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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 190 | Mayo 1997



Local Power: The Participation That Makes Miracles

Democracy that begins and ends with the ballot box transforms nothing and changes nobody. Democracy where the people participate and the authorities are honest promotes community, development, hope and the future.

Alejandro González

Among Nicaragua's 145 municipalities, some local governments stand out because they've done a thousand and one things to benefit their people and because of their vocation to govern serving their communities with love. Some local governments have managed to establish work strategies to transform their small municipal worlds, creating jobs and productive activities, fighting against extreme poverty and for an end to the sadness that poverty causes, bringing health, education and recreation to the community. To do all of this they have had tenacity, perseverance and organization, and sometimes the support of NGOs.

In these municipalities there was and is democracy, there was and is participation, well beyond the participation that translates into votes to elect the municipal government. Grassroots participation in community problem solving has had surprising results in El Castillo, in Nindirí, in Moyogalpa, in Altagracia, in El Rosario on the Carazo plateau, and in San Francisco Libre along the northern edge of Lake Xolotlán, among others. We visited two of these municipalities because we wanted to see the path they have made and learn how they did it.

El Rosario: A Transformed World

In October 1996, a little over half of the almost 2,000 voters from El Rosario elected the same mayor for the third consecutive term, something unknown in Nicaragua's political history, plagued by the ephemeral. The leadership of Juan Ramón Jiménez, a Sandinista who in 1996 participated as a candidate of the MRS (Sandinista Renovation Movement), is indisputable given his charisma, his close communication with the population and his willingness to work day and night for the community. This mayor has been the head of local government for the last 17 years and has achieved a radical transformation in his municipality.

El Rosario is a 6-square-mile area that became a municipality in 1848 but until the 1980s was in its 100 years of solitude, asleep in its poverty. Today a visit to El Rosario surprises. The streets of the small town are almost totally paved, there's a basketball court, baseball stadium and parks, a health center, school and institute, potable water and even street lights. It's the same in the rural communities; development has been evenly spread out and there are schools, parks, water and electricity.

"There is no poor municipality. The wealth of all is in popular participation," explains Juan Ramón, who is currently finishing up his studies in Business Administration.

Popular participation is the key: not giving to the people, but the people giving to themselves, participating. "For everything that we do, we in the local government seek the support of state institutions or nongovernmental organizations. We seek support everywhere, but for projects we only ask for help with the materials needed. The rest: the 'spirit,' the effort, the energy, we put all that in ourselves," says El Rosario's mayor with pride.

To construct the baseball stadium, the mayor got funding to cover 50% of the work's budget. In a short time the stadium was 100% built. The mayor's office bought the cement, the iron and the fencing, and the community finished buying the rest of the materials and did all the work. The four municipal baseball teams became four construction brigades. The team leaders and some 100 fans, organized by natural leaders, also worked on the construction. Youth leaders organized youth brigades. There were days when more than 100 people were working unceasingly, some leveling the ground, others laying rocks, others carting materials. That was how the stadium was built, complete with bleachers and roofed areas.

"Doing things this way, not only is the project completed, but there's also another great result: people care more for what they had to work for," explained a board member of the "Los Combinados" baseball team with conviction. "They take better care of what they worked on. You should see how the players and the people take care of this stadium. Everyone does."

To Participate Is to be Organized

But to participate is not only to work. It's also to decide how the work will be done, to organize for work. Almost all of El Rosario's streets are already paved or semi-paved. When each street was to be fixed, the municipal government called an assembly with residents of that street to discuss work schedules and organization of resources. Once agreements were made, the mayor's office supplied the cobblestones, tools, wheelbarrows and a construction foreman to organize the technical aspects. The people have rebuilt their own streets. And people worked not only on their own streets, but helped people on other streets too.

This doesn't mean that the local government only gets the money and then sits back and rests. Municipal workers are always on top of the job. They were on site at the street project, making sure no materials were missing and that there were no conflicts because of sidewalk borders.

Sometimes the population moves forward so quickly to solve its own problems that it "spurs on" the local government. Then the government has to get moving. In a potable water project for the Berta Díaz community on the outskirts of town, it was explained to the benefiting population of some 30 families that the mayor's office could offer tubes and faucets and install them, but that the families would have to dig the two-mile ditch for the pipes going from El Rosario to their community. All hands to the shovel. Men, women, boys and girls worked together for four days with such extraordinary speed that the mayor's office had to give them two plumbers in order to keep up with the speed at which the ditch advanced to conquer the community's thirst. On the fifth day the Berta Díaz community had water.

Those who Participate Care More Later

What belongs to everybody belongs to nobody. And that's who takes care of it, nobody. But if public property, belonging to all, was built by each one, things can change and the negligence can disappear.

"In addition to the central park in front of the church," the mayor told us, "we've also built small parks next to schools in rural zones. The students are in charge of planting trees, watering the plants, caring for the park. We had various goals: that the parks be converted into play areas for the schools, that children be taught about caring for collective property, and that in some of the parks students plant a collection of lumber and fruit tree species for a small botanical garden."
The students, parents, teachers and community members made these parks and now feel that the parks belong to them. The children are the primary park caretakers. This educates them about civic responsibility, collaboration and respect for the collective.

Useful and also beautiful. Everything must be cared for. The El Rosario mayor's office has also promoted the planting of ornamental plants everywhere: in the park, in the streets, in the rural parks, in the schools, in the mile stretch that links El Rosario with the Pan American Highway. No one mistreats these ornamental plants; they grow peacefully and are well cared for. "It's the result of popular participation," says Juan Ramón Jiménez with no hesitation or doubt.

Beautiful and also the cultural root, excluding no one. The local government is also building a Catholic church next to the present, very deteriorated one. El Rosario's mayor is a member of the Parish Council and participates in all its activities. And the parish is in turn one of the consultants to the local government and participates in its plans. This doesn't prevent ecumenism; the mayor's office also supports the various Protestant dominations in diverse ways, coordinating with them for some activities. The mayor makes sure he has excellent relationships with all the pastors. And the pastors say the same about the mayor.

Sports: A Space For Participation

The sports arena is a privileged space for convocation and participation. The local government has stressed sports promotion for years. In addition to the baseball stadium, two basketball courts have been built and work is being done on a soccer field. The mayor's office gets uniforms and equipment for the different sports teams. "The mayor is the primary sponsor of sports teams and even referees some games," we were told by some boys playing basketball in the park.

Local government leaders also consider sports a magnificent arena for leadership formation. The sports stars, team leaders and managers are encouraged to be community leaders in projects that the local government promotes. Many of these young athletes have been sent to Managua by the municipal government to courses and workshops organized by NGOs to train community leaders.

Honesty Promotes Participation

People participate more and make greater efforts when they see results. And when they see honesty. El Rosario's local government has established transparent communication with the community to thus guarantee financial transparency. Each time it plans to initiate a project it holds assemblies with the beneficiary population to explain the financial aspects and the actions taken to obtain financing. With numbers in front of them, the beneficiaries and the government collectively discuss the projects and the support the community can offer, and commissions and work brigades are formed. While the project is being carried out there are always meetings to discuss problems that come up and to reorient some tasks. All of this assures the best resource use and greatest efficiency. At the end, when the project is completed, an evaluation assembly takes place.

But El Rosario is not a perfect world, obviously. None of these assemblies or meetings, before or after each project, avoids conflicts. There are accusations, violent discussions, tensions. Those who worked harder question those who worked less. The political detractors of the local government take the opportunity to launch criticisms, even when gratuitous. The meetings reflect real life. And the local government is there, one more member in real life. None of these tensions have caused any project to fail, however.

Municipal tax collection in El Rosario nets the local government such a small income that it doesn't even cover the payroll of the mayoral office's few workers. The monthly collection hits some 5,000 córdobas (under $550) tops, when it is 100% and no one owes back taxes. There is no door-to-door tax collector, because civic responsibility has developed to such a degree that people are now accustomed to going to the mayor's office and paying their taxes. Stores, bars and bakeries go the 15th of every month to pay their 5, 10 or 15 córdobas. But they don't fail to go. The local government's excellent work has made the population believe in it and express its confidence and support by paying taxes. It knows that this financial support will only enrich the community with new projects.

El Rosario's municipal government has obtained financing from state institutions such as FISE, the National Assembly and some private businesses. But El Rosario wouldn't have been able to do so much without the financial support of various NGOs, now endangered by the centralizing authoritarianism of the Liberal government in Managua. The municipal government works with innumerable such organizations. European NGOs have supported various projects, as has the national Augusto C. Sandino Foundation. A Nordic NGO has even facilitated Finnish youth brigades that have worked alongside Nicaraguans on various construction projects.

A Future Full of Projects

To be financially self-sustainable is the ideal, but not in the sense of being an unreachable goal. Two concrete hopes for achieving it are already in the wings: one is by gradually implementing the new Land Tax and the other is approval by the National Assembly of the Municipal Law Reforms so that a greater percentage of the national budget-from 5% to 8% -will be transferred from the central government to local governments.

While this is taking place, a concrete decision is to begin creating some municipal enterprises that can be profitable and allow the mayor's office to increase its income. One thought is to start a nursery with fruit, ornamental and lumber trees both to initiate a reforestation campaign and to make money through sales. There is also an idea to develop a recreational project on a small wooded farm near El Rosario with a pool, horses and a restaurant that promotes consumption of food, liquors and traditional sweets. Another project is a municipal library with the characteristics of a cultural center, with an auditorium and exposition room. And a cultural and recreational youth center administered by the young people themselves as a productive business. All of these initiatives are attempts to combine opportunities for responsible participation with economic profitability, to reduce donations and subsidies.

Other projects address economic and ecological issues. The mayor's office is behind the creation of a municipal credit bank with revolving funds to finance small producers and cottage industry-carpenters, bakers, cobblers, tortilla makers and the like. It is also behind organic fertilizer. The project will begin with an educational process: institute students and ecological brigades will go house by house to explain to the entire population how to separate organic and non-organic trash. In El Rosario trash is collected door to door by horse-drawn wagons. The compost that is obtained from the organic trash will be available to peasants to fertilize their soil.

The mayor is convinced of the success of this new business as well as of the others, because the people of El Rosario have been responsible and organized. They are poor peasants, but years ago they learned to work together, to resolve problems, to negotiate among themselves, to respect different opinions, to join efforts, to think, to decide, to ask for accountability and be accountable. With so much rich participation they are no longer so poor.

San Francisco Libre: Another World is Transformed

El Rosario did not achieve this just because it's small. We found a similar and multiplied experience in San Francisco, with a territory 70 times greater than El Rosario. Located on the northern coast of Lake Xolotlán (Lake Managua), this peasant municipality, also impoverished, has had successive local Sandinista governments which have carried out admirable activities in favor of its residents, who like those of El Rosario had been forgotten for decades. The current municipal government, also Sandinista, is a continuation -with new vitality- of the previous one. Cruz Bermúdez, elected mayor in 1996, came to a local power that was already in a transformation process.

The municipal seat was known before 1979 as San Francisco del Carnicero (the Butcher). Its dusty unpaved roads were trod by a population in clear signs of desperate poverty. Now known as San Francisco Libro, it is no longer the same town. The streets are paved and have electricity, there's a school and health center, and there's potable water. The transformation is even greater in the rural communities, with wells, reforestation projects and hundreds of peasants organized in production collectives. Most importantly, there's now a local government with accumulated experience and a population convinced, also by experience, that with effort and organization it can escape poverty and resolve its problems.

Sentenced to the Desert

In 1991, despite the changes that the revolution brought to this place, technicians considered San Francisco to be in an irreversible desertification process. Twenty-seven rivers had dried up in the municipality, the wells were drying up and Lake Xolotlán was creeping ever farther away from its coast. Five years of drought, as well as the credit drought with which the Chamorro government punished agricultural producers, had the people at the edge of desperation.

Many saw firewood as the only solution. Some 50 trucks filled with it left San Francisco Libre daily for Managua, where over 60% of the population still cooks with wood. It is estimated that some 17,000 truckloads of firewood left San Francisco in 1991 alone. This means 450 trees-6 acres of them-were cut daily, 178 acres monthly, 2,142 annually. In this devastation, 1,090,000 saplings were also destroyed to use their bark as twine to bind the firewood instead of spending money on rope. Hunger pushed people toward environmental suicide. A government report estimated that by 1995 the environmental deterioration of San Francisco Libre would definitively expel its population from the by-then desertified zone.

"Pedagogy of Love": The Miracle

Faced with this distressing perspective, then-mayor Manuel Espinoza thought of a "miracle" and sought out Orlando Pineda Flores. Pineda is a teacher impassioned by the vocation of teaching and educating. He was the artifice in the 1980s and 90s of titanic literacy efforts in Nicaragua's most difficult territories, particularly in the department of Río San Juan. Through his practice Pineda created a philosophy that he terms the "pedagogy of love." He is the coordinator of the Carlos Fonseca Amador Foundation, a national NGO dedicated to literacy. "To learn to read," says Orlando, "is also to shake off backwardness and poverty, to learn to live by something." Orlando Pineda is a revolutionary who has not been worn down by time, electoral defeats or national policy inconsistencies. At the end of 1991, he moved to San Francisco Libre with his technicians, his perseverance, his pedagogy of love and his backpack full of hope.

The initial job, the first step, was to teach the communities to read. And as they read and wrote for the first time, they learned about preventive health, poultry and pork raising, and pineapple, pitahaya and avocado cultivation. Over 4,000 people participated in the final process of the literacy program, among them technicians, popular teachers and municipal inhabitants who had learned to read in those months. On August 23, 1993 -the 13th anniversary of the Literacy Campaign organized by the revolution- San Francisco Libre was declared another of Pineda's winners: a "territory free of illiteracy."

Learning by Doing: Productive Literacy

Education -not just instruction, but real education- is the first step in the development process. Shortly after its arrival in 1991, the Carlos Fonseca Amador Association (CFA) formed the Roberto González Rocha Peasant School, based on the educational concept of learning by doing. Doing tasks and making community. It's not only a literacy school, but a school of life so that the population can find alternatives. This Peasant School has been the base for the productive organization, training and literacy of hundreds of peasants from dozens of production collectives that today have a future. "Our efforts are not only to give hope, which is already a lot of work. It's to help those hopes become reality," we were told by Adrián Cruz Santana, CFA head in San Francisco Libre.
In the Peasant School locale are experimental gardens and various nontraditional crops, a nursery with fruit and lumber trees, poultry and pork production. The peasants are trained in daily or Saturday courses as community leaders and promoters, "teaching literacy" in new knowledge and techniques. The technicians also go to the communities to "teach literacy" to peasants through productive activities, giving technical assistance and supporting the collectives. Over half of the school's graduates are women.

Municipal Task: Promote Productive Work

The new mayor, Cruz Bermúdez, is a young man who radiates vitality. He took over the job in January, but for some years he had worked with the mayor's office and with NGOs on municipal development projects. "Our primary concern is that there be jobs for everyone, some sort of productive activity to generate income for the families." Give jobs to the people, move them out of idleness, help them produce, make them creators. The local San Francisco Libre government and the Carlos Fonseca Amador Association and its Peasant School are working arduously on this goal, sometimes in a combined form, sometimes not. The results are amazing.

The pitahaya and pineapple collectives work very well. The groups are organized by trying to bring people together who are as similar as possible. Various neighbor families make up the collectives and elect a board and a coordinator. Some collectives are coordinated by women and there is even a pineapple production collective with a young woman who coordinates, among others, older peasants. Each collective goes through a "productive literacy" process, after which they are supported with seeds, tools and materials to build their nurseries. After that they work alone, but the school maintains constant technical consulting services. The methodology of minimum subsidies, combined with a counterpart of maximum group and personal effort, has been successful. More than 20 collectives cultivate some 25 acres of pineapple and another 25 of pitahaya. The next challenge is "marketing literacy": knowing how to sell to bring the community the greatest profit. Productive literacy also includes learning accounting. And they learn.

Poultry farming is another program geared to women. The beneficiaries are "taught literacy": how to feed poultry, vaccinate them, get higher production yields. Each woman is given 10 adult hens. At the end of one year those 10 should have produced some 150 chicks. Each woman has to give 10 female chicks to another woman in order to multiply the experience. They earn both money and the consciousness of power and sisterhood, the satisfaction of one poor person helping another.

Everyone Wants to Participate

The rapid and surprising productive results visible to everyone have unleashed self-confidence and hopes for a better future. All of the communities are demanding to be included in pineapple, avocado or pitahaya projects, or in poultry or pork farming. They already know how to calculate that the El Mayro pig farm alone will produce 400 pigs weighing 200 lbs. each in two years. And everyone wants to participate.

Everyone wants to work. In San Francisco Libre over 180 communal wells have been built. A peasant woman who has a well with a rope pump in the backyard of her house tells about the process: "We met with the project people in the mayor's office, who explained that the wells were financed by a friendly NGO, and talked about how we planned to do the work. Finally, it was decided to dig the well in my backyard because it's central to all the houses on this side of the community. Then they brought us building materials: cement, stones and the rope pump. They also lent us some tools. We carried the stones ourselves, dug the hole, built the mouth of the well, everything, everything. A project technician came and installed the rope pump and explained very clearly to all the men and boys how to put it together and take it apart. Even women learned. That was over a year ago and since then we've never lacked water. This little well has been a blessing. Before we had to carry water from the river, more than a mile."

Counting on the Women

It's critical to incorporate women into any development project. This has been demonstrated in San Francisco Libre, especially in one of the projects which was termed "Water for Women," because they're the ones who make the most efforts to supply water for the home, carrying buckets of it on their heads from long distances. A solidarity NGO also financed this project, a state engineer decided where the ditch should be dug and which tubing should be used and the mayor's office got the shovels. The rest-intense labor-was done by 100 women who organized to dig the ditch. At the end men participated too. "But the women were the 'owners' of their project and they were the ones who discussed, decided and implemented," Cruz Bermúdez told us. "It was a project done by women."

Everything is Decided Together

The close and frank communication that exists between the local government and the population is another democratic key. Part of this communication comes from the transparent and periodic public accountability that the local government offers the community. Each activity that the mayor's office develops, whether with its own funds or with support from NGOs, is preceded by a community assembly, especially including the beneficiaries, to explain in detail the project that will be carried out, discuss how to implement it, inform them of how much financial or material resources they can count on and decide what work each person will offer to complete the project.

After the end of each project, the assembly evaluates and reviews everything that was done and reflects on the experience. That is how experience is gained and development happens.

Reforestation: A Project for Everyone

Reforestation projects are developed around the community wells. A small nursery is installed, the well beneficiaries are trained in land preparation techniques, plant care, fruit hybrids, etc. The nurseries include trees that can become lumber (eucalyptus, cedar, mahogany and guanacaste, among others) and fruit trees (mandarin, oranges, mangos, avocados, lemons, coconut). The nurseries "linked" to the wells have given good results. They help guarantee the presence of water and the families work closely together to care for them. The nurseries belong to everyone and the hope that they will bear fruit in backyards and farms and later on the family table is a concrete hope, especially for mothers and grandmothers, who are the ones behind the push for the trees to grow and produce fruit.

On June 5, 1996, Orlando Pineda inaugurated El Paraíso Park, located in the last wooded area remaining in the municipality, a 1,500-acre area that had survived years of deforestation. For years, the CFA fought tenaciously to prevent the firewood merchants from touching the reserve. The park opened on World Earth Day and the hundreds of participants celebrated by planting 20,000 seedlings, added to the 16,000 that the Association had planted earlier.

Despite such huge reforestation efforts and the convincing of almost the entire population of the dangerous effects of cutting down trees, the extraction of firewood has continued, though to a lesser degree. Today only some eight firewood trucks leave San Francisco Libre daily. "The long-term solution is to find other work options for those who sell firewood and to implement management plans and tree replacement," says the mayor realistically.

In recent years peasants who cut down trees for firewood have also had a nursery, where they plant and care for several trees for each one they cut down. They have been supported in installing these nurseries, which has led to a dispersed reforestation throughout the municipality.

There's hope. There are technicians who guarantee that San Francisco could become a firewood producing municipality in a stable and sustainable fashion. Dozens of people with great experience in this activity have joined to reach this goal. "The ideal is to integrate firewood production within a forestry plan that takes energy needs into account," states a municipal UNAG leader.

Juggling Makes Everything Go Farther

The local San Francisco Libre government has also promoted various urban, health, formal education and sports improvement activities. They are also promoting projects unique in Nicaragua, such as the Hydrotherapy and Mud Therapy Medicinal Center that the CFA is building, taking advantage of nearby water sources, which will be serving the population in a few months.
The municipal government receives 24,000 córdobas monthly through tax collection, which is nothing given the population's demands. The government also counts on the solidarity of three small European NGOs and coordinates activities with the national Carlos Fonseca Amador Association, a national NGO supported by other NGOs. Some activities have been funded by FISE.

The money is important, but even more important is the popular participation in plan implementation. The community has paved streets, built some 700 latrines and built schools in San Benito, La Conquista, Santa María, La Trinidad. "A three-room school costs us only $4,500," says Cruz Bermúdez. "The NGOs that support us are very satisfied when they see how far their money goes and how we make the money they have given us bear fruit with our work."
"The municipal government juggles, but the juggling acts are always transparent," he adds, explaining that "making the money that we get go farther and coordinating people's efforts requires juggling. For example, we received money for some nurseries and the project includes salaries for workers. That's where the juggling begins: we call on the baseball team and tell them, `We'll give you uniforms and equipment if you work in the nurseries voluntarily. We can promote sports with the savings from the salaries.' We stretch out the money and do more than was originally budgeted. Everybody's happy. And our NGO friends are the happiest of all, because they see their solidarity multiplying."
The financial, technical and moral support of the NGOs in this municipality and so many others throughout Nicaragua is immeasurable. Without their cooperation it would have been impossible to promote so much participation to the point of renewing hope in a territory that was at death's door yesterday and today is blooming.

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