Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 221 | Diciembre 1999



Summing Up Hurricane Mitch: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Mitch generated a hurricane of reports and other documents. The national crisis that accompanied it generated a hurricane of pressures on the government and of challenges for Nicaraguan society. There were achievements and progress, and we even learned things from the eternal return of the same old errors. And we came to understand that the municipalities are finally coming into their own.

José Luis Rocha, Thelma Martínez and Ximena Rocha

One year after Mitch, that mega-hurricane that changed the lives of so many thousands of Central Americans, the activities to rehabilitate what it destroyed are still going on. The reconstruction process, bristling with obstacles, has revealed as much as the hurricane itself about Nicaraguan society's multiple institutional weaknesses. It has shown up the lack of coordination among the various institutions; the fallacies of decentralization, a model that served only to decongest the central apparatus without assigning budgets to the municipalities; the political polarization that has not ebbed in the slightest despite the PLC-FSLN pact; the still-shelved emergency law; the general ignorance of institutions that should have played a leading role during the disaster; and the repetition of the same old errors due to a lack of political will and institutional memory, or to excessive economic pressures.

Some have dipped into the till quite merrily since corruption is a “service” never in short supply. Others have gotten a “piece of the action ”because the distribution patterns of the Mitch aid benefits big business or—and this is relatively new—certain professional branches. In fact, the latter qualify as the genuine “emerging sector” in this post-Mitch period. This sector, comprising public servants, NGO officials and private consultants offering specialized services in engineering, environment, geology, pedology and even “disasterology,” has enjoyed an unprecedented demand.

A hurricane of paper

To Nicaragua, Mitch meant 41,420 houses affected, with displacements and relocations of up to 30% of the population in some places and thousands of families living almost out in the open for months. This of course also meant unemployment. In environmental terms it meant landslides, the gouging out of deep new gullies, the widening of water channels, a loss of forest cover and topsoil (760,712 acres of soil for agricultural and forestry use), the covering of previously fertile river lowlands with sand, contaminated water sources and destroyed wells. In productive terms, it meant the loss of 71% of the second-cycle bean crop and 51% of the corn crop, 2.6% of the country's cattle, 6.9% of its horses, 7.5% of its pigs and 149,000 chickens. Worst of all, it meant the loss of thousands of human lives.

Following on the heels of all this tragedy came the paper storm. Mitch generated mountains of pamphlets, books, forums, seminars, reports, workshops, manuals and meetings with their respective declarations, evaluations and audits. The situation seems made for the verses of Blas de Otero: “What pain of papers the wind must sweep / what sadness of ink the water must wash away.” Many speeches that scratch and scratch well—above all that scratch a lot—but not where it itches, because they have the smell of air conditioning and the taste of a desk, and are thus based on empty, stereotyped phrases. One agricultural project adviser even said that many of the post-hurricane studies were written by technicians “who have never gone further than Tipitapa in their lives.”

A rerun of the same old errors

Pessimism aside, however, the rehabilitation also brought houses, latrines, wells, roads and highways, bridges, organization, productive infrastructure, emergency plans and a successful third-cycle planting. In a number of cases, the houses built for the homeless are much larger and safer than the ones they lost. But the rehabilitation has progressed very unevenly. While some affected families still do not have a house, others have gotten two or even three—though in many cases with good reason since Nicaraguan homes frequently shelter various branches of the same family in intolerably overcrowded conditions.

Why is reconstruction advancing at the speed of an old mule in some cases while it has gone quickly and aid has abounded in others? Why did the distribution of aid and houses spark outbursts of discontent in some municipalities? There are diverse explanations, which combine into an eternal rerun of the same errors, similar quarrels, repeated charges. The main factor is the weakness of the control mechanisms, resource management and emergency and relief norms in the municipalities. Although some overseers have put a stop to total discretion, they have only succeeded where and as far as the authorities have allowed them to.

Land speculation was the vogue

The distribution undertaken by the NGOs has been a determining factor in the unequal pace of reconstruction. The NGOs could not always work out how to coordinate on the ground, and not all zones are endowed with a similar number of NGOs, since their geographic distribution is not as uniform as it might be. In addition, not all of them have the same capacity to channel funds. On top of all that, NGOs can't do everything. The government, while eager to exercise control over them, has taken advantage of them to sidestep some of its own responsibilities.

None of the many territorial planning schemes that were cranked out—at an ounce of gold per word—have brought any changes at the operational level because the political will is not there to reject the pressures of economic and landowning cliques and bring about what is really needed right now: an agrarian reform. If the needed relocations happened at all, it was at a very high social, economic and cultural cost for the relocated victims, who had to make do with a lot barely big enough for their new houses when before the hurricane they lived off several acres of land. It is in this light that we should interpret the glorious figures on the number of houses built for the homeless. Instead of triggering the needed territorial planning, the hurricane resulted in the confinement of the victims on small reservations where they found no employment.

Land speculation quickly became the vogue. Although there were exceptional cases of medium-sized landowners donating a piece of their land, the majority decided to jump on the tragedy bandwagon, taking advantage of the growing demand to charge NGOs and municipal governments at least ten times more than the pre-hurricane market price of their land. In Posoltega, lands valued at US$100 per manzana (1.7 acres) before Mitch were going for as much as $3,000 after the disaster.

Slow implementation, but hasty decisions

The reconstruction was marked not only by slowness, but also, paradoxically, by haste, which was not a good counselor. After Mitch, the only thing on anyone's mind was flooding and landslides; no one remembered that Nicaragua suffers a wide range of natural calamities. Thus, for example, the first houses rebuilt around the edge of the Mombacho volcano tumbled down with the first telluric movements, which are common in that region, because they did not incorporate the appropriate technical measures.

This disdaining of possible future disasters has been all too common. Many thought the mayor of San Francisco Libre was exaggerating when he declared the municipality's entire population affected and forecast future flooding. Located on the shore of Lake Managua, San Francisco Libre had been an active commercial port before the Pan-American Highway was built, ferrying agriculture and livestock from the north across the lake to Managua. At that time, the municipal seat was a kilometer and a half in from the shoreline; with Mitch, the water not only came into the town, but even covered some houses. The lake's drainage outlets were not enough to lower the level afterward, so with the heavy new rains this year, the lake rose again, flooding even more houses than in November 1998 and increasing the number of homeless. The predicted flooding occurred and the relocations proved insufficient.

)Organization or NGO-ization?

Some have wanted to read a resurgence of grassroots organization into Mitch. Networks of promoters organized to distribute the aid, sustainable development brigades, health brigades, gender brigades and even some emergency brigades still exist a year later. But these social networks have been NGO-ized, their local leaders turned into NGO functionaries for emergencies, on payrolls that are almost subterranean -- payment in kind. Their main capacity is to channel aid, gather information and make suggestions, which, though often the most perceptible part of NGO work, is barely one facet of it and not the most substantial one. The local organizations did not, however, adopt another NGO feature: their capacity to interpellate government policies. If this feature were strengthened, it could lead to a growing local capacity to interpellate the activities of the municipal governments and even the NGOs. Although many NGOs—and in this sense the Civil Coordinator's Social audit is notable—did “yield the microphone” to the victims, the feedback mechanism that was set up is a very squalid version of what local organization and participation should be. It is, however, a beginning.

A group of homeless people from Posoltega demonstrated genuine local initiative when they occupied the lands of the El Tanque farm, without even having the backing of their leaders from the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG). These people were cooperative members who had possessed land in the path of the Casitas volcano landslide and cultivated it for two decades. They were the most victimized of the victims, first because they had lost most of their relatives and all of their crops to the Casitas volcano landslide. Then they lost their land when the government decided to decree the disaster area a national monument and compensate—for the second time—the zone's former owners rather than these cooperative members. That was when they decided to take their drastic measure. This single example of local initiative, in which almost everyone stood firm behind a common cause, earned the surprising support of a group of German legislators, who pressured the Alemán government, in the person of Agricultural Minister Mario de Franco, to find a rapid solution to the problem.

Latrines equal development?

Given the country's fragile institutional structure, aid flowed either as a crystal-clear torrent or as a muddy miasma, depending on the personal charisma of the municipal authorities. A certain amount of blame for this contradiction can be assigned to the political polarization, which led many Sandinista mayors to resent the greater aid flows from the central level to Liberal municipal governments than to their own. The reality is that neither the Liberal mayors nor the Sandinista ones were exactly inundated with funds from Managua. And since their own pathetic budgets do not even cover ordinary expenses, the rehabilitation programs of the United Nations Development Program and certain NGOs got those mayors who were able to coordinate efforts out of their bind.

The bulk of the central government's support to the local governments was concentrated in the conversion of the Rural Municipalities Project (PROTIERRA), promoted by the Nicaraguan Institute of Municipal Promotion (INIFOM) with World Bank financing. INIFOM reached an agreement with a World Bank mission to expand the program's coverage from three to six months to finance reconstruction in 48 of the affected municipalities in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Estelí, Madriz, Matagalpa and Jinotega. An average of 5% of the estimated US$4 million total was earmarked for the municipalities' operational expenses. Of that total, $2,352,188 was transferred between January and June 1999 for 228 emergency projects, attending 258,515 beneficiaries in 292 communities -- that is, 21% of the total population of those municipalities. In the northwest (Leon-Chinandega), the same program was used to implement 579 projects up to October 1999.

The surprising thing is that in the municipalities of El Realejo, Puerto Morazán and Santa Rosa del Peñón, the projects were dedicated almost completely to building latrines. Only partly in jest, one person dubbed this the latrinification of development. Who determines priorities? Why this obstinate insistence on latrines? Some institutions have even started specializing in latrines as an essential component of development. Some would say that since there are now “disasterologists,” why not “latrinologists?”

INIFOM : Gifts with no coordination

The municipal governments have experienced a drastic reduction of their always measly tax collection due to a tax reform that has cut the 1.5% municipal sales tax by one third per year until it disappears altogether in 2001 and to Mitch, which left people little or no income to tax. The occasional gifts from INIFOM, whose coffers expand and contract to the rhythm of the foreign donors, are the only compensation for this drastic drop, which in León's case, for example, amounted to over 30% of its annual income. While the income of many municipal governments has shrunk to a minimal expression, the central government collected the córdoba equivalent of over $60 million in sales tax and nearly $65 million in fuel taxes only up to July of this year. This represented increases equal to almost $23 million and $13 million respectively on the same period last year. How was that possible in a country devastated by a hurricane? Several tax lines increased as a result of the greater use of fuel and the sale of construction materials required by the growing demand for reconstruction that the funds from international cooperation made possible—despite the price increase.

Collaboration between the central and local governments could be built on that tax base to favor sustainability. But INIFOM, which should be serving as a link between the two government levels, has limited its role to divvying up the funds from foreign cooperation after taking a slice for the fat salaries of INIFOM's own top management. It is a kind of anti-insurgent strategy to placate the demands of the mayors, to make them feel that INIFOM is doing something. It would not be off the mark to predict that these demands will get sharper once implementation of the avalanche of funds linked to Mitch comes to an end.

A lack of communication?

In an interview that came out in the UNDP's August 1999 pamphlet called Soluciones, INIFOM President José Rizo gave his own peculiar version of the problem between the central and local governments. “There is at times not so much an obstacle as a complaint about lack of communication. And I'll tell you something, I think that the lack of communication occurs in a very trivial circumstance. For example, when you go to a house or a bar as a visitor, the first thing they do for you is put on music or the radio, on high volume. This forces us to raise our voices and we often have difficulties communicating. This is only an anecdotal note, but it reflects the essence of the communication problem between the central government and the municipal governments... Fortunately, the friendship that ties me, as president of INIFOM, to the President of the Republic has expedited this contact between the municipal government and the central government a lot.”
José Rizo is first vice president of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), yet neither that position nor his personal friendship with President Alemán has kept the municipalities from being the big losers in the latest tax reform and in the decongesting of functions and responsibilities at the central government level. This authentic municipal defeat has been camouflaged for the moment by the post-Mitch funds, but before Mitch even a municipal government as close to Managua as San Francisco Libre lacked a photocopy machine and a fax and had a telephone that only functioned occasionally. INIFOM functionaries visited less frequently than those of the bishop. Are these perhaps the “communication” problems to which José Rizo was referring?

Gambling on the future:
Project Nic/98/018

Following Mitch, both NGOs and the UNDP began to collaborate intensively with the municipalities. It is perhaps here that a future route is being paved. Project Nic/98/018 is relevant in this regard. It came into being with $1.05 million in contributions from the UNDP, some $960,615 from Finland and $250,000 from UNFPA. The project was set up in 25 municipalities of Estelí, Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Jinotega and Matagalpa. Its general objective was to help the national and local governments go beyond the emergency, rehabilitating the damaged infrastructure and recovering the organizational mechanisms that will allow them to play a coordinating and pro-active role in their respective territories.

A sizable interdisciplinary technical team, supported by 50 national volunteers, did a detailed assessment of over 300 affected communities. This territorial insertion made it possible to support the municipal governments with precise information that served as inputs for the rehabilitation proposals. The assessment detected five overall areas affected: production, housing, infrastructure, environment and psychosocial problems. In each municipality, the priorities were defined with the mayors and their municipal councils.

The project brought together four central government institutions (INIFOM, SAS, INTA and ENACAL), a group of NGOs (INPRHU, Juan XXIII, SERVITEC, UNAG-Jinotega, Cáritas-Jinotega, TECHNOSERVE, Rubén Darío Foundation, Popol Na, French Red Cross, National Council of Holland-Nicaragua Sister Cities and Aid in Action) and three UN institutions (UNICEF, UNFPA and the World Food Program). All these organizations became partners in financing and implementing a project that included the construction of 1,326 houses with running water and latrines in 117 communities; the planting of about 6,600 acres of basic grains and vegetables plus backyard production -- vegetable gardens, chickens and small livestock -- for 1,344 families in 123 communities; and training in community organization and participation for all the beneficiaries.

The intervention took place on three levels: the family, developing a backyard economy; the community, supporting the planting of basic grains for communal consumption; and the municipality, encouraging the production of goods and/or services whose sphere of influence exceeds the community benefiting from the project. These efforts highlight the UNDP's gamble on local government and its collaboration with the NGOs. For the UNDP, coordinating with the NGOs was a way to use the specific advantages that these bodies have developed: technical training and territorial insertion, which helps link them to the real people of the locales.

Loyal donors with fresh funds

The Alemán government's earlier shift toward the multilateral agencies with their emphasis on macroeconomic policies, and away from the bilateral agencies and their social agenda, had triggered recrimination from various bilateral cooperation agencies. While the end of the golden age of bilateral cooperation appeared to be clearly over, Mitch moved these disputes to the back burner and encouraged the bilaterals to refill their aid basket with attractive gifts. Even Swiss cooperation, which had most publicly and bitterly crossed swords with the government, set aside its differences in solidarity with the Mitch victims and continued providing aid, although one Swiss official declared that they were supporting the state as the representative of the Nicaraguan people, not a specific government.

No confrontation was important enough to make the bilaterals forget their social agenda. On the contrary, multiple studies had already reinforced the introduction of new themes onto that agenda, and the ignominious government decisions in the months following Mitch—the jailing of the controller general, to name just the most obvious one—only made them more pertinent. Whether breaking new ground such as disaster prevention or repeating errors, the international cooperation “industry” hauled out both its best and its rustiest machinery thanks to the hurricane, and what came out of it was not to be scoffed at.

In the meeting of the donors' Consultative Group in Stockholm, US$9.1 billion dollars was pledged to the Central American region. The largest single pledge came from the US government, which totaled over $1 billion, including both the money already spent on emergency aid efforts and new promises. Spain followed with $883 million and Sweden with $370 million. The IDB projected loans valued at $3.5 billion over the next three years and the World Bank tipped in with $1.8 billion. The offers of financial resources for Nicaragua totaled $1.543 billion, though that included aid already projected before the hurricane as well as fresh funds. The most voluminous offer for Nicaragua came from the World Bank, with $450 million, followed by the European Union with $250 million and Spain with $183 million.

Stockholm was thus the Promised Land after Mitch, an oasis for the Nicaraguan government to recover strength, the jubilee site to get part of its foreign debt pardoned. Above all, it was an opportunity for the government to bolster its ever self-congratulatory rhetoric and present as its own achievements that should rightfully be attributed to international compassion for the miseries of the population—miseries the government functionaries seem unable even to grasp.

Conditioned pardoning of the foreign debt

To these amounts was added the pardoning of 80% of the debt with the Paris Club countries in the framework of the HIPC Initiative promoted by the IMF and World Bank. This initiative is supposed to help the most highly indebted and poorest countries as long as their macroeconomic indicators show a growth trend of the gross domestic product, monetary stabilization and reduction of the fiscal debt. Economists Paul Krugman and Jeffry Sachs, academics from MIT and Harvard, respectively, have been the major proponents of this initiative, arguing that an excessive foreign debt burden acts as a marginal tax rate, discouraging investment and economic adjustment. This argument is known as the Laffer Foreign Debt Curve and suggests that reducing the debt is of common interest to creditors and debtors alike since high financial obligations impose strong restrictions on the debtor countries' development and limit their capacity to deal even with the debt service itself. Not enough is said, however, about the fact that this proposal functions only on the condition that public resources are reorganized and directed toward developing poverty-reduction policies.

In Nicaragua, as long as the conditionalities were centered on macroeconomic indicators, the government could boast about how well it was doing, despite its inability to reduce the trade deficit. This “comfortable” panorama didn't take long to change, and in a direction not much to the liking of government technocrats and even rather alarming to the PLC politicians who had already celebrated Nicaragua's entry into the HIPC Initiative with costly pomp and circumstance entirely out of keeping with Nicaragua's poverty level.

Well before Mitch, the international financiers funding development in the countries of the South were beginning to emphasize transparency, governance, decentralization and sustainable natural resource management, all themes that had only earned their place on their agenda after long debate. These concepts were making very slow progress in Nicaragua, however. As long as they remained in the limbo of documents, seminars and speeches, there was nothing to fear. At that level, we all understood each other. Some European parliamentarian or external cooperation official could even occasionally question the Nicaraguan government's administrative transparency without giving the government cause for concern. All it took was some crass remark from President Alemán to put out the fire and the event disappeared from the national press in a day or two. This country's greatest product is smoke screens. Bilateral financiers have always been a bit fussy and have very special ideas about democracy, so as long as the IDB, World Bank and IMF limited their concerns to the macroeconomic indicators, let bilateral cooperation go on all it wanted about all these other issues. Nothing to fear. And if the World Bank or the UNDP wanted to put its money into decentralization, its funds were more than welcome. The Alemán government could not conceive of a better opportunity for the central government to shed some of its responsibilities or to beef up the role of the municipal PLC leaders. Even if the IDB and World Bank started getting obsessed about natural resources, that was fine too. It was a golden bridge for new resources, maybe even a way for the Alemán government to compensate somewhat for the destruction caused by the concessions its natural resources ministry was granting to exploit the forestry reserves.

A hurricane of pressures

All the pressure and suggestions on issues of governance as a condition for pardoning the debt were made politely until the day the government jailed Comptroller General of the Republic Agustín Jarquín Anaya, the only government official who has had the courage to set aside his immunity to face trial. European Union officials were the first to protest: imprisoning the person who directs the institution responsible for ensuring the honest administration of government funds endangers the country's governance. The concept of governance took on new life; it ceased being just another innocuous concept and became a weapon. The government's great surprise was that the IDB and the IMF immediately lined up behind this point of view, adding conditionalities of governance and poverty reduction to the requirements needed to enter the HIPC Initiative and thus get the country's foreign debt reduced.

Nothing could have been more inopportune for the government than this unexpected “hurricane of pressures.” Entry into the HIPC was the great trophy the government had exhibited only days before and governance was a subject it hoped to get a passing grade on through its pact with a handful of FSLN leaders, running roughshod over any other groups or sectors that got in the way. Governance was a word relegated to the discourse of the media, NGOs, business and labor organizations and parties opposed to the pact. Then, suddenly, the insistence on governance finally found echo in an institution that the government respected: the IMF. That changed everything. Central Bank President Noel Ramírez, top model of the government technocrats, had earlier taken up the banner of the IMF's macroeconomic adjustments and measures that have impoverished the majority of Nicaraguans, particularly the already poor, but no Cabinet functionary is prepared to support its new conditionalities.

According to the government, the IMF has moved into an area that is outside its competence and has changed the rules of the game. If the government officials had been even a little bit attentive to the international debates, however, they would have realized that the issue is not new for the multilaterals. The World Bank has financed numerous studies on lack of governance and transparency as determining factors of underdevelopment. If the government does not change, particularly its interminable campaign to smash the comptroller, it will endanger the debt pardon—or at best, delay it—as well as disbursement of the resources contracted in Stockholm. This could also be an opportunity to put into fuller effect Oxfam International's proposal to focus more on channeling funds to the municipal governments and local NGOs, a tendency already taking shape. Taking good aim, Oxfam International observed in its post-Mitch analysis that decentralization and the participation of civil society, as principles of the Stockholm Declaration, should be applied not only by the Central American governments but also by the donor countries when channeling aid. Doing so would be unprecedented in Nicaragua's history.

How much aid came in?

A considerable proportion of the funding has yet to be disbursed. Although the government bragged about the amount of resources it had stockpiled after Mitch, this increase is not even reflected in its own statistics, at least up to the latest report, which has a February 1999 cut-off date. This is in part because it expected more funds and in part because it didn't want to spotlight the overwhelming amount of funds channeled through the NGOs as it would suggest a lack of international confidence in the government of Nicaragua.

According to estimates of the Presidency's Secretariat of External Cooperation, the international aid Nicaragua received as emergency donations up to February 22, 1999, amounted to just under US$58.5 million, half in cash and half in materials. Of that total, over $39.7 million was channeled through the government and close to $18.8 million through NGOs. These figures are obviously a pale reflection of the total. The Secretariat itself recognizes that they are low when it mentions that barely 30% (292) of the 962 boatloads of in-kind donations received were even appraised. In addition, many funds were and continue to be channeled directly from the civil societies of the North to civil society in Nicaragua. It is also reasonable to assume that the NGOs received far more funds than the Secretariat of External Cooperation attracted by estimated. One example: the Red Cross Federation collected over $60 million, more than the overall total attracted by the Secretariat itself, according to its report.

Red Cross: Power and service

The activities of the Red Cross provide some idea of the power and service capacity of NGOs and their weight in the reconstruction activities. In Central America, 6,000 Red Cross volunteers mobilized to provide clothes, food, drinking water, blankets and medicines to isolated communities and people in emergency shelters. Heroically, they immediately went out to areas still suffering the immediate effects of the natural phenomena.

During the first months the volunteers distributed emergency products and drinking water to 666,000 people and distributed 450,000 leaflets on preventive health explaining what measures should be taken to avoid contracting malaria, dengue and cholera and to protect their water sources from contamination. Relief units from the Swedish, Austrian and German Red Cross societies set about purifying the water in many communities of Honduras and Nicaragua, producing 500,000 liters of drinking water a day, also essential in preventing the outbreak of diseases. It is estimated that they distributed 6,833 tons of household goods as well. The Spanish Red Cross alone collected $83 million during a massive media campaign inside Spain. Meanwhile, the various Red Cross societies split up to cover different areas of the country: the Spanish Red Cross went to Chinandega and northern León; the French Red Cross to Matagalpa; the Canadian Red Cross to Tipitapa and Estelí; the Dutch Red Cross to Nueva Segovia, Somoto and Madriz; the Belgian Red Cross to Jinotega and the US Red Cross to Waspán and Puerto Cabezas. In total, these societies will construct some 3,000 houses.

There is still a long way to go in terms of post-Mitch rehabilitation and still many funds to be put to use. In the words of International Red Cross Federation representative Fabián Arellano, “Given its mandate to strengthen the capacity of national society, the Federation needs to work in two specific areas: disaster preparation and institutional development, including administrative controls, management, government and the design of procedure manuals.”

NGO-Government tensions

The Red Cross is a good example of the exemplary work NGOs have been carrying out. So why has the government been so keen to tarnish NGO activities? After all, as Gerónimo Giusto, coordinator of the Vice Presidency's National Coordinated Disaster Prevention System, recognizes, “Compared to all the international aid in response to Mitch that came in for the scores of NGOs working here in Nicaragua, the government was only given a relatively small amount to manage. It is therefore important for us to make them participate.” But not all government officials think that way. The differences between the Liberal government and the national NGOs, many of whose officials have Sandinista roots even if they are no longer party activists, have generated a tense relationship between them.

This ongoing sense of confrontation periodically raises its pitch in the public arena. Mario Sandoval, director of the Ministry of Government's Registry and Control department has accused NGOs of being “businesses” that take advantage of the tax exonerations granted to them in the Tax Justice Law. Sandoval expressed his concern that, while 1,750 NGOs are registered, a further 850 whose existence he is aware of are not, supposedly because they are managing their donations in a questionable way. Generally speaking, the government has judged NGOs in purely financial terms, forgetting that many of them do much more than just obtain funds. Among other things, they could play a fundamental role in maintaining a dialogue with the government and presenting alternative ideas.

Criticism from Oxfam International

After certain economists pointed out that seventy cents of each dollar the government received in aid was eaten up by bureaucracy and the rest lost in corruption or inefficiency, relations between NGOs and the government became even more tense. Oxfam International, an NGO with considerable influence in Central America, joined the fray in a report on Mitch stating that “by privileging the [central] governments as those responsible for implementing their aid, donors and creditors are missing out on the opportunity to channel aid through municipal governments and local NGOs that maintain close contact with the poorest sectors.”
Underlying this proposal is a strong criticism of the central governments' efforts, exemplified in the political benefit that the Alemán administration obtains from Taiwanese aid, which is not channeled through the External Cooperation Secretariat but goes directly to the Ministry of the Presidency. The Oxfam report also highlights the fact that Taiwan is financing the construction of a new and costly presidential palace for Alemán.

In other cases, according to Oxfam, the “price” of the aid is more economic than political, with Spanish businesses, for example, being rewarded for their country's aid through export advantages. Oxfam's figures also show that over half the credits destined to Nicaragua by the Spanish government will be invested in widening the Managua-Granada highway, which was not even affected by the hurricane. These two cases were considered to represent a misuse of funds as they rewarded individual interests above those of the affected population, thus adding more weight to Oxfam's call to channel more resources to municipal governments and NGOs.

The Civil Coordinator is born

One of the most innovative elements in the wake of Mitch is the emergence of a coalition of NGOs known as the Civil Coordinator for Emergency and Reconstruction. According to its national liaison, Ana Quirós, “The Coordinator emerged as an initiative of the national NGO Federation on October 29, when Mitch's strongest rains were falling. It seeks to incorporate various civil organizations into a coordination that allows a more ordered response to the emergency and information to be obtained directly from the communities on the situation and effects of Mitch. It also seeks to influence government policies and international cooperation with respect to the emergency, reconstruction and transformation. We have grown in number over this past year so there are now more than 350 civil organizations in the Coordinator, including social movements, unions, trade associations and national and local NGOs. These organizations work in a variety of different areas, from children to production and from health to violence.”
However, the Civil Coordinator has aspirations that go far beyond the emergency response and reconstruction processes, not unlike the Ecumenical Council for a Denominational Alliance (CEPAD), which emerged from the Managua earthquake in December 1972 and has been representing the Protestant population as a promoter of development every since. The Coordinator, according to Quirós, “aims to maintain coordination with its organizations so we can continue working together to have a real influence and keep alive the need to collect the people's views through social audits rather than just hand out aid. This is the ideal, because the government generally uses [NGOs] as a cheap or free source of labor and up to now we have had very little opportunity to work on strategy design.”
The Civil Coordinator's representativeness has been repeatedly questioned, and not just by sectors linked to the government. Even some of its member organizations are skeptical about this kind of macro-coordination body, which generally ends up generating bureaucracy and an epidemic of meetings. These organizations tend to favor hammering out agreements about the distribution of functions in a community or a municipality right there on the ground. Nonetheless, the Civil Coordinator has managed to open up a space for itself, and had official representation at the Consultative Group meeting in Stockholm. Furthermore, its criticisms of the government's management have received a lot of attention in the media and influenced international opinion. According to Quirós, the Civil Coordinator's representativeness is mainly questioned by opposition sectors that are competing to influence public opinion and by the government when her organization criticizes it.

Social Audit: Worrying figures

With aid for rehabilitation on its way, the Civil Coordinator decided to contract CIET International to do an ongoing social audit—repeated every six months—so the community voice would be included in Nicaragua's transformation and development processes. The second one was done in September 1999, involving 6,002 households and 92 community leaders. Among other things, it measured the living conditions and most urgent needs of those consulted, the impact of the aid activities designed to support crop growing and the repair and construction of housing, the emotional attention provided and measures taken to prevent future disasters.

The results of the audit were not very encouraging. Of all the households interviewed, 37% felt that their situation had deteriorated and 34% that it was the same as before. At this late date, no less than 16% said they still depended on donations and 23% that they survived by taking any work going. Of the homes that depended on agriculture before Mitch struck, 61% still did, but another 24% was living off donations, 9% off any odd jobs available and 6% off other sources of income. In many cases, the level of dependency had risen. In Jinotega, the percentage of homes receiving food for work had risen from 10% to 50% between February and September. It is also possible to deduce that the work encouraged by food-for-work programs is not agricultural in nature, given that 24% of all agricultural households interviewed had not planted, and this figure rose to 39% among households displaced by the hurricane. In fact, only 36% of the households surveyed said they had received any support to plant their crops.

The figures referring to the low levels of government aid were what caused most resentment among public officials. Of those households that did receive support to plant, 49% said it came from a national NGO or producers' association, 21% from the Red Cross, 21% from an international organization, 2% from the municipal government and 1% from a church or some religious denomination. The contribution from central government institutions or programs amounted to just 6%.

A similar picture emerged in the area of housing. Of those households whose houses were damaged or destroyed, only 40% had received aid for repairs or reconstruction, 24% had repaired or rebuilt at their own expense and 36% had made no progress in this respect. Of those who did receive housing support, 38% obtained it from international institutions, 31% from national NGOs, trade associations or unions, 10% from the municipal government, 10% from church organizations and 3% from the Red Cross. Only 8% received support from the central government. These figures do not provide an exact reflection of the real situation, however, because many houses are still under construction and because, extrapolating from Red Cross figures, this would imply the construction of a total of 100,000 houses by all organizations involved and 31,000 by NGOs and trade associations alone, which far exceeds the total demand from hurricane victims.

What they clearly do demonstrate, however, is the government's decision to promote a rehabilitation model that puts a priority on road infrastructure over social infrastructure, a decision that has formed the leitmotif of the criticism the NGOs have leveled at the government. According to Ana Quirós, the NGOs' demands are based on the needs that the population itself identified as priorities in the social audits: food, housing and work. The Civil Coordinator specifically designed that project to pass the microphone to those most seriously affected, giving them an opportunity to offer their opinion of the rehabilitation process, thus allowing participation under the slogan that the reconstruction process should not merely be limited to replacing highways and bridges.

It should be pointed out, however, that, despite the laudable nature of this effort, taking it to its extreme could represent a form of populism, since popular demands are not always most conducive to development. This is demonstrated, for example, in the call for all rural sector debts to be written off, which would have bankrupt all of the organizations that offer financial services to small and medium agricultural producers, which are mainly non-conventional credit groups, including several NGOs.

Central America in the global village

The government's decision to respond to Mitch by focusing on road infrastructure implies that they are banking on the Central American market. It is an option based on the approach of the University of Harvard, which is represented in Nicaragua by several researchers working with the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE). They are advocating what is technically known as advanced infrastructure, which consists of combining communications and information technology with basic transport. The goal is to create an improved service capacity that will allow a better response to the pressures of competition through shorter, less costly productive cycles that provide a better service to the client.

In addition to the improvements associated with technology, this notion of infrastructure is based on the growing importance of generating value added to a basic product through transport. The concrete proposal for realizing this vision and taking a big step forward in trade-linked infrastructure is the mega Central American Logistical Corridor project, which includes reconstructing and/or rehabilitating the Pan-American Highway and building or rehabilitating the main corridors among the region's ports, capital cities and economic and productive centers.

Following Mitch, scholars of the INCAE-Harvard study presented a document to the IDB insisting that this logistical corridor project was essential to Central America's recovery. They argued that the reconstruction of Nicaragua would bring about a transformation that would insert the country into the global village. They also proposed the temporary relaxation of the migratory barriers set up by the United States to stem the flow of Central American workers towards the North, although in the event the US did not substantially modify its migration policy in response to Mitch. Globalization does have its limits, after all.

The cement option

The cement option, as the government's decision to concentrate on road infrastructure is also known, was apparent from the moment the official damages were presented to the international community. Nicaragua's External Cooperation Secretariat calculated the total losses caused by Mitch at $1.238 billion, a figure that was undoubtedly based on the cost of replacing lost infrastructure, and of course stressing the area the government was most interested in replacing. Consequently, losses in the road network accounted for 60% ($803 million) of the above figure, followed by losses in the agricultural sector ($196.5 million) and housing ($143.7 million). At the bottom of the list were the communications, water, energy, forestry, health and education sectors, which lumped together represented 12.4% of the total losses.

Even in the PROTIERRA program that INIFOM is implementing in the municipalities most affected by Mitch, 37% of the total amount ($862,401) was dedicated to road rehabilitation. In second place came latrine construction with 27% of the total ($617,827), followed by drainage works with 14%.

The Nicaraguan construction sector had been experiencing sustained growth even before Mitch, with an average annual growth rate of 14.14% between 1994 and 1998 that was only bettered by the mining and fishing sectors. During the same period, crop production only reached an annual growth rate of 10.4%, while livestock rearing grew by just 0.12%. Mitch reinforced the growth in construction work, demonstrated by the increase in cement production to nearly 6.245 million hundredweight from January to June 1999, representing an increase of more than 17% on the amount produced in the same period of 1998. The production of barbed wire and nails has not increased by the same proportion, however, which indicates development limitations in these national industries in meeting the great demand following Hurricane Mitch. This demand was probably satisfied by Honduran and Salvadoran industry. It also indicates that the farm rehabilitation programs, including the repair of perimeter fences and the division of pastureland, were not as significant as expected.

The investment in the country's infrastructure, particularly its highway network, in the wake of Mitch has also led to an increase in asphalt consumption. In the first six months of 1999 alone, some 105,300 barrels were consumed, representing a 283% rise in consumption over the same period in 1998, a 142% rise in consumption over the whole of 1998 and a 224% rise over 1997.

Roads or production?

There has been no dearth of criticism in response to this glaring concentration of efforts on road infrastructure. Some of it has been based on contingent factors such as how the work was done and who was chosen to do it, but is no less valid for that, particularly given the terrible quality of the completed works and the choice of construction firms assigned the contracts.

The second factor is corruption, based on accusations that the work has been granted to companies belonging to the President's relatives and friends or in which the President actually has a personal interest. Victor Campos from the Humboldt Center points out that Geninsa, a company of which Alemán is a partner, Meco Santa Fe, which belongs to friends of the President, and the Spacio architectural firm, owned by Alemán's son-in-law Gerónimo Gadea, have been among the lucky beneficiaries of reconstruction contracts.

Other criticisms have focused on the option itself, suggesting an alternative option with multiple cross-cutting issues, including gender, the environment, health, housing, psychological recovery, soft loans to small producers, organic agriculture and family vegetable plots. While the weakness of such an option lies in the fact that it does not prioritize actions, it starts from the assumption that the aid resulting from Mitch should go directly to help compensate for the losses suffered by the poorest sectors rather than promoting development. In this respect, Oxfam International has pointed out that the road infrastructure has little impact on the least favored sectors of society. Meanwhile the Spanish NGO Intermón claims that commercial interests have been prioritized over those of the victims. It has complained that development aid funds provided by Spanish cooperation have been used to finance infrastructure projects in areas unaffected by the hurricane, as in the case of the widening of the Managua-Granada highway, which is being partially financed by credits from the Spanish government.

The Pan-American Highway and other main roads have indeed been the main beneficiaries of the hurricane rather than rural access roads. Such a choice could reflect a school of thought that rules out agriculture as a major foreign currency generator in Central America. This is a regional vision, based on the fact that the remittances sent to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua amounted to $2.635 billion in 1995, while agricultural exports over the same period brought in less than that ($2.6 billion). At the same time per-capita food production in Central America has fallen to just 20% of what it was during the 1980s, while agricultural imports have doubled between 1980 and 1995.

Has agriculture been forgotten?

Does the fact that the government has opted for big highways suggest that agriculture has been forgotten? Not necessarily. The National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA), the Rural Development Institute (IDR) and the Agricultural and Forestry Ministry (MAG-FOR) have all been rewarded with extra funds in the wake of Mitch, although to a notably lesser extent, and it is well known that funds resulting from Hurricane Mitch have significant weight in their portfolios.

INTA has managed $39.2 million since 1990, of which almost $16.5 million corresponds to post-Mitch projects and programs, while the IDR has managed a portfolio of $485.4 million in the same period, of which $109.1 million correspond to the post-Mitch stage. In the latter case, however, only $10 million were actually contracted following Mitch; the rest is part of previously programmed disbursements. This may signal that the institute is to be gradually phased out, or perhaps that it is exceptionally slow at executing funding. The most heavily financed areas in the agricultural sector are mechanization to improve productivity, improvement of natural resource management and conservation, agricultural infrastructure, agroforestry development, savings and credit cooperatives, technical assistance and the promotion of milk and meat production.

MAG-FOR has also found itself significantly enriched. Of a total of $374.4 million managed since 1990, $242.9 million corresponds to projects and programs to be implemented as a result of Mitch, including soil conservation, the promotion of irrigated agriculture, rural technical training, the strengthening of agricultural health and seed certification services, the promotion of marketing enterprises managed by small and medium producers, the eradication of screw worm, the development of programs aimed at mitigating natural disasters ($56 million) and rehabilitation of the productive infrastructure through food-for-work programs. These fresh funds could well explain the recent changes in its personnel as the President may be putting his faith in his political friends rather than those most technically capable.

Central America's granary

Being one of the sectors most severely hit by Mitch, agriculture has also attracted attention and funds from foreign donors. Although Alemán's strategy of turning Nicaragua back into the “granary of Central America” was not very well financed before the hurricane, the conditions could improve in the future for a project that has not yet proved to be anything more than a political sound bite. The plausibility of such a project has been seriously questioned by a wide range of agrarian exports, from those who put their faith in nontraditional export crops to those who insist on promoting agroindustry, and even by those traditionalists bent on turning Nicaragua into Central America's main cassava producer.

The Mitch funds contain strong support for cattle rearing, a sector that has grown by only 0.12% over the last five years following several years of negative growth. Technical assistance programs for cattle ranchers will account for a good part of the funds, including an extensive program to eradicate the screw worm. Could there be commercial interests behind this cattle bias in the aid, or is the idea to help the least favored sectors complement their basic grain production with a more profitable activity? The other possibility is simply that, regardless of any commercial interests involved, the funds were already earmarked for that area by the donors. For better or for worse, it would not be the first time that donors have imposed the agenda, as has been the case—definitely for the better—with two big issues: the prevention of natural disasters and environmental care. In any case, only a more detailed analysis would reveal the true reason.

Land of disasters, lack of foresight

The Civil Coordinator's Social Audit revealed that 71% of the households interviewed were aware that they were living in an unsafe place. The territorial planning laws have had no effect whatsoever and in view of the frequency of natural disasters in the country, this situation demands urgent attention if future disasters are to be prevented.

Disaster prevention has been one of the issues most discussed during post-Mitch forums and seminars, and it is incredible to think that its importance is only now being emphasized when Nicaragua has been repeatedly been hit by a number of natural phenomena, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, hurricanes and droughts. The World Disasters Report released by the International Red Cross Federation in 1996 calculates that between 1970 and 1994 natural disasters caused an average of 3,340 deaths a year in Nicaragua, followed by Guatemala with a distant 978 and Honduras with 476. According to the US government's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA-AID) the Central American region has registered 70 natural disasters between 1960 and 1991. Furthermore, a study by the UN's Economic Commission on Latin America estimated that damages caused by natural disasters in the five member countries of the former Central American Common Market represented 2.3% of the region's GDP between 1960 and 1974, the heyday of the CACM.

Even when most of the debates in the seminars revolve around development models due to the assumption that underdevelopment is the main cause of vulnerability, the issue of disaster prevention is opening up its own specific space. The argument for doing so is helped by the good results that certain pilot disaster reduction programs already operating before Mitch achieved. While this issue has been forced onto Central America's national agendas by foreign cooperation funds, certain positive changes suggest a growing awareness in this area.

CEPREDENAC: A new space

Certainly before Mitch, and even in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, many NGOs that had been working in emergency aid for decades had never heard of CEPREDENAC. This mysterious acronym, covering an institution that since its foundation has moved with a certain operational secrecy, stands for the Coordination Center for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America. The center started up ten years before Mitch as a result of initiatives proposed during the Regional Meeting for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America, but was only made official by the foreign ministers of Central America and Panama on October 29, 1993 and only ratified by each country's congress in 1995.

CEPREDENAC's objective is to “promote and coordinate international cooperation and the exchange of information, experiences, technical assistance and technology in the area of prevention in order to reduce natural disasters and help improve decision-making on planning and management to the benefit of the Central American area.” Its current director is Claudio Gutiérrez, who is also director of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER). The center has received institutional funds from the Swedish government, while the governments of Norway, Denmark and France have financed programs to prevent specific disasters (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and flooding). CEPREDENAC received over $8 million between 1993 and 1998 and it was thought that 100% of its budget would be financed by the region's beneficiary countries after that. CEPREDENAC continues to be dependent on foreign contributions, however, and in 1999 the IDB granted the center nearly $2 million as seed capital as a result of Mitch, in the hope that other countries and institutions would follow suit and provide further contributions.

Another symptom of the eternal return

It would seem reasonable to view INETER, the institution responsible for monitoring meteorological phenomena, as the Nicaraguan branch of CEPREDENAC and therefore the most appropriate institution for directing national efforts during an emergency. Nonetheless, following a recent tradition in Nicaragua of changing the body responsible for coordination during an emergency, the government belatedly assigned this role to the Vice President's offices during Mitch. Prior to this the El Niño crisis had been coordinated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and the Cerro Negro eruptions by the Ministry of Transport, so that recently there have been almost as many coordinating bodies as there have been disasters. The fact that President Alemán did not even heed INETER's preventive warnings about Mitch before it hit land, but instead traveled to the north of the country in a motorcade when the waters were already flooding many villages, gives some idea of just how low CEPREDENAC's profile really is.

Another curious fact also reveals how little esteem Central American politicians have for CEPREDENAC. At the XX Summit of the Presidents of Central America, the Dominican Republic and Belize in October 1999, a year after Mitch, it was agreed to adopt a strategic framework for reducing vulnerability and disasters in Central America as part of the process for the region's transformation and sustainable development. This framework would govern the design, updating, adaptation and development of regional plans for reducing vulnerability and disasters. The thinking behind this was that, given the interdependence of the countries, disaster prevention requires a regional vision because if a dam collapses in Honduras, for example, it would have serious implications for Nicaragua.

The question is this: Why was this discussion presented as a novelty in Central America if CEPREDENAC already existed? It is yet another example of reinventing the wheel: recreating coordination systems, holding multiple meetings and creating new bodies to pretend that something is on the move that can be presented as a substantial advance. With such a significant investment already made in CEPREDENAC, why was it not assigned a more leading role? Surely, the post-Mitch funds propelling the issue of disaster prevention caused the politicians to go over the heads of the technicians and take the lead in an area that they had previously virtually ignored.

An eternally delayed law

This same limited political vision is why Nicaragua lacks any disaster attention law regulating the activities to be undertaken and the institutions responsible during emergencies. Various sectors see this vacuum as the main institutional obstacle to providing an adequate response to disasters.

According to UNDP disaster specialist Angeles Arena, risk management is even more essential now because the damages caused by disasters have multiplied nine times between the 1960s and Mitch. She estimates that “Mitch has increased vulnerability to new disasters: there is now a greater possibility that new channels will get diverted, that the old ones will get blocked up, forcing the water to find other routes.”
It became more obvious in the area of disaster prevention than in any other that the greatest vulnerability factor is the government institutions' inability to lead, coordinate and assign roles to technically and organizationally competent organizations with the capacity to obtain resources for disaster prevention. Institutional factors are a priority in disaster prevention and that is why international cooperation has pressured for the design and approval of a suitable law.

The law comes off the shelf

As a result of a workshop organized by the UNDP, a communiqué known as the Managua declaration was issued on June 18, 1999, signed by 350 people from different institutions, including municipal governments, departmental delegates, the private sector, the media and national and international NGOs. The aim was to pressure for the swift establishment of a legal framework regulating actions for the prevention, mitigation and administration of natural disasters. The document advocates the creation of a national coordinating body directed by one institution and calls for the professionalism and functional continuity of the institutions responsible for administrating disasters to be guaranteed through the permanence of their officials.

Some of this pressure undoubtedly had an effect. In view of the impact that natural disasters have had and continue to have on Nicaragua, repeatedly blocking the country's development, NGOs such as Oxfam UKI and the Humboldt Center added to the pressure and the Civil Defense Force leadership and INETER also pressed the issue. But it was the country's journalists who exerted the greatest pressure to ensure that the disaster management law was finally taken off the shelf. They quickly realized the importance of the problem, reporting the various demands and publicizing the different forums on disaster prevention.

Finally, on October 11, 1999, a whole year after Mitch, the bill creating the National Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Attention System, which had been shelved and occasionally debated for years, was dusted off and sent to the National Assembly plenary, having been previously approved by the Assembly's Defense and Government and Central American Integration commissions. When finally passed, this law could prove to be the long awaited legal instrument that determines the general guidelines for coordinating actions to prevent, mitigate and deal with disasters.

The law's objective is to provide the country with an organic and coordinated set of structures, functional relations, methods and procedures to govern the work of and relations among ministries and public sector institutions and between them and civil society organizations, with the aim of carrying out commonly agreed actions to reduce risks.

Profile of the new law

The law represents an advance because it recognizes the following points:
* that “it is the fundamental task of the Government of the Republic and of the Nicaraguan state as a whole to prepare and implement activities for the prevention, mitigation and administration of disasters and to play a strategic role in their execution.” This represents a clear recognition of the government's responsibility during emergencies, which it has appeared eager to shirk in the past.

* that states of alert will be reported immediately based on the reports of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies. In other words, declarations of alert will be based on technical criteria and it is finally recognized which entity is uniquely equipped to carry out this duty.

* that the rescue and search plans and those for providing assistance to the population will be applied “independent of the magnitude of the disaster,” thus avoiding any hesitations which can cost so many lives, as was the case when rescue operations were delayed following the Casitas mudslide in Posoltega.

The law establishes that vulnerable areas particularly susceptible to severe and extensive damages should be identified, meaning that they will receive special attention. It also provides a role to the municipalities by determining that the mayors will preside over the municipal emergency committees and be responsible for the emergency and prevention activities in the areas under their jurisdiction. This should avoid decisions such as President Alemán's surprising and arbitrary delegation of such responsibilities to Catholic parish priests during Mitch. Finally, although the law includes the role of NGOs, it does not specifically define what that role includes. This could be defined later, however, in the law's enabling legislation.

The big losers in this law are again the municipalities, as they still have the same scarce resources while the responsibilities assigned to them imply further costs. This is confirmed by the law when it states that “each entity will include allocations within its own budget for the realization of the disaster prevention, mitigation and preparation tasks under its jurisdiction.” Thus, the municipalities find themselves worse off under the old pretext of “respecting regional and municipal autonomy.”

Just one step

The fact that the law's enabling legislation has yet to be approved is not a very good omen regarding the priority of this issue. Nor is the fact that NGOs are still complaining that they have no representation on the National Civil Defense Committee and that there is no specific emphasis on aspects concerning local organization, even though NGOs have been concentrating on this area to good effect and such recognition would be an opportunity to institutionalize certain procedures and bodies such as the rural community committees.

The law is only one step in the right direction. Certain government officials realize this and know that many lessons are still to be learned. The coordinator of the Vice Presidency's National Coordinated Disaster Prevention System, Gerónimo Giusto, sees Mitch as an opportunity to reflect on disasters in general and “capitalize on this knowledge, addressing the aspect of risk and vulnerability with a more extensive system. We shouldn't just respond to a disaster when it comes along: move people, give them food, call for help, appeal to the international organizations and then everything returns to normal. Let's skip that stage and see if we can't prevent the disaster itself from happening as far as is possible, because a disaster is nothing more than the impact of a threat on a vulnerable society. If society could respond to the disaster, there would be no disaster. To make our development sustainable we have to stop being so fragile.”
He also recognizes that we must reach down from the national to the local level if the system is to work. “The most simple expression of community has to be strengthened; you have to reach down to the region, the department, the municipality, and keep reaching down until you get to the people living on the river banks, so that they know, they have their plans and are aware of which threats they can confront and how they can help themselves.”
Advances have also been made in the technical and institutional areas, with $5 million earmarked for emergency infrastructure works and $400,000 for the Civil Defense Force to buy vehicles and continue providing municipal-level training.

Territorial planning: A key area

According to a study carried out by Harvard University for the IDB, 35% of the total Central American territory was covered by forestland in 1996, approximately 60% of what should exist. The conclusion drawn from the study's calculations is that at least 13 million hectares suitable for forestry, such as scrubland and depleted land, are either being underutilized or used for other activities—much of it for pastureland, for example. Central America's woodlands are disappearing at a rate of 388,000 hectares a year.

Environmental deterioration was presented in various forums as one of the fundamental causes of vulnerability and a key to understanding why Mitch produced such devastation. According to environmental expert Jaime Incer Barquero, “The main causes lie in inadequate development models that are based on the irrational exploitation of natural resources without taking into account the capacity of our soil, water, woodland and other elements that help stabilize the territory as an entity or physical setting. This has to do with that shortsighted economic model that extracts natural assets without replacing them. In April 1998, before Mitch, 18,000 forest fires burnt almost 150,000 hectares of woodland. The lack of any territorial planning also has an impact as the population settles where it can and however it can.”
Certain ecologists suggest that any territorial planning of the lands at the foot of the Pacific Coast volcanic chain should immediately seek to resettle high-risk human settlements to avoid another disaster like the Casitas volcano tragedy in Posoltega. This process is both expensive and painful, however, as it uproots people from their homes, and it appears that there is little willingness to carry out such a measure. Territorial plans are drawn up but to no effect and the costs in human lives never seem to be included in statistics presented to development financiers, thus omitting the human aspect of economic growth.

Incalculable ecological damage

Mitch's impact on the environment has not been measured with any great rigor. Doing so would imply considering soil loss above all. According to ecologist and UNDP consultant Lorenzo Cardenal, “It is very difficult to quantitatively estimate how much soil was lost. One of the most interesting ways of measuring this is by observing the impact on the agricultural yield, measured through agricultural production and productivity. This situation is only just showing up as production is being reactivated. In the field, the behavior of the plots of land and the crop yields are being observed, and all of the information is being systematized.” On the local level, a rough idea of such losses is provided by the example of sesame producers in the Villanueva and Somotillo municipalities, many of whose lands were totally ruined for future production due to deposits of sand or a thick layer of mud that compacts and cracks on drying, thus impeding drainage and oxygenation.

Cardenal believes that the soil loss and displacement represents the country's most serious ecological damage for two reasons: “On the one hand, because soil creation processes are extremely slow. The process takes place in a geological time-scale so that soils that are washed away and deposited along river and stream channels and to some extent into the sea will take hundreds of years to replace. On the other hand, soil loss affects the productivity of the agricultural and forestry systems on which this country's economy is based.”

Agroecological practices still minimal

Many rural inhabitants have reinforced a growing trend in their “solution” to the Mitch disaster: migration. In 20 years, Nicaragua has gone from being a net importer of labor to a net exporter of its population. The number of Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica is equivalent to the country's entire economically active agricultural population.

The “solution” presented by NGOs, which INTA has relatively recently begun to adopt as well, consists of soil conservation and recovery, biological pest control and agroforestry technologies. Following the hurricane, a proposal emerged for converting and transforming land use patterns and production systems, a massive technological transformation to push the country towards sustainable agriculture. In addition, several studies were done to demonstrate that agro-ecological land plots had suffered less damage than plots cultivated according to traditional techniques.

Many NGOs are counting on this solution, which basically consists of helping nature do its work and naturally heal some of Mitch's effects. The model is quite cheap, but is still not very extensive. According to a study by World Neighbors, one of the NGOs that most supports sustainable agriculture, “there are 80 organizations working independently of each other, and even stepping on each other's toes. They are financing sustainable agriculture, but to what extent has this logic helped sustainable agriculture grow beyond the level of small projects and become a movement with political influence?” This situation only serves to further weaken the impact of such techniques.

In general, there is low coverage of all types of technology transfer. A FIDEG study revealed that in 1995 only 25,421 agricultural producers out of a sample of 313,845 received technical assistance. Of this 8.1%, barely 6,126 (24%) benefited from INTA's agricultural extension programs. Supposing that the remaining 19,295 producers were being attended by the NGOs working in technical assistance, we would have an average of 242.5 producers per NGO, a rather low figure that demonstrates the incipient state of agro-ecological techniques.

The environmental plan

The other current, which is represented by professional ecologists—who have a little more political influence than producers or NGOs—has concentrated on promoting commissions and laws. On November 24, 1998, the Presidential Commission for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Nicaragua was set up, consisting of six consultative councils. Among these was an environmental council coordinated by Jaime Morales Carazo, executive president of the National Sustainable Development Council (CONADES). The environmental council was made up of professionals and experts from the government and private enterprise as well as specialists on the environment and natural resources.

The council's first task was to prepare a preliminary proposal that the government presented at the Consultative Group meeting in Washington in December 1998, called by the IDB. The document, titled “The Emerging Plan for Environmental Protection and Management,” covered management of the country's watersheds, territorial planning and land tenure, education and environmental training, the prevention and control of fires and various environmental monitoring programs. Later, the “Environmental Plan for the Reconstruction and Transformation of Nicaragua” was drawn up, a much reduced version of the earlier plan, which formed part of the national proposal presented by the government to the Consultative Group meeting in Stockholm in May 1999.

The Environmental Plan tries to project a long-term vision for the transformation of Nicaragua's social, economic and ecological development, promoting the full use of Nicaragua's human resources through the active and constructive participation of the country's different social sectors in environmental management, thus creating a strong dose of citizens' participation. The plan's initiatives, which are just starting up, include establishing financial mechanisms to promote the sustainability of the proposed actions. This would be based on green vouchers for carbon retention, swapping the foreign debt for nature and issuing forestry certificates. Developing these initiatives would cost around $200 million.

The plan's long-term vision lies in the fact that it ignores short-term actions aimed at immediate reconstruction and consists of the design of laws, regulations, manuals and studies. Appropriate forestry management, for example, is expected to result from the correct application of the manuals, regulations and laws, all of which will be guided by previous diagnostic studies. If the plan is approved and obtains the financing required for its implementation, it will become a gold mine for the consultants, lawyers and environmentalists that are the real emerging sectors in Nicaragua.

But what would happen if the plan's proposals were to lose their bureaucratic odor and acquire the smell of the salty land of Puerto Morazán, for example? Would the concessions of land suitable for shrimp cultivation return to the hands of the cooperative workers? Would the natural lagoons, currently turned into shrimp farms, return to common ownership under the custody of the municipal government? None of the above is ever likely to happen. The territorial planning, the restoration of the country's critical watersheds and the establishment and respect for protected zones will never be allowed to affect commercial interests.

Although the plan's design is very plausible, its other handicap is that several of the proposed studies have already been done. The lack of institutional memory, which affects public entities more than private ones, and the lack of a single data bank on the issue—MARENA's squalid, crumbling library should house all relevant documents—mean that similar studies are constantly being refinanced, so each plan becomes in part a job creation project for well-paid consultants.

Time for the municipalities

Although the plan represents an advance on previous efforts, it is by no means perfect, and the diagnostic studies and laws it proposes are not omnipotent. As Lorenzo Cardenal put it, “A pile of laws will be worth nothing if you have a centralist central government with weak institutions that cannot get to the local areas and cannot efficiently exercise their functions. In our country there is a need to strengthen the capacity of institutions to ensure that the laws are upheld, but it is also very important to strengthen local capacities in the municipalities to ensure the adequate control, management and sustainable use of natural resources and the environment in the municipal sphere.”
It would appear that the municipalities are coming into their own. From various directions, the prevailing trend is to prioritize local governments. Perhaps the hurricane and all of its destruction will at least leave a positive legacy by improving the course of the decentralization process and showing that it is time for local power.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA

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