Indian groups from Nicaragua to Panama are forming coalitions to save their remaining native lands from loggers, ranchers, and colonists, who have already destroyed two-thirds of the region's tropical rain forests since the 1940s.
Ten years ago, virtually no such Indian organizations existed. Today, these groups have become "a fairly strong movement," says Mac Chapin, program director for Central America at the Arlington, Va., office of Cultural Survival, based in Cambridge, Mass.
Mr. Chapin and others are trying to bring Indians together to devise strategies for protecting the forests. "Indians haven't been given a chance to get together to discuss these issues," he says, although they make up 20 percent of Central America's population.
In September, the First Congress on Indigenous Lands of the Mosquitia met to address some of the problems facing four indigenous groups who live in northeastern Honduras. Cultural Survival is now planning a similar congress for indigenous groups in northeastern Panama.
Most of the destruction of Central America's forests has occurred over the last 50 years when the population tripled to 25 million. Remaining forests are sprinkled in a thin band along the Caribbean coast.
Chapin this year created a map for the National Geographic Society called "The Coexistence of Indigenous Peoples and the Natural Environment in Central America." He notes that colored splotches on the map that show what forests are left also represent areas where Indians live, indicating that indigenous peoples are good land stewards.
"If we have any shot at saving the forests, it's with getting the Indians organized ... otherwise I think we're finished," he says.