Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 215 | Junio 1999



Posoltega: Where the Land Burns

No one can comprehend the utter neglect with which the central government has treated the disaster victims in Posoltega from the very start. After being struck by Hurricane Mitch, they were further punished by Hurricane Alemán. And while the mudslide that roared down the slopes of the volcano buried much of their land, a new presidential decree has taken it all away from them. The land problem is burning here, in the center of the tragedy.

José Luis Rocha

On the road from Stockholm to Posoltega—passing through Washington, where the multilateral organizations design plans to "save" the countries of the South—some things can be uncovered while others remain under wraps. It is a road paved, like the road to hell, with good intentions.

One discovery is that the Nicaraguan government sent not a delegation but a crowd to Stockholm—69 people to be exact. The few among them who actually spoke, none of whom suffers from poverty or even knows anything about it, discussed the poverty of Nicaraguans for a total of five hours, making their appeals for funds in its name. The rest of the time, they only listened, if even that, since there was surely sightseeing and shopping to be done. This crowd represents a country that produces only 4% of Central America's GDP but is weighted down with 27% of its foreign debt.

Another discovery is that everything was already decided anyway. Many of the projects presented in Stockholm had already been negotiated or were even underway. Governments and multilateral organizations work with annual budgets and are not given to improvisation. Furthermore, the time allotted to each country to present its financial needs was quite limited. Before the meeting, one participant commented, "Considering the Central American fondness for speeches, half a day won't leave enough time for a productive discussion." But everyone knew what had to be done and especially what had to be said. For those who make speeches, the road was clear. In the end, as British writer George Elliot said, some people show they have nothing to say precisely by saying it. And the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio was right to observe, "The belief that agreement can be reached on the only possible solution when discussing concrete problems is the fruit of the typical technocratic dream." But the people who make these speeches dream on, despite everything, because they are out of touch with reality. Nicaraguan reality, the reality of Posoltega, seen from Stockholm, doesn't seem very complex to those who know without having been there, who diagnose without having examined, who design their plans based on the brief visits of consultants.

IDB: Transparency or complicity?

One thing that was not revealed is that we will remain in the dark about most of the agreements reached in Stockholm. The overall figures that the government manipulates in order to confuse are the least of it. The devil is in the details. The multilateral organizations have demanded greater transparency from Central American governments, but they aid and abet the lack of it when they refuse to show Central American citizens the documents on projects they finance, when they do not allow input from the population on either the project design or its implementation. That's what the specialists are for, they say. They're the ones who know.

Let's take the case of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which organized the meeting in Stockholm. It is proud of having opened its previously closed files. In 1993, a coalition of US and Latin American NGOs demanded that the governments of Latin America make specific reforms in order to increase the IDB's transparency and responsibility. Their efforts led to the IDB's Eighth General Increase in Resources, signed on April 13, 1994, in Guadalajara, Mexico. Among other things, the institution agreed to adopt a policy that would make information available and increase opportunities for public participation in the projects it finances.

In September of that same year, the IDB's executive directors approved its policy on the availability of information, which went into effect on January 1, 1995. According to this policy, all information on the bank's operational activities must be available to the public "unless there is an imperative reason to keep it secret." In practice, however, the IDB's "Country Documents"—the key document for each country which contains the complete programming information, including a description of the bank's strategy and loan programs for the country—have remained confidential.

A monitoring of its information availability policy revealed that, outside of IDB headquarters in Washington, secrecy persists and the majority of bank officials are not even aware of the policy. A US-based NGO called the Bank Information Center (BIC) also discovered through visits and interviews that project documents tend not to be available in time to carry out a substantial evaluation before or during implementation, and sometimes are not available in any form in the IDB country offices. Furthermore, the assigned information officer in these local headquarters sometimes ignores requests for information from civil society. IDB personnel apparently have not yet taken on board the bank's transparency policy.

To make matters worse, according to this investigation, "the IDB has allowed governments that receive loans to invoke the confidentiality clause when there is no situation that might compromise national security, or any justifiable or transparent reason to keep a document confidential." Clear complicity. And to top it off, the summaries that are available offer very little information on the conditions included in the loans or the social and environmental impact of the projects.

Nicaragua is no exception when it comes to the availability of information locally. One example illustrates the problem. Some five years ago, the IDB designed a program to support Nicaraguan cottage industries and small businesses. Private commercial banks were to serve as intermediaries for the funds. When the program came to an end in 1997, the IDB contracted a German consulting firm to evaluate it. The consultants found that only a small part of the funds had been lent and that some of the loans that had been made exceeded the established size limits. In other words, the program either over-indebted the micro-businesses—a possibility considered here only as an academic exercise—or gave the loans to larger, more developed sectors. None of this information was publicized.

Will Stockholm change Posoltega?

What do all these stories have to do with Mitch victims? What do they say to Posoltega? They say that, despite good intentions, it is not easy to see how aid funds are used, or even to see the documents that speak in such detail about the funds. Great expectations of Stockholm were aroused in Posoltega as elsewhere. While the President was speaking in Stockholm, one victim in Posoltega commented, "They must really be giving Alemán a hard time there, now that they've discovered what he's done here." Another said that "the Posoltega tragedy has been used to ask the world for international aid, but the aid isn't reaching the most affected municipality in all of Central America."
Will Stockholm change the situation in Posoltega? An atmosphere saturated with presidential monologues, a market where Nicaragua offers only project outlines, and the lack of transparency in the multilateral organizations do not bode well. Some good could be achieved here, in Nicaragua, if things are brought down to earth. After all, as Gramsci said, the pessimism of the intellect is countered by the optimism of the will.

Posoltega: The heart of the tragedy

Eight months after the tragedy, Posoltega's refugees are still up in the air, their situation virtually unchanged. Crowded together in small plastic huts, thousands of people are trying to rebuild their lives. But they have none of the conditions they need to do so. Reestablishing emotional balance requires an atmosphere of normality, and a life of dependency in a shelter is not at all helpful. Building houses, reactivating production—home and work—are indispensable steps to creating a healthy environment. And the basis of home and work is the land. Lots for building houses have only recently been obtained in Posoltega —and then not for all families who lost their houses in the storm—along with a few small plots for planting.

Posoltega's population, as the local Communal Movement leader pointed out, "went through a Dantesque experience." An unimaginable mass of mud buried 2,513 people in a matter of minutes. Another 2,800 people in 667 families were affected. Of the 33 communities in the municipality, 14 were severely damaged and 2 completely disappeared. Some 1,500 houses, 50 wells and 650 latrines were destroyed. Over 2,000 hectares of crops were lost, together with 2,000 head of cattle, 2,000 goats and pigs and 3,000 chickens. A total of 119.5 km of rural penetration roads and 13 bridges were damaged. In the name of this catastrophe, the Nicaraguan government has made numerous appeals and sent out many petitions.

Inexplicable neglect

Posoltega comes from posoli-tecat, a Nahuatl word made up of various meanings, all alluding to the neighboring Casita volcano: "town by the land that burns," "neighbors of the bubbling froth." With this history, and with the information collected in the territorial study financed by the World Bank several months before the tragedy, it was known that the majority of the municipality's population was at risk.

The central government's neglect of if not downright hostility towards the municipality of Posoltega, because of its Sandinista municipal government and especially the Sandinista leanings and "subversive" history of most of the disaster victims, was clear from the very start of the emergency. When Posoltega's mayor Felícita Zeledón sent out the first alarm, hours after the mudslide, President Alemán called her modest estimate of 1,000 dead "crazy" and accused her of sowing panic. His insensitive, negligent attitude delayed the arrival of rescue brigades.

Virtually everyone in Posoltega is convinced that many lives could have been saved through timely action. Examples abound. They cannot forget, and their resentment towards the central government still runs deep. Moreover, the government has done nothing to rectify its mistakes and continues to ignore the region. No one can comprehend why Posoltega, the focus of attention of the international aid that poured so generously into Central America in the wake of Mitch, has received so little aid from the central government.

The situation is even more inexplicable in light of the fact that 100 houses have already been built by the state's Secretariat of Social Action in the neighboring municipality of Chichigalpa, which was not so severely affected by the hurricane and also has a Sandinista government. The President, who named the complex Villa Dolores in memory of his deceased wife, even inaugurated them.
Are prospects looking up for Posoltega after Stockholm? A presidential decree issued shortly after the disaster struck suggests that the answer is no, however much the President's verbose speeches try to give another impression.

The devil's in the details

The true road from Stockholm to Posoltega depends on the concrete form given to the concepts that peppered all the documents sent to the Consultative Group meeting, whatever their topic. The new rhetoric is built around the key word transformation, but includes plenty of other concepts tossed in for flavor: transparency, resource monitoring, decentralization and local development, territorial organization and relocation, environmental protection, sustainable production and technology transfer, etc. To a large extent, it is a matter of stringing together words and filling up paper in order to hide or simulate, of kidnapping a language that once belonged to the left and mimicking it as a tactic to give the impression of concern for the future of the species. To speak of democracy and equality has become commonplace, but it's an equality in which, as George Orwell would say, some are more equal than others.

The enormous gash rent open by the mudslide on Casita will not be healed by the concepts shuffled about in Stockholm. The purpose of the European Union's aid, "to reduce the gap between rich and poor and strengthen democracy," is proper and laudable. But all purposes couched in such soft and flabby general terms turn out to be ineffectual because they are without substance. There can be no real agreement over them, just as there can be no differences or discussion.

It's easy to talk. It's a question of learning a language and repeating it, like a parrot. The skill is very simple and doesn't require much intelligence. The devil is in the details. They are where reconstruction is defined, where we see what sustainable production might be and what relocation really means.

Houses that are not getting built
and speculation with the land

One "detail" in Posoltega is housing, a basic part of reconstruction. A group of German legislators who visited Nicaragua on the eve of Stockholm were stunned, puzzled and outraged when they saw with their own eyes that the people of Posoltega continue to live in makeshift shelters seven months after so much aid poured into Nicaragua, and have no possibility of sowing even though the rainy season is already upon us. The legislators called a press conference in which they said that President Alemán had showed them the document he would take to in Stockholm a few days later. There they had seen the predominance of terminology such as transparency, poverty alleviation and sustainable development—everything "the donor countries want to hear." But, they told the gathered reporters, making no effort to hide their indignation behind a veneer of diplomacy, "We don't see this in practice, and that's why we're concerned about corruption."
The lack of housing in Posoltega reflects how ineffectual such general concepts are when it gets down to details. CARE, the Salvation Army, CONAUSTRIA, the María Elena Cuadra Movement, the Juan XXIII Institute of Managua's Central American University, the Spanish Red Cross and other NGOs all went to Posoltega to help. In a process whose pace was excessively slow and occasionally marked by misplaced perfectionism, this gamut of national and international, giant and small nongovernmental organizations managed to divvy up the disaster victims' total housing demand in the municipality. But that was only the beginning of a thousand and one obstacles they would have to sort out.
First government requirements tripped them up. To select land that offers the greatest security, they needed approval from the Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies (INETER), a state entity charged with defining risk areas on the basis of a precise analysis. It took over two months to find out where to build and where not.

Then came the really thorny task, one that isn't found in any post-disaster rehabilitation manual: negotiations with the landowners. Large, medium and small landowners rubbed their hands with glee as they grasped the opportunity to turn a profit. Land that had previously sold at $200-$350 a hectare, which is in fact its registered value, was offered at $2,000 a hectare. Most of the organizations, after arduous negotiations, managed to buy land at $1,200 a hectare. But some of these pound wise, penny foolish NGOs, which were planning to build houses at a cost of $4,000 each, were not willing to spend that much money on land on principle, because it meant playing the opportunists' game even if it also facilitated a process aimed at satisfying urgent needs. The upshot of all this is that not a single house has been built yet.

The dilemmas have been enormous, continuous. It is amidst these realities that high-soaring concepts are brought down to earth.

An explosive decree

Oddly enough, even before the NGOs began picking their way through the reconstruction labyrinth, the government decided to declare the whole slide area in the public domain and confiscate it. This dealt a second blow to disaster victims who owned land in that huge swath. Naturally, it never occurred to the government to declare other land in the public domain, this time on the victims' behalf so they could build their houses on it.

Presidential decree 92-98, published in the official newspaper La Gaceta on December 9, 1998, just over a month after the mudslide that Alemán refused to acknowledge had occurred, declared all the area affected by it in the public domain, ostensibly in order to create a national monument to those killed. The decree was drafted and issued without consulting the municipal government or the victims' families, who justifiably feel that they are the ones who should decide on the use of the land they consider sacred because it holds their dead.

The presidential decree reveals the central government's interpretation of three of the concepts that ran through the meeting in Stockholm: relocation, compensation and reactivation of production. Relocation is the central concept here, and the decree shows the government's understanding of it better than any words spilt over the tragedy.

The polygon that INETER sketched out of the affected area, which covers over 1,500 hectares, served as the basis for the presidential decree. The text states: "1. Declared in the public domain, as it is in the national interest to establish a National Monument in Memory of the Victims of Hurricane Mitch in the area affected by the landslide of October 30, 1998, on the slopes of the Casita Volcano, in the municipality of Posoltega, and in gratitude to the governments and peoples who gave us their help. 2. An area of 2,352 manzanas is considered affected by the present declaration of public domain. 3. The executive unit concerned with this expropriation and everything related to the acquisition of effective rights and other rights related to this declaration of public domain is the Ministry of the Treasury, before which those people who feel that their rights have been affected should appear, with the objective of reaching an agreement."
Some 135 property titles in the area are recognized as subject to compensation in the list drawn up by the Ministry of the Treasury. The list does not include cooperatives with Agrarian Reform titles to the land in that area. In their place it names the former landowners, who were confiscated by the Sandinista revolution—and have received compensation since the change of government in 1990. In other words, the people who have lived on the land, possessed it, worked it and made it produce for the last two decades do not appear as owners. The Ministry of the Treasury has opted instead to recognize titles from the Somoza period even though it means compensating a group of large landowners for the second time.

This presidential decree lies at the root of the conflict between many people in Posoltega and the executive branch. It not only strikes yet another blow at poor farmers who lost nearly everything in the disaster, but also raises a number of questions, since some of the land covered by the decreee was not even affected by the hurricane. As a result, a number of big-name families will be compensated again for a tragedy that did not even affect them, including the Callejas Deshones, the Térans, the Reyes, the Montealegres, the Ulloas and the Cerdas, all named by the Ministry of the Treasury as the landowners. Eduardo Callejas, a Liberal representative in the National Assembly and owner of the still-functioning Bella Vista coffee plantation on the summit of Casita, will be one of the biggest winners.

Hurricane Alemán

On a visit to the Bella Vista we got a panoramic view of the mudslide. The decree does not seem to have stopped the agricultural activities here and perhaps the imminent compensation even encourages them. This farm's powerful family owners have always known how to apply the principle "every cloud has a silver lining."
To understand what is happening here, it's worth going a bit back into history. In 1979, with the revolution, the Rolando Rodríguez cooperative was formed when 72 poor peasant farmers began moving up the slopes of the volcano toward Bella Vista, occupying land that was indeed part of the area affected by last year's mudslide. Among other lands they occupied a cotton plantation belonging to Bella Vista's owners. Rather than let their coffee plantation on the volcano's rim also fall into the cooperative's hands, the owners decided to give 50 hectares of it to people in the recently formed community of Santa Narcisa who worked on it. With this gesture they not only saved the bulk of their plantation but also broke the momentum of the land occupation. Now, thanks to the tragedy, the Callejas family will be compensated—again—for the land they kept, the land that was taken and the land they ceded.

This is why Posoltega's disaster victims say that after Hurricane Mitch came Hurricane Alemán. In his visit there after the tragedy, President Alemán encouraged those who had lost their homes, their livelihoods and, in many cases, more than one family member to go pick coffee on plantations in Matagalpa and Jinotega. The victims have since interpreted this invitation as a strategy to distract them while decree 92-98 was being prepared, as "the knife the government stabbed us in the back with," one member of Rolando Rodríguez said. "We went from the frying pan into the fire."
The issue of compensation to the victims for the land now confiscated from them has not been dealt with satisfactorily. One of them protested angrily, "In honor of our families who fought for these lands and who were buried, we're not going to let a decree trample on our rights as the only legitimate owners! This land is sacred to us, because our dead are here. We'll go all the way!"

Land occupation in El Tanque

The land problem is what's burning. Although the women of the María Elena Cuadra Movement acquired some land in El Bosque for people in the Rolando Rodríguez and El Porvenir communities, the people decided not to move there, since they would have had lots to build houses on but no land to work. Furthermore, the move would have done nothing to solve the problem created by decree 92-98, which is taking the land they have worked for nearly 20 years.
For the past two decades, the members of the Rolando Rodríguez cooperative, based on Eduardo Callejas' cotton farm, and of the El Porvenir cooperative, whose lands originally belonged to Augusto Terán, have held the land as common property and worked it as individual plots. Before the hurricane, Rolando Rodríguez had grown to 98 members and nearly 700 hectares. Hurricane Mitch killed 52% of those members and destroyed 300 hectares of the land. Hurricane Alemán's decree robbed the survivors of it all.

One Communal Movement leader summed up the situation this way: "If they nationalize what's left of my land after the hurricane, and we don't have access to credit, we have no other option than to resume the struggle of 1977, in which people were killed. The Rolando Rodríguez and El Porvenir cooperatives grew out of that struggle. We're not fish that live in water, we need land to live. On December 27, 1998, people decided that what we need most is land and that we'll fight for it."
That same day, 247 families that had survived the mudslide occupied the plantation known as El Tanque. Legally, this farm belongs to the state, but in practice it is part of a property complex being leased with an option to buy by a worker-owned business. Their company, formally called the Carlos Agüero Echeverría Agricultural Company (ACAESA), was formed in 1991 within the framework of privatization agreements between the Chamorro government and the FSLN. It was formed with 525 members and a total capital of $14,000, divided up into $2 shares. The complex they have been leasing includes 14 farms with a total area of nearly 2,000 hectares. El Tanque, a roughly 500-hectare farm in Posoltega, is the only one in the department of Chinandega. The other 13 are in the department of León.

Farmworkers vs. peasant farmers

Like most of the companies in the Area of Workers' Property (APT), Carlos Agüero is facing an embargo threat. "The sword of Damocles is hanging over the APT," explained a Communal Movement leader. At the end of September 1998, only a month before the hurricane, the National Public Administration Corporation (CORNAP) warned in an ominous statement, "Lessees in possession of state goods obtained through contract must bring all their pending payment obligations up to date."
CORNAP instructed the companies that it had established a period of two weeks to make the corresponding payments, after which legal action would be taken to repossess the properties. This ultimatum stirred things up all over the country, not only in Posoltega. The leaders of the National Coordinating Body of Retired Military Personnel called on the government to resolve the property problem once and for all and not provoke instability "by putting a pistol to the chests of over 5,000 families with this peremptory two-week period." Mitch pushed the problem into the background and the energy levels subsided, although no agreements had been reached. Is the sword of Damocles gone? So it would seem. Or at least so it seemed until the disaster victims occupied El Tanque, giving the concepts of relocation and reactivation of production, so inoffensive in the documents sent to Stockholm, a content that implies land occupations, demands for compensation to victims and the reopening of the complex and very delicate political problem of the APT properties.

At the time of the occupation, CORNAP was on the verge of embargoing Carlos Agüero for a debt of some $2.5 million in past-due payments on the land. The disaster victims felt that the members of Carlos Agüero had already lost their right of possession to El Tanque: only 5 of the company's stockholders were living on the farm and it was being subleased to a peanut growing consortium for $30 a hectare. They also felt, as one person explained, that the members of Carlos Agüero are "farmworkers, not farmers, and thus do not love or work the land. We in Rolando Rodríguez, El Porvenir, Santa Narcisa and El Torreón have been farmers since we were children."
In this case, which is not a unique one, a conflict has arisen between farm workers who belong to a worker-owned company affiliated with the Sandinista Farmworkers' Association (ATC) and peasant farmers, most of whom are cooperative members affiliated with the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), another Sandinista organization. UNAG saw an opportunity to benefit both groups in the "emerging sector" by jointly negotiating an exchange of debt for compensation. It proposed that Carlos Agüero cede the El Tanque farm to the disaster victims and that the state, based on its supposed commitment to the victims, title El Tanque in their favor and the rest of the land in Carlos Agüero in favor of its members. This would be one possible solution to one of the country's thousand and one property conflicts.

Complex problems, difficult solutions

Reaching such an agreement, however, is bound to be very difficult. Conflicts over land ownership are burning. The disaster victims say that the Carlos Agüero directors are intransigent. They are willing to cede only 300 hectares: 150 in El Tanque and 150 in one of the farms in León. But the victims need more than 300 hectares, and not in León but in Posoltega, "to be together and near family buried by Casita."
The hardest negotiations will take place with the government, which will make its decision without considering the wishes of either group. How will the Alemán-Ortega pact influence these negotiations? El Tanque's land, which lies alongside the Tabacos Nicarao tobacco plantation, is excellent," and is still being claimed by its former owner, Silvio Argüello Cardenal. As my Posoltegan companion was looking over it, he exclaimed, "The government's never going to let them keep this land! It's too good." Everyone wants their share of the state spoils.

The disaster victims are willing to risk everything: "For us, the main problem is land. There's burning sun here, dust storms, diseases, but we have to bear it. If we agree to live in urbanized 10 x 20-meter lots we'll become thieves, because we're not going to let our children die of hunger. Instead of peasant farmers, we'll become lumpen. We want land so we're not a burden on international aid. We'll be the last ones to have houses, because no NGO is going to build without property titles, but we'll be the first to plant. Legally or not, we're going to plant."

The traces of Clinton's visit

Landowners, exporters, emigrants, government institutions, NGOs and of course Posoltega's victims waited in early March for President Clinton's visit like they wait for May rain. When the "owner of the world" arrived, the scene was already written, the show completely choreographed. There were hugs galore and speeches colored with good intentions. Clinton made two economic promises in Posoltega: $987 million for the whole of Central America and lowered trade barriers to encourage exports and investment in the region, the latter falling the trade concessions fell well below the expectations of the Central American governments. "We don't just want to help build roads and bridges," claimed Clinton, "but rather to help create something new and more effective than before." Despite all the promises, however, only a few school notebooks "made in USA" had reached Posoltega by mid-June. One inhabitant summed up the visit this way: "Clinton didn't leave anything except a ton of campaign hats."
The triumphant mood lasted a long time, however, extending into May when the US Senate finally approved the $987 million in aid for the region. A lot? A little? Of this sum, $300 million will reimburse Pentagon expenses for sending its troops to the region to rebuild some roads and bridges, and a good part, incredible as it seems, will go to stopping the flow of Central American emigrants to the United States. The Nicaraguan ambassador in Washington, Francisco Aguirre Sacaso, said days before the vote, "We can't light the cigar to celebrate yet, but we've got it ready." The victims in Posoltega were more realistic. "We'll be happy if Alemán gives us 5 and keeps 45 of every 50 they give him. When bread is divvied up, a few crumbs fall to the floor."
Optimism is dimmed as the flow of humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, and to Posoltega, decreases, largely due to distrust of the Alemán government. Less is going to the government and more to civil society, more resources are tied to projects and less comes in cash—this is the prevailing trend. Stockholm may be the Nicaraguan government's last chance to hit up international cooperation for a loan, since aid won't last forever.

We need land

Alonso, a heroic farmer who fought through the mud, fallen trees and rocks dragged by the Dantesque mudslide to rescue part of his family, doesn't share the optimism. He was elected to speak with Clinton in March, representing all the victims. On the eve of the meeting he said wisely, "People say I'm lucky because I'm going to talk with Clinton. I ask myself, what luck? He's a man like any other. No more than me. No more than anyone. God is omnipotent," he said, turning his head towards the Casita volcano. "Clinton will bring some hope, but that's all. We know that after he comes, the government will forget about us. The next day, we'll no longer be news. We want to live again. We need houses to live in and land to produce." All of this dignity, all of these needs are there in Posoltega, where people need land, where the land burns.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher at Nitlapán-UCA.

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