and legal entity. We will report the violation of our freedom of association to the top international institutions.
What are the main challenges faced by the IMBR?
Firstly, the core area is under threat of invasion: the agricultural limits are advancing and the soil use is changing, moving from forest use to agriculture and livestock. In addition, the protected natural resources are suffering from pollution and deforestation. Secondly, there is land trafficking in the core area of the reserve. Thirdly, the authorities are not complying with the environmental legal frame to protect the IMBR.
In addition to this, extractive companies and single-crop farming put pressure on the buffer zone, which leads to local families having to move away. Furthermore, the indigenous communities Rama and Kriol governance over their own territory, which accounts for 80% of the IMBR, is not being recognised. Finally, I would like to point out that there are not many organisations and resources aimed at the conservation of protected areas in South East Nicaragua.
Fundación del Río is part of Grupo Cocibolca.
Yes, it is a coordination and action platform between civil society environmental organisations. It was created to confront the Grand Interoceanic Canal megaproject, but nowadays is an environmental reference. Beyond the Grand Interoceanic Canal, it addresses the national environmental issues.
On April 2018, rural and urban fights in Nicaragua joined forces. How did this occur?
Different social demands that had not manifested until then converged and connected to the rural world movement against the Canal, the mining industry and single-crop farming companies. The negligence in the IMBR fire awoke college students, who organised social protests in Managua and León, which in turn spread to other cities.
The repression against these protests and the social security system reform, affecting the eldest and the tax-paying workers, led to a civic social insurrection. The regime committed crimes against humanity to repress it and supressed our democratic system. Many groups joined the protests and others emerged in April, with the common demands of respecting human rights and protecting democracy, justice and freedom.
Does the repression still continue?
Yes, it does. The crisis in terms of human rights violations remains, however with more discreet strategies to lessen (the risk of) any international condemnations and not be exposed, as it was in April 2018. We continue to have political prisoners and refugees.
How do you organize yourself from exile?
We continue to work from Costa Rica, and the remote working environment into which we have been plunged due to the pandemic has allowed us to continue working with processes of advocacy. Costa Rica is a very expensive country, which has caused Nicaraguan people in exile here to have more difficulty in organizing themselves because their priority is meeting their own basic needs. Some have even returned to Nicaragua and have been imprisoned.
What are the next steps?
As environmentalist organizations we believe that there can be no change in the country’s environmental policies if there is no change in political power. The regime has shown us that negligence exists regarding attention to the environmental situation. This situation does not interest the regime and as there is no political initiative, a change of political power is therefore necessary first. The regime must change in order to then establish actions that will permit us to change the scenarios of environmental crises. We also demand that we be allowed to return to the country with guarantees so that we can carry out our struggles for the defence of the environment. At the moment we cannot do this, as our lives are in danger.
The Nicaraguan population deserves to be able to live in a healthy environment and environmental advocacy should not be a reason for persecution by the government. We will remain committed to preserving our forests until Nicaragua changes its development model and permits sustainable development in harmony with the environment.