What Should Change in Central America?
On November 11, days after the Mitch tragedy, Misereor, a German Catholic aid organization, sent the following open letter to the Presidents of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. We offer a translation of its challenge of conscience from the North to governments of the South that claim to represent their respective peoples.
Hurricane Mitch has battered your countries, leaving in its wake a scene of desolation and misery. We have seen the spirit of collaboration and commitment that exists among those affected and witnessed a wave of solidarity in response to the disaster.
The international community is called upon to resolutely collaborate in the immediate response to this type of emergency and contribute to the reconstruction effort. As a German Catholic aid organization, Misereor has received numerous petitions from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and we feel particularly committed to helping people with whom we have already been united through a series of direct cooperation projects and who are now passing through such a difficult moment. Like other religious and private organizations, Misereor feels obliged to respond and not to abandon to their fate those affected by this tragedy. And in recent days we have felt that we can count on the support of a large part of the German population to that end.
However, like our counterparts, we also wonder if what happened was just an inevitable and undeserved twist of fate and if uncontrolled and uncontrollable natural forces are the only or main causes for the loss of so many lives and possessions. Is it not a little too easy and comfortable to deny any human negligence and put the blame entirely on Nature? Are we not obliged to investigate the causes, effects and existing interrelations so as to avoid and counteract future catastrophes instead of just bewailing and complaining after the event? Is not this catastrophe called Mitch just one more in a serious of numerous lesser catastrophes which year after year devastate these regions and their inhabitants and are mainly due to human activities and the application of mistaken forms of development?
The river floodwaters were the dark color of the earth that they pushed along with them. Mountainsides and hillsides were softened up and then swept away by these torrents. With no intact vegetation on them, the debris was washed away and uprooted trees acquired a destructive violence in the raging waters.
Since 1960, Central America has lost half of its forestry resources. The soils of the whole region have lost their nutrients and suffer from the effects of erosion. Climatic changes, caused in part by the destruction of forests, have upset the seasonal balance, so now, instead of the normal change between rainy and dry seasons, flooding and droughts are becoming ever more common.
Are the peasants and agricultural workers responsible for these disasters? Or is the cause not perhaps the extreme concentration of property in the hands of a few? What alternatives exist for the countless peasant families who, marginalized on poor lands in ecologically fragile areas, impoverish and destroy the surrounding natural resources—water, land and vegetation—by using unsuitable techniques, while most fertile areas are exploited by big landowners and certain cooperatives to produce agroexport crops?
Is the vulnerability of the urban areas and their infrastructure not also caused by the constant exodus to the cities of poor and impoverished rural populations robbed of all possibilities for development? Hundreds of thousands of poor families from the bigger cities in the region, from Guatemala City and San Salvador, from Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, have built houses of scrap wood, tin and cardboard on steep hillsides or the banks of ravines through which drainage channels or rivers run. Is it just happenstance that these groups have been the most affected by the destruction? What possibilities do these people have of building safe houses without risking everything being swept away by yet another storm? What real hopes do they have of finally having access to legalized properties with running water and drainage channels, or that the steep hills where they live will be reinforced?
By common agreement, the Presidents of Central America have proposed the reconstruction of their countries as a common objective. But how firm are the foundations upon which that reconstruction has been based? What conditions are being provided to guarantee that bridges, streets, houses and food sources will not be destroyed again in the near future; and, above all, what conditions ensure that another such tragedy will not cause so many deaths? What must change? How should the aid negotiated to help the victims and those in need be used beyond the spontaneous and immediate collaboration effort? Can reconstruction really be carried out without eliminating the risks and vulnerability of unbalanced societies and economically and ecologically unstable regions?
The region's Presidents are quite rightly calling upon the international community to collaborate with their reconstruction efforts. For our part, we would like to call on the responsible politicians to create the right conditions for a socially just, economically balanced and ecologically suitable development.
Our call also refers to the mechanisms and criteria applied to the aid, to ensure that all those in need have access to effective aid free from discrimination based on ethnic origin, social class or political affiliation. In the past, aid for catastrophes and emergency situations has always created new dependencies. This time the aid, even emergency aid, should strengthen individual responsibilities and promote independence.
Last but not least, foreign governments and the international community have a recognized influence on the processes that take place within the Central American countries. The heavy foreign debt burden and the demand to bring in foreign currency have increased the pressure on natural resources in these countries. How can we ensure that a possible cancellation of the foreign debt favors social development across the board and offers environmental protection?
For over ten years now the governments of industrialized countries and multilateral organizations have attempted to create development and stability through liberalization of the economy, opening up of the market and promotion of exports. We feel that, at least in the face of the current catastrophe, the emphasis on liberalizing the economy must be put to one side when it comes to development strategies. There is still a need for economic reforms, but the social aspect, the fight against social injustice and poverty, once again demands the focus of our attention and should be at the center of new development concepts and efforts. Misereor has been committed to this objective in the past and will continue to be in the future.
The devastation caused by the hurricane represents a great burden on the whole region. However, it also perhaps represents a new possibility to achieve fair and sustainable development. In order to follow this path, responsible politicians need courage, the capacity to look ahead and the support of all those interested in the collective welfare.
Dr. Josef Sayer
Secretary of the MISEREOR Episcopal Commission