Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 313 | Agosto 2007



Posoltega Nine Years After the Tragedy

A lot happened in Posoltega after Hurricane Mitch struck. There was a boom in housing, electricity and drinking water, but little changed in mental schemes and traditional culture. Could they change with such a high “Gross Foreign Product” and so many people infected with AEDS— Acquired Extreme Dependency Syndrome?

José Luis Rocha

Posoltega means “town near the land that burns.” Ironically, this burning land was swamped during Hurricane Mitch by a giant torrent of mud, sulphur and sand from the Casita volcanic crater that buried over 2,500 inhabitants of the Rolando Rodríguez and El Porvenir communities. A desperate cry for help by Mayor Felícitas Zeledón was criminally denied by then-President Arnoldo Alemán at a moment when many victims of the landslide could still have been saved.

Although the municipality of Posoltega is crossed by a chain of volcanoes that includes Chonco, San Cristóbal, Casita, Telica and Santa Clara, it was little known until the October 1998 catastrophe fixed the gaze of national and international solidarity on its grief-stricken inhabitants. Today, visitors entering the town are met by a showy plaque in memory of Mitch’s victims. A visit by Bill Clinton just a few months after the hurricane was an unexpected concession to what had previously been one of Nicaragua’s most anonymous municipalities. In Posoltega the story goes that when the President of the world superpower invited a child to make a wish, the boy said he wanted his family back, moving Clinton to tears.

No more crowding but is there less poverty?

Natural disasters redesign geography, transform demography, shake social orders and mold aspects of culture. Many changes occurred in Posoltega following Mitch. Nine years after a tragedy that caused so many deaths, it’s time to take a look at some of those changes, starting with the ones revealed by comparing the 1995 and 2005 national censuses.

The municipal population was calculated at 15,331 in 1995: 4,189 in the town and 11,142 in the surrounding rural areas. The municipality measures 124 square kilometers, giving a population density of 123.6 inhabitants per square kilometer that year, much higher than the national average of 35 at the time and even of the figures for Estelí (114), Quezalguaque (65), El Viejo (54), Achuapa and Villanueva (38), Puerto Morazán (30) and Somotillo (22). It is, however, considerably less than those for neighboring Chichigalpa (167) and for San Marcos (236) and Nandasmo (542), to quote just two of the more distant municipalities that are not departmental capitals. The population density hasn’t varied much and now stands at 124 inhabitants per square kilometer. Since 1995 its population has only risen to 16,771, a rate of 0.9% a year. As a whole, the department of Chinandega, in which Posoltega is located, increased its population by only 0.8% a year, while Corinto, one of Chinandega’s best-known municipalities as it has the country’s most important port, actually saw its population decrease by 553 inhabitants. It’s not clear whether that decrease was attributable to the elasticity of the municipal boundaries, which tend to expand when collecting taxes and shrink when providing services, or to the export of Nicaraguans, which has had a notable effect and will continue having a demographic impact that the government stubbornly refuses to recognize.

In 1998 Posoltega was poor, like the rest of the country, sadly. But it wasn’t one of the poorest municipalities. Poverty affected just under 50% of its inhabitants, compared to 83% and 63%, respectively, in the nearby municipalities of Achuapa and Puerto Morazán and over 80% of the population in 22 of Nicaragua’s 146 other municipalities at the time, including Somoto, San Juan de Limay, Totogalpa, Ciudad Darío and Tola. In San Juan del Norte and San Lucas the figure was nearly 90%, in Santa María de Pantasma over 91% and in Río Blanco 96%.

What happened after the hurricane? What did the torrent of promises that flooded into Posoltega from the US and European governments, multilateral organizations and cooperation agencies actually leave behind? Have there been improvements and, if so, in which areas?

cuadro 1

Our country’s most
unprecedented housing boom

Many physical changes strike travelers as they head down the three kilometers to the town of Posoltega from the turnoff at the Pan-American Highway. The brand-new Rubén Darío Institute and a magnificent health center particularly stand out. And many houses sport recently-built walls, roofs and tiled floors. Housing has been the target of a lot of improvements in a municipality that, while not one of the poorest in the country, still lagged considerably behind the rest of Chinandega.

A comparison of the last two national censuses provides a number of interesting revelations. Between the 1995 census three years before Mitch and the 2005 one seven years after, housing in Posoltega rose from 2,744 buildings to 3,961, a 44% increase in ten years compared to just 26.6% for the department of Chinandega as a whole. The structures also improved in quality, becoming more resistant, more attractive and with access to basic services. Posoltega’s increase in housing classified under the category of “house”—block or cement walls, zinc roofing, tiled floors, water pipes and electricity—left the departmental increase in the same category far behind.

In 1995, only 36.6% of Posoltega’s houses had electricity, compared to 62% in the department as a whole. In 2005, nearly 84% of Posoltega’s houses were connected, compared to 77% at the departmental level. During the same period.

The improvements have raised the standards in Posoltega well above those of departments such as Nueva Segovia, where 75.6% of the housing is made of adobe or taquezal (walls of wood post and beam construction using horizontal wood strips with adobe or stone fill then plaster). The corresponding figure in present-day Posoltega is just 0.3%. Only 23.5% of houses in the neighboring municipality of Achuapa have electricity compared to 83.7% in Posoltega, which is also far better than the national average of 68.4%.

The explanation for this housing revolution is the extremely generous investments by foreign cooperation in the wake of Mitch, accelerating a transformation that would otherwise have taken several decades at best. According to a recent estimate by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Mitch destroyed over 40,000 houses in Nicaragua, leaving 150,000 people homeless. Local government figures show that 1,500 of those homes were in Posoltega and the Association for Survival and Local Development (ASODEL) registered 667 families (2,783 people) in shelters the next year. The compensation the municipality received exceeded the damage. Whole communities benefited from housing projects, whether many, few or no people at all had lost their houses to Mitch. The communities of Nueva España, La Virgen, Betania, Linda Vista, El Tanque and Santa María, among others, now resemble urban enclaves in a rural landscape. They look like Managua neighborhoods surrounded by sugar cane fields and plots of peanuts, beans and maize. The completely new houses in El Tanque and Santa María alone represent over 13% of the municipality’s total housing infrastructure.

Each community had its sponsor: the German or Austrian government, the European Union, the Spanish Red Cross, Médico Internacional… Each community has a new school and health post and several new churches. Many of the villages have a CARE water project, including a well, a pump and pipes taking the water as far as the houses. With funds from Spanish Municipal Councils, the European Union and central government transfers, the municipal government has financed the construction of electricity posts and cables, which smoothed the way for the Spanish transnational Unión Fenosa—whose sloth in venturing a meter further than its last post much less entering new territories is now proverbial—to actually distribute electricity to the communities.

A revealing mini-census

With or without Mitch, Posoltega needed this aid, and it needs still more. If Mitch hadn’t plunked Posoltega onto the map of foreign cooperation priorities, other municipali-ties would have moved ahead in almost all of the areas in which Posoltega has taken the lead. Emotionally, the European agencies suddenly saw Posoltega as part of Africa and unloaded their pots of gold onto the municipality. After all, as sociologist Adolfo Hurtado puts it, Nicaragua is an economically African country which by some divine slip ended up in America.

Mitch only exposed Nicaragua’s Africanness. The aid that followed demonstrates how and when foreign cooperation reacts and with how much. The media impact of a disaster activates a change of direction, with fundraising becoming bigger, less conditioned and more charity-like. Unfortunately, such aid also activates a wave of dependence with a long-lasting effect.

With help from Civil Defense volunteers from Posoltega and financial support from COSUDE, envío surveyed 546 houses in El Tanque, Santa María and Los Zanjones, which together account for 14% of municipal housing. According to this survey, relatively few houses in El Tanque and Santa María, home to most of the survivors from Rolando Rodríguez and El Porvenir, have made any improvements to their foreign cooperation-financed houses. A total of 35% and 45% in the respective communities have added more rooms, 13% and 12% have improved the floor and just 7% and 5% improved or extended the roof.

By contrast, in the neighboring community of Los Zanjones, home to very few people directly affected by the hurricane and where foreign cooperation was not so generous, 75% of the houses now have additional rooms, 36% have invested in floors and 16% have invested in roofing. And this is despite the fact that El Tanque and Santa María have proportionally more families receiving remittances from family members abroad: 11% and 8%, respectively, compared to just 4.6% in Los Zanjones.

The “GFP” predominates over the GDP

The transformations are perceptible in the municipal administration. The number of paved streets in town has multiplied and other investments are also visible. Perhaps more than any other, Posoltega’s municipal government helped mark the take-off point of municipal decentralization: the lead role played by local governments that turned it into something more than mere technocratic chatter to please foreign cooperation.

The municipal government has some new buildings fitted out with air conditioning, while computers have become essential for the cadastre, planning, administration and management posts. Such technology hasn’t atrophied the laid-back way of treating people, however. “I’ll be right with you,” I was told by María Estela Santos, who coordinated the DECOPANN Project in Posoltega; “as soon as I finish this jocote [a small fruit].”

The European Union financed the project known as DECOPANN (Development of Nicaragua’s North Pacific Coast) in nine municipalities in the country’s northeastern region: Posoltega, Nagarote, La Paz Centro, León, Quezal-guaque, Chichigalpa, El Viejo, Chinandega and Puerto Morazán. It invested over US$600,000 in Posoltega alone. Through the combined efforts of foreign cooperation, national budget transfers and municipal tax collection, roughly US$700,000 was directly invested in Posoltega’s communi-ties between 2001 and 2004, which represented an investment of 14 córdobas (loosely $1 at the average exchange rate over those years) a month for each Posoltegan. Such investment would be possible for Posoltegans even without resorting to foreign cooperation. The ascetic exercise of abstaining from the daily coca-cola intake could generate 12 times that amount.

In 2001-2004, only 10.76% of municipal income came from local tax collection, so without foreign aid the municipal government would have made just 18% of the investments, 12% of the total spending and covered only 28% of its operating costs. Municipal tax collection amounts to just 30 córdobas (about $1.60 at the current exchange rate) per capita per year. Yet there are important companies in the municipality—peanut and cane producers and even coffee haciendas—that have the capacity to contribute more.

Posoltega’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could have greater weight in municipal investment in both public and private goods, but achievements based on the GFP—Gross Foreign Product—the sum of foreign donations and emigrants’ remittances sent back to family members—are more patent. The Rubén Darío Institute, the health center, the new municipal offices, the streets, the slaughterhouse, the new housing and many other works have been possible thanks to overwhelming financial flows from foreign cooperation. The Spanish International Cooperation Agency, CARE, the World Bank’s Rural Municipalities Program (PROTIERRA) and foreign donations channeled through the state-run Municipal Development Institute have meant direct support to municipal government investments.

According to the Ministry of Treasury and Public Credit, donations and foreign loans to Nicaragua totaled just under $2.8 billion in 1999-2003. A very rough calculation shows that amounts to $109 per person per year. Investment in housing in Posoltega alone represented a per capita investment of $2,346, if the average cost of each house is calculated at $10,000. Distributing that amount over a five-year period gives an annual per-capita investment of $473. It is therefore evident that over half of the municipality’s GDP was made up of GFP. In other words, Posoltega has been a spoiled child of foreign cooperation in Nicaragua.

A cadastral updating that is still going on is increasing tax collection and improving the municipality’s possibility of accessing transfers from the national budget. Laying the foundations for greater municipal income is a strategic investment. The collection of property tax has risen from 368,648.65 córdobas in 2000 to over 680,000 córdobas in 2007. Enormous steps have been taken in the last four years to generate municipal income and tax collection has a multiplier effect since it is one of the performance indicators used to calculate transfers from the state budget. So cleaning up the cadastre was a long-term investment, but there’s still a long way to go before dependence on the GFP turns into GDP-based generation.

Making a little go a long way

But even with its skimpy foreign and domestic funding, the municipal government managed to finance electrification and the construction of latrines, basketball courts, sidewalks, schools, shelters, a municipal library, graded and paved streets, a cemetery and protection walls and ramps, as well as organic agriculture, the maintenance and extension of churches, schools and health centers, the purchase of lands for the hospital and municipal dump, the drilling of wells and the installation of potable water works.

How did it manage all that with a per-capita investment of just $1 a month? Through the same magic formula that has turned Costa Rica into the country with the best economic performance in Central American: good administration, which in this case can be broken down into bureaucratic stability and a relative reduction of the cost of bureaucracy. First, the use of funds was reversed. In 2001, over 63% of the income went into operational costs, but by 2004 nearly 60% was earmarked for direct investment. Second, the technical team has remained stable. In 1990, the UNO alliance won the municipal elections and governed for seven years, but since 1997 the municipal government has been run by FSLN mayors who are subordinated to party discipline, but independent of its lack of morals. They appear unwilling to emulate their national leaders in this aspect.

Is Posoltega prepared for another disaster?

The expansion of municipal investments in Posoltega covers the area of disaster prevention with what could be described as moderate enthusiasm. The local government created the office of Civil Defense, which is responsible for risk management. This section of municipal services does not formally depend on its central government namesake, which is part of the army, although it does coordinate actions with that institution. While the municipal government funds the Civil Defense office, this only amounts to a commitment to pay the salary of the person in charge and maintenance of his or her motorcycle and radio apparatus. Many factors conspire against the possibility of a bigger slice of the pie for risk management. Part of the reason is that this area is considered extraordinary and it’s unusual for a municipal government to concern itself with natural disasters. After all, that’s what national Civil Defense and now the Executive Secretariat of the National Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Response System (SE-SINAPRED) are for. The municipal government has enough on its plate with the cadastre, the registration of cattle brands and maintenance of the streets, roads, cemetery, slaughterhouse, etc. The fact that disasters don’t tend to be a municipal responsibility creates a financial and cultural barrier in this area.

On the other hand, there are links between investment in risk management, be it local or national, and the population’s perceptions of how immediately threatening disasters might be. The recently deceased British anthropologist Mary Douglas developed brilliant research studies in this area. In her opinion, both risks and disasters become acceptable or combatable depending on the values predominating in each culture. She argued that persistent myopia, selectivity and tolerated contradictions tend to be signs not so much of weak perception as of a strong intention to protect determined values and the institutional forms that accompany them.

Perception of an event as risky and of its effects as disastrous depends on the society’s values. The plague of rats devouring the harvests along the Río Coco was a sociological test of Nicaraguan society’s tolerance to certain disasters. For many organizations and citizens, the rats didn’t amount to a disaster, but rather to a plague the river communities had to deal with using their own means and at their own risk. The market quite simply doesn’t concern itself with such misfortunes, except as factors that push up prices to the benefit of those producers that survive.

The diversity of parameters can be perceived in different reactions to the same figures. The case of people affected by drinking methanol sold as hooch is very eloquent. For some—in particular the Pan-American Health Organization—the 70 deaths that resulted in León were a catastrophe that demonstrated just how vulnerable and ill-prepared we are to face such disasters. For others—SE-SINAPRED officials—“just 70 deaths” demonstrated how quickly the police reacted. Weighing up the damages and assessing the response depend on parameters associated with different value scales.

For Mary Douglas, typologies are needed of stable social processes and the kind of moral commitment underpinning them. A theoretical path with such characteristics would modify the consolidated ideas that actions and values can be clearly separated. She felt there could be no serious study of perception without recognizing the social interests influencing selective attention. Unfortunately, the foundations of the national disaster response system include the assumption that objective facts can be established and alert and disaster levels determined by quantifying the threat and damages. This ignores the fabric of values that molds the very system and defines its action by informing the classification that guides it.

Unemployment is the most feared disaster

The levels of alert established by Law 337 are nothing more than the production of a pseudo-technique that isn’t immune to political interference and rejects the cultural basis of the definition of disasters. Until there is a discussion in Nicaragua of the values linked to the interpretation of figures and events, the national disasters system will remain unaware of—and therefore subordinated to—its own cultural roots.

The national disaster response system rests firmly on local capacities, yet no attention has been paid to the local perceptions that are at the root of the early warning systems’ limited funding and weak organizational capacity. The municipal governments don’t invest more in natural disasters because there’s no pressure to do so, except that exerted for a time by international agencies and national NGOs in the form of consultancies and donations to draw up risk maps and emergency plans.

The case studies and the census we conducted in the three Posoltegan communities provided a few clues that help explain this reduced local investment in disaster prepared-ness. One indicator of the relative insignificance for Posoltegans of the dangers associated with another landslide on the Casita volcano—compared to the daily danger of going hungry—is the re-establishment of agricultural plots on the volcano’s slopes. Even the current mayor has acquired land on the hillside.

Another indicator is the inhabitants’ hierarchy of the risks by degree of danger. In the El Tanque census, 39% of those interviewed said that unemployment was the main risk, while 44% put natural disasters in first place. In Santa María, it was exactly the reverse. And first place among natural disasters was neither flooding nor volcanic eruptions, but rather drought, in the view of 42% in El Tanque and 31% in Santa María. Drought affects daily survival, hits frequently and has been experienced many times during people’s lives. It’s more feared than any hurricane.

Curiously, those who suffered from natural disasters appeared relatively less apprehensive. Among those who defined themselves as Mitch victims, 34% named drought as the most feared natural disaster, compared to 26% of those who did not consider themselves to have been victims. Among those non-victims, 36.5% fear flooding most, compared to only 33% of the victims.

In the Los Zanjones community, where just 57% of those interviewed defined themselves as victims, 60% felt that natural disasters were the most threatening risk, respectively 16% and 21% more than El Tanque and Santa María, where 92% and 81% defined themselves as victims.

Four unalterable principles

Various cultural principles are operating to produce such apparently odd responses. They appeared repeatedly, particularly during extensive interviews with those who have rehabilitated their land and are growing beans on the slopes of the Casita volcano. These principles shape their perception of how relatively threatening they consider natural disasters to be. First of all is the “inoculation” principle, in which victims feel less inclined to fear than non-victims, and reinforcing it is the principle of the distribution of disasters in time, in which it is believed that two major disasters won’t happen consecutively. As Cristina García put it, “A disaster doesn’t hit the same place twice.” The mudslide freed them from future disasters for the next 40 years—a magical biblical figure mentioned by several interviewees. Some even recalled their grandparents telling them about other landslides in times gone by.

The third and most powerful principle is that of punishment: “We’ve already been punished; we’ve paid for our sins.” You can only be punished once for the same offense. The central idea of one of Douglas’ studies is that human beings pay attention to a determined model of disasters, treating them as portents or punishments. Mitch was and still is considered by some of its victims as punishment for the sinful behavior into which inhabitants of Rolando Rodríguez and El Porvenir had slipped some time before the disaster struck.

Mariana González recalls that on the afternoon of October 30 she came out of her house and heard someone shouting “Mariana, it’s the judgment!” Then she saw the enormous avalanche “of twelve meters of mud,” which miraculously passed her by, leaving her unscathed. She now reflects that “things like Mitch happen where there’s a lot of neglect. There were evangelicals in the community and others who weren’t. But there was a television even in the evangelicals’ houses. That’s corrupting. The place was no good any more. That’s abandon. Youths and adults were drawn toward that kind of thing. They drank all day and were drunk and shouting come morning. That’s why God wanted to punish them.”

Her explanation is immune to any refutations: “Liana Muñoz was dragged along quite a ways and wasn’t even scratched. She had a bar and a tape recorder. The drunks spent the whole day at her place. Many think that God spared that woman so she could repent. But she didn’t change. She’s got the same work and is a real smoker. But it may be that many other people really have converted following Mitch.” González may be right about that. In Santa María alone there are currently eight churches: the Catholic Church, the Assemblies of God, the Christ’s Remains Church, the Church of the Prophesies, the United Apostolic Church, the Free Apostolic Church, the Apostolic Church of Faith in Christ Jesus and the Church of the Word.

These three principles create an explanatory framework that gives meaning to the pain and provides a new perspective: they’ve already been punished; what had to happen happened; they’re at the start of another cycle and it’ll be 40 years before the next disaster.

The fourth principle is that of uncertainty: “Only God knows what’s going to happen.” There’s no point preparing for disasters as their divine nature makes them unpredict-able. This principle explains why so many interviewees couldn’t say what disasters they were prepared for. In total, 70% said they didn’t know what disasters they were prepared for and 21% said they weren’t prepared for any, while only 3.2% felt they were prepared for volcanic eruptions and 2.3% for floods. Most felt it impossible to gauge the levels of preparation needed to face disasters because nobody can penetrate the inscrutable designs of Divine Providence.

Reinforced or dissolved by disasters?

Does a real disaster reinforce or dissolve these principles? Like a good neo-Durkheimian, Mary Douglas concludes that if a group of individuals ignores certain manifest risks it has to be because their social framework stimulates them to act that way. She assumes that their social interaction codifies a great part of the risks.

If that is indeed the dynamic at work, we have to wait for a radical transformation in the social structure to see any changes in the attitude toward natural disasters and the emergence of a preventive culture. Posoltega has experienced many changes since Mitch: the quality and arrangement of the houses, which have a more urban density and grouping; a growing migratory wave, mainly to Costa Rica, but also to El Salvador, Guatemala and the United States; and a new relationship to the land. Two of these transformations suggest a way of dealing with risks that upholds their status as unpredictable events—thus not altering the traditional vision—and concentrates on managing their consequences.

The first is migration, which diversifies the source of income so that families with migrants are less vulnerable to unemployment, drought and other disasters. Not knowing what disasters to prepare for, they can at least mitigate their impact. The second is that many victims also diversified their relation to the land. They went from being owners and farmers to renting their land to third parties, farming other people’s plots or even farming plots that belonged to them in the past but that they sold following Mitch. Damage to the land affects them less if it doesn’t belong to them or if one plot in particular stops being their main source of income. Those two transformations run against the establishment of a preventive culture because the prevailing mentality is to mitigate the impact.

A chaotic and revealing meeting

We could explore the following hypothesis: The communities studied reacted this way because there are no foundations on which to anchor a preventive culture. The ingredients for cultivating such a culture don’t exist. The Cuban disaster prevention model, which has so far proved one of the most successful in the world in saving human lives, is based on organization, a social capital that different human groups have in very different measures. And there’s reason to suppose that the communities in Posoltega most directly affected by Mitch don’t have an abundance of social capital.

During my field work I attended an assembly called by CARE to legalize the new water system and set up a system to sustain it. The CARE officials left after getting the signatures needed to register the El Tanque water system as a nonprofit association, turning the assembly over to the local leaders. A chaotic struggle then broke out. The most vociferous participants wanted to reduce the minimum payment to the threshold of financial sustainability or even lower. Some shouted, “I’m not going to pay the 32 córdobas [$1.70]. Let them cut me off!” Without consulting the obviously irate assembly, the leaders decided to keep the workers paid to run the water system and create a new unsalaried water committee. Male voices predominated and the women murmured their disagreement with the wages and number of posts—a meter reader, pump operator and payment collector. Occasionally someone called out something like, “If you charge 2,000 and pay all 2,000 in personnel, what do you end up with? Zilch, that’s what!” And someone else would add, “Going around reading meters is child’s play! We’re not paying for that!”

El Porvenir, in contrast, had a water system that worked without problems. So how did El Tanque’s capacity to build and manage this common asset deteriorate so much? A deep distrust of the community leaders prevailed during the whole meeting as well as during the interviews. There was a similar situation in Santa María, where some accused the leaders of the Association of Survivors of Casita of squandering all the goods received from foreign cooperation: tractors with graders and plows, a truck, pipes, provisions, sewing machines and other goods that they claimed to have sold to pay lawyers “to update their legal status.” Did the lawyers and legal delays drain the community finances or did the leaders also play their part? We don’t know. But whatever the basis, the distrust of leaders is real and it affects the social fabric and the possibilities of organizing and overseeing the common good.

Acquired Extreme Dependence Syndrome

Another factor that has undermined local social capital is the dependence on foreign sources of power, technical expertise and funds. The warp of foreign cooperation is extremely delicate, diverse and ambivalent. Its threads are made up of good intentions, solidarity, justice and urgent needs, interspersed with others representing thirst for a leading role, neocolonialism, local power magnets, corrupt leaders and AEDS—Acquired Extreme Dependence Syndrome. When I asked in one of the communities if they had received any training for responding to natural disasters, Cristina García immediately responded “The only thing we’ve been trained for here is to ask for things.” Many have preferred to cultivate foreign links rather than internal connections. The GFP counts for much more than the GDP, as even the most clueless know.

The urban design of the villages in most of the rural districts benefited by housing projects undoubtedly corresponds in part to the limited availability of land. But it may also have been thought up as a way to break the isolation that—to city eyes—the dispersion of peasant homes imposes. Can the new distribution repair the battered and fragile social fabric? Does a neighborhood structure generate greater solidarity? It’s very hard to believe. Only 77% of the families currently living in El Tanque are Casita victims and in Santa María the figure is just 62%. All the rest bought their houses from the original beneficiaries. Many families spend most of the year working in Costa Rica and leave their houses abandoned. Nearly 18% of the ones in El Tanque are uninhabited.

The mixture of origins, the competitive relations and the inequality between the rights of the victims, who are cooperative members, and the non-victims, who belong to the community but not the cooperative, have dealt a sharp blow to relations within this community. District leaders, cooperation workers and AEDS all bear a share of the responsibility for this. For example, the conflicts between the El Tanque cooperative members and the squatter community of Betania—located on part of El Tanque’s cultivable lands—were resolved when a cooperation agency bought the land from the cooperative and built houses for its inhabitants. The cooperation funds freed the community leaders from having to negotiate, right wrongs and reach consensus.

All of the above-mentioned elements help explain why there is no social sub-stratum on which to build a disaster prevention culture. Neither building shelters, gabions, bridges and contention barriers nor providing early warning systems with shiny new equipment can compensate for the lack of preventive culture, a weakness resulting from the four principles, the erosion of social capital and the atrophying of the very capacity to resolve conflicts. While infrastructure and equipment are certainly necessary conditions, they are not enough in themselves.

What will remain of all of this?

Posoltega has undergone many changes since the tragedy hit: the housing boom, the construction of drinking water systems, the extended access to electricity, the acquisition of lands for the victims, risk maps, emergency plans, the creation of a municipal Civil Defense, etc. But while these changes improve some aspects of the quality of life, they haven’t altered the mental schemes for responding to future natural or social disasters. Given such a context, is the boom in housing and investment in public goods a starting point or the culmination of a cycle? Will it all remain, and if so, for how long? Any longer than the self-generated GFP of remittances or the GFP donated by foreign cooperation sustain it? Let’s hope that the words of one Posoltegan who lost all his children to the mudslide aren’t fatefully fulfilled. As we were returning from a tour of the area around Casita, he was finishing a day’s work on a plot of land belonging to Cristina García. He pointed to where his house and well, the El Porvenir community center and his family used to be and in almost a whisper said, “Everything comes to an end in this life, everything comes to an end.”

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Central American Jesuit Migrant Service (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The Cards Are on the Table


Posoltega Nine Years After the Tragedy

It’s Up to Us to Curtail the Government’s Authoritarianism

An Uncertain and Violent Electoral Process

The President in His Thicket

A Government Trapped in Its Dirty War

América Latina
How Can We Give The Earth a Future?
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development