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  Number 216 | Julio 1999
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Nicaragua

Posoltega: Unresolved Property Problems And Continuing Vulnerability

Victims of Hurricane Mitch are much clearer than the government that they cannot live out the rest of their lives as disaster victims. Although they are demanding land, the government has yet to respond. Posoltega is still beset by unresolved property problems and threatened by a continuing vulnerability, two problems that are closely linked to each other.

José Luis Rocha

Posoltega was the main focus of national and international attention after Hurricane Mitch's devastating passage through Central America; it is estimated that 2,513 people died in this municipality, buried in the mudslide from the Casita volcano. The communities of El Tololar, El Torreón, La Virgen, El Porvenir and Rolando Rodríguez were located at the foot of the volcano. The latter two, the hardest hit by Mitch, were made up of cooperative members who had benefited from the agrarian reform of the 1980s and were affiliated to the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the country's most militant agricultural union.

In an opportunist fit of passion, Arnoldo Alemán's government declared the lands most affected by the mudslide, those of Rolando Rodríguez and El Porvenir, a public utility. It was promised that those affected would be indemnified but when the Ministry of Finance publicized their list of those eligible for indemnity, the hurricane victims were notably absent. Oddly enough, the list contained the names of the former owners; the people who had been in possession of the land during the Somoza era and who had already been indemnified in the 1990s for the expropriation of their lands during the revolutionary 1980s.

They want land, not empty words

In response to this unjustifiable expropriation following such a painful tragedy, 247 families affected by the hurricane took possession of the El Tanque farm, a property covering nearly 1,200 acres a few kilometers from the municipal seat. Although the farm is state property, it is currently in the hands of the worker-owned company, Carlos Agüero, which rents the land from the state under a contract that includes the option to buy. That the company will ever be in a position to exercise this option, however, is doubtful: it owes the state over US$2.2 million. Carlos Agüero is just one of dozens of agricultural companies that make up the Workers' Property Area (APT), formed after the Sandinista electoral defeat in 1990. All of them are in debt and all are coveted by people desirous of returning the country to its former system of large estates, and who are busy accumulating land to that end.

Needing land in order to begin farming again, the 247 dispossessed families decided to revive the peasant struggles of the 1970s. Even now the problem of housing has been almost resolved—a task that various NGOs have focused on with the best of intentions—but the issue of where the hurricane victims are going to farm remains pending. Resolving this problem is mainly the Nicaraguan government's responsibility. An adequate solution would make reconstruction of the affected family economies more viable, and would avoid a further tragedy even more devastating than the first.

There are various alternatives to occupying lands in Posoltega. One of the hurricane victims, appalled by the government's insensitivity to their basic need for land to farm, asked, “Do they want us to turn into the lumpen-peasantry?” Some people could incorporate themselves into the already depleted informal urban sector, barely capable of providing meagerly paid work. Others are already traveling daily from the refugee centers to farm the slopes of Casita, as no other land is available to them. This takes a great effort, but they feel they have no alternative. The most audacious have decided to continue living in areas vulnerable to future landslides. But despite these different options, the demand for land remains unsatisfied while the hurricane victims remain completely dependent on food-for-work programs, a situation that cannot go on indefinitely. The reality is that as long as the solution is put off to some unspecified time in the future, the problem will only get worse as the flow of post-Mitch aid begins to dry up. The survivors of this disaster are much clearer than the government that they cannot live off the tragedy for the rest of their lives, forever the victims.

In danger, with no alternatives

Some are convinced that the high-risk areas will soon be inhabited again, whether by hurricane victims or by others among the thousands of landless peasants. “It's absurd to think that these lands will lie permanently idle,” said one Posoltega resident. “They're magnificent. If the hurricane victims don't come here, then others will.” This is a very realistic assessment. Whoever doubts it only has to take a look at the land affected by the eruption of the Santiago volcano in Masaya at the end of the 19th century. Despite being saturated with course volcanic rock that makes it difficult for anything but a sparse scattering of bushes to grow and despite the risk, numerous settlements have cropped up there in recent years.

The area affected by the Casita mudslide was declared a high-risk area even before Mitch. In 1997 the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MARENA) drew up a proposal for national territorial planning that established a system of classifying land based on its level of risk. According to this proposal, 50% of the population of Posoltega was exposed to the threat of natural geological or volcanic catastrophe, 22% was categorized as high risk and 27% as medium risk.

The mudslide validated the experts, who now say that it will be decades before we see another catastrophe of this magnitude. In any case, having seen what they have seen, the population is convinced that you cannot escape death when it is your time to go, even if you have just been left with nothing. It is with the same conviction, but with notable advantages, that not even members of the “indemnity authorized” Callejas family, owners of the Bella Vista farm located on the very slopes of Casita volcano, have evacuated their workers at the onset of the new rainy season. The coming and going of trucks transporting new coffee plants did not go unnoticed. Today, like yesterday, living and farming on the slopes of Casita is a risk. But with their homes conveniently away from the danger zone, the large landowners have much to gain by continuing to cultivate these lands. The peasants have no alternative, nor is the government offering them one. And it is in this way that conditions are being created for a new catastrophe.

How a tragedy is built

How did a colossal natural disaster like the Casita mudslide come about? In Posoltega, this is the key question. Over the course of many decades the municipality's drainage patterns were altered by four factors: the soil's high susceptibility to wind and water erosion; the stripping away of the vegetation (in the hills, due to the industrial exploitation of precious woods, and on the plains due to cotton growing); soil abuse caused by inadequate agricultural practices; and finally, the construction and maintenance of roads. According to experts, the landscape has changed so much in 45 years that the post-Mitch drainage system of 1999 is completely different from that of 1954.

Human beings change landscapes: they erect cities, build bridges, cut down forests for pastureland, and construct roads and highways. Afterwards, Mother Nature exacts her price and human relations change. An example of this is the human settlements that crop up in the cities as an unexpected by-product of migrations provoked by natural disasters, generally floods. The social cost of these phenomena escapes the statisticians although natural disasters continue to change the lives of millions of people.

Historically, Nicaragua has paid little attention to the municipality of Posoltega and the conditions there. Not much has been written about the place, and the little that has is not very flattering. Ephraim George Squier, who was sent to Nicaragua in 1849 as the US business envoy to Central America, was one of the few famous visitors who was moved to record his impressions: “Two leagues further than Quezalguaque, via a smooth, wide road that crosses flat and grassy fields, one arrives at Posoltega, a village of some five or six hundred inhabitants. There is nothing noteworthy about this place except a little ancient church, which stands out more for being in ruins than for its architecture.” William V. Wells, another North American sojourner who traveled part of the same route a decade later, coincides with Squier's harsh judgment: “Standing in Posoltega is one of the oldest churches in Nicaragua, La Quesalqueca, now in ruins.” The Swiss biologist Carl Bovallius visited Nicaragua afterwards, in 1882, and was the only one to present a positive image: “The railroad route runs almost parallel to a chain of volcanoes. First until Telica, at the foot of the volcano of the same name, and then, further on through Chichigalpa and Posoltega, two prosperous and clean cities inhabited principally by Indians...”

Predisposed to disaster

Behind its almost innocuous demeanor, Posoltega was harboring a time bomb. This is the conclusion that can be drawn from a report titled “Study for the Execution of a Plan for Immediate Prevention and Relief Measures in the Casita Volcano Area,” conducted for INIFOM-PROTIERRA by a multi-disciplinary team of professionals in April of this year, only months after the tragedy.

The team faced serious limitations in the preparation of this study. For example, the authors note “the fact that Nicaragua doesn't have a depository institution for all its basic physical information. So while there is a host of relevant data from studies done by Nicaraguans and foreigners, it is of little use because it is not readily available.” The team also complained of the limited availability of information in the institutions that supposedly specialized in providing it, while lamenting the absence of precise observations about the hydrologic cycle. With the exception of the San Antonio Sugar Refinery, the network of pluviometers is not extensive enough and they were unable to observe the pluviographs in the area. They also pointed out that there are no measurements of the volume of flow and sediments for any of the rivers.

Despite these limitations, the study was made. The team was conscious of the fact that the mudslide and the damage it caused created major instability on the hillsides and territories around the San Cristóbal-Casita volcanic complex, increasing the area's vulnerability and seriously threatening the population of Posoltega and other populations located at the foot of the San Cristóbal, Chonco, Telica and Casita volcanos.

Therefore, with World Bank financing, the INIFOM-PROTIERRA program contracted a group of professionals to make a geo-dynamic characterization of the events in the area that would focus fundamentally on the identification of high-risk zones requiring immediate assistance and preventative action. The study's main conclusion was that “according to studies and technical surveys of the area, the zone's geological and geo-dynamic structure infers a predisposition to events such as the October 1998 mudslide.”

Adverse environment, adverse history

The study asserts that some 25 million years ago a continental active volcanic edge began to form in Nicaragua. The Central American isthmus has a volcanic chain in the form of an arc, adjacent to the Meso-American depression, and determined by the oceanic Cocos tectonic plate. This arc forms part of a volcanic front that extends 1,100 km. from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the middle of Costa Rica. The 300 km. of this arc in Nicaragua are divided into two large segments. The first of these runs from El Conco to Momotombito in Lake Managua, including the San Cristóbal, Casita, Telica, Santa Clara, Rota, Cerro Negro, Hoyo and Momotombo volcanos, while the second runs from the Masaya volcano to the Madera volcano on the island of Ometepe and includes the Apoyo, Mombacho, Zapatera and Concepción volcanos.

Geologically speaking, the Posoltega region is one of the most vulnerable in the country. Internal tectonic forces are retained in segments of the volcanic front, and are expressed in vertical telluric movements. This, together with the erosion caused by humans, lays the basis for a high level of surface instability that occasionally translates into landslides. Like other volcanos, Casita has an abundance of areas composed of broken rock. These fragile areas have a tendency to disintegrate, causing landslides that are facilitated by the natural inclination of its slopes. Volcanic ash has also altered the minerals contained in the clay, which, depending on the amount of water and the degree of inclination, tends to lose internal cohesion. Landslides are nothing new in the geological history of Casita volcano. The various hanging valleys adorning the slopes of the volcano are vestiges of the earlier examples.

On that infamous October 30, 1999, excessive amounts of water in the crater caused an increase in pressure and a change of volume density that culminated in a mammoth and lethal landslide. But the endemic adverse geological conditions were assisted by a human factor, which is also documented, in the study.

Building and destroying landscapes

The geologists recognized that, while internal forces and external geo-dynamics are beyond the control of human beings, the intense activity involved in the cotton production of the 1950s and 1960s and the deforestation that accompanied it, significantly accelerated the rate of erosion and with it the frequency of landslides. Posoltega is one of the areas that has been most affected by human activity. The study found that “soil erosion, the loss of vegetation at its base and peak, and the presence of small farms on the steep slopes are just some of the factors that determined the high level of social and environmental vulnerability that favored the occurrence of the geo-dynamic phenomenon [of October 30].”
Deforestation is the element most frequently mentioned as the cause of landslides. Although an exclusive correlation between landslides and deforestation cannot be established, the link has been insisted on. Jaime Incer Barquero, a former director of MARENA, calculated that in April 1998 alone, 18,000 forest fires destroyed almost 150,000 hectares of Nicaraguan forest. He asserts that “the destruction of the environment has a very real cost which our economists never include in the economic indicators, but whose exorbitant price is ultimately extracted in the form of human lives and material destruction, in crisis situations like Mitch.”
Deforestation has often been linked with population growth. It is argued that the peasant population's need for firewood, the growth of the area dedicated to agriculture, and the subsequent increase in forest fires, are destroying tree cover. A 1994 statistical analysis conducted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) comparing multiple variables in low- and medium-income countries, indicated that in 98 of the countries studied, a 1% population growth between 1975 and 1980 carried with it a drop in forest cover of 0.12% between 1980 and 1985.

In Nicaragua the theory of population growth as a clear cause of deforestation does not have much basis. A case in point is San Francisco Libre. It is one of the most deforested municipalities in the country, but its population density is relatively low. The displacement of the inhabitants of valleys to hilly areas, however, was the key factor in the deforestation of many areas. Transformed into producers of basic grains there, peasants could ensure their own subsistence for most of the year, and provide the seasonal harvest labor needed by the large export-oriented cotton, coffee and sugar plantations.

Posoltega does in fact have a high population density. With 123 persons per square kilometer, or one person per hectare, it is one of the most densely populated municipalities in the department of Chinandega. But this indicator alone is not enough. There are other points of view regarding population growth and deforestation that do not tally with the results of the FAO studies. In the June 1999 issue of the respected scientific journal World Development, one of the writers contends that population growth does not always lead to deforestation, and does not necessarily constitute the primary cause of forest loss. He maintains that population growth can also encourage tree planting. As empirical evidence of his thesis, he points out that aerial observation and field studies have shown that in Kenya and Nepal, tree density has increased along with population growth. He also points out that government statistics show a positive correlation between population growth and forest cover in Rwanda and Algeria, countries where farmers converted deteriorated forests into agro-forest plantations. The population pressure meant that technological practices were adopted on smallholdings that led to increased productivity.

Building and destroying people

The agricultural history of Posoltega reveals that demographic growth has been less detrimental to forest cover than the concentration of land in the hands of a few and the system of soil use employed by the agroexport industry. The concentration of land ownership laid the basis for a tiny group of people to plunder precious woods, and impose certain patterns of soil use on a massive scale.

According to a recent study conducted by the social scientist Angélica Fauné, large estates were initially dedicated to cattle rearing. Between 1900 and 1945 extensive cattle rearing became the municipality's main means of accumulation, and resulted in an agrarian structure based on a large livestock estate-peasant smallholding binomial. Cattle rearing initiated the destruction of the natural forests. Then, from the early 1940s until the end of the 1970s, cotton farming broke onto the scene based on massive deforestation, delivering the final blow to the area's woodlands. The large landowners, who did not live in the area, were indifferent to the ecological consequences of the cotton plantations, while the peasants were progressively pushed towards the slopes of the volcano.

According to the above-mentioned geo-dynamic study of the municipality, “Cotton farming implied, in addition to the economic boom of the time, a series of processes that caused a high level of deterioration, increasing the fragility and vulnerability that this territory suffers today. The excessive use of agricultural chemicals and mechanized farming, the settlement of peasant communities on the slopes of the area's hills and volcanos, inadequate production practices and unbridled deforestation not only contributed to a reduction in the high productivity the soil offered in those places, but also changed and modified the drainage system and the stability of the areas at the foot of the territory's elevated land.”
Incer Barquero Agroexport has also denounced land use patterns as one of the main factors behind last year's disaster, including “the inappropriate methods of cotton production in Chinandega and León and the pine forest industry in Las Segovias, and a continual process of environmental and social deterioration that has been based on inappropriate use of the land and its natural resources.”

Smallholdings: No opportunities

Land occupations have taken place in Posoltega since the end of the 1970s. Under the slogan of “idle lands for working hands,” peasants who had been displaced by cotton expansion reclaimed their rights to farming land. The agrarian reform of the 1980s legalized titles to lands that the peasants had in fact already won. But that was as far as their luck went because the land had already been devastated. In Nicaragua there has been little opportunity for the small landholders to develop their potential, including their capacity for reforestation.

During the revolution the Pikín Guerrero Project financed by the Royal Norwegian Embassy (NORAD), and the Los Maribios project financed by the FAO and Dutch cooperation, supported the development of forestry and agro-forestry in Posoltega through tree planting, the diversification of productivity, and the creation of forest-fire brigades. But the effects had little long-term impact. The local peasants, located far from the markets, had to compete while struggling against obstacles that do not affect the large landowners, such as lack of credit, transportation problems, lack of information and lack of technology.

The tragedy of the large estates

The machinery of land concentration grinds up the properties redistributed in the agrarian reform, recycles them and places them at the disposition of the large estates, which in the 1990s are mainly dedicated to peanut or tobacco cultivation. It really does not matter. Their production standards continue to have fatal consequences for the people of Posoltega. The same methods that in former times caused deforestation are today causing a technological halt. What is currently needed are guidelines for the integral use of land, and changes in production methods that would help stop sedimentation and high rates of erosion.

The geographical consequences of Mitch have been the object of innumerable inventories. Eroded or silted-up river channels, new water channels not identified on the maps, river channels deformed by material swept along by the landslide, river channels in the flatlands that are now at the same level as the land due to sedimentation, river channels unprotected by adequate tree coverage on their banks, the destruction of bridges and deforestation in the higher parts of the river basin are all listed.

But although this situation causes general alarm, no effective measures are being taken. In fact, all the conditions exist for another such catastrophe, with large estates abusing the soil and still more landless peasant families living in high-risk areas. In view of this deadly combination, solutions cannot be reduced to simple technocratic measures. Any profound solution to the problem must include the restructuring of productive relations. However indispensable they might be, planting and building terraces is not enough. First of all the people who are to build the terraces musts have land.

Those who have remained

Posoltega survivors have taken three different roads: commuting daily from the refuge camps to farm their lands, continuing to live on their land despite the risks involved, and reliving the struggles of the 1970s. Those who commute know that this is nothing more than a temporary solution, while those who stay on their land know that they have to keep their eyes peeled in case the government tries something new to deprive them of the little they have. The latter is the case of Juan Rueda, who lives at the top of Casita volcano where his 40 cows graze. Like his brothers who still live on the lower slopes, he feels he is too old to commute every day. “It isn't that I'm being stubborn,” Ernesto Rueda assures us, “but the government won't give me land, and I don't want to get involved in occupying land that isn't legalized, only to wind up in trouble later on. If we didn't have water, I'd leave. But the thing is that they're offering us houses down below, but nowhere to work. Some are afraid because the hill is dangerous, but I say, if God didn't take us this time, he'll do it some time, whether we're here on the volcano or there in the refugee center. I don't believe that disasters occur that close together.”

The nonconformists

The other group is the one that has taken over El Tanque. Of the 247 families that participated in the initial takeover, 84 accepted an offer from five international organizations and moved to the community of Santa María, where they were given just over 63 acres. Although this donation does not resolve their need for land, at least the land they now have is legally guaranteed. The other 163 families continue negotiating with the Carlos Agüero company, which finally agreed to give them 442 acres. Up to now, this agreement has not been approved by the government, which is essential because the Carlos Agüero's enormous debt has led to threats of seizure.

Negotiations between the agricultural workers from Carlos Agüero and the families have resulted in four meetings between leaders of UNAPA and UNAG, the unions representing the two parties in litigation. The municipal administration and some NGOs were involved in the negotiations and the hurricane victims also recognized the important role played by the Council of Evangelical Churches of Nicaragua (CEPAD).

The Carlos Agüero ceded the 442 acres in El Tanque with the possibility of an additional 408 acres from its farms in León, on the condition that the hurricane victims support its demand that the government award it definitive titles for almost 5,100 acres. This land has been held under a rental contract with the option to buy since the post-transition agreements between the FSLN and the Chamorro government.

In order to begin building their new homes in El Tanque, the hurricane victims needed to negotiate quickly in order not to miss out on offers from the NGOs. But they, too, needed a guarantee from the government. Finally the guarantee did arrive, albeit reluctantly, in a June 2, 1999 letter from Mario de Franco, the minister of agriculture, livestock and forestry, to Hans Petersmann, the German ambassador in Nicaragua. It is obvious that the letter was an official reaction to the irate protest of a delegation of German parliamentarians who visited Posoltega in May and verified in situ that not one single house had been built, or was even in the process of being built for hurricane victims. The German delegation accused the President of Nicaragua of being a hypocrite. In his response, De Franco reports that the President of the Republic has charged his ministry with the mission of relocating Posoltega hurricane victims, “specifically those who are currently occupying the farm known as El Tanque.”
Arguing that the El Tanque situation is complicated because the former owners are reclaiming it and the Carlos Agüero company has a rental contract with the state that includes an option to buy, De Franco announced that a definitive solution to this conflict will take several months. He assured, however, that, given the desperate need of the hurricane victims, his ministry “sees no obstacle to immediately initiating the project to be implemented by the International Medical Organization,” which is offering homes to the inhabitants of El Tanque on the condition that they can guarantee the ownership of the farm.

“Nothing's reached us here, President Clinton”

But the story doesn't end there. The 442 acres that the agricultural workers ceded to their peasant brothers are not enough to support 163 families. On top of that, the government still has not announced its position on the negotiations between the hurricane victims and the Carlos Agüero company. As one resident of El Tanque put it, “This was an agreement between brothers. But it hasn't had any backing from the government. The only thing that we, the people of El Tanque, urgently need is for the government to issue an official document. With 2.5 acres per family we won't solve anything other than the housing problem: a family needs a minimum of 8.5 acres to produce enough to survive. Up to now we've survived with the help of the food-for-work program and on food brought to us by our brothers from UNAG: cassava, malanga, cabbage... But that won't last for long. We hoped that Clinton's visit would resolve a lot of things. But we want to let Mr. Clinton know that we're still waiting for the things he promised for Posoltega, because nothing's reached us yet.”
In the case of Posoltega, Nicaragua's unresolved property issues are significantly tied up with the problems of vulnerability highlighted by Mitch. Almost everything is still pending. Just as in El Tanque, many other families affected by Mitch continue waiting for a solution to needs that go way beyond housing. Solutions that would finally free them from the threat of future catastrophes.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán UCA

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