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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 92 | Marzo 1989
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Nicaragua

Atlantic Coast: Pearl Lagoon: Back from war and winds

Envío team

Trailing up to 50 logs behind them, boats pull up daily now to the beached iron barge that acts as a dock in the Creole community of Pearl Lagoon. The logs have been hauled from the forests surrounding the lagoon of the same name, where they lay uprooted by the hurricane. Just at water's edge, nestled in a hill of sawdust, stands a portable sawmill. Cows graze the thick grass around the mill and, just beyond, vultures perch, sunning themselves, on the skeletal hull of a fishing boat in the making.

It’s a Sunday morning, but the mill is at work.

As he pulls a freshly cut board down onto the growing stack, Archie Casanova, the mill's main operator, recalls that one clay even a sailboat came in, hauling six logs. "It was quite a sight," he laughed. "He was lucky they didn't carry him out to sea."

The sawmill was shipped there from Matiguás in early December by APSNICA (Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua), after the US-based organization's director, Steve Kerpen, visited Bluefields following Hurricane Joan to see what could be done to help. Discussions with Comandante Lumberto Campbell, presidential delegate to the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, and with members of the regional Emergency Commission, led to the decision to use the sawmill as the centerpiece of self-help rebuilding efforts for the 11 communities scattered around the huge lagoon. The accessibility of lumber and the ease of water transport would guarantee that the project could get started without delay.

A good time to build

The hurricane destroyed nearly 130 homes of the 7,500 people who live around Pearl Lagoon, which lies 20 miles north of Bluefields. "We have oak, pine and other good lumber that’s now on the ground," said Noel Campbell, governmental delegate to the lagoon communities. "It's just a question of going and picking it up, bringing it to the sawmill, and you can go and build your home." With the help of nongovernmental organizations from many countries, the regional government can guarantee zinc roofing panels and nails for those whose houses were damaged. "It might sound strange," said Campbell, "but with the zinc, nails and this sawmill from APSNICA, it’s much cheaper now than before the hurricane to build a home."

Archie Casanova is one of several local men trained to operate, maintain and repair the mill by three Nicaraguans who came out from Matiguás. They in turn had been taught by APSNICA staffers.

"I never thought I'd be able to do what I’m doing. It’s a great help for us; I see it all around.”

Archie says he has instructions to cut the logs to order for anyone who brings them. “Sometimes they pay in logs,” he explains, “or if they want to buy the lumber we already have cut, they do that with cash.” People from Pearl Lagoon itself or from any of the other nearby communities pay for the cutting with 40% of the lumber they bring; those who have to travel from further up the lagoon only pay 30%. That wood is sold to communities outside the area such as Corn Island, which has no available lumber for its rebuilding needs; the proceeds pay for the workers’ salaries, spare parts and the five gallons of gas the mill consumes daily. The Pearl Lagoon Community Council decided on the barter arrangement because both the hurricane and the general economic crisis have meant that wood is in greater supply than money.

A long-time woodcutter and hunter, Archie knows the many tropical woods of the region well. He recalled that the mill’s very first clients were fishermen, who brought him santa maria, a wood so hard it sinks in water. They wanted it cut into small slats for making new lobster traps—even more urgent for them than rebuilding their houses, since all of their traps were lost in the raging seas during the hurricane.

With the experience he has gained on the new mill—a US-made horizontal cutter called a Woodmizer—Archie says he can now cut between 15 and 35 logs a day, depending on their length. “This is the first time I seen one of these and it’s something that quite amazes me. It is more accurate than other power saws I have used and a lot easier.” He expects soon to be inundated with work as the more distant communities start coming across the lagoon with the wood they are collecting.

Archie, who was born in Bluefields, is ethnically mixed, not unusual on the coast. His maternal grandfather is from Spain and his grandmother a Miskito Indian from Honduras. His other grandmother is from Jamaica; “probably from Africa then,” he says.

He is pleased at the way the sawmill operation has been organized. In his 51 years he has noted the tensions surrounding the donations that have come to the coast from churches, and now, with the hurricane, from the government. “Things like donations is something very hard,” Archie muses. “When it come to the place that you have to give something and there is a lot of people, you need to be taking special care, because someone is always crying when they think they don’t get the same share.”

Since the project belongs to the communities themselves, they will eventually be faced with deciding how to use the accumulating proceeds for community projects. So far, there has only been enough after expenses to begin construction of a small warehouse to store spare parts, with a roofed open section for the mill itself. The mill now has to be shut off and covered when it rains, which is frequently.

Another test of peace

Such joint decision-making will test the strength of the new peace in the lagoon, an area of historic inter-community and inter-ethnic rivalries. Many of the boys from the area who took up arms—locally referred to as "bushmen" rather than contras—often used their military strength to even old scores. Several attacks on Pearl Lagoon, the most industrious and prosperous community in the basin, were just such vendettas, carried out by bands from neighboring Haulover, a much poorer Creole community. As Archie explains it, "Plenty of them got into the bush that way. Like some personality problem, a long sickness. It wasn't political, like fighting for a different party." The last time Pearl Lagoon was attacked, in May 1985, the assault lasted most of the night, and left the community members shattered. "Those times was very, very dangerous," recalls Archie. "I used to live with my heart almost in my mouth; it feel like it would jump out."

He adds that some also "went into the bush" because they were afraid of the draft, and others because "they thought the US was big and would help them, or that they would get a nice US belt and nice boots."

A Seventh Day Adventist and a natural-born philosopher, Archie did his bit for the peace that has now come. "I tell them, the sword doesn't bring peace, all the sword bring is strife. If you go in the bush and kill my brother, I going to look a way to kill you, then you going to look to kill me. But if you just come and talk and make peace, that is a perfect peace because I don't miss anyone, and no one is beaten."

The Sandinistas, too, realized that the bushmen were not really trying to overthrow the government, and that the communities wanted peace. On that basis, they encouraged the formation of community-level Peace and Autonomy Commissions, to talk the boys into coming back. But, as Archie explained, family members were fearful of making contact, afraid either the government or the contra leaders would kill any youth who tried to return.

"Then the head of the commission in Bluefields come up here and tell them what type of thing it was and that they have a law they call the autonomy and that who would deliver themselves would be free. And the people start to listen and he assure them that this thing was true. When that happen they start more to get into it, and then try to make contact with their boy. One man convince his wife by telling her he sure the government won't kill their son because it is a law that not only one man make but was made by a company of people. And now, what is not dead has come out the bush."

Inexplicably, the old tensions between Haulover and Pearl Lagoon have abated since the war. "Before," muses Archie, "just a few people in Pearl Lagoon would respect them from Haulover, and in Haulover only a few would respect those from Pearl Lagoon. Now I see that those boys from Haulover they come out the bush and just come and drink and have their feast here and go back home. I was afraid that the jealousy and anger and bitterness would be worse, but no, it gone down instead of come up.” According to Archie, few people from Pearl Lagoon went into the bush, while over 30 boys from Haulover did. He says they are now all back in their communities as fishermen or farmers, and some are even working with the government.

Noel Campbell shares that assessment. "They are working together with all the people in the community. So we try to say, 'Okay, whatever war we had around here was of the past. Now we are looking toward the future.”

Giving women a chance

"Lumber means life for the people of Pearl Lagoon," says, Comandante Lumberto Campbell, Noel's brother, referring to the APSN1CA project. "Lumber means the building of boats, boats mean extracting fish, fish mean the movement of the economy, and the economy means feeding the body and building health. So this sawmill has reinjected lots of energy into the community."

While the government initially hoped to rebuild the industrial fishing fleet in the coast, in recent years it has begun paying more attention to assisting small-scale fishing. One such attempt, Noel Campbell explained, glancing over at a small fishing boat chugging into view, produced a new phenomenon in Pearl Lagoon—a women's fishing cooperative. The shiny white boat with blue trim that he was watching pulled expertly up to the dock, revealing the name on its stern: "Lady Marshall."

Lady Marshall's captain is 56-year-old Evita Johnson, who lives with her husband and three children in Marshall Point, a community of some 30 Creole families northeast of Pearl Lagoon. Asked how the women got the boat, she laughed easily and pointed at Campbell. "Well, who start this for we was he, but we feel like it was just propaganda, that he never mean what he was telling us. But after all his word was true.” She explained that he had called a community meeting to make his proposal: the government would provide a boat to any women willing to sign up and form a cooperative. Feeling brave, Evita signed up, and three other women followed her. "I don't know how Noel got that idea to get we into this, but, well, he done something that was very pretty."
Evita is the only one of the four with fishing boat experience, having spent her childhood steering for her brother as he set lobster traps along the keys off Nicaragua's shore. The other partners all have worked on canoes setting fishing nets in the lagoon.

She says that for now, they are just fishing in the lagoon, which has some very deep areas and has an opening to the sea, which means sawfish, sharks and even the occasional sea cow. “Sometimes we catch 40, 20, 30, large,” she says. Since most families in the lagoon do their own fishing, the Lady Marshall takes its catch to
Bluefields, where it is sold by the pound to IMPESCA, which freezes the fish and sells it domestically or for export. She says the cooperative splits the profits six ways: a part for each of the women, a part for the boat and a part for the man who is showing them how to maintain the engine. Asked how decisions are taken, she shrugs easily, as if the answer should be self-evident. “We get together, then we suggest things and maybe your suggestion come out better than what I suggest. Then we hold on that.”

She says they have been able to catch a lot more fish since getting the boat eight moths ago, and augment their income by selling in Bluefields the sweet pineapples her community produces.

During the hurricane and for three weeks afterward the boat did no fishing. “This Lady Marshall done some good work during the hurricane,” she says proudly. The night the hurricane hit, they made three trips, ferrying people from Tasbapouni, on the ocean side of the lagoon, to Marshall Point “after the water was flowing over the town.” After the last trip, they took the boat up to an inland pond to protect it, spending the next 14 hours on the boat alternately sleeping and praying. In the ensuing days, they made numerous trips to Bluefields, working with the government to move refugees back to their homes and bring back food and clothing donations.

In addition to homes and forest, the hurricane winds destroyed the rice crop—and even the harvested rice. “Since the war cease,” Archie relates, “we had a lot of rice that was grown by the community. But then the rain and wind come up, it blow the house down, blow down the board and that mash up the sacks and blow the rice away, even what was in houses.”

Yet despite the long years of war, and the more recent hurricane, Archie’s community remains industrious and forward looking. He has his philosophy about than too: “Pearl Lagoon is small, but very old, as old as Bluefields, so you have a lot of experience. Other places don’t have that. So these people in Pearl Lagoon, they look to make something with a pretty look, while the other look for things that already have a pretty look. They want it all finished already.” With that, he switched on the mill again and got back to work.

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