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  Number 213 | Abril 1999
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Nicaragua

Cayanlipe: Six Months of Solitude

While "disastrologists" and technicians analyze, plan and classify damages, there are devastated zones in Nicaragua where the people are living today as if Hurricane Mitch had hit just yesterday. No reconstruction, ruined soil, the return to a system of land ownership concentrated in the hands of the few, more unemployment. The victims have heard many promises, but nobody really seems to be interested in them.

José Luis Rocha

Five months after Mitch, activities directed at the country's reconstruction are not exactly advancing at the pace that the ongoing propaganda leads us to believe. In fact the rate of progress is more akin to the pace of an old mule. The government and international cooperation agencies, experts in planning, are still taking inventory of the damages and of those left homeless, and meditating on which activities are the most appropriate to undertake.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which may be that prolonging the project implementation period extends the contracts of numerous professionals who landed high-paying jobs in rehabilitation operations throughout the country. The empire of civilized technocracy versus the crisis of the needy. Where there was once unbridled and poorly remunerated activism, we now have barely fraternal but lucrative professionalism.

No reconstruction to audit

A Swedish mission says it detected "a feeling of frustration among producers about the lack of rehabilitation efforts relative to the huge amount of information solicited by foreign organizations since October." It's true. In the disaster areas, surveys abound, sucking up all kinds of information. The producers, however, are still waiting for the resources that have been promised. Today's pickings are as slim as yesterday's, and tomorrow's alternatives will be no more promising than today's if the disastrologists and "rehabilitators" don't shake off their lethargy and get moving.

The social audit promoted by the Emergency Relief and Reconstruction Coalition is also on hold. This mechanism was designed to monitor the effectiveness of reconstruction activities by way of extensive polling among the beneficiaries. The visits to hurricane-affected areas confirm the need to create a mechanism to evaluate works in progress, but six months after the hurricane, there's still not much reconstruction to audit.

With the idea of verifying, if only superficially, what's happening in the way of rehabilitation, envío made a trip to a region hard hit by Mitch. As samples go, it's on the mark. Accompanied by Roberto Salinas, an experienced organizer for one of the NGOs working in the area, we took the pulse of a little corner of western Nicaragua, collected stories and made a birds-eye inventory of the damage and the state of reconstruction.

We went on a quick tour of the communities along the horseshoe back-road that begins at kilometer 194 of the road between Chinandega and Somotillo, passing through Cayanlipe, El Porvenir, El Jicote, Aquespalapa and El Circuito before coming out again at kilometer 182. Way before Mitch, many of these communities were already disaster areas, receiving regular aid from the Red Cross. These communities are representative of the barriers to agricultural development and equity: lack of credit, lack of technology and the increasing reconcentration of property into a few hands.
The area includes a variety of agricultural and biological niches. Flora ranges from the white mangrove to the grassland jícaro. The landscape varies from arid plains, formerly ruined by cotton and now sown with sesame, to idyllic pastures dotted with small natural lakes. Sesame thrives: organic sells at $40 the hundredweight, and conventional at $32. For all that, the few sesame processing plants are working at far below capacity, since a good part of the sesame harvest is not processed in Nicaragua. Many countries such as Japan have laws requiring that sesame seeds have to be delivered for import unprocessed. So Nicaragua is forced to continue exporting raw materials, losing the potential income from value-added processing.

The latter is a problem that small producers don't necessarily notice. One that certainly does not go unnoticed, however, is that some of the stockpilers, like the powerful CONAGRA owned by the increasingly wealthy Centeno brothers, "correct" the weights: depending on the volume of a given sale, various farmers calculate that the difference between what gets paid for and what is actually brought in can be more than 20 hundredweight. The big guys impose their mechanisms even in the freest of markets.

The tragedy remains fresh

Mitch is easily forgotten in Managua. Nietzsche contended that compassion is a sentiment that human beings tire of rapidly. However, in this region, Mitch is a reality impossible to escape. The population has constant reminders of the tragedy. Miles of fences on the ground, tons of recently harvested corn and sesame carried off by the current and thousands of heads of cattle and beasts of burden drowned are images that live on in the memories of the majority of families from these communities.

In just one night, well-heeled farmers became peasants producing for subsistence. Chico Rocha, for example, owned 52 heads of cattle, his life's work. Today all he has is 90 empty hectares. Other medium sized cattle ranchers lost 300, 400 animals in one night. In El Jicote, entire families were trapped in trees for four days and nights, virtually without eating or sleeping. Some of them dove into the water from the trees to grab bunches of plantains, which were conveniently hanging at water level from nearby trees. "Those who could swim," recalled one victim, "also dove down to cut off the rumps of dead calves. Some people ate raw plantains and raw meat. Many watched as the current unmercifully swept their cattle away. The cows churned around in the water until they couldn't swim any longer. The water rose swiftly. There were no warnings, only those misleading reports that told us the hurricane was on its way to Honduras, and we believed them. All too soon water covered the house, which was made of raw adobe and so readily fell apart." The farmer who declared shortly after the hurricane, "Maybe the country hasn't regressed twenty years, but I have," was from Cayanlipe.

"We'd be better off dead"

Weak and exhausted, some people fell into the water and were rescued by their fellow sufferers. Some thought to tie themselves to the trees, figuring if they should fall asleep, they would wake up hanging rather than drowned. When the water retreated they had to evacuate the zone, some with the aid of boats from Corinto. The people spontaneously organized themselves for this task because conventional mechanisms weren't working. The thousands of dead cattle made it impossible to return to their lands until two weeks later. And then it was only to count their losses. Only a few stayed, as the stench of the dead animals drove the majority away.

Dominga del Socorro Salgado recalls, "I had just spent 60 thousand córdobas [about $5,000] to stock the store right before the hurricane. It was well supplied. I hid some things on top of the roof, and left the house in the hands of a security guard. The little that I had put away was stolen. They even killed the pig for no good reason, and were fighting over it when I got there. There was nothing left to do. In those days you thanked God just for having saved you, so we certainly weren't about to fight over a pig." Referring to the wreckage left by Mitch, one little boy said to his best friend, perhaps parroting the despairing view of an adult overheard: "Wow, to be living with no cows, no house, nothing, we'd be better off dead."
Some producers commented that it seemed as though the "water had brought acid, since even the palm trees are drying up." There's even a new breed of pests. Felix Pedro Mendoza managed to plant a luxuriant sesame plantation, but now he observes: "The wild parakeets are the new enemy of sesame. When they can't find anything else to eat, they look for sesame. They're chomping up everything."
People's most common complaint in the zone is the lack of support for reactivation. Local solidarity groups—not included in the statistics and never registered in the national tallies—have tried to make up for what the institutions haven't done. One peasant, a cattle rancher until the hurricane, tells us optimistically: "We've begun recuperating little by little. Friends have given us a few hens, and they're starting to multiply."

Unprecedented in farming history

Mitch has cast a long shadow, which grows longer still when one considers its effect on the soil. The land is diseased, say many farmers. The currents that transformed the landscape and caused rivers to cut new channels also disturbed the soil. Large amounts of humus, lime, sand, clay and rock were left deposited on the fields. Each farm's affected land shows not merely one type of damage, but a combination of many. The most widespread is a thick layer of sand in areas close to the rivers. And the cost of reactivating the vegetable cropping alongside the riverbanks is very high. As one farmer observed, "The only thing that's growing here now is watermelon."
Plots commonly used to cultivate sesame were covered with a 4-5" layer of lime that blocks access to the underlying fertile soil. Miguel Angel Rodríguez and Félix Pedro Mendoza describe the effects on the soil of the hurricane's passage: "At first the land was thick slimy mud. Then it became hard and cracked like rock candy. When mud dries the earth breaks up into little pieces, splits and becomes hard as glass. It's like the land is dead. Plants can't grow because the dampness can't rise up through the caked dirt. The only way to restore the soil is by turning it over with a tractor. But when they sent machines here, the caked wet soil went too deep. The tractor's plow blades groaned and shuddered as they dug into it."
The current washed away a large portion of the nutrient-rich topsoil. But it can also be assumed that in many cases these losses were compensated for with new deposits, principally of humus that the current dragged along from the fertile plains bordering the rivers. This occurred in many fields used for grazing, where there was a high incidence of rapid recovery.

The costs of sesame cultivation, in contrast, have risen since farmers need to use more water and more labor to distribute the water. In addition, overheating has produced foliage and fruit burning. The limited self-financing capacity of the area's producers means that sesame farmers have been mortgaging their future harvests to commercial houses in exchange for the use of tractors to try to resolve these problems.

Effective rehabilitation requires at least two rounds with a tractor and another round with a pair of oxen, each at about $10 a hectare. The differences between damage categories depend more on the rehabilitation cost in a given place than on how the storm left the soil's productive capacity. Considering that the price of land in the region we visited is around $250 a hectare, a fair estimate of the cost of modest—not necessarily effective—rehabilitation, including fencing, is 30% or more of the land's value. Effective renovation of some plots of land around Cayanlipe would clearly cost more than the damaged lands are actually worth. It took 36 working days to effectively rehabilitate a sixth of a hectare of land in other disaster zones valued at US$540 per hectare.
One fundamental risk posed by the destruction of the plains along the rivers is that compensating for the losses creates other problems: overexploiting other areas, even more commercial firewood extraction and reduction of the fallow period of the lands used to grow basic grains. Having to leave certain areas unused tends to create more unemployment, and when this productive paralysis affects a large number of people in the same community, as it has in El Jicote, it deteriorates the area's economic and social fabric. With their productive base lost, many people have been completely inactive for the past five months.

As specialists in the field have acknowledged, the technical aspect of rehabilitating soil affected by flooding is new to Nicaragua's technical and agricultural history. Virtually without precedent, this is one of the challenges of economic recovery for which we are poorly prepared.

Beyond soil is the property itself

The soil problems run parallel to another: who owns the land. The urgent needs for reactivation funds, sesame farmers' growing indebtedness to the distributors and the cattle ranchers' need to replace their herds once their pastures are back in good shape, set the stage for a recontraction of land.

"Hurricane" FUNDE came on the heels of Hurricane Mitch. FUNDE, the Nicaraguan Development Foundation, had an office in Somotillo where many farmers, attracted by its 7% monthly interest rate on savings, had deposited their savings. Some had even taken out loans from NGOs that provide credit at 3% a month, which they then deposited in FUNDE, receiving the benefit of the 4% difference. Mitch triggered the collapse of this system, although it was high time for the scam, which everyone in the zone knew about, to come to an end. In any case, FUNDE's director and major stockholder, a local farmer, saw the handwriting on the wall and took off even before the floodwaters began to recede, scorning his financial obligations. Double play, and double loss for many farmers.

The scarcity of resources received to date coupled with the farmers' inability to finance their own rehabilitation is pushing them further and further into debt. And this is reactivating the old system of land concentration: debt, low prices that make it impossible to pay off debts, threats of embargo and, finally, liquidating at give-away prices. The Centeno brothers have gotten hold of many farms this way in just a few years, including the 2,000-hectare Apacunca and the 700-hectare Santa Carlota, according to neighbors. With their own commercial house and significant capital, they have the means and the wherewithal to reverse the agrarian reform.

It is obvious that this situation will only heighten the area's unemployment, already at alarming levels due to production strategies that employ less labor. In times of crisis, small and medium cattle ranchers, like anyone else, try to reduce costs. Mitch may force many of them to revert to using family labor exclusively.

In King Carlos V's Spain, deeply indebted peasants were also being strangled by credit and mortgaged harvests. Cattle raising was expanding and land was scarce. Those evicted by the growing landowner class left for the battlefields, or the adventure of the Indies or the cities to work as servants. In the Nicaragua of the 1990s, there is no more army—an institution that uprooted many—nor adventures in unexplored territories for unemployed peasants to turn to. Now there are only the United States, Costa Rica and Nicaragua's own cities—especially Managua, which already has more problems than it can handle.

Jícaro, the only hanging tree left

Even though jícaro seed extraction is an activity virtually outside of the commercial circuits, it generates jobs in the area and has slowed down emigration. Of the 345 families living in Cayanlipe, 226 are directly involved with jícaro: 150 as processors, 65 as transporters and 11 as merchants. Jícaro processing is also a source of employment for women and children. The benefit cycle begins with the owners of land planted with jícaro, who charge between 30 and 50 córdobas ($2.50-$4.00) for permission to fill a cart, and ends with the shopkeeper who bankrolls all involved in the process. If the wagon has a driver and an assistant, and belongs to a peasant who is engaged in other activities, even more jobs are created. Some processors have even designed a machine with rustic wood rollers whose teeth are made out of nails to untangle the jícaro pulp, providing easier access to the seed.

Pickers, wagon drivers, seed breakers and mashers, washers and venders have found steady incomes, however small, by way of jícaro. It is a tiny market with limited reach, however, without the kind of complex institutional fabric that, for example, permitted the leather and cacao trade to thrive in the last century, despite more rudimentary means of transportation and trade.

Some charge that bad handling practices cause very serious problems. As one person explained, "Washing large amounts of pulp in the big rivers produces what we refer to as jícaro water. After three days it becomes fermented and drinking it can cause a pregnant cow to abort. It also kills the fish." There are ways to prevent contamination, however, and they need to be learned. Jícaro will never end the zone's poverty, but at least it guarantees a regular source of income and work in a region where poverty is widespread and increasing. A jícaro reforestation program wouldn't be at all a bad idea for improving life in a place like this.

It's as if Mitch hit yesterday...

Chico Rocha had anticipated our question about the local government's reconstruction initiatives: "All the local administration has is a bunch of people suffering under a few jícaro bushes." In a bleak and barren plain as one enters Villanueva, 47 refugee families are living as though Mitch happened yesterday, and this settlement is not the only one of its kind in the country. They are landless families, most of them from El Jicote, who rented land for $25 a hectare. Now they are also unemployed. One of them told us: "Some have their little farms. The rest of us are doing what we can, taking care of others' farms. But the farmers have turned their backs on us." The farmers are in no position to provide jobs.

So far, these families have received food-for-work support from Save the Children. The Lutheran Church and municipal government have provided some food and water and Spain's Red Cross has promised to build houses. The majority of aid, however, has been in the form of promises. As one of them told us, "Every Monday they tell us that the equipment to start building houses is on the way. And we're still waiting. Every day a tractor passes by carrying wood. But when we need to fill up the water tank, we're told that the tractor is broken." The United Nations Development Program and a Canadian group have promised them food, the government has promised them book bags and notebooks. Nothing has been delivered. Idleness continues with nothing on the horizon because there are no job offers.

They have been moved from pillar to post three times. They've been at the Villanueva entranceway since January 26 because one condition for the building of the houses is that the people be in residence on this site. The psychological impact did not take long. With all other possibilities blocked, they wait powerlessly for a solution from government institutions and international cooperation agencies, like people who have nowhere left to put their faith but in magic.

These refugees offer a window onto Mitch's legacy. The zone's productive systems are unable to provide enough jobs even to prevent the already high unemployment level from further increasing. The cost reduction logic that is also being imposed further affects labor because the market's profit-maximizing negotiating mechanisms are out of the farmers' hands.

It's happening all over

Cayanlipe is not the worst case, nor is it even atypical. Reconstruction operations are still in the embryonic stage in most of the country's municipalities, where the offers of rehabilitation were made with a generosity that has not been paralleled with concrete action. The international cooperation agencies and their national counterparts are still bogged down in endless planning processes. The only economic situations that have been rehabilitated are those of the "development bureaucrats" who distribute a few measly panels of sheet metal roofing, prefab latrine slabs, water, food and promises. Lots of promises.

Bureaucrats in Managua are wracking their brains to present glitzy-looking ideas at the May donors' meeting in Stockholm on how to reconstruct Dipilto, Wiwilí, Condega, Posoltega, Ciudad Darío and many other places that they only visited a couple of times. Meanwhile, hurricane victims in all these places are living out a different story.

Every man for himself!

Cayanlipe, like its soil, is hoping for the removal of the obstacles that undermine fertility and impede growth. But only a substantial leap can make any real difference. Nicaragua is a country of extremes, not given to evolution, but to revolution, not to slow linear development but to cycles and abrupt changes. What new anomaly did Mitch produce? From a long-range viewpoint, what is going on today? Instead of arresting land concentration, Mitch inadvertently prepared the ground, as it were, for a few to continue accumulating. It did so by leaving many cattle farmers at their creditors' mercy since they must sell off at least some of their land in order to work the rest.

In the flow of donations due to Mitch, one would have hoped to find a real opportunity to reactivate the economy. But six months later, it's every man for himself. The government, against various recommendations, has even refused to design a special redistributive tax policy geared to alleviating the problems of those left with nothing. Nicaragua keeps waiting to be rescued by international cooperation, hoping it will compensate for social injustice, the effects of natural disasters and the state's inefficiency. Like people who have nowhere left to put their faith but in the preposterous.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher with, Nitlapán-UCA.

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