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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 212 | Marzo 1999
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Nicaragua

Puerto Morazán: Problems in an Ill-Fated Land

Reading about Puerto Morazán and its shrimp farms in the economic sections of Managua's daily papers calls up images of prosperity, economic boom and frenetic activity. This was not, however, the situation before Hurricane Mitch, nor is it now. It is obvious in this small forgotten corner of western Nicaragua that the images used to sell us the idea that exportation of nontraditional products is the key to development are deceptive at best.

José Luis Rocha

Puerto Morazán was originally known as the port that catapulted national production to northern Central America. In the municipality by the same name, which buffers the rest of the department of Chinandega from Honduras and the Gulf of Fonseca, Mitch dealt powerful blows straight to the heart of the area's current productive hope: shrimp farming. Less than one week before the shrimp harvest, Mitch's rains caused the Estero Real River leading into the estuary of the same name to rise to unprecedented heights, filling the houses in the town of Puerto Morazán—the old municipal seat—with uncontainable floodwaters. The bulk of the houses, built on a strip of land between the main river and the Amayo, one of its tributaries, could not stand up to the combined force of the two currents that flooded the community. The besieged inhabitants fled to a nearby hill. The motorboats of fishermen, shrimp farmers and firewood peddlers played a key role in their hasty retreat, saving lives when all else was lost.

The swelling and no longer placid estuary carried away all the shrimp production, demolishing the walls of the pools, damaging water pumps, leaving tons of sediment; in a word, destroying all the improvements made to the shrimp farms. And this only a few days before the end of the three-month cycle in which the shrimp larvae were in the pools maturing. According to Efraín Montano, president of the Regional Shrimp Cooperatives' Union, losses for the entire area are in the 30 million-dollar range. Another 10 million can easily be added for losses that will occur in the next few months if financing to reactivate production does not arrive when most needed. If it arrives late, winter rains will make the use of tractors impossible, and this year's production will suffer, meaning less revenue and more unemployment.

And this is not only in the immediate area, since Puerto Morazán is only one link in the chain of the shrimp industry. If the shrimp production falters in Puerto Morazán, the larvae fishermen further south, in Poneloya, lose their best customers.

When it rained, it poured

The cost of rehabilitating the shrimp farms is exorbitant: renting tractors to put up dirt walls at $50 dollars an hour for an average of 300 hours per farm; huge sacks of sand that need to be set down as restraining walls; removal of sediment; reparation of pumps and the motors of various boats; buying new larvae, etc., etc.

The majority of shrimp producers in Puerto Morazán belong to cooperatives. Theirs are the farms with the least capital and poorest resources—lower population density of shrimp, less use of chemical fertilizers, and less water circulation. Nonetheless, what little modern technology they have been able to acquire requires further investments. Lacking the capital to make them, the cooperatives have little alternative but to borrow money from the marketing companies that buy and distribute the shrimp, their historic creditors. These companies make the loan contingent on the farmers selling their shrimp to them at lower prices, thus assuring themselves the lion's share of the profits. The cooperatives were already deeply in debt before Mitch. Now, with last years' debts still outstanding, they have to borrow again. Who's pulling the strings here? Additionally, only 20% of the cooperatives are rebuilding. The others are overwhelmed by the dilemma of either returning to more primitive and less productive shrimp farming methods, or going further into debt. In this corner of Nicaragua, when it rained, it poured. The shrimp buyers' "hurricane" is likely to destroy what nature's hurricane had already left in such precarious conditions.
The municipality's interior districts also suffered Mitch's impact, though to a somewhat lesser degree. The hurricane caused the loss of crops in the following proportions: corn 100%, beans 71%, sorghum 50%, sesame seed 97%, rice 56%, plantains 62%, and bananas 76%. Even taking into account that the area dedicated to these crops is small, the damage to production on just under 1,600 hectares means a loss of over 21,269,610 córdobas (about US$2 million), according to statistics compiled by the municipal administration. Also, 8 bridges, 257 kilometers of road and 1,112 homes are reported damaged, and now the population is complaining of contaminated wells and substandard water.

The most common vegetation in the saltwater marshes around the estuary are three species of mangrove tree—red, curumo and angelí. Many of those trees were destroyed by the reduction of saline levels due to the excess of sweet water that flooded into the estuary from the rivers.

All of these disasters are the product of Mitch's passage, but it must also be recognized that the social and economic bases of the areas hardest hit by hurricane were quite frail to begin with.

Many born, many others leave

The total area of the Puerto Morazán municipality is 264 sq.km. Tonalá, today's municipal seat, is 150 kilometers from Managua. The municipalities flanking it are Somotillo on the east and northeast, El Viejo to the southwest, and Chinandega to the south.

According to the 1995 census, the municipality has 8,004 inhabitants. Of this population, 46.1% are urban dwellers and 53.9% rural; 50.9% male and 49.1% female. The 1995 population density was 30 inhabitants per sq.km. But the population seems to have grown unusually rapidly. Since Puerto Morazán was reported to have 3,369 inhabitants in 1971, it has to have had an annual growth rate of over 5% to reach the 1995 figure.

It seems that this increase in population is due exclusively to a higher birthrate, because migration out of the area is sizeable. Just in Silvio Castro, a district of 1,850 inhabitants, 50 members of the economically active population—2.7% of the total population—emigrated to Guatemala, Costa Rica, the United States or other parts of Nicaragua. What's happening here? Why are so many people leaving now, following such a large increase over such a sustained period of time?

Scrutinizing history

Puerto Morazán's economic base has its beginnings in the 19th Century. Squier, Stephens and Wells, US travelers who visited the region in the mid-1800s on different diplomatic missions, write about the haggard condition of the two ports that they discovered on the left banks of the river opening into the Estero Real. One was Nagoscolo, or Nacascolo, tod ay Puerto Morazán, and the other was El Tempisque, located further upriver, in the vicinity of what is now Tonalá. Both were used more for migration than trade at the time.

John L. Stephens describes how, after passing through El Viejo, he left "by way of perpetual jungle for the port seven leagues away. At 2:30 we arrived at the port of Nagoscolo. There we saw a single little hut where a woman was washing corn, with a small naked child on the ground next to her, and she screamed in my ear that a guard had been sent with the orders to not let anybody embark without a passport." He was traveling during the time of General Francisco Morazán's struggle for Central American unity.

Ephraim George Squier, representing US businesses interests in Central America, wrote the following in 1849: "One or two miles before El Tempisque, we began to climb, and eventually found ourselves on top of a wide and high lava hill, produced by age-old volcanic eruptions. It was half covered with dry and arid land on which grew a handful of palm trees, a few little bromeliads and a great variety of cactus, the only plants able to grow in such a barren land. Ten minutes later, we reached the port of El Tempisque where we found a few signs of life. These was no more than a single hut, open on three of its four sides, inhabited by a filthy mestizo, a shriveled up old woman and an Indian woman, naked from the waist up, whose job was to haul water and grind corn for tortillas. Behind the hut was an expanse of dry land, but in front of it was a stretch of mangrove swamp. That is a completely forbidden area, source of mosquitoes and malarial fever."
Not even William V. Wells, who wrote nearly a decade later, in 1857, had a better impression of this port: "Before midday we arrived at a solitary hut, made of sticks and thatch, raised about 20 feet above a quagmire, in the black, rich slime of which several upside-down Indian canoes with the keel pointing upward shone in the sun, for it was low tide. We had reached El Tempisque".

At a strategic crossroads

Around 1871, French anthropologist Pablo Lévy had a fairly accurate vision of this area's future: "The now almost deserted port of El Tempisque on the Estero Real could become very important the day that Honduras' inter-oceanic railway, presently under construction, reaches Amapala on Tiger Island in the Gulf of Fonseca. It is understood, in effect, that with a small steamboat providing service between Amapala and El Tempisque, the time it presently takes to go around the point of Cosigüina and reach Corinto would be substantially abbreviated. A highway between El Tempisque and Chinandega would complete the route; the land is flat and the distance short. One can see that León could be reached from Europe via El Tempisque, the way I have just indicated, in 16 days. It is quite likely that the government of Nicaragua will choose to develop the port of El Tempisque and construct a railroad line out to the furthest point; the cost would be the same and there are fewer difficulties to surmount. It would have the advantage of passing through Chinandega and various other interesting population centers."
This is exactly what wound up happening to Puerto Morazán; it was joined with Chinandega by means of the railroad. After the civil war, various governors made efforts to develop the national economy. A railroad line between Corinto and Chinandega went into service in 1881, and within six years' time, the cities of Chinandega, León, Corinto, Managua, Masaya and Granada were connected by the railway. This was how Puerto Morazán was transformed into the channel through which Nicaraguan commodities reached Honduras and El Salvador. It was also how the banana plantations and the sale of red dye extracted from mangrove bark grew and prospered. The exploitation of mangrove bark by lumber companies lasted until the beginning of the 1980s, at the expense of noticeable damage to the mangroves.

The municipality of Puerto Morazán was created by law on November 5, 1946. Both the area and the town that became the original municipal seat had already been named after General Morazán in 1936, and prior to that the town had been called Nacascolo. The current municipal seat is Tonalá, which has sparked rivalry between the tonaleños and the morazaneños, since the latter aspire to one day reclaiming the status of municipal seat of Puerto Morazán.

Cotton's legacy

Puerto Morazán experienced immense growth before the rail line connecting it to Chinandega was destroyed, before a fatal landslide of the Chonco Volcano, before the building of the Pan American Highway, and before the collapse of the Central American common market. The convergence of all of these forces dealt the region a rough blow.

Afterwards, the cotton boom came to save, or at least partially save, the situation by offering an alternative source of employment. On the national level, cotton was touted as the answer to balance one-crop coffee farming, as a model for the use of pesticides, as a generator of employment and as the source of over half of the country's exports. In Puerto Morazán, cotton farming put fat profits in the capitalists' pockets, and an avalanche of chemical pollutants in the river, killing off much of the fish. So while the cotton boom created employment on land, it eliminated jobs on the estuary. As the current mayor points out, "Standard Fruit and the cotton bosses took the money and ran. They left nothing." The prosperity that Pablo Lévy prophesied was short-lived and, like the sacristan's money, went out singing just like it came in.

The current carries shrimp

Most of the larger plantation owners in this area were not affected by the agrarian reform of the 1980s. But the fact that they didn't change does not mean that the technology didn't. The no longer profitable cotton plantations were turned into peanut and soy plantations, but the introduction of harvesters and other technological improvements decreased the need for manual labor. In this context the younger generations, constantly expanding because of the accelerated population growth, came up against a diminishing job market and more competition for the limited plots of land distributed by the agrarian reform.

Two new sources of employment emerged, converting the area once again into a provider: shrimp farming and the sale of lumber and kindling from mangrove trees. Until 1967, studies on shrimp fishing in Nicaragua's lakes and streams only spoke about the Atlantic Coast when referring to shrimp territory. As early as the 1970s some Puerto Morazán residents had experimented with the first shrimp farms. In a most elementary manner they had put up walls with hand shovels and trapped the larvae that the tides brought in. The Sandinista government helped these small-scale shrimp farmers, who by then had joined together in cooperatives, develop their potential through the Fishing Institute (INPESCA) and the National Development Bank (BANADES), but in most cases the efforts were not enough.

During the Chamorro government in the 1990s, the cooperatives found themselves no better off than when they had begun. INPESCA, transformed into MEDEPESCA, adopted a policy favoring the installation of large private enterprise in the area. Within a few years, the number of private shrimp farms had reached twenty-five, accounting for 59% of the licenses, with only 41% in the hands of the cooperatives. These private shrimp growers—not one of whom lived in the municipality—thus held the exploitation rights to an average of 424 hectares each, while the cooperatives each had an average of 105. If we calculate twelve members to each cooperative, this comes out to 8.55 hectares per member. Once again, a few outsiders divided up the pie in their favor.

After various small bouts of relative prosperity, Puerto Morazán isn't much more developed than the wasteland foreign travelers encountered over a century ago. And while the population has visibly increased, the infrastructure just as visibly has not. Hearing or reading about Puerto Morazán and its shrimp farming in the economic pages of the daily papers gives rise to a mental picture of economic boom and vibrant trading activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Puerto Morazán, the only thing booming is the bank accounts of the shrimp exporters, large peanut farmers and former cotton bosses. The town, almost as lifeless as the one Stephens described, is little more than one long street with a few straw huts around the edges. There are no hotels or bakeries. There is one lone luncheonette in the entire town. The only things that function efficiently are transportation and the recently installed cellular phone service, the former only because most buses and cabs belong to local residents and many people from Tonalá need to commute to areas of the river just outside of Puerto Morazán on a daily basis.

The potable water service is extremely dicey, and has been for quite a few years. It only functions for two hours a day, and many people are not covered at all. There is no modern sewage system, and use of the traditional latrine system, which deposits excrement in the estuary, is widespread. The two greatest problems for the state-run water company are the existing reservoir's low capacity and its limited distribution network. The municipality does not collect garbage. In the rural districts, institutions like Plan Internacional and PROTIERRA have taken it upon themselves to supply the population with pumps for wells and latrines. But it's still not enough to satisfy demand. As one resident complains, "Here the people have nothing: neither houses nor land." The houses belong to the government. The people gradually appropriated the old port's customs offices, and now live in them. The government controls the use of the land by issuing permits or franchises for periods of ten to twenty years, and many of these agreements have not yet been legalized.

The arduous tax-collecting task

Some of the public services ought to be provided by the municipal administration. But in 1998, the total income of Puerto Morazán's municipal administration was 1,362,606.61 córdobas. This amount ($120,000) is only slightly more than the combined annual salary of two National Assembly members, and is supposed to meet the needs of more than 11,000 people! Tax collection becomes a problem when one considers that most properties aren't even registered, those that are registered are generally inaccurately appraised, and the methods used to collect taxes are primitive. Basically, a tax collector visits property owners and tries to convince them to pay something. Obviously it is impossible to visit everybody, which favors inter-municipal competition: at the tax collector's discretion, the mayors' offices of neighboring El Viejo and Somotillo charge taxes to companies in Puerto Morazán. The three municipal administrations seem to have no clear idea of the limits of their respective jurisdictions.

Some of the private shrimp companies have figured out legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes altogether, since they are savvy tax evaders. In 1998, with the tax collector's consent, only 8 of the 25 private businesses registered with municipal administration paid taxes. Administration officials mentioned to envío that Nueva Granja with 792 hectares, ECUANICA with more than 1,000, and ALVANICA are being processed for back taxes on both property and sales. But while many of the private businesses don't pay their taxes, they do make "voluntarily contributions" toward providing basic services to the population, an arrangement often used to blackmail municipal administration. For example, each time the administration tries to collect taxes from these companies, they simply stop paying salaries to some of the district schoolteachers. This system works quite well for the large companies since their informal contributions amount to a lot less than what they ought to be paying in taxes.

This year, there will be a decrease in the amount of taxes collected from the cooperatives ravaged by Mitch. In an area where the amount of taxes is so inadequate, their contributions meant a lot. Today, there are cooperatives owing as much as US$10,000 in taxes. But to secure future loans and avoid having their property seized, it is more important that they pay off their debts to the shrimp merchants. Paying off a more benevolent creditor like the municipal administration does not make the cooperatives' "short list" of priorities.

Did I hear somebody say decentralization?

The municipal administration's biggest problems have to do with the central government's Fishing Administration (ADPESCA). The name changes—it was MEDEPESCA during the Chamorro administration and INPESCA during the Sandinista government—have been accompanied by policy changes, with an ever increasing tendency to favor large private companies over the cooperatives.

In the early 1990s, international cooperation financed a farm that was to function as a state training center for shrimp farming. But the opinion of many Puerto Morazán residents is that this project has been transformed into yet another private business, violating the March 2, 1992 agreement between INPESCA and the shrimp cooperatives. According to the agreement, "It is understood that the shrimp farmers will give their total support to the development and strengthening of the Puerto Morazán Farm School Project, which will be used EXCLUSIVELY for the training and technical advancement of the shrimp farming cooperatives and parties involved in shrimp cultivation."
The violation of this clause was largely what motivated the municipal council members to decide by unanimous vote following Mitch to take over the farm, by then managed by ADPESCA. But there was no shortage of other reasons. According to the municipality's functionaries:
-- They suspected that ADPESCA was planning to sell the farm to a private company.

-- ADPESCA's farm had not paid its taxes, which, like any other shrimp cultivating enterprise, it is obliged to do.

-- ADPESCA does not provide information about the new permits it issues and their size. The municipal administration needs this data in order to calculate both real estate and sales taxes.
-- ADPESCA had not paid the municipal administration's 25% of the US$30 per hectare that ADPESCA had agreed to charge to those granted exploitation concessions.
-- In the beginning of 1997, ADPESCA was charging an illegal 1% sales tax.
-- ADPESCA was granting permits to exploit natural lakes, even though the Ministry of Natural Resources (MARENA) prohibited this.
-- The MARENA technician assigned to the area confirms that the private companies were getting permits without presenting the required impact studies.

ADPESCA has adopted a policy favoring the demise of the small cooperatives, even though they have worked very hard—even gone into debt—to legalize their activities while the large companies merrily destroy lakes and islands. The system used by the cooperatives is to work the farm first and then solicit their license. But ADPESCA grants licenses on a "first pay, first serve" basis, even where a cooperative is already developing a farm. The simple fact of being ADPESCA, public institution of the central government, gives it the indisputable authority—and power—to distribute permits as it wishes. Did I hear somebody say decentralization?

Agrarian reform in a saltmarsh

The municipality's population distinguishes between "salty land"—drenched by the Estero Real and full of mangroves and shrimp farms—and "sweet land"—appropriate for agriculture. The corrupting of the agrarian reform in Puerto Morazán occurred just as much with the salty lands as with the sweet. If 60% of the land permits are in the hands of a mere 25 private businesses, and the rest in the hands of 61 cooperatives with a total of approximately 732 members, the imbalance is more than evident. How did things get to this state?
Small groups of fishermen began to extract shrimp. The basic tool for fishing was the catching net, and the setting was the inlets, where the shrimp larvae carried by the tides evolved into adulthood. From there emerged the idea of building ponds. From the beginning the goal was to reproduce nature. With shovels and elbow grease, dirt walls were erected. The ebb and flow of the tides enabled these pools to maintain the proper salt level. But because this plan was entirely dependent on the wild larvae that the current haphazardly carried into the pools, it was impossible to know beforehand the volume of shrimp that would be harvested as a result of all their efforts. Obviously, it was not possible to turn large amounts of land into ponds with this system, or to control the factors that determined the mortality rate of the shrimp: saline level, population density, oxygen and the amount of algae, the shrimps' major source of nutrition.

With the gradual introduction of modern technology, production costs increased. Now tractors are used to build the pools, larvae is purchased from Poneloya fishermen, and high-power pumps are used to replenish water. This implies an increased dependence on financing. In the concrete case of shrimp farm cooperatives, this situation has produced an untenable dependency on the commercial houses that "earn" the right to buy their debtors' product at a discount in return for financing. Hence the vicious circle strangling the cooperatives: borrowing locks them into selling their product at lower prices, reducing their profits and preventing them from accumulating any capital, which forces them to borrow again. At some point the circle doesn't go around again; facing the threat of their property being seized, many eventually sell their licenses for whatever they can get. This dynamic provides the basis for the mayor's conclusion that "the government's idea is to force the cooperatives into debt, and when they're at the breaking point, help the large entrepreneurs buy their exploitation licenses and land concessions."
ADPESCA provides the coup de grace with its system of granting licenses based on who pays first without considering who might already be working the land. This policy has generated conflicts between the big companies and the cooperatives over boundaries or over extensions of land for which ADPESCA granted permits when part or all of it was already being worked by cooperative. The final results are an impoverished population with less access to land concessions and increasingly suffering the consequences of environmental damage.

Degradation and speculation

Shrimp farming, like other productive activities, has an impact on the surroundings. Guided strictly by short-term profitability criteria, shrimp farming can degrade the natural resources, contaminating the water, damaging the mangrove plantations and the soil, and undermining the survival mechanisms of the communities that depend on the mangrove resources.

The Estero Real area has some conditions that make possible the sustainable development of shrimp farming. But it also has some limitations: the lack of proven production techniques, poor water quality in some areas, inadequate infrastructure, inability of the supervising institutions to monitor environmental impact and insufficient credit to support production.

ADPESCA's land lease policy has also encouraged speculation. According to local ADPESCA officials, all land suitable for shrimp farming has already been franchised. But the majority of these private concession holders are exploiting only a minimal portion of the land allotted to them. As any good businessman can see, buying land rights from the government at US$30 per hectare and selling it later for US$1,000 to US$2,500 is quite an attractive proposition.

And that impenetrable bramble?

Over a hundred years ago, the US travelers were impressed with the lavishness of Puerto Morazán's mangrove forest. Squier reported that "the sun's rays cannot pierce the mangrove forest. The trees grow so closely together along the muddy, tide-flooded coast that they leave no room for other vegetation. About eight to ten feet from the ground, the trunks of these trees sprout huge branches, with shoots that reach down to the ground and take root there. They bear a resemblance to the legs of tripods but there are hundreds upon hundreds of them, all intertwined to create an impenetrable bramble."
The "sweet lands" are also respectably endowed with vegetation. En route to El Tempisque, William V. Wells recalls encountering a "dense mountain with trees as large as six feet in diameter." Looking at the poverty of today's residents, it is hard to believe that this traveler had considered this area, together with the whole northern coast of Nicaragua, capable of producing enough food to supply all of Central America.

Cotton farming ruined the forests in the sweet lands, and the shrimp farmers ravaged part of the salty lands' mangroves. Now it's the wood peddlers' turn —the John Does with no land, no fish, and no opportunities for other employment. One of them described his work for us: "It's hard, this walking around in muck all day long, splitting mangrove wood and hauling it out in boats."
The mangrove is rapidly disappearing. A group of 15 wood venders can finish off a hectare of mangrove trees in less than a month. The restrictions posed by the National Agrarian and Forest Institute (INA-FOR) mean nothing. The municipal administration's system of selling permits for cutting down trees is also insignificant. It charges 15 córdobas (a little over $1) a ton. In 1998 all it collected was 4,000 córdobas, indicating an average 22.22 tons per month. INA-FOR, with one office and two officials in Chinandega to cover an entire department, reports an average of 10 tons per month. In fact, both figures are way below the volume of wood actually being cut down and sold.

An SOS for mangroves

All attempts to regulate the extraction of firewood have been in vain. And not because the attempts weren't vigorous. The DANIDA Mangrove Project tried to implement management plans with a considerable number of firewood peddlers. At present there are a few positive signs, like a recent proposal for an ordinance that would regulate natural resource management. But the deforestation is continuing its course, unrestrained. If unemployment rises even more following Mitch, it is easy to predict that the number of firewood venders will also rise.

Basically, it has been impossible to put an end to mangrove cutting because:
* Even the firewood peddlers involved in DANIDA's management plans prefer to cut mangroves in the areas where the plan is not being implemented.

* No single institution is capable of controlling the amount of extractions. The management plans establish a quota of a thousand sticks a week per family, which means a monthly income of less than 400 córdobas once the transportation and chain saw rental costs are deducted. This is clearly not enough income for those who depend entirely on this activity. The management plan must be accompanied by a plan for generating other employment.

* The amount of firewood extracted cannot be controlled because no guards are posted. Everything depends on voluntary declarations and the occasional capture of illegal loads. It is evident that the declarations recorded in INA-FOR are much less than the quota of one thousand sticks per firewood vender.

* One cooperative is authorized to extract firewood, with the condition that it will replant, but there is no way to monitor this reforestation either. INA-FOR has two officials for the whole department of Chinandega, and they depend on the supervisory capacity of MARENA, which has only one technical expert for the Estero Real's entire mangrove zone.

Theoretically the municipal administration could advocate some changes if the disputes between and within the political parties—which are proliferating in light of next year's municipal elections—could be reduced. To begin with, it would need to strengthen legislative codes and the economic incentives and deterrents geared to reducing the negative impact of shrimp farming. The farms ought to pay a social compensation for leaving polluting residues. The amount of fish has been notably reduced in the estuary. The fishermen must now row out to areas far away from their homes, somewhere close to the mouth of the estuary. There is no additional tax corresponding to the contamination level due to intensity, higher technology and the use of chemical fertilizers in certain farms. The burden of this kind of tax should fall, above all, on the large companies, and those additional taxes could be invested to help the cooperatives and to convert firewood peddlers into shrimp farmers.

Is there any hope?

Puerto Morazán presents a challenge for international cooperation, which has acted so generously in the aftermath of Mitch, and continues to channel resources our way with an eye to reactivating the Nicaraguan economy. The hurricane left the cooperatives on a shaky tightrope. The banks will not accept their permits as collateral, demanding instead guarantees to the tune of twice the value of the loan. The cooperatives will have no recourse but to turn, once again, to the shrimp distributors, who will gladly assume the role of creditor, awaiting the opportunity to seize the cooperatives' lands and take over their concessions.

At stake here is the very survival of the cooperatives, and with them, the hope of a more equitable distribution of income. The firewood peddlers also aspire to become shrimp farmers. Should this be achieved, the act of stripping mangroves would be confined within the boundaries of the land concession. But the transformation from wood vender to shrimp farmer also requires credit.

The Central American University (UCA) is placing its bets on the shrimp farm cooperatives. A number of years ago it began a support program that includes credit and technical assistance, with the permanent presence of a biologist and systematic monitoring of the Estero Real's saline, oxygen and alkaline levels. Although it plans on increasing the areas covered, which would require a lot more resources, the program only works with 3 of the 60 cooperatives at the moment. Like many other initiatives supported by civil society, it is a drop in the bucket. But one drop joined by a few more becomes a downpour.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA.

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