Nicaragua is a fundamentally agrarian country. Despite that, there is little information available about the situation in the countryside, the living conditions of the campesinos or the gains and the problems of the revolutionary process in the rural areas.
Nicaragua is an agricultural country. Yet one hears little or the situation in the rural areas, the life of the campesinos, the achievements and problems of the revolution in this area. The voice of the Nicaraguan campesino, like that of the majority of campesinos in the Third World, is not picked up by the international news agencies.
With this mailing, we begin a series of articles on rural Nicaragua. In order to provide an overall perspective, we begin by interviewing three persona who hold leadership positions in institutions and organizations working with the campesinos; Eduardo Baumeister, member of CIERA, Center for Investigations and Studies on Agrarian Reform; Ariel Bucasdo, member of the national directorate of the National Union of Agricultural and Livestock Producers (UNAG); and Francisco López, head of international relations for the Association of Rural Workers (ATC).
Here we will present an overview of Nicaragua’s natural resources, agricultural products, land distribution, the different social sectors and some of the characteristics and consequences of an agro-exporting economy. We will also describe the situation of the campesino and worker organizations, their history, objectives and problems.
In the next two mailings, we will focus on the concrete situation of the campesino and agricultural laborer in specific regions of the country.
In previous mailings, we have discussed the role of agriculture in the national economic plans (mailing 5, October 1981) and the Agrarian Reform law (mailing 3, August 1981).
Geographic and Socio-economic Aspects of Rural NicaraguaNicaragua is a sparsely populated country. Of the total 130,000 km2 land area, approximately 50,000 km2 are used for cattle raising and 10,000 km2 for the cultivation of crops. The remainder is unutilized land, some suitable for cultivation, and the rest mountains and dense forest.
The quality of the land varies according to the geographical situation. The tropical lands, with abundant rainfall, cannot be worked constantly and need a long rotation cycle. The Pacific zone, with a subtropical climate and volcanic soil, is considered to have the best land for agriculture. The Central and Atlantic zones, with longer rainy season, provide pastures almost all year round and thus this zone is preferable for cattle raising.
Areas of ProductionAgricultural production in Nicaragua may be divided into three primary areas; 1) basic grains; 2) export crops, principally cotton, coffee and sugar; and 3) cattle raising. Traditionally, basic grains such as corn and beans have been produced by peasant farmers, using rudimentary tools and the manual labor of their families. Rice production utilizes a more advanced level of technnnology and thus is primarily in the hands of large-scale private producers.
Among the export crops, cotton uses the most advanced technology. In the 1950’s, when cotton production began in Nicaragua, a whole technological package was imported from the United States. (Today Central America has the highest cotton yield per acre in the world.) While there are more than 2,500 cotton producers in Nicaragua, the bulk of the land planted to cotton is controlled by a relatively small number of large producers. Sizeable amounts of private capital have also been invested in the extraction of cotton seed and processing of cotton fiber.
Coffee is the most traditional export crop and the least developed technologically. There are more than 15,000 coffee producers in Nicaragua, mostly small- and medium-sized producers. While some large producers do exists, their influence is not great in the production sphere. It is in the processing of coffee and in its marketing, however, where the dominant sector invested capital and one finds economic concentration.
In sugar, the small producer does not play a significant role as 80% of the sugar is produced and processed on a few large plantations and mills.
In the most prosperous times, Nicaragua had approximately 2,800,000 head of cattle. Of land dedicated to cattle raising, there were two to three manzanas for every head of cattle. Today the number of cattle has been reduced substantially due to war and cattle rustling. This extensive use of land is due not only to irrational land use inherited from the past, but also to the fact that Nicaragua has so much land. In the cattle-raising sector, there are both large land owners and small- and medium-sized producers.
Social SectorsThree large social sectors may be identified in Nicaragua’s rural areas: the peasant farmers, the permanent agricultural laborers and the seasonal agricultural laborers. There are approximately 250,000 peasant farmers, the majority of whom are small producers of basic grains such as corn, sorghum and beans, as well as coffee. This sector also has some participation in cattle raising and cotton production. Permanent agricultural laborers are those who are employed as salaried workers during at least 9 months of the year. The seasonal agricultural laborers work as hired laborers during the coffee, cotton and sugar harvests. During the rest of the year, this group may rent land or work as share croppers or tenant farmers, or migrate to the city looking for temporary employment. The plan of Agrarian Reform is to gradually provide permanent employment for this sector by granting them land or employment in the agro-industrial sector.
The Agrarian Reform will gradually delineate two large sectors within the rural area: the small- and medium-sized producers working individually or organized into cooperatives, and the permanent agricultural laborers. To this end, the government is promoting the development of agro-industry, which will fulfill an important function in the Nicaraguan economy. The development of agro-industry will open new steady employment for those who are now seasonal agricultural laborers.
Large scale private land owners and those involved in the agro-industrial sector who are producing efficiently will also continue to play an important role in the economy. (see mailing 3, the Agrarian Reform Law in Nicaragua: A Study of the Nature, Necessity and Conditions of this Law). The following chart shows the role of the private sector and the state sector in the different areas of production.
### TABLA 1
(NOTE: In the Land Use Chart , the numbers refer to millions of manzanas; 1 manzana = 1.7 acres.)###
ECONOMIC DEPENDENCEForeign capital has never played a significant role in agricultural production itself. Foreign companies such as United Fruit, which have operated in Honduras and Costa Rica, have not been involved directly in production in Nicaragua. Rather, foreign capital has been invested primarily in commerce and financing, thereby avoiding the risks of production, yet reaping the profits associated with these financial transactions. Since the victory, foreign commerce has been government-controlled.
Nicaragua suffers a type of economic dependence typical of the Third World. Nicaragua buys and sells in the world market and is dependent for its foreign exchange on a few agricultural products over whose price it has no control. The prices of Nicaragua’s major export products on the world market have continued to decline relative to those of the industrialized products which Nicaragua needs for production, such as pesticides, fertilizer and machinery. This widening differential between prices of exports and imports has further aggravated Nicaragua’s problem of foreign indebtedness and has made the country more dependent on external finance to reactivate the economy.
Since the victory, the Nicaraguan government has been trying to diversify its sources of imports and markets for exports to reduce dependence on a single trading partner. Nicaragua has traditionally depended heavily on trade with the United States, and so now it is also developing trade relations with Canada, Japan, western Europe, and other Third World countries, particularly in Latin America, and the Arab and Socialist countries.
Organizations In The Rural AreasDuring the Somoza regime, all of the rural movements were systematically repressed. This is still reflected in the campesino’s low living standards and in the rural economic, social and political structures. Today, 34,000 agricultural laborers are organized in the Association of Rural Workers, (ATC) and more than 100,000 small- and medium-sized producers are affiliated with the National Union of Agricultural and Livestock Producers, (UNAG). The ATC was formed in 1976 as a clandestine organization and after the triumph became the first association which attempted to organize all the agricultural workers and campesinos in the country. In April 1981, UNAG was formed in order to respond to the particular interests of the small- and medium-sized producers, while the ATC now concentrates on the agricultural laborers.
More than 80% of the organized agricultural laborers and campesinos in the country belong to the ATC or the UNAG. The rest are affiliated with other organizations such as CTN and CAUS in the agricultural laborers sector, and CUS in the cooperatives sector.
The seasonal agricultural laborers do not fall into either of these two sectors. There are approximately 150,000 seasonal laborers, but this is a difficult sector to organize because of their diverse interests due to their migratory status and changing positions in the production process. The Agrarian Reform is gradually solving these problems by granting the seasonal laborers land or employment within the expanding agro-industrial sector. Meanwhile both the ATC and UNAG are attempting to respond to the needs of the seasonal laborers.
To give a better description of the organizing efforts of the UNAG and ATC, we present the following excerpts from interviews with Ariel Bucasdo, member of UNAG’s national directorate and Francisco López,
I.- The Situation of the Agricultural Laborers and Campesinos in Nicaragua.Q. What are the principal problems of the agricultural laborers in both the APP (People’s Property Area)* and in the private sector? (*NOTE: The APP is the term used in Nicaragua to refer to lands and property administered by the government. The nationalized commercial systems and foreign trade are also part of the APP.)
A. Francisco López, ATC: There are salary problems. Some private businesses, and even some APP businesses do not pay minimum wages. There are serious food problems on the private farms, and also in the APP, though to a lesser degree. There are problems in the area of housing, health, and workers’ participation. Many administrators, and this includes some in the APP, don’t like workers to participate in administrative decisions. Many times economic mistakes are committed because the participation of the workers is not taken into consideration. This often means losses in the harvest and lower production levels.
There are also low levels of productivity on the part of the workers. This is due to the economic structures we inherited and to a lack of political consciousness, which is directly related to the lack of a tradition of organizing in the country. In rural Nicaragua, trade union or campesino organizations were never permitted. In the case of El Salvador or Guatemala, or Cuba before the revolution, there has been a long trade union tradition.
We also lack organizers, resources and leadership ability. Many times in disputes, our people at the grass-roots level do not have the necessary skills. We are all learning.
After the victory, the workers and the Nicaraguan people in general had great expectations. We thought that manna was going to fall from heaven. Many people who were not politicized and who lacked experience and orientation from us thought that the revolution meant less work and more pay. This resulted in a decrease in productivity which we are now overcoming. We have made notable advances in the area of labor discipline and efficiency.
There are businesses and farms in Nicaragua where worker participation and coordination is good and where the workers participate in close coordination with the administration in the sense that they know the production plans.
Q. Many times people speak of the small- and medium-sized producer as the most backward sector. What does this mean concretely?
A. Ariel Bucasdo, UNAG. We believe that the small- and medium-sized producers were the most marginalized sector in the past. The agricultural laborers learned more because on the farms the boss was always there, watching over things and oppressing them, and this situation awakened a spirit of struggle in the workers.
The rural sector that was isolated with their family, living out their life separated from other people, without education, without relation to the rest of society, is a sector which has not developed itself politically or organizationally. This does not mean that this sector lacks the capacity to develop itself.
We consider that we have made significant advances. Yet we still have great problems at a technological level. The government still has not been able to respond to all the needs we have for technical assistance. We have problems marketing the products because at times the zones are very isolated and there are no roads to take out the harvest. Products have to be sent out by mule or on horseback, or by water. This lack of adequate roads makes it hard for us to dedicate energy towards improving production in some zones.
II. The Programs of the UNAG and the ATCQ. What are the principal demands of the campesinos?
A. Ariel Bucasdo, UNAG. We have historical demands. For many years, we struggled for land, we took over lands, and many of our compañeros died in these struggles. Our principal demand is for land, and with the Agrarian Reform the government is responding positively to the campesinos’ demands.
Q. What was the participation of UNAG in planning the Agrarian Reform?
A. Ariel Bucasdo, UNAG. We presented our criteria in the writing of the Agrarian Reform Law. We are the social sector which is most connected to the implementation of this law. We are participating on all levels that have been created for the implementation of the law; in the National Agrarian Reform Committee, in the Regional Agrarian Reform Committees, and also in the establishment of criteria which will guide land distribution. We now also have representation in the Council of State. At the same time, we participate on all levels of government where problems of technical assistance, commerce and supplies are discussed, that is, wherever there is discussion regarding the services that the government has to provide to the small- and medium-sized producers. We believe that the large, medium and small producers have to unite in production, defense and in the reconstruction of the country.
Our objective is to develop our sector economically, socially and culturally. We are beginning to train our members in forming cooperatives and have designed special schools for this purpose. At the same time, we are demanding that the government progressively improve the technical assistance and commercial assistance which will permit the cooperatives to develop.
Q. We have already spoken of the principal demands of the agricultural workers. What are some of the tasks of the ATC this year?
A. Francisco López, ATC. All our projects are related fundamentally to production, organization and defense. But in our case, those projects related to production are basic because we consider production to be the economic defense of the revolution.
III. Organizational Structures of the ATC and UNAG.Q. We have heard criticisms of the ATC, saying that there are problems of centralization, bureaucracy and a lack of organization at the grass-roots level. How is the ATC structured, and how do you interpret these criticisms?
A.Francisco López, ATC. We have an executive committee at the national level that is elected by the organization throughout the country and that is divided into different work areas. This same structure exists in all the departments. On the national and departmental levels, we have professional organizers dedicated exclusively to the activities of the organization. On the municipal level, we have only one professional organizer. We have attempted to assure that it is the workers themselves who are organizing on a municipal level. With time, the professionals will disappear and the workers themselves will undertake the organizational tasks.
We are now seeing that our efforts to form large structures constituted of professionals resulted in a certain centralization, and we are now seeing this as an error. Perhaps the direction that this took can be justified by the expansion that we had after the triumph. But in 1981 and above all in 1982, we are trying to see how we can be more efficient with less professional organizers, integrating the professional organizers into production once again, and giving more opportunity to the workers to participate in the decisions. This is part of our more general policy of a more efficient use of our few resources.
One of the important projects we have planned for this year is the strengthening of the base at all levels. We now have three training schools, two in Managua and one in Chinandega. We are hoping to train many members from all over Nicaragua in problems of organization. At the same time, we are looking for ways to decentralize, giving more autonomy to the departments and municipalities.
Q. Is the ATC financed by its members?
A. Francisco López, ATC. We require dues from all our members. We also have other income sources from non-governmental organizations of other countries that help us in concrete rural development projects.
Q. How is UNAG organized?
A. Ariel Bucasdo, UNAG. We have a national council that is composed of 60 members, representing all the departments. A national assembly elects a national directorate that looks after all the tasks of the organization. The Assemblies, Councils and Departments also exist on a departmental and municipal level. We have succeeded in organizing 150,000 small- and medium-sized producers. We also coordinate some 2,500 groups that we are trying to organize into cooperatives.
IV. Problems of Centralization in Government Organizations.Q. We see a contradiction between what is said and what is really happening in the process of forming the government organizations. On one hand, there is much talk of decentralization, democratization and mobilization at the grass-roots level. Yet we see a certain bureaucracy and centralization of many functions in Managua.
We also see that the pressure from the base is still not very great and mobilization at the grass-roots level still not very significant.
Eduardo Baumeister, CIERA. Nicaragua is a country that historically has been very centralized. This is an important factor which contributes to the problem. Yet we also need to consider the conditions that do not permit the autonomous development of the regions.
I consider that there are three fundamental causes:
1) Weaknesses in the development of the grass-roots movements,
2) The fact that the government is still in a process of being formed, and there is still a lack of experience and a lack of administrative skills, and
3) The fact that we are trying to improve many things simultaneously. We are trying to increase productive capacity, to improve the roads, technology, and communications. The intent to modernize the country and to develop Nicaragua is combined with a desire to change methods of planning and administration, to localize and decentralize them. It is more difficult to decentralize a country such as Nicaragua that already has an agro-industrial character. The modernizing and energizing impulses have a more centralized origin. Nevertheless there is some tendency to decentralize. For instance, in the plan for 1982, plans for businesses are going to be made at the local level, and the regions are going to have more influence.
Ariel Bucasdo, UNAG. We share your concern. Many things are still centralized in Managua; here there is more investment, more hospitals. The situation in the rural areas is still very difficult. There is need for schools and health care.
In an attempt to respond to these problems, regional councils have been created which will give a more real and complete vision of rural problems and possible solutions. With respect to the banks and technical assistance, credit committees have been formed in the municipalities as a means of applying pressure.
It is true that there are still problems at a national level, and it is necessary to decentralize many decisions. But we are working and participating in the government institutions so that we can respond to these problems. We feel that the cooperatives can create the infra-structural conditions for decentralization in the rural areas and can be used to apply pressure in concrete situations. For instance, if a school is needed on the local level, the cooperative can play a fundamental role in solving this problem. All of this is a process, and we as an organization have to increase our effort to help solve these problems.