Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 210 | Enero 1999



San Francisco Libre: Giving It One More Try

San Francisco Libre is like a small observatory that provides some insight into why the most diverse development projects collapse. Turned into a desert by a cotton boom and engulfed by the waters of Lake Managua as a result of Hurricane Mitch, San Francisco Libre is today full of ideas and a willingness to implement them that finally promise real development.

José Luis Rocha

Even though hurricane-swollen lake Managua—now again commonly referred to by its original name, Xolotlán—is still well over a kilometer inland of its normal shoreline, the soggy lakeside municipality of San Francisco Libre is beginning to hang new dreams out to dry in the sun. It's a pretty inclement sun in this case, however. Everything in San Francisco languishes beneath its rays, which can make even the most promising dreams dry up and blow away.

San Francisco Libre is a sizable municipality, which runs along 80 kilometers of Lake Xolotlán's north shore, facing Managua across the water. Its 33 communities occupy 756 square kilometers and are divided into four districts: San Roque, Telpochapa, Laurel Galán and San Francisco. Of its 10,218 inhabitants, 2,598 live in the urban center, known popularly as El Puerto, and it has an estimated economically active population of 4,800.

With its dry tropical climate, it is a predominately cattle-raising region. Its annual rainfall has historically ranged between 900 and 1,200 mm, but the precipitation has been so irregular in the past few years that agricultural production has been lost to both drought and flooding. This time, though, the floods nearly wiped the slate clean.

San Francisco Libre serves as a kind of small observatory where one can gain some insight into why the most diverse development projects collapse and why a zone in need of development can turn into a bottomless pit for the resources of foreign cooperation.

The long nightmare

The heaviest of Mitch's rains fell in the mountains far north of the lake. But that accumulated torrent of water rushed down existing rivers and cut new ones, much of it finally spilling into the lake at such a volume and speed that it swallowed up San Francisco Libre's urban center overnight. With the lake and estuaries overflowing their banks so fast, houses, pastures, latrines and vegetable crops in El Puerto were soon inundated. The water rose and rose, slowing only when the lake had spread a kilometer and a half inland; within a few hours the municipality was reduced to a series of small islands. The lake rose from 38.5 to 42.2 meters above sea level in those hours. Swollen by that much, nearly five thousand acres of San Francisco's pastureland and extensive agricultural areas ended up at the bottom of the lake's new expanse.

All means available were put to use to save people. Observing with panic how quickly the lake was lapping up El Puerto, the municipal mayor, José de la Cruz Bermúdez, circulated through the streets in the one municipal truck, alerting the largely sleeping population through its loudspeaker. Blinded by darkness, fear and the risk, people sought refuge on the highest points as the water began to seep into their houses and cover their fields. Some climbed into trees or onto roofs, together with their chickens.

At that point a good number of people put community interests before their own urgent needs and those of their own relatives. Springing into action, they became major actors in their own rescue operations. They put the municipality's abundance of small boats to good use that night and all the next day, rescuing the isolated residents of the vast inundated rural districts.

This organizational response is one positive legacy of the Sandinista revolution, when neighborhood and other grassroots committees were prepared to pitch in quickly in case of any emergency—and with Nicaragua's recent history of war and natural calamity, they got lots of practice. Due to this rapid mobilization of San Francisco Libre's local population, not a single person drowned. Nonetheless, as an Argentine cooperant who has lived in the municipality for the past five years observed, "Because there were no deaths, San Francisco Libre didn't attract much attention. It's sad, but that's how it is."

Optimism reigns, despite the odds

Now that the worst of the nightmare is over, people are turning to the huge reconstruction task. Houses, streets, cattle, pasture, fences, latrines, crops, everything has to be done anew. One constantly hears locals comment, "We're starting from scratch."
Even so, optimism reigns, perhaps because starting from scratch sounds more hopeful than starting from a past that drags like an anchor in the mud of economic stagnation. Like so many other places on Central America's map, San Francisco wants not only to reconstruct after the crisis but also to achieve a real transformation that creates a more balanced and sustainable economic and social development.

Economic aid is beginning to flow generously to the municipality. The foreign cooperation agencies will be the patrons of productive conversion, lifeboats after the shipwreck, but their aid will come up against very adverse conditions.

Francisco, the butcher

The municipality is still marked by its history, when it was known as San Francisco del Carnicero, Saint Francis of the Butcher. Of all the versions one hears about the origin of this name, the most plausible is that it grew out of the locale's old function.

Between 1900 and 1910, productive activities encouraged water transport across the lake to neighboring Managua, which was just starting to develop as the country's capital. Among the settlements that sprouted up all along the shoreline was one called El Puerto, the port, the embarkation point for goods from the municipalities of Darío, El Jicaral, Santa Rosa and El Sauce bound for the market in Managua. "During the period of transport by lake, before the Pan-American Highway was built in the 1950s," one resident told us, "part of the production from the north of the country was loaded here for Managua. They brought cattle and pigs, and a guy named Francisco slaughtered them. People then began talking about that guy Francisco, the butcher."
The name San Francisco del Carnicero became official in 1926, when the population had grown enough to raise the area to the rank of municipality. But despite the legend, the population still anachronistically refers to the urban center itself as El Puerto, indifferent to the fact that it no longer has a dock or big boats or communication with Managua across Lake Xolotlán. The Pan-American Highway deprived the municipality of its key position, but its inhabitants continued to seek a better life.

After the triumph of the revolution in 1979, a priest, Father Chema Cabello, rebaptized the municipality San Francisco Libre. There have been a lot of plans and a lot of optimism since that time, but its history has conditioned all of them. The story of San Francisco Libre's ongoing productive and commercial conversions has no protagonist, only a victim—the land.

A town of "hads"

The demographic growth and commercial demand of Managua—always Managua!—together with the facilities provided by El Puerto and the municipality's vocation for cattle led to the introduction of cattle raising in San Francisco around 1945. That activity was intensified in the 1980s, thanks to the revolutionary government's policy of not indexing córdoba loans to the dollar. Given the spiraling inflation of the Sandinista period, that easy credit policy meant that you could take out a loan for the cost of buying a cow and pay it back at the price of buying a chicken. With the end of the 1980s and the arrival of structural adjustment's harsh credit policy, cattle activity hit the skids.

That wasn't San Francisco's only boom-bust economic experience. The "green revolution" and loans from the United States began stimulating large-scale cotton production in Nicaragua in 1955, and San Francisco heard the siren call. But by the 1980s cotton production was on the skids as well; the ever-higher component of insecticides and other costly imported inputs used by Nicaraguan farmers had bloated production costs while improved synthetic alternatives had shrunk world demand.

By then, the whole area north of the lake had become a desert offering no new job opportunities, its natural resources sacrificed to these and other exogenous factors. The huge expanse of natural forests had been cut down to make way for pastureland and cotton production, the precious woods shipped out by some foreign company, or had been decimated by Managua's voracious demand for firewood for cooking. The upshot is that the municipality became the victim of a productive past that its land could no longer sustain.

One resident summed up the resulting situation pretty well: "This is another one of those `had' municipalities: It had a wharf, it had lakefront commerce, it had forests, it had cotton, it had firewood, it had coffee pickers and cane cutters, it had credit, it had cattle." The challenge now is to figure out how to avoid having to add to the list that it once "had people."
Many residents have already left for other zones, and San Francisco Libre's own birth rate has been so timid that the population density in this area so close to the burgeoning capital is less than half the average for the country as a whole. At around 14 inhabitants per square kilometer, the population density is in fact no more than that of many isolated villages in the country's central region.

Not even iguanas can stand it

The predominant soil in the municipality is not very permeable, so it stays muddy in the rainy season, full of big puddles that never drain. In the summer the soil shrinks and cracks, causing stress to plant roots. There are also eroded hilly areas with scattered rock outcroppings, their soil useless for any kind of intensive crops. As a matter of fact, less than 9% of the land is good for agriculture, and it is used to grow rice, sorghum, corn, beans, sesame, watermelons, cantaloupe, chayotes and a white summer squash known as pipian. Most of the rest has potential for forestry (48%) or agroforestry (about 27%), but right now, just over 31% is either pastureland or just prairie grass, 34% is dotted with bushes and scrub, and 25% is sparsely forested, an almost bald area that responds to virtually no treatment.

A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that the municipality's irrational deforestation had generated a drop in the rainfall, a marked rise in temperature, a reduction in the crop yield from the first cycle of planting and a drying up of the shallow rivers. The zone's desert-like character is an omnipresent topic of commentary by the locals: "In April one only sees rocks on those hills; they even shine so much they set the grass on fire. What a terrible thing. The poor little animals with no food or shade. Not even the iguanas can stand it here; they die of heart attacks and only dust rises up where they fall."

Terrible transport, too

In addition to the unforgiving desert, the other great hindrance to productive activity is the transport situation. It, too, imposes extremely adverse conditions on any effort to accomplish anything. "We pray here for decent transport," says one of the passengers who must daily invest an outrageous part of their day just to get from San Francisco Libre to Managua. Even though the capital is only 76 km away, the inefficient bus system can sometimes mean spending over six hours, between waiting and traveling, to make the trip—close to the equivalent of a full working day down the drain. "The little red bus called `Venado' already went by; now only the yellow `Caramelo' might take us," explained one victim of the system with quiet resign; "but they don't turn in when they only see four passengers; they keep on going." She has long since incorporated the possibly fruitless wait into her routine.

This situation has turned San Francisco Libre into an island of the lake, connected to Managua only in the imagination. The problem is that there's an effective monopoly among the existing drivers, who don't let others in. They grab up all the financing, but with no competition they don't use it to improve the service. The municipality has complained to the Ministry of Transport about this, but it is the ministry itself that has distributed the financing with clear political favoritism.

Following Mitch, there are more vehicles along the road sporting International Mission plates or belonging to various NGOs than buses. Their occupants travel back and forth from Managua in air-conditioned cabins, hermetically sealed away from heat, dust and any danger, with smoked glass windows that obscure the misery of the place a bit. Giving a ride to the locals waiting hours for a bus to pass doesn't figure in their meeting-saturated agendas.

Does it not occur to any of them that investing to improve the transport would be of capital importance for the zone? Maybe it's the effect of the polarized glass, or perhaps they are too caught up in other projects—planting eucalyptus trees, growing pitahayas in family backyards and improving the pig stock—to view people's interminable bus trips as much of a deal. In any case, there they are, busily deciding the fate of people they don't know.

The local economic actors? They now split kindling

A 1995 FAO study identified firewood extraction as San Francisco Libre's main economic activity, and it hasn't changed since. Any farmer here is also a kindling splitter, dividing the workday between chores on the plot, which take until about 11:00 in the morning, and cutting up firewood, which occupies the rest of the day. "If you don't sell firewood, you die of hunger," says one of many woodcutters. "It's taken out by the truckload. It's getting so you can't even find dry wood anymore." Communal areas and private pastureland alike are being devoured.

The rural access roads brought the opposite effect from what was intended. Instead of developing, San Francisco Libre became famous for its firewood production, and even though this activity wasn't new in the municipality, it sapped energies. The firewood goes out but development doesn't come in. Nor does the firewood bring new investments or improved incomes. A kindling cutter gets barely 25 córdobas (about $2) for a stack of firewood made up of a hundred handfuls.
Some wives of the kindling cutters are beginning to experiment in a fledgling activity in the area: extracting jícaro seed. Their new income complements the household budget, which is often flagging, particularly when environmental authorities stop the firewood trucks. Jícaro, the only plant in the zone resistant to fires and drought, is omnipresent in all the fields. Its seed has recently been recognized for its high productive potential; cereal, oil, pulp for cattle feed and, above all, sources of work and income can be extracted from it. (See the May 1994 issue of envío for an article dealing with the uses of jícaro.)
The mayor is aware of the gravity of the environmental situation, but also knows that a total prohibition on cutting firewood would be catastrophic for his constituency. "We want to eliminate it," he insists, "but we have to present a job and forestry alternative." He pinpoints the avalanche of firewood splitting to the moment that credit concessions dried up. "In the 90s, the cooperatives stopped receiving credit. Since they can't produce, they've thrown themselves into the firewood business." That's the chain: no credit or employment, cut firewood, turn the land into an eroded desert, sell it, and migrate. The sequence ends up swelling the ranks of the urban unemployed and ultimately means that the land in the zone is concentrated back into few hands.

One resident made that last charge public, naming names: "The Rizo brothers, who have held posts in the past two governments, are buying up land in the municipality. One of them now presides over the Nicaraguan Institute of Municipal Development (INIFOM), but instead of improving living conditions in the municipality, he's just pocketing the benefits by buying up the land at cut-rate prices from those leaving this desert." He is referring to José Rizo, mentioned by the ruling Constitutionalist Liberal party as a possible presidential candidate in the 2001 elections.

The only "prohibition" on extracting firewood depends on the negligence of Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MARENA) functionaries. When they decide to have a "vacation," they don't issue permits and the trucks don't roll. But there's never really a closed season on firewood cutting, or any real control; there's just a permit fee. MARENA charges the commercial firewood trucks 200 córdobas (under $20) for the permit, and gives a miserly 14% of it to the municipality. The municipality is fighting for the right to administer its own forestry resources and has taken its petition to the government, since MARENA is viewed in the zone as just another merchant. In the mayor's judgment, "the MARENA technician has no conscience. He's not from around here and the only thing he's interested in is his salary. Those of us who do live here are concerned with honesty, because we're the ones who’ll suffer the consequences in the future. The municipality knows the problems here, so it can't be bribed." This argument carries a lot of weight at times like these when, as someone wryly commented referring to a recent scandal, "a ministry can be bought with a fistful of marijuana."

Reforestation is a priority: But how?

The current municipal administration is trying to ensure that any development project introduced into San Francisco Libre is accompanied by a reforestation component. Housing, fishing or credit programs, everything has to include reforestation, which is a recognized priority in the zone. The problem lies in what kind of reforestation to promote from among the many existing models and experiences. There is an urgent need to identify the reasons why most of them have such paltry results. Researchers who have visited the zone have observed that the methods usually undertaken by the state and the NGOs ignore the tree-planting forms used by the rural populations as part of their production systems. As a result, the programs concentrate on "pure" reforestation, which neither values nor takes advantage of the agroforestry or silvi-pasture experiences that producers adopt spontaneously.

The most common reforestation method—compact tree plantations—has a number of weaknesses. For example, it imposes very rigid technical reforesting schemes—planting distances, species, etc.—that are not adapted to producers' concrete situations and ignores the native species and their place in the local production systems. It also locates the reserves in areas where the firewood cutters have free access, poorly estimates local capacity to absorb the tree-planting target and neglects local appropriation and concern for the community plantations. Finally, it depends on specialized technicians who have a major impact on the program's costs yet know nothing about the complex social fabric that determines basic local forms of organization, their hierarchies, and the capacity of certain groups to concentrate resources in their own hands or even divert them.

Real reforestation in the area should therefore be in the hands of those farmers who have decided to practice forested pasture or agroforestry for commercial reasons. Few NGOs grasp that or try to foster those experiences.

No one wants to pick coffee

At one time this zone was a known source of seasonal coffee and cotton pickers and cane cutters. The system was designed in such a way that farmhands in the municipality found some complement to their scant incomes by seeking seasonal employment on the large coffee, cane or cotton plantations of other areas.

Cotton disappeared when international prices fell, and coffee picking and sugarcane cutting don't look remotely attractive anymore. As one old man tells it, "The San Antonio refinery puts out a call for strong arms. When I was young I went to work there, but now the young men from here don't want to leave. They only want to split firewood, but there isn't any left here any more."
Seasonal migrations governed by harvest periods have gone the way of the buffalo. Today, if a young man decides to migrate, it is to look for other alternatives and never come back. We don't know how much this municipality has added to the migrant flow, but we do know that the populations of former cotton municipalities in general grew 2.5% annually between 1971 and 1995, lower than the 2.9% growth rate of the country's rural population as a whole in the same period. Only 1.9% of the country's heads of household left other departments for those former cotton-growing municipalities between 1990 and 1995. In fact, the latter have been net expellers of population. The same old man added, "Some of those who left have gone way inland, to Waslala, where not even the devil goes."
After Mitch passed, Nicaragua's President Arnoldo Alemán told the homeless that they should all go to the coffee areas to help with the harvest; the resistance to that call was impressive. It may be that the agrarian reform of the 1980s and early 1990s, which made land available to landless peasants, changed the farmhand/boss relationship so that peasants are no longer as willing to go work someone else's land. But the main reason is the low wages paid for picking coffee. Plantation owners are transferring the impact of the drop in international coffee and sugar prices onto the workers. San Francisco Libre's mayor explains it as a simple issue of economics: "Picking coffee offers less, so it attracts fewer people. If you go work during the harvest now, you come back with debts rather than money. You put up with the cold and the rain, and you end up in hock. They're only paying two pesos [under 20 cents] for each can of beans you pick." As a result, more people needing work gravitate toward firewood and fishing.

Fishing poison

In the wake of hurricane Mitch, the media warned that the "pestilent waters of Lake Xolotlán" were flowing massively into Nicaragua's Great Lake, Lake Cocibolca, through the Río Panaloya, carrying every kind of contaminant and heavy metal with them. Since the middle of this century, Managua's lake has been a depository for the sewage produced by the capital's ever-growing population and the chemical waste churned out by the city's factories. Before Mitch, Xolotlán's waters flowed underground to Cocibolca at a rate of about eight cubic meters per second. That subterranean circulation served to filter the water, thus mitigating the contamination. But with Mitch, the flow rose to 80 cubic meters of water per second, all of it above ground and all of it highly contaminated.

Despite Xolotlán's contamination, about a tenth of San Francisco Libre's economically active population has turned to fishing given the increased scarcity of firewood, the ever more frequent and longer droughts and the unavailability of credit to invest in agricultural activities. Following the drought triggered by the El Niño phenomenon, the lake's fishing population climbed from about 150 to 450, the drought on land driving people to the poisoned waters of their lake. According to the mayor, the currents make this part of the lake less contaminated. "We receive the runoff from the north and the lake's current flows south, so the lake is less contaminated here than around Managua or Tipitapa."
Guatemalan and Salvadoran trucks have been coming in since 1996 to buy tilapia and red snapper, the attraction of a cheap labor force overriding any doubts over pollution. The Guatemalans load each truck with around 800 dozen fish. They used to pay the ridiculous price of 25 córdobas a dozen, but now, thanks to Mitch, they've forced the price down even more, to 15 córdobas a dozen.

It's easier to sell the fish to neighboring countries than to the national market. The transportation difficulties and low prices don't make it very inviting. Local merchants buy the fish at 20 córdobas a dozen and sell them at 40, but the price drops if the supply is too great, so an agreement was reached to set a limit of 15 dozen daily for each fishing group.

A couple of years ago the mayor's office set norms aimed at keeping the female fish in the lake, and declaring October off-season. But neither policy has been respected. The result was that at least one species has disappeared totally. The nets are being woven ever tighter, down to three, even two inches, which brings in fish that have not yet reached their reproduction period. Not only does this endanger more species, but also means that the merchants demand more fish for their money—they count 4-5 small ones as 1 large one.

Fishing seems like an alternative, albeit a poor one, to cutting firewood. Even inland rural populations have proved capable of adapting to the activity. But even though—or perhaps because?—more people are now fishing, they still have no capacity to negotiate prices, leaving them completely dependent on the outside merchants and on the adverse effects of the lake's reputed contamination.

The hurricane found San Francisco Libre already in this regrettable, almost prostrate situation; intensive cotton growing, extensive cattle ranching, massive firewood splitting, a total lack of credit and low salaries had already taken their toll. Mitch just tied up the loose ends.

Taking advantage of the "occasion"

In the midst of the deluge, Mayor De la Cruz declared the immediate priorities, demanding support from the central government and international agencies: equipment to rescue those isolated in the flooded zones, clothing and household goods for those who lost everything, and materials to rebuild the 535 destroyed homes. Generous residents in the municipality supplemented the municipal government's skimpy budget, and a team of volunteers has continued working in what is, and will continue to be for a good while, a disaster area.

The losses are not all that serious in absolute terms, but are immense given the shrunken size of the local economy: 85% of the 1,404 acres of corn, over 70% of the 1,018 acres of sorghum, 80% of the 255 acres of beans, 88% of the 247 acres of reforestation, and the entire 95-acre sesame crop. In livestock, 2,800 head of cattle, some 4,000 pigs and 10,000 chickens drowned. To put the finishing touch on the portrait, the price of fish dropped almost a dollar a dozen due to the propaganda about the post-Mitch contamination and the arrival of fewer trucks to El Puerto.

Despite such a calamity, optimism has not been dampened. The mayor sees all this as an opportunity to shake free of the stagnation. "We want to take advantage of this opportunity to do something more long-term for development, something that will last."

Mayor's office struggles to make do

Given its limited resources, the mayor's office has done all it possibly could both before and after Mitch. The locale occupied by its scant personnel—who have been reduced to fighting for the crumbs left over following the implementation of structural adjustment programs—is divided into five offices, in which each official is responsible for various posts. They can only spend what they collect, and as wisely and frugally as they conceivably can. Just like the majority of the area's family economies, they often have no more than 500 córdobas (about $45) in the cash box. They would have had no truck to warn people if MOLISV, an Italian NGO, hadn't earlier given them one on loan. The austerity is imposed by the limited taxes that the mayor's office can collect from a municipality sucked so dry by its history. There is no photocopier, decent paper supplies or fax, though it does have one of the few cellular phones in the town, which provides public service.

Officials of the Institute for Municipal Development (INIFOM), a central government entity, occasionally pass through the zone offering to provide basic equipment, but it grants its handouts based on political affinity. It is public knowledge that the Liberal mayors' offices have benefited the most from the foreign cooperation funds channeled through INIFOM to promote decentralization. Meanwhile, there has been no shortage of INIFOM pamphlets, profusely cranked out and distributed, lauding its achievements. It's just like the Liberal government: exhibiting what it has done, and doing it in the first place only to use as part of a permanent electoral campaign.

INIFOM's functionaries finally turned up in San Francisco Libre a full two months after Mitch, and even faced with the irrefutable visual evidence that the lake had not receded much, their attitude was: "Why relocate the population? These disasters only happen once every hundred years!" It's the typical commentary of a technocrat who budgets from his office in Managua and is only interested in a few zeros more or less in his account balance. These are not the kind of people who will see eye to eye with the mayor, a man with a vision of the future who is forecasting a more frequent repetition of these phenomena. He even expects the lake to fill up more next winter, with ordinary rains. The "La Niña" phenomenon, with its abundant unseasonable rains, to say nothing of hurricanes, makes this a reasonable prediction, which is why there are plans to relocate 40% of the municipality's population. The urban center as a whole will be resettled in a safer area, since moving back from the disaster zone is the most sensible way of reducing vulnerability. Naturally, functionaries who show up in the zone and leave again with the speed of a fleeting comet cannot perceive such elemental necessities of life.

"Shoulder to shoulder with the peasants"

The touted decentralization has been a no-show. There has been no real empowerment and all that has happened is the implementation of a series of contradictory policies. MARENA's turning over to the mayor's office of only 14% of the money it collects for issuing permits to firewood traders ignores the fact that the wood really belongs to San Francisco Libre. In addition, 1997 a reform to the tax law will slowly eliminate the 2% tax on the sale of services by 2001. In theory, property taxes will compensate the municipal administration for this loss, but taxing property requires up-to-date registries and that in turn requires a technical assessment of property values. The question the mayor asks is: "Where are we supposed to get the money to train and pay the personnel, create the registries and assess the properties?"
The mayor's office is hard put to collect even a minimum flat-rate property tax. It has thus had to design policies adapted to the zone and its residents' income levels. The mayor describes one of these policies, which he calls "shoulder to shoulder with the peasants." In the case of the cooperatives, which are not eligible for loans and thus are virtually bankrupt, "we put them to work on the roads so that they can pay their real estate tax. We exchange work for taxes, so no money circulates. It's a way of adapting to the circumstances, to the lack of liquidity and jobs in the zone. We don't want to hurt the population more." This mechanism avoids corruption, too, since there are no resources to embezzle. The municipal administration thus facilitates the exchange of services among the municipalities' inhabitants, installing a barter system from which everyone benefits.

It won't be an easy task for the mayor's office to reactivate the municipality now. It will require a great deal of skill to harmonize objectives with the foreigners who have resources so that they will channel these funds to where they can produce the greatest benefits.

A dangerous NGO overpopulation

After public sector social spending was reduced in line with the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) agreement on fiscal debt reduction, NGOs have been filling the vacuum left by the government. NGO activity has turned into a substitute for the public sector, but it is a tough task since, as one foreign cooperant points out, "Here in Nicaragua, for every nurse an international project places, the Ministry of Health lays off five others."
Many NGOs were already working in San Francisco Libre shortly before Mitch: the Antonio Valdivieso Center (CAV), which provided preventive health care and garden projects with financing from NORAD, the Norwegian government's aid agency; CISAS, also working in preventive health, but specifically with children; MOLISV, of the Italian lay movement, building wells and mini-dams, reforesting, financing livestock poultry and family gardens and promoting a gender approach; the Carlos Fonseca Amador Popular Education Center, with literacy work, projects to improve conditions for fishermen, reforestation, a school to follow up literacy training for peasants (who obtain the title of skilled producer) and their children, and the promotion of nontraditional crops (pitahaya and pineapple) and breed pigs; the Association for the Development of Peoples (ADP); CEPAD, with credit for livestock and poultry and family nurseries; FAO, which is investing in micro-watershed development; the National Foundation for Ecological Development (FUNCOD), COIMAGRO, AGRODERSA and the Robleto Gallo Foundation (FORG) with reforestation works; and UNAG, with organization building and work on soil and water conservation. Not all are in the zone right now; as they do in other places, NGOs rotate in and out of San Francisco Libre. Their ephemeral presence has been more of a hobble on development than an incentive.

These days the fashionable topics tend to be environmental production, sustainability and gender, in their various forms. A gender approach, in practice, can also be called "promotion of women's self-esteem" or, in more nuts and bolts terms, "yard improvement for women." By the same token, environmental protection can be packaged as reforestation, growing fertilizer beans or creating live fences. All these are marketable concepts among the financing agencies.

In today's post-Mitch period, the invasion of NGOs threatens to create an overpopulation of foreigners ("cheles") in the area. After the emergency, the CAV was elected to coordinate the municipality's rehabilitation, an initiative in which 14 NGOs will participate. For some languishing organizations it represents an opportunity to secure a new injection of funds. The cases of tuberculosis and leprosy in San Francisco Libre, though few, are at hand to be used in a sensationalist plan by some institutions to attract attention and more funds. San Francisco Libre's land is sterile for agriculture, but it is fertile for dreams. It was a benefit for cotton plantation owners, and still is for the fish and firewood peddlers. It now runs the risk of benefiting promoters of "development," without that elusive concept so much as showing its face.

NGOs: Eight capital sins

It's not fair to measure the work of all NGOs or all their workers with the same yardstick. The mystique in which the activities of many NGO workers are bathed is a factor that escapes all evaluations and feasibility studies, to say nothing of the current government's politicized desire to control their work and, above all, their resources. Some of those workers, committed to the core of their being to development, work for years in diverse and inhospitable regions to bring development programs to fruition.

But the human condition is ambiguous; nothing exists in a pure state. In the laboratory of life, vices and virtues intermix to bear good and bad fruit. San Francisco Libre provides a good example of the vices into which a number of NGOs fall in their development work, eight of which are listed below:
Applying pre-established prescriptions without paying any attention to local conditions. It is very common for NGOs to know nothing about the subject with and for whom the work is being done. The most pathetic case of this in San Francisco Libre is the promotion of nontraditional crops in a municipality that lacks even a minimum transportation flow. The visits by NGO personnel are sporadic, just long enough for a meeting, since most of the workday is spent on the trip. Few NGOs have permanent personnel in zones where they have projects. The positive exception in San Francisco Libre is the sister city project with Oldenburg, Germany, which has had a cooperant living in the municipality for the last five years. NGO project officers would do well to ask themselves when was the last time they slept in a peasant's house. The answer will explain how an NGO can wax euphoric about San Francisco Libre's rice potential, basing its theory on the area's superficial humidity, when the reality, according to local residents, is that the water table in most of the municipality lies seven meters underground.

Working on the same themes with no coordination. Reforestation, gender and work to turn yards into productive gardens are the common cause of many institutions, but what is not common, however much common sense it would seem to make, is any harmonized application of these themes, seeking mutual strengthening and the most optimal use of resources. Some years ago there was an attempt at coordination, but it was aborted due to rivalries. Such rivalries are generally not ideological, but are sparked by personal conflicts, leadership disputes and the desire to hoard the greatest amount of financing possible. For the NGOs, being the leader is very profitable, but it does little to benefit the local residents.

Promoting something just for the sake of promoting it, generally dancing to the tune of the international agencies. Europe issues a slogan: apply the live fencing technique. And suddenly a technician appears in San Francisco Libre to explain the advantages of live fences to the peasants and give them money to implement the plan, which the peasants do because the money has that particular string attached. Meanwhile, some other NGO is financing the planting of pitahaya, because its slogan is to foment nontraditional crops. So the peasant does that too, but anchoring the cactus plants onto non-live fence supports, since the money came for pitahaya, not live fences. There's thus no assimilation of why live fencing is beneficial; there's just a circumstantial adoption of the technique, a chasing after the money. The peasant gets no benefit from the technology transfer, assimilates no logic, and, in the end, doesn't even assimilate the funds.
Working with the Rayban window policy. Polarized glass windows in vehicles prevent people on the outside from seeing in, and polarized institutions have the same effect. Institutional rivalry and jealousies that grow up in the desire to attract the lion's share of financing bog down information. Hiding information or packaging it to look more attractive than it really is lays the groundwork for inefficiency, bad administration and the repetition of failed experiences, or at least of unnecessary mistakes. As one cooperant who would like to see a different policy shrugs, "Information isn't supposed to be private; it belongs to the municipality. But since it represents power..." According to the smoked glass window policy, beneficiaries never have the right to learn the amounts of anything; they are supposed to be happy with whatever crumbs they receive. Some NGOs operate like that while at the same time, barricaded behind the asymmetry of information, they are self-righteously demanding transparency from the state.

Transposing first world schemes onto the third world. The most eloquent case of this in San Francisco Libre is the raising of breed pigs. These animals eat better than children do in the municipality, and to meet the conditions of the funding they even have to be looked after better.

Using the projects as small "entertainments." To impress their financiers, some NGOs multiply their work in various areas of the country, at the cost of reducing the impact of each one. In the end the projects implemented in each area are so small that they border on the ridiculous: $3,000 for a school here, nurseries with 40,000 seedlings there... Generally speaking, they aren't even small projects, which could grow, but bonsai projects, condemned to exist on a tiny scale.

Giving administration the most weight in the budget. Area chiefs typically make up half of the staff and the small scale of the projects leads to underused implementation capacity. There is also a "lack of awareness," to use Mayor De la Cruz's words. Administration consumes over 60% of the funds and only 40% goes toward direct implementation. These bureaucratic hulks are laden with professionals who belong to two conveniently disassociated spheres, one in which they work on behalf of development for the poor, and another in which they invest their salaries in imported goods, contributing in daily life to what they impugn as functionaries. Feeding this bureaucracy is the price the supposed beneficiaries of the development projects pay, without knowing it.

Promoting paternalism and fostering dependency. Development agencies sometimes pour so many resources into a place, ostensibly ignoring the most elemental economic mechanisms, that they drown their beneficiaries in dependence. The result is the creation of a fictitious economy, a country sustained by the humble contributions of international cooperation, but with no capacity to negotiate its own interests. We see such experiences repeated again and again wherever we look. The World Food Program, which initially forgot San Francisco Libre, has now offered to feed its whole population for a period of up to two years. The WFP offer is a program of food (rice, peas, corn and oil) for work geared to reactivating the farms. The work will consist of rebuilding fences, productive areas, pastureland, corrals, wells, houses and latrines and reforesting until everything that was destroyed is recovered. All that is required is that at least one member of each family join the program. The plan takes into account the expectation that people with less damage will grow faster economically and bolster the municipal economy.

No one seems alarmed by the dependence that this policy generates in an area already leaning toward the culture of subsidy. Nor does there seem to be concern that such a plan will lower the prices of basic grains, thus discouraging planting and endangering local food security. It is a fundamental contradiction, especially if this procedure is repeated across the country: a donation that aims to reactivate farms and plant rice, beans and corn when the donation of those very foods will mean no market for the crop. The remedy feeds the illness. How will savings be possible? More care needs to be put into policy design: what products to donate, which crops to concentrate reactivation on and how to establish an inversely proportional flow between the food donations and the arrival of the new harvests to the markets. For these and many other reasons, all the millions that Nicaragua has annually received in foreign aid failed to help increase development.

Despite these problems, which are certainly rectifiable, even a bad NGO is better than an absentee government. As the saying goes, "There's plowing to be done, and these are the only oxen we've got."

The mayor's option is to organize

This post-Mitch period offers the municipal government an opportunity to transform the zone's economy, just as it does the central government on a national level. But there are many pitfalls to avoid. One is that with budgets often superior to those of the municipalities, some NGOs virtually turn into parallel municipal governments, thus harming the development of local power—unless, of course, efforts are coordinated, as is the idea in San Francisco Libre. The mayor's office has traveled this road in its sister city relationship with Oldenburg, and has already taken steps in this direction in its relationship with the NGOs. For example, the municipal administration is demanding that any development program implemented in the zone have a reforestation component so as to unify the NGOs' divergent activities around this urgent common objective.

Since well before Mitch, San Francisco Libre's municipal government has had to concentrate on making a local adjustment to the new institutional conditions of the nineties, including an almost total lack of public investment in human capital, a contraction of the government's social policy and a proliferation of nongovernmental organizations.

How does the mayor see that adjustment? In his judgment, organization is the Sandinista revolution's best legacy. He views it as underused installed capacity and believes that various development initiatives can be mounted on this base. "There's huge organizational potential here," he explains. "If the NGOs promoted organization, we'd be speaking under different conditions. The way it is now, everybody is off on their own figuring out how to survive. But we have people trained in organizing, good elements dotted around in the different communities. In fact organization was the key factor in evacuating people quickly and avoiding deaths in the municipality. It was the only thing that reduced our vulnerability to Mitch."

The municipality's priorities

For the mayor, organization means making use of local resources and not depending on outside credit programs. "For example," he says, "a savings account could be set up for the fishermen, with each of them contributing just 20 córdobas a day. They earned 200 a day before Mitch, and 20 out of that wouldn't be a big deal. And those 20 pesos, multiplied by 150 fishermen and 240 days of fishing, would make a notable difference in their capacity to negotiate with the merchants. The same could be done with a group of women chicken raisers: 365 women x 10 chickens x 40 córdobas a chicken would be 146,000 córdobas, which would give them money enough to pay for a freezer and a stall in the market. We have the money here; we just need to wise up about how to use it, without paying a cent in interest or depending on outside financing. It's all a question of organizing."
"The projects cooked up at a desk are going to fail in the field," observes the mayor. That's why in his administration projects are designed based on a knowledge of local conditions, which are taken as the starting point. For example, the municipality has traditionally been hit by either droughts or by too much rain. Even though this is a central problem, the NGOs haven't paid enough attention to it. A productive transformation that is not at the mercy of climatic changes would mean transforming the irrigating infrastructure: building dams, wells, etc.

Priorities are beginning to appear on the municipality's agenda. The promotion of technology transfer: fish farming, masonry, carpentry, plumbing, electricity, bee keeping and iguana raising. The raising of goats where it is impossible to raise cattle, with the added benefit that the excrement will help recover the soil. Reforestation with appropriate species: guanacaste, genízaro, chilamate, madroño, pochote and quebracho. There are also plans to promote cultural expressions: folkloric dance and artisanry, all aimed at offering the youth a series of alternatives for their future that include access to university studies. Few young people from the municipality make it to university, and when they do their interests do not always coincide with those of the community members and the scholarship provider. The search is on now for educational preparation that would insert this zone of Nicaragua into the rest of the national economy.

This is the challenge that the NGOs should assume if they want to move beyond being agencies that simply propitiate a conglomerate of unlinked activities. The plans of the mayor's office are ambitious, but if it achieves them, if it really takes the reins of coordinating NGO work, local power will be strengthened and the dispersed energies will perhaps finally jell in a development strategy.

Sisters and brothers of Oldenburg

The biggest project at the moment is the relocation of 40% of the population. So far only $60,000 has been raised for the move, donated by the Oldenburg sister city project to purchase and legalize lots, level the land and construct the houses. It won't be a typical urban planning program, but rather the creation of a little materials bank so that people can select what is most useful to them. The project will work with affordable materials, seeking out the cement tiles in Jinotepe, for example, and replicating the model to set up a small tile-making workshop in San Francisco Libre. That way rebuilding the infrastructure will run parallel to increasing technical capacity and expanding employment. The vital flow of development must pass through just such a system of communication link-ups.

The sister city relationship with Oldenberg will also be strengthened because it has proved to be vital in terms of organization and the maximum use of local resources. The support from Oldenburg has concentrated recently on work with women: productively converting backyards through the cultivation of different kinds of beans, fruit trees such as cashew, or vegetables like cassava, onions and green peppers. In addition to the benefits that these projects generate in themselves, they also help break down the culture of subsidy and serve as the basis for cultivating organization that later strengthens other activities. When the young people expressed their need and desire to promote sports activities, baseball equipment was exchanged for reforestation work. That way, two needs were satisfied with minimum funding.

We can do it

The municipal government sees tax collection as a potential income source. A Nicaraguan-Libyan joint venture company called ANILIB in the San Ramón district is investing in cattle and basic grains. It is the municipality's major tax contributor and plans, to expand its investments to other areas, such as citrus fruits, and paving and rehabilitating the Punta Huete airport to make it into a platform for international trade. But the deeply rooted property problem has this alternative on hold. Although the Chamorro government provided over four million acres in concessions to transnational companies, the ANILIB case is still not resolved. Why? Because the investors are Libyans and negotiating with Libya, notwithstanding its potential to mitigate unemployment in San Francisco Libre, is a politically delicate task.

Last but hardly least, the mayor has now initiated a long-term project with local citizens that aims to avoid the failings of the NGOs. They have moved into environmental protection through the creation of a native NGO from San Francisco Libre: the Association for the Protection, Recovery and Ecological Development of Nicaragua (APREDEN). It grew out of a housing construction project that was supposed to go through a national NGO, but mediation by a Managua-based NGO proved very costly—high salaries, per diems, air-conditioned offices. In the end the project has ended up in local hands, which will allow 80% of the budget to go directly into implementation. The mayor and the citizens of San Francisco Libre who are building an alternative through APREDEN say that the municipality has always had the capacity, and now, after Mitch, it has the opportunity. And they say it with faith. Their word and that faith will now be put to the test.

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