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  Number 219 | Octubre 1999
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Nicaragua

Ciudad Darío: Home of a Poet And Thousands of “<i>Linieros</i>”

To use the famous phrase of Nicaragua's renowned poet Ruben Darío, his birthplace accomplished “small great” things in the fields of both justice and organization in the first day of the Hurricane Mitch emergency a year ago. It has accomplished even more since then to reduce its vulnerability both to natural disasters and to the economic crisis.

José Luis Rocha

During the six days of Mitch's heaviest rain, when most other municipal mayors were out directing rescue missions and setting up shelters, Mario Quijano, Ciudad Darío's mayor, did not leave his house. Finally, with the rains conveniently tapering off, he ended his ill-timed reclusion on grounds of illness and ventured out to survey the damage. Mitch's persistent downpours had flooded the Río Grande de Matagalpa, which runs through the city, submerging 9 of the 16 neighborhoods in the municipal capital. As Mayor Quijano approached a makeshift bridge thrown across the raging river to link the stranded neighborhood of Barrio Blandón, a crowd gathered at the far end. “Come here, mayor, come see our neighborhood,” insisted its residents.

“Don't go, Mr. Mayor,” his advisers warned in vain; “people are angry with you.” The imprudent municipal official paid no heed. “I am the authority,” he responded grandly, and stepped onto the rudimentary bridge made up of a few wobbly planks cobbled together. He had barely reached the other side, however, when the crowd pressed in around him. Pale and shivering, he realized too late that they had effectively kidnapped him.

They began insulting him, complaining about his absence and his failure to take preliminary measures that could have at least mitigated the effects of the catastrophe: 17 people drowned, 360 rural and 142 urban houses destroyed, 260 others damaged and 332 refugees in the city alone. All told, over 5,000 people in the city and some 30,000 in the countryside were affected one way or another. As in many other municipalities, Mitch exposed Ciudad Darío's fragility.

“We should kill him, we should drown him!” shouted one female voice from among the furious multitude surrounding the mayor. “Let's throw him off the bridge!” To a number of people, this seemed like quite a good idea. The unpopularity fueled by the mayor's behavior during the emergency had already been stewing for some time. Before Mitch, he had been accused of raping the 13-year-old nanny of one of his grandchildren. The hurricane moved that charge off the front burner, but only because new resentments had taken its place.

A number of civic leaders intervened on behalf of the Liberal mayor, including his Conservative predecessor, Catholic Church officials and other municipal notables. A trade-off was finally reached after hours of negotiation. The mayor was exchanged for provisions, a promise to find doctors and medicines—outbreaks of fungus, conjunctivitis and respiratory infections were already on the rise—and a signed commitment from the mayor that he would seek no reprisals against his kidnappers.

The price of bad administration is always high for the population, but seldom very high for the administrators. This time, however, the mayor could have paid the ultimate price had the citizens played this spontaneous plebiscite out to its rigorous and expeditious extreme. In fact, President Alemán could well have met the same fate during those tragic days if all the country's victims—whose misery he so ably exploited at Stockholm—had been able to get close enough to him. But small great achievements like this all-against-one justice occur a bit more frequently and are resolved more quickly at the local level than in the central apparatus, where the machinery is gummed up by a thousand legal impediments, political pacts, party deals, bribes, immunities and impunities.

The pact's “stability” doesn't reach this far

Ciudad Darío's citizenry made the head of the municipal council pay for the lack of emergency planning and his belated activity in an unconventional but effective way. It wasn't only the kidnapping. While the mayor was absent without leave during the emergency, the local people had taken it upon themselves to form a Civil Defense Committee, which organized the evacuation of the most affected neighborhoods, the work in the shelters and, later, the distribution of 80% of the donations for municipal rehabilitation.

One might have thought that Mayor Quijano would have learned something from his unpleasant experience in Barrio Blandón, but it appears not. No sooner had he been liberated than he formed another committee, declaring that the population could have its own if it wanted, but his would be distributing all government aid. Despite this affront, the Civil Defense Committee continued functioning, holding daily meetings at 7 in the morning and 7 at night to program and evaluate activities.

Former mayor Francisco Trujillo Vega recalls that it was impossible to reach any agreement with Quijano. “We originally proposed the creation of a single municipal reconstruction committee. He accepted at the beginning, but then announced in a ceremony that he had prepared for this disaster ahead of time and was going to unveil another committee. No member of his committee had participated at all in the emergency effort.”
The town split in two, with the mayor's committee on one side and the Civil Defense Committee on the other. While the former was an exclusively Liberal affair, the latter was a rainbow of political and religious colors: NGOs with Sandinista roots, one representative each from the Catholic and Evangelist churches, the Conservative former mayor and the then-deputy mayor—a Liberal who ended up resigning his post. “One committee distributed its aid in the morning and the other in the afternoon,” says Trujillo, who seems to have spearheaded the move to form the Civil Defense Committee. “Everyone chose sides, including the church. Two priests were with us and one was with the mayor.”
Trujillo Vega is very proud of his committee's efficient performance. “It worked non-stop for six months,” he says, “and I mean worked. The first houses were finished even before the six months were up. Not one single project in the rest of Nicaragua had been so much as inaugurated by the time we were turning over the 81 houses in the new Monsignor Carlos Santi neighborhood. The Franciscan fathers donated seven acres for this housing project, and Eulalio Torres [a local landowner] donated another three and a half.”
It is more than a little telling that all the various currents in the municipality managed to unite around the emergency and reconstruction processes with the sole exception of the top municipal authority, precisely the person really responsible for governing on behalf of everyone. Even more telling is that the Liberal-dominated municipal government has never been able to coordinate with the Rubén Darío Foundation, either before or after Mitch, despite the fact that this nongovernmental organization has had the greatest presence in the municipality and in the rehabilitation activities. Mayor Quijano openly says he wants nothing to do with the foundation because it is Sandinista, a particularly crude holdover attitude that is out of sync with the high-level dialogue between Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega and their respective parties, the PLC and FSLN. It just proves that the ripple effect of the controversial bipartisan pact, justified by both parties in the name of stability and governability, has a very short reach. Local harmony must not figure very high on its agenda.

One Ciudad Darío resident says that Mayor Quijano always follows his signature with “the Liberal mayor.” On discovering this, the person asked the mayor: “Does this mean I have to go find a municipality where the mayor is a Conservative if I want a response to my demands?”

The cradle of a prince

Ciudad Darío lies in the southwest part of the present-day department of Matagalpa, some 40 kilometers from Matagalpa City and 90 from Managua, the nation's capital. It was founded by friars in 1627 as a settlement of converted Carib natives whom they had brought down from the mountains further east to the valley called Metlalpán or Metapán. Originally known as Chocoyos and later as Metapa, the rural town remained small and undistinguished for centuries. In the mid-1800s, the Legitimatist Party's Patriotic Junta was based there and the town provided food and a roof to the armies that fought US privateer William Walker and his soldiers of fortune, but still it acquired no status. Finally, on February 25, 1920, during the administration of General Emiliano Chamorro, the General Congress of the Republic elevated the town's status to that of municipal seat and renamed it Ciudad Dario after the eminent poet born there in 1867.

The municipality itself occupies 806 square kilometers and according to the 1995 census has 35,416 inhabitants, giving it a population density of 44 inhabitants per sq. km. Only 24% of this population lives in the 16 neighborhoods that make up the urban center; the other 76% lives in the 22 rural districts.
Having been the birthplace of the Prince of Spanish Literature, as Rubén Darío is known, has done nothing to transform this municipality, so lacking in any princely quality. The sewage system does not even cover 10% of the urban center's housing. Just a few years ago, a study revealed that the municipality as a whole only had four mechanics workshops, but no fewer than 87 bars. The economically active population is 7,437 people, 20% of the total population, of which 14.7% have temporary jobs, 26.3% are self-employed, largely in the under-utilized informal sector, and 29.6% are unemployed. That leaves under 30% with full-time salaried work.

Erosion, legend and powdered milk

A 1977 technical study of the municipality by the National Rural Development Program (PNDR) found that “63.23% (48,198 hectares) of the soil...is being overexploited and thus rapidly degraded by water erosion and agrochemical contamination in the technified large-scale agricultural production areas and those of some medium-sized producers with access to inputs.” The study concluded that only 27.35% of the soil is being used according to its optimum capabilities. “The areas of potential use for natural resource conservation and protection have either been subjected to forest exploitation or have been used for agricultural activities, or are areas apt for forest exploitation under forestry management and are being used for agricultural activities, or are areas apt for perennial and semi-perennial agroforestry crops and are being used for intensive agricultural activities, all without applying soil conservation techniques.” The areas used inappropriately include over 4,000 hectares apt for agriculture that are left as forests simply because their owners lack the resources to develop them.

Technical proposals for soil use do not have the last word—that really lies with the producers' requirements and abilities—but they at least verify something that Ciudad Darío's inhabitants already intuitively know: agriculture is not the solution for their municipality. The soils are not fertile enough, partly because of erosion, and productivity is on the decline. An example: milk production is barely four liters per cow per day. Many turn to an old legend to explain this crisis: a parish priest slandered by his parishioners for alleged love affairs died of moral shame, but not before cursing the town and condemning it to “suffer hunger and shortages in the winter.”
Being situated in the dry zone is a large part of the problem, and people have not lost their wry sense of humor about this calamity. Mayor Trujillo ably illustrated this wit in 1994, when he presented an agricultural proposal for financing to Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo and the PNDR representative. “It's true that Ciudad Darío is not cattle country, nor is it good producing country,” the mayor said in his speech. “But since it's a dry municipality, we'll get powdered milk when we milk the cows.”

One failure and three paths

Thanks to that particular proposal, a small “Development Pole” was formed in Ciudad Darío and in Terrabona, partly geared to help support former “contra” fighters. Agricultural implements—two agricultural tractors and one tow-tractor—were distributed, fertilizer and seed were sold at subsidized prices and there were even projects to plow rural roads. It was all coordinated by a cooperative and shared out very fairly at the beginning because the World Bank, which provided the funds, insisted on organization and equity. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) financed training in raising barnyard fowl and managing cattle pastures and forage.

Within two years, however, the project was already a failure. As Trujillo recalls, “The board monopolized the cooperative, creating a dictatorship that has lasted five years. Everything ground to a halt due to lack of rotation and now they haven't gotten financing. It was a shame, because it could have been a very valuable alternative solution. There are no private or state banks here in Ciudad Darío, and the PNDR financing was donated to the municipality to be used as a revolving fund. But everything fell apart when the new government lost interest and failed to follow up the project.”
The population has spontaneously sought other solutions for their own development, mainly three kinds of migration. In ascending order of importance, they are family remittances, Managua and the maquila, or assembly plants for re-export.

Some went up to the United States and now send dollars to their families so their children can study at the university. They are not a very significant group right now, but they could acquire greater weight with time.

Others, professionals attracted by the capital's force of gravity, pulled up stakes and left for Managua, the only place where university graduates can satisfy their salary, labor and consumer expectations. While analysts direct their attention to the main macroeconomic indicators, these small migrations of professionals are forging history, with all its limits and possibilities.

The most important group, however, is the one that has turned Ciudad Darío into little more than a bedroom community. These people work in Tipitapa's free zone where they get meager wages, but have no other option than to make the long daily trip if they are not to sink into unemployment. Others who only sleep in Ciudad Darío are the men and women who commute to Matagalpa to work and a growing legion of small and medium-sized merchants.

“Linieros”: A home-grown strategy

The small and medium-sized merchants have come up with one of the most intriguing ways to improve the municipality's economic development. The idea sprouted spontaneously and has turned out to be contagious and multi-form. First on board was the bold and cosmopolitan José Alberto (“el Chele”) Trujillo, a small-scale itinerant importer who traveled throughout Central America in the 1980s, the period of greatest scarcity, to bring an array of articles into the country: irons, blenders, dinnerware, garden hoses, mirrors, clothing, furniture, soup pots, radios, televisions, fans... From his truck Chele split these products up among his sales partners, each of whom had a fixed route to place them and collect for them. The route was the line the salesperson had to follow, hence the name “linieros.” Most of them end up feeling that they own their line personally because they have built up a clientele all along their routes, which run from Ciudad Darío to...everywhere.

The system proved attractive and Chele found himself with numerous imitators. Today the linieros are legion. “If you run into a street seller and ask where he comes from,” observes ex-mayor Francisco Trujillo, “he’s always from Ciudad Darío. Two thousand people set out from here every day to trade informally. The linieros go as far as San Pedro del Norte, La Dalia, Chinandega, Río San Juan... They roam all over the country, in trucks and on foot.”
So just as merchants from La Concha fan out across the nation marketing oranges and other fruit, people from Ciudad Darío have specialized in trading imported goods. There are an estimated 150 line owners, some with up to 40 and 50 lines. Many of them began as salespeople on wage to a liniero and used the route to begin placing their own merchandise. They managed to accumulate enough capital over time to go independent, typically taking over the line and the clientele. And so business expanded and the linieros multiplied.
Ciudad Darío may be poor in land, but it is rich in survival strategies. The linieros’ work increased the municipality's income, but though the strategy is now bearing fruit, it's not enough. How can this municipality develop more alternatives? Existing formal programs offer various possibilities, and the Rubén Darío Foundation is implementing some of the most shining examples.

A streamlined, effective and participatory NGO

The Rubén Darío Foundation for Sustainable Human Development is a nongovernmental organization that has only been functioning a little over two years. Its aim is to foster a variety of projects aimed at improving the standard of living in Ciudad Darío and the neighboring municipalities of Sébaco, San Isidro and Terrabona.

This NGO has a five-member board of directors and an assembly made up of 405 affiliates, the majority of them students in their final years of high school. The affiliates are divided up according to interest groups: productive programs, health and education, environment, human rights, gender, culture and sports. Each group's affiliates elect a representative to a committee that deals with their concerns and interests. Through this channel, the board receives proposal suggestions from the affiliates, analyzes them for viability and formulates them into projects for presentation to potential funders, as was the case with the project to plant trees along the route from Ciudad Darío to Calabazas, which its proponents have now seen materialize.

With a minimum of administrative personnel, the foundation manages to hand in its financial reports on time, and according to the format required by funders from a variety of nations. The important thing is that they do it without all the cumbersome administrative machinery of other NGOs, which is an obstacle that only serves to jack up project costs and to perpetuate itself as the center of the NGO's activity. In pursuit of this end, it multiplies paperwork, plots bureaucratic schemes and, on more than a few occasions, inflates budgets behind the backs of the workers. The Rubén Darío Foundation leans in the opposite direction. It has set up a very economic administrative model so can thus channel a larger percentage of its financial resources directly to the beneficiaries.

Emergency and strategic projects

Following Mitch, the foundation's most important project was the construction of the 81 houses implemented in coordination with the Civil Defense Committee. “The river washed away everything, absolutely everything, including my brickworks; we ended up in nothing more than a pair of shorts,” recounts Faustino Alberto González, one of this project's beneficiaries.

The housing project makes up a whole new neighborhood and bears the name of Carlos Santi, Matagalpa's former bishop, who died several years ago and whose memory remains very strong in the department. The neighborhood was built alongside the stadium in a four-block area donated by the Franciscan friars. The beneficiaries were from the San Pedro, San José, Laborío and Villa El Triunfo neighborhoods. Each house measures 64 square meters, and comes with a 300-square-meter patio, a latrine, a heat-conserving stove and a sink for washing both clothes and dishes. Thirty tree saplings were also provided to plant in the yards.

The houses were turned over to their new owners as part of the foundation's second anniversary celebration. Former mayor Francisco Trujillo Vega, the distinguished member of the Civil Defense Committee that had done so much in the emergency, and in the construction of the housing it self, was in charge of the act.

Emergency aid such as this, however, does not detract from the foundation's other long-term investment in strategic municipal development programs. Firewood-producing plantations, live fences and watershed protection projects are priorities on its agenda, and brigades of young students get together on the weekends to work on reforestation in designated local zones.
Given that half of Ciudad Darío's population is under 16 years old, the foundation sees its work with the youth as a priority. The hope is that some young professionals will be able to find paid work in upcoming foundation projects and will not have to emigrate.

Rice husk briquettes and fruit nectar

The foundation's most significant investment is in the city, in a sector that many institutions have resisted: agroindustry. The project involves manufacturing briquettes and making fruit nectars and pickled vegetables.

According to Jairo Valle, the municipality has 38 brickworks registered in Jinotega and Matagalpa. These small-scale manufacturing operations consume 3.8 tons of firewood a month, a rather sizable contribution to the area's deforestation. The Rubén Darío Foundation has found that it can satisfy this fuel demand at a lower cost than maintaining tree plantations by fabricating briquettes of compacted rice husks. These briquettes get 1.8 degrees C. hotter than firewood and cost 50% less to produce, largely because rice husks are available in huge quantities in the zone.

This idea was recommended in the PNDR study: “The introduction of appropriate technology to local brick production should include using rice husks in the manufacturing process. The husks can be used with the dual purpose of increasing the bricks' resistance by mixing them into the clay, and of substituting them for firewood as fuel, which will help ease the pressure on the municipality's forested areas. An additional benefit would be the elimination of contamination caused by burning the discarded husks and the accumulation of their residue.”
Although this innovation, which many have favored for a long time, came late, it has now been implemented, promising much for the future. It is still a pilot project since the briquette compacter currently being used only processes 110 kilograms an hour. The plan is to buy one with a processing capacity of over 1,000 kilograms per hour. The factory's production will be expanded once its viability and acceptance level among the population is confirmed. In the interim, the fundraising is advancing and a small business has been set up that is already tapping into the demand in the brickworks and signing contracts with the rice threshing enterprises. The profits generated by the business will be ploughed back into the care and improvement of the environment.

The other interesting project is the manufacture of nectars and pickled vegetables and fruits. With financing from the German government, the Rubén Darío Foundation, together with some farsighted municipal citizens, has created Agroindustria Darío S.A., a factory that employs eight women workers, a general manager and a chemical engineer. These innovators have already registered their label and passed the rigorous sanitary controls.

Pleased with his creation, Víctor Hugo González, the Italian-educated chemical engineer, showed us around the factory's installations and shared his projections as we passed among the collection of bottles and jars ready to receive the nectars and pickles. We also passed a rustic pasteurizer, a few tons of wine and nectars of pineapple, star fruit and passion fruit, made with three-quarters pulp and one-quarter water. González explained that the pickled vegetables are made with acetic acid for now, but in the near future will be prepared with natural vinegar to be able to offer a completely organic product. The raw material is currently bought from the Nicaraguan Association of Producers and Exporters of Nontraditional products, but the plan is for Agroindustria Darío to control the whole chain, from planting to exporting, at some future point. They are thinking about today and planning for tomorrow.

Adding labor value to our own raw materials

These two “small great” projects have forged one more link in Nicaragua's productive chain. They are strategic initiatives that go beyond post-Mitch rehabilitation. Mitch helped demonstrate that alternative income sources that are complementary—in that the municipality now processes the raw materials, rather than exporting them unprocessed and allowing the value added through labor to occur abroad—help reduce the extreme vulnerability of the municipality, and even of the country as a whole. That is where their greatness lays.

Initiatives such as these are within the reach of other municipalities as well. How do we make the spark jump? How do we team up so much dispersed energy? One clear sign that we are getting close to development will be when the “linieros” start distributing the industrial products fabricated in Ciudad Darío all over Nicaragua.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA

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