Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 149 | Diciembre 1993



León: Paralyzed Production, Paralyzed Imaginations

For 40 years Leon has depended on cotton, but now cotton offers no solutions. Its production is not profitable. It does not attract investment. Its exportation is not competitive. With the death of cotton, Leon agonizes.

Moisés González

For 40 years León lived for cotton. But cotton is no longer the solution. Its production is not profitable, it does not attract investment. It is not competitive for export. The collapse of cotton has meant the virtual collapse of the department's economy. Close to 31,000 people are unemployed with no short term alternative.

León's agony affects the whole nation, because in the best years, cotton generated 35% of the national GDP. Even more serious are the ecological consequences. The white tuft stripped the zone's greatest natural resources. The disaster caused by cotton mono cropping broke nature's equilibrium: for all practical purposes it destroyed the forests, poisoned the land and rivers and ruined natural pest control. The future consequences are incalculable, but evident. You only have to open your eyes, or breathe.

No Vision or Planning

Cotton generated 20,000 temporary or permanent jobs in the whole department. The crisis has caused businesses to close or be privatized, and has meant financial cutbacks for cotton production. No decision was made, however, to gradually replace the crop with others, or to alter existing infrastructure. No short term survival alternatives were designed either for producers or workers, nor were programs developed for Nicaragua's long term economic growth.

Small and medium producers no longer receive rural credits and have no contingency plans to deal with the successive droughts. This has created a desperate situation for 12,000 families in León's rural municipalities. To add to the misery, the mine in Santa Pancha and the Soviet Nicaraguan mining project in El Jicaral were closed, putting over 500 more out of work. Economic activity has all but disappeared in Puerto Sandino, affecting another 300. There are 10,000 unemployed people in León's urban center, the victims of agroindustry closings, former army personnel or participants in the well publicized but deceptive occupational conversion plan. In all, according to a departmental analysis by the Save León Committee, over 30,000 are newly jobless in the stricken department, more than 10% of its total population.

The situation is overwhelming local authorities, and is aggravated by the central government's insensitivity to León's critical problems. To date, the solutions have not gone beyond the temporary, "beggar like" work for food formula for some of those who clean streets or repair roads.

The prolonged technological and ideological dependence on mono crop cotton activity is showing its weakness today. The ideological paralysis is even more serious than the production paralysis, having reduced producer mentality to dependence on a single product that cannot even guarantee basic alimentation. This historic myopia explains the levels of extreme poverty to which the majority of the León population is being pushed. In the last week of October, 120 unemployed people walked from León to Managua. "We want work," they chanted, "Our children are dying of hunger." The government did not receive them.

Less Work Means Less Taxes

As in any city around the country, swarms of people in León walk the streets selling lottery tickets, cold water, combs, mirrors or cigarettes. Many of them are accountants, mechanics, secretaries, construction workers and even some doctors. They are all trying to survive but have not found work.

Many people and businesses in León can no longer pay their municipal taxes, creating a huge municipal deficit. Without tax income it is impossible to carry out some of the projects the municipality needs or to create jobs. According to León municipal councillor Federico Palacios, "The response that the mayor's office can give is insignificant."
Julio Romero, from the León Unemployed Committee, recounts that the unemployed population is demanding that local authorities extend the tax deadline for services and houses until the central government guarantees job creation in the department. "We aren't refusing to pay, but while we have no work we simply can't. The government has a constitutional responsibility to guarantee us jobs," he said.

Even the Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE) has cut its support to León, given that there are zones in even worse conditions requiring immediate attention. The biggest project that the mayor's office is planning in 1994 is to build and pave some roads in various neighborhoods. With an investment of US$1.5 million, it will generate 600 temporary jobs. It is no more than a palliative, but when you have nothing, that is something.

The municipality has also planned to initiate a 10 12 million córdoba sanitation project in Río Chiquito, and to build 200 houses. The two projects should generate 2,000 temporary jobs.

Living On Solidarity

If the municipality has survived, it is because it has sister relationships with six European cities and several US ones. It is symptomatic that the local representatives of government institutions like INAA (water) or INE (energy) never participate in municipal meetings. It is one more sign of the central government's inability to seek viable solutions in partnership with those affected. The mayor's office, with a Sandinista mayor, has become the only place where popular demands are listened to, but it hears demands it cannot respond to with its scarce resources.

Hunger, violence, an 80% increase in prostitution, child beggars, are all expressions of the deteriorated living standards caused by unemployment. The wave of suicides is beginning to cause alarm. Many of those who took their lives were unemployed, forced to their final decision out of hopelessness.

Migration from the countryside to the city in search of work has given rise to 50 spontaneous settlements in León's periphery. The city is unable to give these families even basic services like drinking water or latrines. The majority of those who settle have come from remote zones in Matagalpa, Estelí and Chinandega, hoping that in León they can at least have the basic services that have disappeared from their communities. There is also a considerable group of immigrants from Managua. Their dream is more possibility of finding land in León than in the capital. The migratory chaos and the taking over of private property for settlements have brought new problems. The municipality is talking with the owners of occupied land to try to find a solution, but it is estimated that solving the conflict would cost the mayor's office about $40 million. And the treasury is empty.

Fewer Teachers, More Truancy

Dionisio Mora, general secretary of ANDEN in the León department, explains how unemployment has also affected teachers. In 1990 3,150 educators worked in the department; today there are 2,478. More than 400 teachers are out of work, 13% of the total. The reasons? The illusion of the occupational conversion plan, administrative blackmail, union repression, administrative re ordering in the offices of the departmental education ministry and the privatization of some schools.

Evading its social responsibilities, the government presents privatization as "administrative autonomy." This meant suspending state subsidies at various schools, leaving some 200 teachers with no ministerial support. In 1993, three schools were "graced" with administrative autonomy: the National Institute of the West, the Fernando Salazar Institute in Nagarote and the Socorro Santana Institute in Telica. Administrative autonomy implies charging for education to guarantee teachers' salaries and the learning center's very existence.

The Ministry of Education has failed its commitments with the teaching law because it has not guaranteed placement to all graduates of the Normal School. In the department of León 60 1993 graduates of the Normal School remained unemployed. To this group must be added those unemployed from previous years and those who, upon finishing their social service in other departments, have not found work and live in León. In 1993 the Ministry of Education filled only 25 of the 75 positions offered in the department.

The teachers have to find ways to survive. Private pre schools funded by out of work educators abound in León. Others have begun community pre schools, where they ask parents for a minimal contribution. They are considered underemployed. Two new private schools have opened in León as well; the San Francisco de Assisi Institute and the Metropolitan Bilingual Institute.

Instability in education has serious repercussions among the poorest. When the Ministry of Education suspended the subsidies to schools, the schools had to start paying their own water and electric bills. Students have to collaborate in this effort, and many are forced to drop out of school. They cannot pay because their parents are unemployed.
In other cases, when a number of schools are joined into one, many children stop studying because the school is too far away and they cannot afford the daily transport costs. Unemployment and school desertion create a vicious cycle that grows daily and helps the government justify more privatizations.

The Cotton Myth

The lack of credit for producers and the end of cotton has led to irreversible economic agony. For farmworkers, the world was reduced to the cotton plantation or business. Their relationship with the earth did not go beyond these limits. They even planted cotton on their own land instead of food. The plot for self consumption virtually did not exist among cotton workers, which has provoked a precarious situation in family economies.

Everything indicates that the current paralysis both objective and subjective suffered by many unemployed cotton farm workers is a result of the mono crop mentality that made them think that only a large extension planted with the white fluff would protect them from any crisis.

With this myth shattered and the workers returning to their small parcels, the unemployed seem to have no creative response to their situation. Enrique Lanzas, member of the León Farmworkers' Association (ATC), points out, "On the plantation we were given food, housing, everything. We only had to do our work and get our paycheck every two weeks. That's why we didn't put any value on property or on preserving the environment or on improving production like peasants from other regions. This situation has now left people with no creativity or initiative to face unemployment." There seems to be little openness to introducing new crops to replace cotton and guarantee survival.

More Work for Women

In this passive climate in which many unemployed seem to be drowning, women have had to take on the responsibility for family survival. An increase in women's subordination and over exploitation can be observed, as men argue that "there is no work for me." But for women there is still work, and in some cases it has even increased. Many women have to rise at 4 am, go to neighboring farms that have some dairy production and travel to the city selling milk. They return home at 11 am to begin their domestic tasks while the man spends the day lying around bemoaning his tragedy. Unity among married couples is thus breaking down just at the moment when it is most needed.

The greatest challenge rural men and women face is to overcome the mono crop production model they were born to, the only thing they know. Any alternative production model must break this one down. It will not help them to plant corn, soy or sesame if they do it with a mono crop mentality, because they will be unable to face the crisis when market demand for the new product drops. While the government measures provoked massive unemployment among farmworkers, they found themselves doubly limited by not knowing any other way to make the land produce for them.

Those Who Put Up with Least

Impoverished and confused, the peasant population in the department is also being decimated by venereal disease and malnutrition, especially among women and children. Antonio Urrutia, from the community of El Porvenir, comments, "In three years I haven't had steady work or a salary to feed my family. We were promised work but it was a lie. We don't know how we stay alive, since we hardly eat. And it worries us to know that the government won't give us a solution in the rural areas."
Women and children, the most vulnerable in this crisis, receive the least attention from government agencies. María Carrillo, ex cotton picker from the Ceiba Chachagua community, says, "What hurts the most is to see our children getting skinnier and malnourished and not be able to do anything about it. Now we get sick all the time. Almost all the children in the community are suffering from kidney ailments that before only attacked older people. We had to close the pre school because the children hardly eat and have no stamina." For most rural children the glass of milk given in schools is the only food they receive all day, and many mothers send their children to school just to guarantee them at least that glass of milk.

These farmworkers' bodies are worn down not only from the effects of unemployment. They are also subject to the poisons left by irrational cotton cultivation, poisons that now run through their blood and settle in their cells. Women's reproductive organs are contaminated with agro chemicals. Just the first half of 1993 saw almost 700 cases of uterine cancer. High DDT levels have been measured in maternal milk, and cases of premature miscarriages and sterility abound.

Family gardens are being promoted to deal with the food scarcity. This is a long educational process that involves eating more and better, and includes training people to break their dependence on cotton. Embracing this educational challenge could lead ex farmworkers to a new relationship with the land. Some still have illusions that cotton production will return, dreams that must be eradicated. Cotton will never return to being the primary source of wealth and employment that it was before. A long and arduous educational process has begun about the country's new productive reality and the need to explore viable alternative crops.

Birth of New Organizations

Three new organizations have emerged to confront the crisis generated by massive unemployment in the León department. The Save León Committee brings together diverse sectors of the department interested in overcoming the crisis: producers, municipal authorities, the Communal Movement and small and medium industry. The Committee of the Unemployed was founded in July 1993 to organize different rural and urban unemployed groups. It was considered necessary to join forces to confront the government, look for common alternatives and respond to the urgent need for jobs and food. In the rural areas, the District Committees try to find alternatives for the specific needs of each rural area.

Each District Committee is conceived as an integral alternative. Direct citizen participation should create socio productive conditions to guarantee self sustenance and self management. The committees are made up of peasants, the unemployed, women and workers from the Area of Workers' Property. The perspective is community oriented and seeks to strengthen solidarity. All of this organizational effort is headed by the León ATC.

Promises Gone with the Neoliberal Wind

The Save León Committee has held various meetings with central government representatives, who made promises they have not fulfilled. The last such meeting was held in August 1993 and the government's promises were encouraging. It promised to offer more flexible credit to increase the number of growers subject to credit and plant a greater area of sesame, corn and sorghum during the second planting of the season. To guarantee the credit, the government offered to redistribute unused financing from cotton. But this did not happen and the planting was lost.

The government also promised to finance ENABAS, the state grain agency, and the storage systems in the department, to extend the loan repayment deadline for small and medium industry and to target part or all of the technological bonds to agricultural financing. Nothing has been fulfilled. As a justification, the letter sent from the labor minister to the minister of the presidency states that what was signed was the fruit of talks between the government and León residents, but was not an accord.
For its part, the Nicaraguan Investment Fund spoke of funds for small businesses to the tune of 20 million córdobas. It mentioned another 6 million for traditional fishing and 17 million for tourism. It also expressed willingness to finance 50 acres of black beans and to offer 20 million córdobas in credit for cattle. None of these promises have materialized either. The request of the Save León Committee and the Committee for the Defense and Development of the West also encompassing Chinandega to meet with the social and economic cabinet, has never been taken into account.

The Agro Ecological Proposal

Cotton mono cropping meant that mutilating extensive forests that were refuges for many wild animals. It also signified soil erosion and the almost total disappearance of combustible resources, meaning that tons of fertile soil have flowed to the coastal mangrove deltas, converting them into large deposits of poison. The technological and ideological dependence that dominated this region reduced productive mentality to the tractor and agro chemicals.
The University of León, through the Department of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), has proposed looking for an alternative that would, where possible, recover the zone's ecological balance and guarantee people's survival through cultivating basic foods for the human diet.

Tito Antón, biologist, and José Ernesto Escobar, agronomist in charge of the IPM research program, explained what this agro ecological proposal consists of: "obtaining the greatest amount of food from available natural resources without using them up." It looks for crop diversification and rotation and the implementation of relief crops. All of this implies new soil management through fertilizing with green manure.

Production diversification, contrary to the mono crop tradition, will allow greater ecological stability. Greater biological pest control will be developed. The marketing advantages of these products is evident; with a variety of products one can survive price fluctuations even if one of the products is affected by pests or the weather.
The recovery of ecological balance will allow an increase in productivity, a drop in the use of chemicals and an end to over use of land. It will save some vegetable and animal species, and, in particular, will benefit the human species, today mired in dire poverty.

It is not enough, though, to simply talk about reforestation to overcome extreme poverty and ecological imbalance. It is also necessary to look at diversified gardens, fruit trees, organic fertilizer and small forests for firewood. Implementation of such an agro ecological model has begun in various communities around León and Chinandega, on land plots from one to two acres.

The new methodology requires involving all of those who relate to the land. Women, children and youth are crucial in this process as the model is implemented on their family plots. This way the younger generation will not be influenced by the mono crop mentality and they will be more likely to have an ecological perspective on production.

The Social Explosion?

If armed movements have not emerged in León as they have in the more central north, it is not because the government inspires credibility and confidence. Nor is it for lack of reasons to take up arms. Simply, the area's geography does not permit it. The effort to organize the unemployed without violating the framework of protest and civic claims has also been a strong brake on violence. The diverse committees created in the department are an expression of the maturity of the poor who are seeking solutions to the crisis and do not want violent confrontation with the government.

In these difficult times, when all organizations face membership and mobilization difficulties because people consider them suspect and nonfunctional, León has seen the birth and growth of efforts to strengthen them. Through these organizations neighborhood and community residents are recovering their ability to struggle and offer proposals.

If such civically organized expressions are not supported and do not receive satisfactory responses, they might reach the limit of their tolerance. As one committed leader of the unemployed said, regretfully, "If there has been no social explosion here, if they haven't sacked the supermarkets, it is not because people have no motives to do so, but because they have not wanted to, because they continue to wait for the government's response. The day that this explodes, which might be tomorrow, or next week, or in the hard days of the dry season, no one will stop it. Because no organization can convince people who are dying of hunger. It will be too late for the government to say it's sorry."

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