Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 217 | Agosto 1999



Terrabona Wants Land With Titles and Fences

The Mitch victims of Terrabona and many other rural zones want family vegetable garden projects and reforestation projects. But above all they want a deed for their land in their own name. And they want their lands fenced in, finally. Why is no NGO taking up this peasant demand?

Miguel Alemán

The municipality of Terrabona is a mere 70 kilometers East-Northeast of Managua but, in the words of its inhabitants, “Too much neglect and all this poverty make us feel like we're much further away.” Plateau-topped hills, rocky soil and narrow valleys dominate the agricultural landscape, but toward the south, an extended valley reaches out towards the horizon. The land in it, most of which belongs to large landowners, is fertile, while, in the hills, large numbers of small peasant farmers are squeezing what little they can out of the poor, eroded soil. The issue of land and its inequitable distribution was the main problem in Terrabona way before the advent of Mitch.

The impoverished “good land”

Hurricane Mitch vented its rage on the entire municipality of Terrabona. But the damage was far more serious up in the hills because it affected the principal means of subsistence: the land. The unending rain washed stones and sand down into their scant but fertile lowlands, where vegetables are cultivated in the summer. Over 100 hillside houses were destroyed or severely damaged, and the entire corn and sorghum harvest and 90% of the bean harvest were lost. Beans and vegetables are the principal source of income for peasant families.

With adequate assistance, all of the damage is repairable, except for the ruined land. It cannot be salvaged. But nature, which wreaked all this havoc, also left a gift: the already productive soil of the valley floor received a fresh layer of fertile sediment, deposited by the Río Grande de Matagalpa, which spectacularly overflowed its banks and spread out over an area of some 10 square kilometers. The downside of the gift was the huge destruction of homes in the area, and the inevitable relocation of many families to land in higher zones.

Observing the agricultural landscape, the poverty and the scars left by Mitch, the first and just about the only question that comes to mind is: what inspired the fortunate Spaniard, beneficiary of the colonial system, to name the settlement he founded here in 1740 Terrabona, or “good land”? Today, leaving aside the question of good or bad, the land on which many poor families labor is still the central problem in a municipality officially classified as one of the poorest in Nicaragua. Ninety percent of the families are rural, and the majority of them own less than six acres. The property issue, the lack of financing and the absence of technical assistance programs were already daily problems in impoverished Terrabona when Mitch came along to add to them.

Almost 300 days after the hurricane, the avalanche of assistance programs for its victims masks unresolved basic problems, raising doubts about the quality and efficient use of external and national resources aimed at developing these affected regions. These doubts are already turning into an initial and compelling conclusion: all of the efforts of civil organizations and the state could turn out to be in vain unless their programs begin to focus more specifically on resolving the problems of property, technological transformation and financing, the three “hurricanes” that cause so much suffering for thousands of rural families in Nicaragua.

Local networks: Eliminate them or empower them?

Immediately after Mitch, assistance programs focused on emergency “humanitarian” aid: food, clothing, medicine and the like. The decision to turn distribution of this aid over to a few local intermediaries was not a good one. Among other things, most analysts agree that it caused a lot of inefficiency in allotting assistance in the first phase of the disaster. Terrabona was no exception, and neither were the other municipalities envío has visited. What we have been able to verify over months of evaluation is that, independent of the political leanings of local administrations, their efforts to concentrate and centralize aid all led to an irreparable chain of errors.

This result was to be expected, and is closely related to the reality of Nicaraguan rural communities. While these communities appear to the eyes of urban planners as homogenous blocs, they are quite heterogeneous in reality. Each community is different, and each has its own diverse internal cooperative networks and connections with the outside world. This structure must be understood if assistance programs are to be effective. The networks closest—both politically and religiously—to official channels of government aid had more access to the aid. Communities without such connections, or worse still in open confrontation with them, had less access, and what little they did receive was insufficient and late.

What Mitch clearly proved was that well organized communities could attract more help than poorly organized ones, independent of the actual amount of damages incurred. In Terrabona's community of San José, for example, women's longstanding organization into the María Castil Credit Cooperative, which has good international relations, helped them raise a large amount of emergency assistance—even more than communities much more affected by Mitch.

Understanding these kinds of institutional elements seems even more indispensable in the newer post-emergency phase, in which programs for hurricane-damaged communities aspire to lay the groundwork for development. It is the only way to ensure at least two essential goals: greater coverage and more accurate identification of the problems and needs that the populations feel most acutely. To do this, already established local institutions need to be taken more into account because without them there can be neither political nor economic democratization.

Many mayors argued and continue to argue that the concentration and centralization of aid is the way to avoid duplication of efforts. Problems with this kind of centralization arise, however, when the imposition of local government representatives means ignoring and invalidating existing networks in the different communities. Effective coordination of development programs means working towards fortifying these local organizations and networks, rather than overlooking or omitting them.

On the unofficial side of things, churches and NGOs are often reluctant to coordinate efforts because of a tendency to defend what they refer to as “their” beneficiaries, their territory and their methods of work. Are they trying to create or defend their own base with hurricane aid? It is interesting to note that the majority of hurricane victims don't remember the names of institutions that have provided them assistance in recent months. The confusion is even greater in communities overrun with NGOs.

Centralize or diversify?

Some official initiatives, such as the National Program to Support Small Producers (PNAPP), also suffer from these problems. PNAPP is not a program specifically for hurricane victims; it existed before Mitch. But the government has used it to offset some of the disaster's effects. The original program's purpose was to promote technological changes in basic grains production by providing access to packages of agricultural supplies such as seeds and chemicals, combined with small amounts of financing. Later, PNAPP's institutional strategy changed, which reduced the number of people the program could serve.

In the beginning, the program relied on a diverse group of counterparts to implement its program on the local level, making it possible to reach a great number of peasants. Using this organizational model, PNAPP had 19,000 beneficiaries in the departments of Jinotega and Matagalpa in 1997. But the following year, the program reduced the number of counterparts channeling its aid to only one: the local mayor's office in each municipality. That year, the number of beneficiaries dropped to 8,000, even including hurricane victims. This year so far the program has provided benefits to only 3,000 producers.

This drastic reduction of beneficiaries is a direct result of centralization. With only one local counterpart or agency in charge of distribution, many peasants simply exclude themselves before the fact, knowing that the likelihood of being selected is slim given the political polarization that exists at the local level. In this program's case, the local mayor's offices often though not always employ their own political filters and criteria—not necessarily the technical guidelines or other criteria defined by the program—to choose beneficiaries. The most visible results are a reduction in the number of beneficiaries and a departure from and vastly reduced impact on the program's objectives.

The decision to eliminate all local counterparts except the mayor's offices appears connected to an assessment that having a variety of counterparts negatively affected the ability to recover the loans. In reality, this program simply has no institutional capacity to recover the financing it offers, no matter how many or few entities it uses to distribute the money in the first place. And the worst mistake the program makes is to refer to the small amounts it offers as “credit,” when they really should be viewed as direct subsidies to help small, poor farmers improve their production. However much the government and international financial agencies may want to end the subsidy culture of the war years, this kind of subsidizing is justifiable in Nicaragua's macroeconomic context, and is especially warranted in the regions left in shambles by Mitch.

Perverse anti-subsidy ideology

The case of PNAPP is an example of a distorted anti-subsidy ideology that has reduced a program that could reach a great number of small producers to a minimum expression of its potential. Ideological rationalizations that classify subsidies as a contrivance that goes against the market economy or as a negative holdover of the revolution are ridiculous in the case of a natural disaster. It's even more ridiculous considering the fact that the developed countries subsidize producers who are way better off than ours. The error is particularly serious right now, since the PNAPP program has introduced new flexibility into its aid offer that has yielded greater acceptance among the peasants.
What is that change? A new coupon system gives peasants easier access to the agrochemicals or equipment they most need. This replaces the old system of offering a fixed package that in many cases did not correspond to the producers' immediate needs. With the coupon system, the state also saves a great deal of money and effort previously wasted in transporting packages. That savings can now be directly passed on to the producers.

If the resources for these types of programs existed before Mitch, and are even more available now after the tragedy, why not decentralize and diversify the local counterparts so more people can receive the benefits of the programs?
Other projects that the government has designed with bilateral government funds have in fact taken the complex reality of Nicaragua's countryside into account. This is true in the case of FRAMA, a fund for rehabilitating infrastructure—principally soil—damaged by Mitch, which also provides financing for certain agricultural activities. Any kind of local organization or producer group can apply for funds. And rather than create new local structures, FRAMA takes advantage of the ones that already exist in order to secure wider coverage and deeper impact.

It is also important that the FRAMA program clearly defines its assistance as direct subsidy, instead of disguising it with the word “credit.” Reality proves that not all subsidies have a negative effect on the government's fiscal accounts. This type of subsidy is not only proving this, but is also resolving serious problems caused by Mitch.

Land: The great underlying problem

After ten months of providing food aid to affected communities, many organizations are now trying to help peasants develop the capacity to produce their own food by promoting, for example, programs to build family vegetable gardens. The goal is to reduce dependence on donated food. In the same vein, other organizations are trying to alleviate the problem of unemployment by offering food in exchange for community work: cleaning and repairing roads, building terraces, planting trees, etc.

All of these vital programs are attempting to tackle basic problems that existed before Mitch, problems that the disaster only exacerbated, making life even more unbearable for thousands of rural families. But the communities do not always support the strategies developed by NGOs. Why? In part, most of these programs are still not addressing the most urgent problem on the peasants' agenda: the problem of land. Resolution of this problem is an indispensable condition for making real changes in the production of food, in turn the first step towards overcoming rural poverty
In Terrabona, nearly 6,000 acres of land were affected by the Sandinista agrarian reform of the 1980s. The cooperatives created with that land in Terrabona have been divided up into individual plots over the years, but they have yet to be legalized. With these plots still under a collective title, individual rights over the land are precarious and not exempt from other claims.

Another huge problem is that the individual holdings are not entirely fenced in. Fences and legal titles to their land are far and away the most pressing issues to an important part of the peasant population. But none of the organizations working in Terrabona are addressing these issues, despite the fact that a definitive resolution of the property problem is precisely what can advance and strengthen efforts like family gardens, building terraces or planting fruit trees.

Santa Rosa: A perfect example

It is surprising that the property issue always appears on the national agenda as the number one priority, and that many studies have pointed out the important linkage between acquiring rights to the land and development programs. More to the point, the surprising thing is that there has been so little progress in concretizing and finding solutions to such a widely recognized problem in Nicaragua. The scarcity of NGOs offering legal services is also surprising in a country like this one—just as surprising as the dearth of programs working to capitalize the small business sector.

The land in Terrabona's small community called Santa Rosa is a clear example of the kind of labyrinth with no easy way out that characterizes today's property issues. Before the revolution, Santa Rosa's population worked on the land of National Guard Colonel Bayardo Jirón, owner of approximately 2,000 acres. This sizable farm was appropriated by the Sandinista government, and after a few years under state administration, it was turned over as cooperative lands to some 50 people from the community, most of whom had previously worked for the colonel. Although the members of the cooperatives would have preferred to own the land individually, the Sandinistas gave it to them on the condition that it be worked collectively. This created a lot of problems within the cooperative and caused many members to drop out. With Violeta Chamorro's electoral victory in 1990, the cooperative's leaders took advantage of the prevailing uncertainty over the future of the confiscated land and the demobilization of the cooperative members. Behind the members' backs, they sold the property to a local farmer for the ridiculous sum of US$1,500: well under $1 per acre!
The threat of being left without land produced a spontaneous movement among the former members of the cooperative, whose goal was to recover the land its leaders had sold off. Finally, after three years of legal disputes and a number of violent confrontations, the members were able to get back half of the sold property through a legal settlement. They immediately split up the land into individual they plots, but even after all these incidents the property title is still in the name of the former cooperative. Only with the legal recognition of the land's dismemberment can these families finally, 20 years after the revolution, acquire individual titles for their property.

Acquiring individual titles is not the only challenge. The issue of whose name will appear on the deed as legal owner of each plot is another. The women belonging to the María Castil Cooperative, the majority of whom are wives of the agrarian reform beneficiaries, believe that having their names on the titles would help establish family roots. It would also make long-term investments less risky and provide more of a guarantee that the land—the only dignified means of subsistence for these families—couldn't be sold out from under them.

These women are right. In Nicaragua and all over the world, it is increasingly proven that women property owners and women credit clients are a more active motor force of development than men engaged in the same activities. Women socialize more and tend to think and make decisions collectively. Men are less democratic and more individualistic. Women are also inclined to make more long-term economic sacrifices for their family's well-being than many men, which helps make them better credit risks.

A void that needs filling

Despite the avalanche of post-Mitch projects in search of deep and long-lasting solutions to the problem of poverty, not even one addresses the need for land titles and fences in Nicaragua. If this is the most important issue among the rural population and the one that must be resolved before producers can commit to making long-term investments, why has nobody taken it up? It is a disturbing void, for what is development if not the challenge of long-term, committed participation?

Miguel Alemán is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA.

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