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  Number 220 | Noviembre 1999
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Central America

On the Anniversary of Mitch: The Region’s Revealing Disaster

Hurricane Mitch did more than just devastate Central America: it also laid bare the structural problems in our countries for analysis. The most striking component of this analysis is not our people's extreme poverty, but rather our governments' extreme incapacity.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

During this October and November, I traveled through several of the regions of Central America that had been battered last year by Hurricane Mitch. A year after the tragedy, what is still most striking is the context in which the disaster occurred. Our disasters—Mitch and so many others—take place in a region submerged in profound underdevelopment. Poverty and misery are not the defining characteristics of this underdevelopment, although they are certainly manifestations of it. This underdevelopment is defined by blindness and lack of solidarity.

Facets of underdevelopment

Underdevelopment has many facets. Here's one: significant quantities of the food aid sent to disaster victims have appeared on supermarket shelves. The food is sold to people who have not been affected by any shortages, with virtually 100% profit margins since the products were not bought to begin with. This is how the domestic chain of corruption has responded to the international donors who were moved by the televised images of our tragedy to donate food but couldn't help but wonder as they did, “Will it reach the victims?”
Here's another facet of underdevelopment: in the mountains of Yoro, which have suffered from deforestation for decades, more trees are being cut down now than before Mitch. It makes no difference that the deforestation of Honduras' mountain ranges is universally accepted to be one of the main reasons Mitch's rains could flood down with such tremendous, unbroken force onto Tegucigalpa, for the first time in the history of such disasters.

And another: after an ostentatious engagement party in Miami, the President of Nicaragua celebrated his wedding with a luxurious party followed by with a two-week honeymoon in a sumptuous hotel in Venice. The daily rate of his hotel suite is equivalent to the combined average income per day of 2,500 of Nicaragua's poorest rural laborers. And he did this on the anniversary of Mitch, when the people he presides over are mourning their dead, living in conditions that are hardly any better now than they were immediately after the disaster and struggling, with international support but very little domestic governmental support, to rebuild their lives.

Equal damage, different responses

Central America's disasters are not unique in this part of the world. Every year, during the same period that tropical storms and hurricanes strike Central America and the Caribbean, they also lash Florida, Louisiana, North and South Carolina and the southern part of Texas. They cause enormous damage everywhere they strike, but the institutional response varies significantly.

We have a range of alerts from yellow to red, but what preventive power do they have? On the southern coast of the United States, some three million people were evacuated to safety because of the institutional response to Hurricane Brett. People were willing to leave because they knew that, although they would suffer great losses, the state would make an enormous investment to rebuild the area and they could replace their losses in relatively short time.

Here, however, people are willing to leave their homes only when they are convinced that if they do not, they will surely be killed. And when they leave everything behind, they know that they will have to begin again from nothing when they return.

The dramatic and the tragic

In the United States, the various stages of alert and states of emergency function because they are premised on political governance that translates the high level of development enjoyed in that country into social benefit. In the Central American countries, governments clearly cannot respond with a similar enormous, immediate investment of resources. This is a dramatic but understandable fact. The tragic part is that our governments aggravate the impact of the disaster with their class-biased, corrupt use of solidarity funds and their failure to apply any structural proposals that might make our countries less vulnerable.

The most important lesson learned from the tragedy of Hurricane Mitch is that we live in a state of permanent disaster in most of Central America. Mitch provided a powerful analysis of the structure of our societies.

Nonviable without an environmental plan

A year after Mitch, it has been made patently clear that our countries are not viable without a comprehensive plan to protect the environment.

Twenty-five years ago, Costa Rica suffered from the highest levels of deforestation in Central America. Today it is the most reforested country. Over the course of those years, the country has had the political wisdom to take advantage of Central America's competitive advantage in tourism, based on the great wealth of the region's biodiversity and natural beauty.

Deforestation is caused by big logging companies that exploit our remaining forests in a totally irresponsible manner, concerned only with maximizing their own profit. And it moves in symbiosis with drug trafficking in Central America. In Honduras, for example, contraband lumber follows the same route as drug trafficking, from the laboratories of Gracias a Dios to the mountains of Yoro and from there, along nearly invisible coffee trails, to the coast.

Protecting our forests

The disastrous deforestation is also caused by the fact that most rural inhabitants depend on firewood to light the vital fires in their homes.

Mitch revealed that no Central American country can survive without a serious program to protect forests, convert land to forest production, regulate lumbering and create alternative energy sources. This means that any aid intended to help overcome Mitch's consequences is short-term in nature unless it includes a significant reforestation component. At the same time, it is important to remember that reforestation will not be effective if rural inhabitants are not provided with cheap alternative energy sources: solar energy cells, rural electrification programs, gas stoves. And the provision of cheap alternative energy sources will be insufficient without creative educational programs to change people's attitudes towards the forests.

It is also important to explore ways of protecting forests. A trustworthy, well-paid corps of forest rangers could well prove to be a profitable investment. If we were sure of the honesty of our armies, protecting our forests could be their most important mission. The most dangerous enemy threatening our nations today is found not outside our borders but rather within, in the ongoing plundering of our forests. Unfortunately, top army officers, with their extensive plantations on the agricultural frontier, often adjacent to national borders, are frequently the ones leading this plunder.

Central America's armies, which are now undergoing a modernization process, want to and should have a role in helping prevent the natural disasters to which we are so vulnerable. Hasn't the moment arrived to charge them with carrying out a gigantic reforestation campaign as well, which would make our countries less vulnerable and restore the conditions for development?

Long-term thinking

Long-term thinking and planning is the crucial challenge the Mitch disaster posed to Central Americans. We can't live without planning because the market can seldom be expected to respond to the long-term needs revealed by disasters like Mitch. A survival economy that rests on the culture of poverty does not have the luxury of planning. It's all one can do to make it through today, and from today to tomorrow. Aid actions that respect people's dignity, that don't assume paternalistic attitudes but rather help people organize and educate themselves, can make it possible for those overwhelmed by extreme poverty to obtain the economic margin that allows them to go beyond survival, that gives them time to think over a certain time span, beyond tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.

Unforgivable short-term thinking

It is unforgivable that our governments do not think over the long term. The state has this obligation. It must see beyond the all-powerful ideology of the market and assume the role that corresponds to it.

The most striking component of the structural analysis of our countries' problems laid bare by Mitch is not the extreme poverty of our people, but rather the extreme incapacity of our governments. In February of this year, we wrote in envío of the outcry from the marginalized squatter settlements that have grown up in the steep ravines surrounding Guatemala City. Which presidential candidates gave any priority in his platform to the need to gradually relocate the inhabitants of these ravines to safer areas? None. How many disasters will it take before such a program is put together? After the floods caused by Mitch, it was predictable that any extra rainfall from an unusually stormy winter would again make Honduras' rivers overflow. For Honduras, dredging the rivers is a vital task, much more important to restoring the conditions for development, in the long run, than the distribution of provisions. This is obviously not to say that ensuring that people at risk of hunger have access to all the food they require is not necessary. But it does highlight the importance of thinking in the long term, of dredging the rivers so that they don't overflow again and again, flooding people's fields, destroying their crops.

Honduras' rivers now drag along tons of stones, sand and tree trunks. As a result, the water runs several meters above the normal level. In no meeting in Stockholm, in no government project, should the need to dredge the rivers have been overlooked.

How can a government argue, to justify this oversight, that such a program would require resources beyond its means, as Honduras' top officials say? International aid exists for precisely for this kind of program, and the disaster made such aid more abundant than ever.

The people's “servants”

Flying low over the Sula Valley from La Ceiba to San Pedro, I could see the floods that filled the valley again in late September and early October of this year. The sight was devastating. Traveling over the roads that cut through the valley, near the banks of the Ulúa River, I was struck by the pained faces of peasant farmers who have lost three consecutive crops of basic grains.

This year, in contrast, the Tela Railroad banana company did not repeat the kinds of losses it incurred during Mitch. In the part of the river that runs through its fields it rebuilt the dikes very effectively, with drainage canals for any overflow to protect its fields from flooding. The Sula Valley state commission that reconstructed the dikes surrounding the fields of small peasant farmers did not employ the same efficiency. The banana company claims that it offered to do the same work on other agricultural land, but that the commission did not let it. The commission boasts of the quality of its own work and claims that the company didn't fulfill its commitments.

Peasant farmers are trapped in the middle of this dispute, with no way out. In Estero del Indio, between Urraco and Toyós, they worked night after night during the recent rains to reinforce the dike there, to prevent filtration or a total collapse that would have made for even more extensive flooding. The Jesuits working with the Reflection Research and Communication Team (ERIC) in El Progreso broadcast a cry of alarm over the radio to the government and the country at the time. Time after time we see the same sorry picture: the government does nothing unless there is a sufficiently loud outcry to lay bare its failure to act. The people's servants are not there to serve.

Why such lack of foresight?

Why did the Sula Valley flood if the rains were not that bad in the region? The truly torrential rains fell in the eastern, southern and central regions of Honduras. But that rain elsewhere made the water in the hydroelectric dam at El Cajón rise to a level that was dangerous for the operation of its turbines. The solution was to release enormous quantities of water into the Ulúa, which made the river overflow into the Sula Valley.

The obvious question is why the release of water from the dam didn't begin during the summer, in measured quantities that the rivers could bear. This would have avoided the need to release large quantities over the course of just a few days, and prevented the flooding. The meteorological phenomenon of La Niña was forecast long ago and the consistent prediction for the region was that precipitation would be heavy in the rainy season of 1999. It is true that there are risks in lowering the level of a dam, but these risks should be evaluated over the long term and shared equally by industry and agriculture.

Dams and development

We also need an international aid program to provide technical assistance for managing the dams in our countries. El Salvador has the same problem as Honduras, as year after year water released from the Cerrón Grande Dam floods the land along the lower part of the Lempa River.

This region was a scene of the war during the 1980s. For the past two decades, the state has neglected to dredge the Lempa River and reinforce the riverbanks. President Flores now insists that the only solution is to relocate the inhabitants to less risky sites. But this land is magnificent agricultural land, distributed to the farmers through the agrarian reform.

Many people believe the Salvadoran government will become interested in dredging the Lempa and reconstructing its banks, or in updating the technology and designing a plan to regulate the release of water from the Cerrón Grande dam in a more rational way. But they suspect it will only come about after small farmers are relocated and the land is once again in the hands of large producers.

Rebuilding employment

Forests plundered. Rivers clogged. Deficient housing in miserable conditions. Roads left impassible. Highways destroyed. Bridges washed out. Drinking water systems contaminated or cut off. Hills washed bare. Fields flattened. This is the landscape Mitch left in our countries. And along with this destruction of nature and the infrastructure, it left innumerable multitudes of people out of work. Some of the programs run by NGOs have had the strategic vision to make the connection between reconstruction and work, which is one of the foundations of development.

Mutual aid work is rebuilding housing, establishing family gardens, rehabilitating the land's productive power with credit help for planting, gradually introducing diversified and organically sustainable agriculture and providing incentives for road reconstruction and the rehabilitation of drinking water systems.

In responding to these disasters, it is unthinkable that governments do not design large-scale, job-creating public works programs involving groups of disaster victims, such as those that have been put together on a small scale by some civil society organizations, both religious and secular. Such a program could also include an entire technical training program, to develop the skills of masons, carpenters, stonecutters, welders, mechanics, plumbers, project managers, health promoters, specialists in raising small livestock, seamstresses, cooks, farmers and all the other workers needed on the path to development.

Each country is two countries

The panorama that Mitch laid bare arouses pain and indignation. Each one of our countries is really two countries: the one of a minority who enjoy a standard of living similar to that of highly developed countries, and the one of the vast majority who live in extreme poverty. Between them, a small middle class is dazzled by the minority's high standard of living and filled with fear at the thought that they could fall back down to the level of the majority.

There is little communication between these two countries. The minority doesn't even see the majority as equally human. Such is the case of a landowner in Malacatoya, Nicaragua, who doesn't want to sell a small piece of land so that a well could be dug to feed a drinking water pipe leading to the little houses of his fieldworkers, because he doesn't want them established there. He prefers that they live in unstable conditions, so he can expel them.

Such is also the case of the Honduran legislators who gave themselves a year-end bonus just two months after the hurricane struck by significantly increased their already high salaries, instead of offering a part of their salary to a solidarity fund for disaster victims in their country.

Such is the case of the guests at a wedding party in Guatemalan high society at the end of 1998, who responded to an appeal made on behalf of the hurricane victims by donating an average of barely $1.50 each.

And such is the case of a legislator representing Colón, Honduras, who has been accused in court of illegally extracting large quantities of precious wood less than a year after Mitch.

The sense of nation

During a visit to some rehabilitation programs in rural areas of Masaya, Nicaragua, for families of people disabled in the war that were also affected by Mitch, what was most shocking was the context: the state's inattention to these families. Laws exist to provide for people disabled by war, but they're not fulfilled.

It is the lack of a sense of nation. How can one talk of the nation and cast aside the people who shed their blood for it, on one side or another, and were left disabled as a consequence?
It is lack of compassion. It is inflated selfishness. It is a lack of lucidity that keeps people from seeing that the road to development, which is hard enough in any case, becomes even harder in countries without social cohesion between the government and the population, and with no solidarity between their various social classes.

What is possible?

Mitch has given us a unique opportunity to change course. For all the problems, there have also been encouraging examples of cooperation between municipal authorities, disaster victims and civil society organizations. It is also encouraging to find young volunteers who have shaken off the inertia of social selfishness that characterizes this moment in history to accompany the disaster victims. The greatest hope rises out of the will to overcome shown by those disaster victims who are not so overwhelmed by poverty.

Putting the post-Mitch analysis of our countries to use is a pending task. Converting it into a social program is a pressing need that cannot be postponed. It is possible to develop this program from the civil society up and to use this analysis and the results of social action to put pressure on our governments. A great deal of experience as well as power must be accumulated along this road.

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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