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  Number 90 | Enero 1989
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Nicaragua

Toll Rises from Hurricane Joan: Emergency as Daily Life

Nitlápan-Envío team

On November 15, President Daniel Ortega officially lifted the state of emergency in effect since October 20, two days before Hurricane Joan battered the country. Even as he did so, however, he stressed that the emergency was far from over. In an address to the National Assembly that was broadcast live, Ortega warned that the next ten months would be months of "great tension" for the country in terms of meeting the population's most basic food needs. Over half a million Nicaraguans were affected, directly or indirectly, by the hurricane. Hardest hit were the peasant population in the southern Caribbean area and in regions IV (Granada-Rivas), V (Boaco-Chontales) and VI (Matagalpa-Jinotega). Many people in those areas were left with absolutely nothing and even the land in some areas is barely usable. Ideally, agricultural implements and seeds will be quickly distributed to all the affected peasant sectors—but even so, it will take months before they can begin to support themselves once again.

The Nicaraguan economy, already reeling from nearly eight years of US-sponsored war, was particularly vulnerable to the hurricane's fury. The economic measures undertaken by the government this year, while shot through with difficulties, were beginning to make some inroads in long-standing problems. One early result, the promise of a record harvest of basic grains, was cause for real hope. The hurricane turned everything on its head, and the pre-hurricane crisis, serious as it was, is looked on with something approaching nostalgia given the current state of affairs.

Hurricane shatters coastal eco-system

"Apocalyptic" was the word Comandante Tomas Borge used to describe the damage wrought by Hurricane Joan on what had been a thriving tropical rain forest in the southern Caribbean region of Nicaragua. The dense forest was a wild symphony of green, lush vegetation in an area said to receive "thirteen months of rainfall each year." That all changed overnight, and the unrelenting brown of the post-hurricane landscape was so devastating that many observers could only compare it with a bombed-out war zone. The hurricane cut a swath over 60 miles wide, plowing through the densely forested area. The Economic Commission on Latin America tallied the total damages at $840 million, with capital damages exceeding $540 million.

The Nicaraguan Environmental Resources Institute (DIRENA), reports that a total of 2.5 million acres of forested land was affected. An inter-institutional commission was formed, with representatives from DIRENA, the fishing institute INPESCA, the Managua mayor's office, the National University's Aquatic Resources Center and the Nicaraguan Association of Biologists. They made a preliminary evaluation of damages in early November, flying over the region north and south of Rama, along the Siquia, Rama and Escondido rivers, much of which was still inaccessible by land. Half of that total affected area was entirely destroyed, while the other half was “profoundly damaged.”

Two kinds of forests were affected. One is an artificial forest created when US lumber interests cultivated vast areas, planting primarily mahogany and teak. The other is virgin tropical forest lush with laurels, cedars, oaks and other trees. Ten percent of the country's total vegetable cover was lost. The immediate destruction is estimated to be equivalent to ten years of indiscriminate deforestation. Jairo López of DIRENA commented that while the destroyed forest bore the brunt of the hurricane force, the resulting devastation very likely "saved" Managua and the other cities in the western half of the country.

DIRENA warns that the destruction could lead to serious climatic changes, and speculates that warmer tropical winds will move increasingly westward to the country’s Pacific region. Flood- related destruction and damage is likely to increase substantially, as many of the natural protective barriers were destroyed as the hurricane passed through the region.

According to Nicaraguan ecologists, it would take 60 years of around-the-clock work to mill all the precious wood (over 200 species) felled by the hurricane. In early November, Rama’ Mayor Samuel Mejía appealed for help in cutting and milling all the fallen wood, which he said could be put to good use in the reconstruction of Rama and Bluefields. He said as much of the fallen wood as possible should be treated with oil, to avoid rotting and extend the time it can be used. The week after the hurricane hit, the US-based organization Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua (APSNICA) sent experts out to Bluefields to meet with the authorities there. Only weeks later, they had a milling operation underway in Pearl Lagoon.

Enormous quantities of soil were washed away with the hurricane and this has taken a tremendous ecological toll on the bay at Bluefields. Nicaraguan ecologists estimate that a maritime area of some five square miles is affected. The consequences for marine life are serious. DIRENA experts say that tons of oysters and fish probably died in the sea off the coast as well as in the rivers that crisscross the region. Vast expanses of coral reefs were destroyed.

Nearly 100% of the plant life and a large part of the aquatic life in the destroyed area has died or will die. An incalculable number of animals perished in the disaster, including deer, iguanas, armadillos, peccaries, and agoutis. In addition, the toll was high among a number of endangered species, including sloths, monkeys, wild cats, umbrella birds and certain species of parrots, eagles, hawks and many reptiles found in few places on earth.

The Nicaraguan government and ecologists here have issued a call for international assistance to carry out a detailed evaluation of the damages and their long-term consequences, then beginning the long, difficult and delicate process of environmental regeneration.

On the right

On November 2, nine full days after the last of the hurricane's winds had headed out over the Pacific, a press release announced the formation of the Commission for Aid to Hurricane Joan's Homeless, to be headed by Cardinal Obando y Bravo. The 15-member commission includes representatives of the Catholic hierarchy, the private business group COSEP, the professionals' association CONAPRO, La Prensa, and a host of opposition political leaders.

At first, the opposition refused to participate in the National Emergency Committee unless each group were individually asked by the government. When the President then issued a plea for cooperation to specific opposition groups, a number of them publicly rejected the committee's plurality. "We've been participating in committees like that for eight years, and we're tired of offering our suggestions to help the government promote the illusions of pluralism," said Gilberto Cuadra, head of COSEP, the private enterprise council.

Despite the parallel commission's connections with Nicaragua's few affluent communities, the organization has decided to restrict its fundraising efforts to foreign sources. Commission leaders say they have held "informal talks" with government representatives from France, Italy, Great Britain and the United States and received "positive reactions, but no commitments." The commission has also reportedly lobbied "various organizations" inside Nicaragua, apparently with a similar rate of success. The Protestant churches, which have been the most notable targets, have yet to jump aboard.

Throughout the crisis, the opposition has acted with a combination of hypocrisy and political finger-pointing. After loudly criticizing the National Emergency Commission and the government's role in the relief effort, La Prensa, opposition party members and the private business and professional associations have gone on to blame the slow trickle of arriving aid on the government's lack of credibility in the international community.

When asked what specific criticism he had about the way the National Emergency Committee has handled the situation, Cuadra shook his head and said, "Most of all, there is the government's politicization of the hurricane. A person left homeless by Hurricane Joan has no political colors for us." Yet in almost the same breath, he explained, "We would really like to convince the United States to send us some form of aid. Then we could say, 'Well, it's up to the government to decide if this aid comes in or not.’” The statement refers to a law passed by the National Assembly in mid October barring foreign financing of political organizations, similar to a US statute.

In a front page La Prensa story, Cuadra said the hurricane "disrobed" the government for future negotiations with the United States by aggravating Nicaragua's already overwhelming economic misery.

In the same story, Cuadra said he had rejected a recent offer of a dialogue from Bayardo Arce, Assistant Coordinator of the FSLN Executive Committee, dismissing it as "image policy-making."

The commission has set itself the goal of building 1,500 houses in the devastated region on the Caribbean Coast. Cuadra, who is in charge of arranging the transport of aid from Managua to the coast, said that 40 tons of clothes, food and building materials left in a convoy of trucks on Monday, November 21. Although that was "really nothing in relation to the total amount we've collected," he did not have the total figures on aid collected, nor on when the last shipment went out or the next one would go.

The commission will operate only into the first several months of 1989. "Really, the timing depends on the construction of the 1,500 houses," explained Cuadra. The commission is aiming for material contributions instead of cash. Asked what measures would be taken if all 1,500 houses could not be constructed in the next few months, Cuadra said, "I suppose we'll simply have to face reality and end it."

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