Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 209 | Diciembre 1998



Wiwilí With or Without Mitch: An X-Ray of Underdevelopment

envío traveled to Wiwilí, one of the many areas wounded by Mitch's fury, where the hurricane exposed the abandonment of Nicaragua's rural areas and showed just how backward our "development" already was. It left us with a diagnosis in black and white, like an all-revealing x-ray.

José Luis Rocha

Wiwilí, in Northern Nicaragua, was not in the eye of the storm. It didn't experience the brutal punishment meted out on many other northern communities. The mountains of Wiwilí remain intact—in marked contrast to those in the region that lies between Matagalpa and Jinotega, where most of the hills were rent apart as the earth was clawed away in giant landslides. Except for crops—especially corn and the pasturelands on the fertile plains that the Coco and Cuá rivers swept away—the productive infrastructure was relatively unaffected in Wiwilí.

Nevertheless, Wiwilí's damages cannot be ignored. According to the Municipal Emergency Committee and the local government, 39 communities were seriously affected and 1,346 families lost their houses, leaving 7,944 people (5,143 of them children)—21% of the municipality's total population—homeless. Four health centers, 2,780 acres of beans and 137 acres of coffee, 209 kilometers of roads, 242,000 kilometers of wire fencing, and 52 coffee processing plants were destroyed. By November 19th, 5,052 people were still living in refugee shelters, completely dependent on humanitarian aid.

Those left homeless are mainly from the banks of the Río Coco, most of them from towns and villages that border the river. In one night, they witnessed all of their earthly possessions reduced to nothing. Even though the Río Coco rose gradually, the phenomenon was so unusual that the inhabitants never thought of taking the necessary precautions. Only at the last minute did the majority flee—waist-high in water—taking whatever they could grab. The raging flood destroyed everything in its path. When the water receded, the extent of the catastrophe was revealed: entire neighborhoods wiped off the map; the cemetery covered in two meters of mud, many of the buried torn from their graves; houses reduced to a few rows of cement blocks; roads and paths blocked off; and colossal, centuries-old trees ripped up by their tangled roots and deposited along the riverbank.

The losses of Wiwilí and of the majority of people in other regions of Nicaragua are nothing more than trifling figures on the balance sheet of global economics. They'll say that little was lost by people who had very little anyway, but such damages have a considerable impact on our small economy.

The famous "Carazo Bananas"

Since 1989, the municipality of Wiwilí has belonged to the Department of Jinotega. The municipal capital, also named Wiwilí, lies 270 kilometers northeast of Managua. It is the youngest of the department's municipalities, its 3,011 square kilometers occupying the southeast corner of the territory, 295 meters above sea level. The population density is 13 inhabitants per square kilometer, one of the lowest in Nicaragua, since 84% of its 38,026 inhabitants live in the rural areas. It is a mountainous zone irrigated by the navigable Río Coco, or Segovia.

In recent years, Wiwilí has reported sustained economic growth that has been particularly concentrated in expanded coffee production. Coffee cultivation has grown considerably this decade, with the area planted increasing from 1,763 acres in 1993 to 4,545 acres in 1998 as favorable international coffee prices fueled increased production. Without resolving the dangers of agricultural mono-production and the impossibility of finding enough labor during peak harvest months, coffee production did reactivate the zone's economy. The increase in commercial establishments in the area and the variety of goods offered reflect a marked improvement in the buying power of local inhabitants.

Even after Mitch, the huge commercial consortium AGRESAMI—which locals suspect of belonging to high-ranking military officials and the omnipresent Centeno brothers—has managed to gather and store 4,000 quintals of coffee. The zone enjoys abundant rain and can support a wide variety of agricultural production, including beans, coffee, tomatoes, cabbages, bananas, as well as ranching, and has therefore attracted a large influx of migrants from the country's drier regions, especially Estelí.

Managuans, accustomed to consuming their food without ever worrying where it comes from, are ignorant of the region's growth and potential. Small traders from the Department of Carazo—the "Phoenicians of La Concha," as one sociologist has called them—constantly make the trip up to Wiwilí in search of bananas, which they store and ripen in a regulated way using chemicals. These bananas then make their way to the markets of Masaya and Managua where they are passed off as the famous "Carazo bananas." Wiwilí and neighboring villages have been unable to impose their own brand name.

A jigsaw-puzzle city

Beyond its incipient and relative economic bonanza, Wiwilí is a town divided by the waters of the Río Coco and by a multitude of conflicts. The fact that it developed on both banks of the river at the same time marked its fragmentation. The municipal government, the main square and the church, which are normally grouped together in any ordinary Latin American town, are located in different and distant places—like some concrete expression of local discord. Local chiefs, political rivalries and family feuds are mixed together in a potentially explosive molotov cocktail of underdevelopment. The two sections of the town have different hyphenated names: Wiwilí-Jinoteguita and Wiwilí-Nueva Segovia, according to which direction their highway leads. There is no bridge across the river; all traffic between the two banks is in the hands of ferrymen who charge 50 cents per person, one-way.

They can't live by beans alone...

Donations arriving in Wiwilí in the wake of hurricane Mitch have also gotten caught up in local feuds. Discontent has spread on both banks of the river. While some complain that "aid coordinators are getting fat on donations, the people themselves have been saying that, so the aid has been suspended," others believe that "the Emergency Committee coordinator is really getting things done—if only he were mayor." Whatever the case, these disputes have caused many aid organizations to distribute donations at random, without the mediation of local authorities. As a result, truckloads of donations have been practically ambushed by the multitudes before even reaching their destinations.

Helicopters have landed daily with food and medicine, and those who have always been poor, the victims of the system who are often more in need than the victims of Mitch, are also claiming their right to it. Bands of them swarm the muddy roadways, open the way to let the trucks pass and then surround them until they receive their share. Later they sell the reward of their perseverance. A fifty-pound bag of donated beans sells at half the local market value; victims can't live by beans alone.

Who's going to make up the difference?

Humanitarian aid is scarce and there may not be enough to cover basic needs: housing, roads and working capital. The OAS will build half of the 1,346 homes that were destroyed with Taiwanese funding. There is also a German project, a "roof-plan," providing sheet metal for roofing. But it cannot satisfy the demand. "This won't be enough," said one alarmed victim, "who's going to make up the difference?"
The destruction of the roads is, in turn, obstructing the flow of commerce. The most audible uproar has come from the coffee producers, even though the multitudes of small producers are also affected. The sale of small livestock to provide income to confront the emergency, a traditional form of insurance for the poor, has been seriously limited. Those who lost part or all of their crops have sought to solve their immediate needs by selling off their pigs, but the bad conditions of the roads have impeded this and there's not enough food available to continue fattening the animals. Nor do local traders have sufficient working capital, so they are relocating. The majority had establishments on the banks of the Coco, where there is now little demand: restaurants are full of mud and the fear of epidemics is rampant.

Enter the "Mitch-Worm"

The bean crop suffered the most serious damage of all. Many families in Wiwilí rely on beans to generate income. For some, livestock acts as a form of life insurance, but any increase in the family fortune depends on their luck with the bean harvests. In many cases, a considerable area is dedicated to bean cultivation, with from 5 to 15 acres planted and maintained by poor farmers with nothing more than their own sweat, will and paltry resources. They have not received a cent from the as-yet intangible Rural Credit Fund, the government's supposed promoter of basic grain production.

Wiwilí lost nearly 100% of the last bean crop to Mitch's winds, which did not reach hurricane force in this region, but left an apocalyptic legacy in the form of unfamiliar black butterflies that have engendered voracious caterpillars. "We've never seen them before. It must be the end of the world," says Santos, a bean farmer from Los Placeres del Cuá, describing the ravages of the now-nicknamed "Mitch-worm."
In the absence of a predator (virus, bacteria, insect, etc.) that could control its unchecked growth, the "Mitch-worm" leveled entire bean crops in an extensive area of the region. "It's a resistant little bugger, you can't get rid of it with poison. And see how the leaves are chewed up when a caterpillar lands on them. When the worms get bigger, they really make noise," said one farmer we encountered along the way as he threshed his beans.

Another farmer sporting a Calvin Klein shirt—the kind that can't be had for less than $15 in a shopping center but in the imported bundles of bulk used clothing cost a mere $2—told us: "Some are harvesting a few bundles of beans. I was left with that small area growing over there. But what'll I be left with after threshing? At the most a quintal. It's pure pod with weedy little beans inside, tiny and all spotted. What am I going to get out of them now that those the worms didn't eat were hit by bacteria? It's always those rains. We only harvested the beans we sowed last. We've never had losses like this year. Not mice or slugs or white flies have ever done so much damage."
The rainy season has already come to an end in many areas, and anyway it is impossible to think that the season's third bean planting will compensate for the losses. On top of all this, the "Mitch-worm" plague remains a latent threat to future crops. In many cases, bean losses will require investments of over $1,000, a considerable sum for these small producers. It is equivalent to the price of just over two acres of land, the last resort for insolvent farmers who want to cancel their debts.

The challenge is to compensate producers for their bean losses, provide seeds so that they can replant, and offer alternatives in areas where it is too late for a last planting. The loss of bean crops in Wiwilí and in all other zones hit hard by Mitch has a whole series of consequences. It not only affects the producers' direct income, but also makes their repayment strategies unworkable. Normally, farmers receiving credits invest the money in livestock, then pay off those loans with profits from crop sales. Now, many will have to repay them by selling the very animals that they used the credits to buy—if they didn't drown in the flooding. They will thus be left with no working capital for the next agricultural cycle.

Even faced with such hardships, life hasn't come to a halt in Wiwilí. Traders are redisplaying their depleted stocks in provisional stalls; peasant farmers are gleaning the few beans they can rescue from the flood, the diseases and the worms; and the roads are being rehabilitated. And despite his talk of the "the end of the world," don Santos has tilled his land and bought seed for a next, immediate planting. Life goes on. A peasant reduces the situation to its essence: "a lucky year, a year of setbacks, that's the way it goes."

Transformation of the landscape

Is Wiwilí representative of Mitch's effects on local development? The region certainly wasn't one of the hardest-hit municipalities, but it is symptomatic of the ways in which Nicaraguan development has its own particular restraints, which are heightened or covered up by phenomena such as Mitch. But human history continues to be written, even despite phenomena such as Mitch.

With or without deforestation and global warming, geography has always been subject to transformations. The famous French historian Fernand Braudel relates how huge downpours in 1590 inundated the lowlands of Tuscany, Italy, completely destroying the newly planted fields: "The lowlands were, along with the Arno Valley, Tuscany's true granary; faced with the immensity of the disaster, the grand duke was obliged to go to Danzig (the first time this has ever happened) and ask for wheat for his people's survival . The mountain waters descended in wild torrents and nothing could stop them. Riverbeds that dry up in summer are often transformed into impetuous torrents during winter. In the Balkans, the Turkish bridges are extremely high, built in an arch and without central pillars, in attempt to offer the least resistance possible to the rapid rising of the rivers."
One local farmer remembers the effects of Hurricane Joan: "When Joan hit I had 100 head of cattle. Since that time, I've just gone backward. I've lost my house; the Río Cuá took her. I've lost my harvested coffee and the bushes. I had to sell 40 head of cattle to get myself back on my feet."

We were already victims

In the mountainous regions, the streams race downwards while the lowlands tend to gather up water. In the mountains there are landslides, in the valleys there is flooding. To avoid disaster, a thousand precautions should be taken: the building of dams, reservoirs, drainage ditches—all of which are patently lacking in northern Nicaragua. To make it possible to live in the rural zones, it is necessary to invest, to provide irrigation and construct roads without which transport and agriculture are impossible. Many areas of the First World—today the image of prosperity—have reached this as the culmination of a long, hard process and centuries of collective efforts. We want a peasant farming sector that sustains food security, that exports basic grains, coffee and livestock, that reforests and doesn't migrate to the cities, but we don't even provide them with roads to transport their harvests. So any Mitch that comes along breaks the fragile spinal column of the rural communities.

The challenge is to mitigate the effects of natural disasters and make sure that when they strike the poor are not left unprotected by a social disaster that has effectively abandoned them to their own luck. All that has happened demands a serious reflection on development and on what causes ongoing Mitches in areas like Wiwilí.

One person said, "We were already victims." And it's true, for many reasons. Worse than the "Mitch-worm" are the armed bands that have roamed this region since the end of the contra war. The recent damage to roads is not as great as the damage caused by the historical lack of access roads in rural areas, and by roads that, even without hurricanes, hardly receive any maintenance at all. The soil erosion caused by Mitch is not as serious as the daily misuse of arable lands. And Mitch's effects on the local infrastructure were really not so great because there was hardly any infrastructure to destroy.

Mountains and bandits

Armed bands of assailants are one hindrance to development that Wiwilí's inhabitants are forced to live with. Structurally, they are a reflection of what the mountains have always been: a refuge for people who live outside the law. Only war-like, aggressive men ready and able to live according to their own law dare to brave the most isolated regions. The idea of justice has still not penetrated these areas. People impose their own laws at gunpoint. All the links of coercion and subjection imposed in other parts through socio-political order and economic participation carry no weight here. The presence of bandit gangs is a reflection of the country's political ungovernability and its untenable economic situation.

Wenceslao Montenegro told us briefly of his experience with the bands: "Two years ago they tried to kidnap me. So I had to ditch my farm in La Esperanza and come to this place here by the Río Cuá. There, I had 3<$E1/2> acres of coffee with modern technology, 10 acres of pasture and 3 acres of woodland, a chainsaw, running water. I gave it all up and started over because of the bands. Before, there were only brambles and a mountain free for the taking; I established the crops all by myself. And today it's still the same story, because the person I sold to has also moved on."
Dealing with the disruption caused by the armed bands is like a recreation of the myth of Sisyphus: starting over and over again from zero. The region's productive capacity remains under-exploited and is continually abandoned. New investors are discouraged before they even get started. The bands have not been attracted by any of the offers made in return for laying down their arms and so remain a prolonged legacy of the war, a menacing obstacle to development. They are worse than Mitch and longer lasting.

The peasants don't use the roads

Perhaps the most serious drawback to development is the lack of roads and the terrible state of the few that do exist. The peasants don't use the roads; they travel by any old half-cleared path. And when they travel, they don't go very far, or take much with them. The fact that it takes 9 hours to travel the 270 kilometers from Wiwilí to Managua is significant. In Honduras the same journey would take 3 hours. This has made it possible for Honduras, even after Mitch, to continue shipping oranges to Nicaraguan markets.

Let's take a closer look at Honduras, a country even more economically demolished by the hurricane. Boxed oranges, juice and milk from Honduras travel over a thousand kilometers to reach Nicaraguan markets while milk from Wiwilí can only get as far as Jinotega, a distance of less than 90 kilometers, in the form of cheese. In Honduras, trucks reach the furthest cattle-producing corner of the country collecting milk, which allows for the efficient industrial processing of the country's milk supply. In Nicaragua, the minuscule development of highway networks and of coordination between industrial and commercial interests have caused us to lose millions in the generation of added value. It takes four liters of milk to produce one pound of cheese; each liter is priced at two córdobas (just under 20 cents) and one pound of cheese costs six córdobas (a little under 60 cents); for each pound of cheese produced there is thus a loss of two córdobas of added value, that is, six córdobas per day per cow.

Under these negative circumstances, cheese becomes a wage good—laborers are paid in part with food. Its byproduct, whey, is fed to pigs, which are central to the peasant diet and economy. This is the way that Nicaraguan farmers have found to optimize the benefits of their production, in the absence of more effective market mechanisms. Despite all this, however, such a situation still discourages cattle production, so there are farms in Wiwilí with 18 acres of pasture for only seven cows. Some of these same farmers also play the role of distributor, providing transport to Managua, where better prices can be obtained. But high transportation costs and a lack of information on prices, which makes it difficult to negotiate effectively, frequently undermine their efforts.

The same story that we saw with Honduran products is also true of produce from neighboring Costa Rica. Fruit and vegetables make their way from the remotest areas of that country to invade the Nicaraguan markets. One Wiwilí farmer explained the situation this way: "This ground is good for growing vegetables. The bad thing is that the market is so far away and transport is so expensive. Even with good soil, we can't do anything without transportation."
The government—which daily proclaims itself a "facilitator"—does not invest in roads in spite of the fact that communication is the first requirement for effective government. Since ancient times, only rulers with a network of well-constructed roadways could exercise any real control over their territories and subjects. Even the activities of the armed bands would probably be mitigated by more and better roads.

Soil use and abuse

Tropical soil is hostile to roads and prone to subsidence. It is frequently displaced and eroded, and constantly punished by the nature of migrant agriculture, known in Nicaragua as "cut, clear, fell, and burn." The pioneer peasant coming to the virgin agricultural frontier to "break the mountain" first gets rid of all vegetation and cultivates the fertile ground. The harvested plot is then burned to clear the land and eliminate crop diseases. The ashes add potassium and, at first, the soil is surprisingly productive. But land cleared this way is exposed to erosion and in six to ten years—depending on the slope, the wind, and the rains—the yields become lower and lower. Then, instead of increasing yields by replenishing the soil in appropriate ways, the peasant opts to migrate further into the mountains, repeating the process and pushing the agricultural frontier further back.

This model of migratory agriculture, which requires a comparatively extensive area of land per family, is the predominant system of subsistence agricultural, the cultivation method most used in humid, tropical areas. According to soil scientists, 30% of the earth's land surface cultivated for grain—the equivalent of about 360 million hectares—is farmed this way. In 1960, migratory agriculture fed some 250 million people, about 8% of the world population at the time.
But the system of migratory agriculture is sustainable only up to population densities of 25-30 inhabitants per square kilometer, about one inhabitant for each 2.3 acres. In Nicaragua, the need to produce greater quantities of food for an increasing national population, along with the peasants' desire to improve their standard of living, have initiated changes in the traditional means of planting and harvesting. There is no longer so much forest to fell, nor is it desirable to destroy what remains. Furthermore, independent of technical calculations relative to population density, migratory agriculture destroys forests, displaces people, contaminates river basins, and requires a continual renewal of social networks and infrastructure, all of which puts the model into question.

A permanent Mitch

When peasants raze lowland rainforest areas, they kill plants, destroy natural regenerative cycles, and cause chemical nutrients to be washed into river systems. The soil becomes more and more sterile. In typical tropical regions, where it is always warm and where for millennia heavy rainfalls have gradually depleted topsoil nutrients, the ground is poor. Populations grow up around river estuaries because there it is possible to cultivate the fertile topsoils eroded and washed down from the mountains to the river valleys.

In Wiwilí, the climate and soil fertility attract an influx of migrant farmers. But for how long? Peasants plant on 60 degree slopes in Wiwilí. Predatory agriculture is changing the landscape: a permanent Mitch. Only the adoption of soil conservation techniques can avert inevitable drops in fertility and production. The Municipal Development Association (ADEM) has been working in Wiwilí for four years, trying to inculcate these techniques. A German sister city provides funds for the program and an extensive network of promoters guarantees the program's presence throughout the municipality. Nevertheless, not one live fence can be found on any of the hillsides. In the long term, this lack of conservation will produce an effect far more devastating than Mitch.

Non-citizens of two worlds

Today's peasants could be considered citizens of two worlds: the traditional world and the world of the market. In reality, they are excluded from both. The traditional world means subsistence, a non-monetary economy, and empiric botanical/nutritional knowledge of the natural world that surrounds them. By becoming involved in export production and other consumption patterns—where money is the inevitable mediator—peasants have gradually entered the world of the market. Export crops, especially coffee, are replacing the traditional basic grains crops and extensive cattle-rearing. This is destroying the possibility of diversified production and jeopardizing local food security. It is also erasing a centuries-old traditional knowledge of botany, alternative medicine and nutrition.

Peasant farmers are left rigidly "specialized." That is the technical term. In Wiwilí, as in many other areas of the country, peasant farmers have forgotten the virtues of many of the plants that surround them; they don't hunt; they don't fish; they don't plant fruit trees or vegetable gardens. They have become mono-thematic: coffee, basic grains, and/or cattle. "I don't grow vegetables because I don't know how," says one producer from a region where they did in fact used to know "how"—a technique that could protect them. The fact is that those who have diversified production and have coffee, cattle, chia, corn, tomatoes, etc., did not suffer as much from the ravages of Mitch.

In general, Wiwilí's peasants—and those of other areas who are also "victims"—have the worst of both worlds. They integrated into the market by switching to mono-cropping and were thus displaced from their rural world. At the same time they became dependent on the market oscillations of a couple of products. They used to know how to live in their surrounding world. With their pseudo-integration into the market, they lost diversity, know-how and recourse to traditional wisdom, all of which had enabled them to survive in and make a living from the mountains. They were turned into slaves of the market, but without being provided the means to become part of it in any real or competitive way. They haven't even been provided with roads to move their products and obtain the information they need in order to negotiate on an equal footing. They don't even have access to the basic electricity, potable water, health, or education services that would make it more attractive to stay on in the countryside. For them, it is the worst of both worlds.

The shopping-mall illusion

While all this is happening in Wiwilí, business promoters and the media in Managua, 270 kilometers to the south, are busy portraying the mushrooming shopping centers as sublime symbols of our economic growth. For example, the newspaper La Tribuna proclaimed triumphantly on November 26 (less than a month after Mitch hit) that "to speak of economic growth, there must be palpable proof that demonstrates the improved economic conditions of a society. And in Nicaragua, the grand opening of the Metrocentro Commercial Complex is a good example of this. The installation of famous international franchises supports that evidence. The effects caused by the devastating power of Mitch can be mitigated by constructions such as this, providing a response to the demands for recreation and relaxation—now offered in Metrocentro, all under the same roof."
Is this the model on which big business, the media, and the government are gambling? What possible benefits can such a model bring to the peasants of rural Nicaragua? Will the shopping centers sell farmers' milk or artisans' furniture? Wiwilí milk will not be an ingredient in any of the milkshakes sold there. It will have no chance of reaching the glasses or tables of the transnational fast-food stores. There will be a place for imported perfumes, but not Matagalpa strawberries; for Kerns cold cuts, but not for pineapples and pitahayas from La Concha or for Pantasma's bananas; for Quaker oatmeal, but not for Somotillo jícaro seeds; for Kellogg's corn flakes, but not for pinolillo; for Nike tennis shoes, but not for shoes made in Masaya; for the Rolling Stones, but not for Camilo Zapata. . .

Will we carry on like this?

Trade barriers are dissolving for transnational products, but there's no need to block the access of national products with tariffs or duties. The barriers that exist are more difficult to break than those imposed by taxes. Patterns of import consumerism, deplorable road conditions, and the underdevelopment of our commercial and industrial sectors provide a more than sufficient blockade. It's like an ever-present Mitch. Meanwhile, among the shoppers in the malls will be development officials and NGO directors working in cooperation with the government.

Are we going to carry on like this? While in the city we promote the squandering of scarce resources, the rural areas produce them come hell or high water, sometimes with alms from the NGOs. Some producers now depend on what they receive from NGOs and other international financial organizations: seeds, technology, credit. "We're hoping for aid from some organization, whatever comes our way," says Andrés, who lost the bean harvest in which his hopes were planted. Something happened before Mitch and it was worse and it's still continuing. The system of development, based on a kind of misunderstood compassion, has not worked. That system has proved to be a bottomless pit for external aid. It is now twenty years since hurricane Fifi and ten years since Joan passed through, attracting aid to the region that failed to bring development. Let's not give alms to the rural sector. That's not what they need. The urgent need is to create the conditions to allow already-existing capabilities a chance to bloom and grow.

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