Bernard O. Nietschmann, Ph.D.


Bernard O. Nietschmann, Ph.D.
Bernard Nietschmann
Award year


Project Details

Tortuguergo Manatees Project

Nietschmann worked on three projects within his targeted conservation area along the Caribbean coastline and the Maya rain forest regions of Central America. Firstly, his Miskito Reef Project assisted Miskito Indian communities in managing their coral reefs, the Caribbean's most extensive reef tract, by teaching them to map and maintain the area using SCUBA and GIS as tools.

Secondly, his Tortuguero Manatees Project involved community-based research on the status of recently resurgent populations of manatees along the northeastern coast of Costa Rica.

Finally, his Maya Rain Forests Project involved mapping indigenous communities' historic and contemporary use and management of the rain forest, including the tropical upland forests of the Maya Mountains. The project resulted in a significant publication called Maya Atlas, a collaborative community-based project and the first indigenous people's atlas of its kind.



On January 22, 2000, Bernard O. Nietschmann, geographer from the University of California at Berkeley, died of esophageal cancer. He was 58 years old. Nietschmann was a person of many talents who did many things extraordinarily well. He excelled as a writer, a geographer, an ecologist, a teacher, a photographer and an activist for indigenous rights. Much of his professional energy was spent with the Miskito Indians along the Atlantic Coast of Central America, where he had been active from the mid-1960s through the 1990s; but his efforts ranged much farther, encompassing indigenous peoples and ecological themes worldwide. Coastal marine ecosystems were a special interest; one of the last tasks he completed was a comprehensive map of the coral reefs of the world, done for the National Geographic Society.

Nietschmann stated his philosophy on the link between culture and environment saying, "If you're interested in cultural diversity, you have to be interested in biological diversity, because nature is the scaffolding of culture — it's why people are the way they are. If you're interested in environments, you have to be interested in culture."

He wrote in his Pew Fellowship application that his aims were to strengthen the linkages between his teaching and research so that he could bring the best of academia to help indigenous peoples defend and protect their coasts and forests and to, in turn, bring the best of indigenous conservation innovation to the attention of scholars, the media, conservation organizations and the general public. He succeeded in both.

Nietschmann first became involved in indigenous rights issues in the late 1960s while a graduate student when he immersed himself in the life and culture of the Miskito Indians living along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. A result of this exposure, which extended over many years, was the publication of several books, including the 1973 cultural geography classic Between Land and Water: The Subsistence Ecology of the Miskito Indians, Eastern Nicaragua.

Nietschmann also developed a devotion to the people of the region that expressed itself in more immediate, tangible ways. When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, they moved to take control of the bountiful natural resources of the coast. Government attempts to relocate Miskito communities met stern resistence. Nietschmann entered contested territory to document Sandinista atrocities, shielded in Miskito communities as he recorded a detailed account of the fighting. Upon return to the U.S. he spread word of the Miskito resistance, writing numerous articles dealing with indigenous peoples, self-determination and local control over land and natural resources.

In the 1990s, Nietschmann returned more directly to his roots in geography, working with the Miskito to map the reef system of the Miskito Keys which fed into the establishment of the Miskito Keys Protected Area, decreed by the Nicaraguan government in 1991. With his Pew Fellowship, Nietschmann expanded these efforts to assist Indian communities in managing their coral reefs - the Caribbean's most extensive reef tract. Using SCUBA and GIS as tools, he taught underwater mapping techniques to enhance protection and maintenance. He also launched an initiative in Belize to document Mayan territory in support of the struggle to gain legal recognition for their homeland. This evolved in 1996 with the establishment of the GeoMap Group, which provides cartographic assistance to indigenous peoples striving to protect their lands and natural resources. As a result, the Maya Atlas: The Struggle to Preserve Maya Land in Southern Belize was published in 1997. The book, which uses narrative, maps and photographs to provide a meticulous account of the Mayan region, was the culmination of Nietschmann's fellowship project and is the first indigenous atlas of its kind.

Bernard Nietschmann was born in Peoria, Illinois, and attended UCLA, where he earned a BA with honors in geography in 1965. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in geography from the University of Wisconsin and then joined the faculty at the University of Michigan in 1970. He advanced to associate professor before moving to UC Berkeley in 1977, where he remained until his death. Nietschmann was an exceptional teacher who won a Distinguished Teaching Award at UC Berkeley in 1996 and a similar award at the University of Michigan. In addition to his work in cultural geography, he had been a member of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration since 1983 and, in 1984, was a founding member of the board of directors of the Center for World Indigenous Studies.

Nietschmann combined intelligence and raw natural talent with commitment to two interrelated causes: the defense of the rights of ethnic minorities and the preservation of endangered ecosystems. He used his writing, photographic and cartographic skills to promote them and then moved far beyond these to take a more active part in things. In the Miskito-Sandinista conflict he placed himself directly, and dangerously, in the line of fire and then he had to weather the often virulent attacks of pro-Sandinista activists in the United States and other parts of the world, who accused him of being a pawn of the CIA.

In truth, Nietschmann was not an ideologue and he was not much interested in the struggle between the Left and the Right. He was instead concerned with defense of the rights of the Miskito people and he did what he could, using the means at his disposal, to further this objective. He was a loyal and generous friend and colleague who could be a formidable opponent to those he disagreed with on matters of substance. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him is that he never wavered from the difficult course he had taken against terrible odds. Someone who found himself in opposition to Nietschmann during the years of conflict in Nicaragua wrote: "I read with much sadness of the death of Bernard Nietschmann. I must confess that having an adversary of Nietschmann's professional and human caliber gave me a profound sense of satisfaction."

We are honored to count Bernard Neitschmann among those who have received Pew Fellowships. He distinguished the Pew Fellows Program with his exemplary contributions to applied conservation for the benefit of indigenous peoples and our global environment. Both his legacy and our loss are great.

[Compiled from a memorial tribute written in April 2000 by 1995 Pew Fellow Mac Chapin, a long-time friend and colleague of Bernard Neitschmann, and from an article by Robert Sanders published on the UC Berkeley Geography Department web site.]



Ph.D., University of Wisconsin
1970: Geography, Wisconsin, USA

Master of Arts, University of Wisconsin
1968: Geography, Wisconsin, USA

Bachelor of Arts, University of California
1965: Geography, Los Angeles, California, USA


Nicaraguan Government
1990-1999: Environmental Advisor

UC Education Abroad, Costa Rica
1987-1989: Director


Distinguished Teacher Award
1996: University of California, Berkeley

Marine Fellow
1993: Pew Fellows Program in Conservation and the Environment

Conservation Fellow
1991: Caribbean Conservation Corporation

Henry Russel Award
1974: University of Michigan


Natural History magazine


  • Nietschmann, B. 1997. Maya Atlas. In: Toledo Maya Cultural Council and the Toledo Alcaldes Association in conjunction with GeoMap (UC Berkeley ed.). North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA
  • Nietschmann, B. 1995. Coral reef conservation by local communities. In: Conservation Through Cultural Survival: Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas (S.F. Stevens ed.). Island Press, Washington, DC
  • Nietschmann, B. 1995. Defending the Miskito Reefs with maps and GPS: Mapping with sail, SCUBA, and satellite. Cultural Survival Quarterly
  • Nietschmann, B. 1994. The Fourth World: Nations Versus States. In: Reordering the World: Geopolitical Perspectives on the Twenty-First Century (George J. Demko and William Wood eds.). Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, p. 225-242
  • Nietschmann, B. 1993. Nicaragua's New Environmental Alliance for Indian-Latin America. Research and Exploration 9(3): 270-271
  • Nietschmann, B. 1992. Nicaragua's Miskito coast braces for a resource war. The Wall Street Journal A7

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