Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 327 | Octubre 2008



Posoltega Ten Years Later: Buried Then, Uprooted Now

Everything in Posoltega changed ten years ago. More than 2,500 people were killed during those fateful days: children, adults and the elderly, buried by the Casita Volcano mudslide. The change in the population structure was so drastic that many have since migrated to Costa Rica.

José Luis Rocha

Posoltega was emblematic of the effects of a natural disaster and of a decided and tenacious effort to rebuild. But it was also plagued by animosity between trade associations, the opportunism of landowners, competition between NGOs, bureaucratic legal obstacles and the insolence of high-level government officials who felt challenged by the diminutive and usually innocuous local power structure.

Looking closer at migration and death

Hurricane Mitch killed 3,045 people in Nicaragua, 83% of whom (2,513) were buried in mud by the collapse of the Casita Volcano, located in the municipality of Posoltega, department of Chinandega. As a result, foreign aid flowed like a waterfall into this little corner of Nicaragua, allowing the municipal administration to expand its services and develop unexpected technical capabilities. Felicitas Zeledón, the Sandinista mayor at the time, would later be rewarded with a victory in her bid for a seat in the National Assembly. A group of German cooperation agencies tried to build a model rehabilitation program in El Tanque, a settlement that received many of the survivors from the Rolando Rodriguez and El Porvenir cooperatives, which were the most affected by the mudslide.

On previous visits, I’ve looked at what could be called passing obstacles associated with building this community or with the national context. Ten years have passed since that tragedy, giving us some perspective to better analyze some of the changes produced and their root causes. This time I focused on the less visible structural conditions that have not been the object of previous reflection: migration and death.

Two censuses taken in El Tanque plus life histories gathered from Posoltega residents allowed me to analyze any changes in the insertion of those affected by Mitch in the agro-export model as semi-proletarian small-holders who work for the large single-crop haciendas. This analysis looks particularly at the job structure, the markets for the agricultural products, migration and the population pyramid.

I took one census of 142 households in El Tanque in coordination with Civil Defense brigades. The other census was taken of 155 households by Swiss anthropologist Anouk Zulauf and included interviews with more than 80% of heads of household, their spouses or other household members. The difference in the number of households is mainly because the first census coincided with the season when migration to Costa Rica is high, when even entire families migrate and some homes are left completely empty for weeks and months at a time. I used a third census taken in the community of Los Zanjones, which wasn’t affected by Mitch, as a control group to help contrast the changes that have taken place in El Tanque.

Cattle, bananas, cotton... who owns this land?

Posoltega was established as a municipality in 1862. During the first half of the 20th century, it saw the silent expansion of extensive cattle ranching, which led to large-scale deforestation over that period and created an agrarian structure based on what researcher Angelica Faune calls the “large-scale cattle rancher/small-scale basic grains peasant farmer” duality, in which the latter sometimes also includes fruits and vegetables. Later, there was a period of banana production, and the beginnings of sugar cane production in the plains area as part of the San Antonio Sugar Refinery’s wave of expansion. San Antonio belonged to the Pellas family, the nation’s wealthiest clan. But it was only with the cotton boom of the 1960s that the municipality acquired any economic relevance. Its territorial coverage increased to 199 square kilometers and its municipal seat was given the status of a city and became the headquarters for the Experimental Cotton Research Center.

Cotton demolished the remaining forestlands, pushed peasant farmers higher up into the foothills of the Casita Volcano, concentrated land ownership in the hands of an emerging agrarian bourgeoisie and “semi-proletarianized” much of the area’s peasantry. The local peasantry created by this process had little access to land, lacked sufficient working capital to make the land it did own produce anything and had no other option than to compensate its meager income by selling its labor.

“Semi-proletarianization” means that the peasantry has just enough land for subsistence crops and must work as farmhands for the large haciendas during certain seasons, especially the harvests. US anthropologist Michael Taussig has studied the impact on Latin American peasants of this transition from a pre-capitalist regime to a capitalist system in which the workforce becomes just another piece of merchandise and human relations are transformed in the process. He has shown how this transition fragments and contradicts the organic interconnections between self-image and fulfillment—the soul and the hands—in the peasants’ world. Their reaction is to produce explanations that follow pre-established patterns in the group culture. This discovery sheds light on the nature of some peasant interpretations of disaster and the consequent changes.

From beneficiaries of the revolution
to victims of the market

Posoltega’s semi-proletarians began a movement to fight for land in the late 1970s by taking over El Porvenir farm and those belonging to the Bellavista S.A. Agriculture Company. Under the slogans “the land belongs to those who work it” and “idle lands for working hands,” they created Sandinista Agricultural Communes, which were the agricultural foundation for the new revolutionary state being created. They were also the “seeds” of the first cooperatives approved by the new National Reconstruction Junta during the first stage of the Sandinista revolution. By then, Posoltega’s territorial area was reduced to its current size of 124 square kilometers.

In 1981, the revolutionary government awarded the Rolando Rodríguez, El Porvenir, Augusto C. Sandino and Rigoberto López Pérez cooperatives, among others, with collective land titles for their properties. They were given land on the slopes of the Casita Volcano that would later be affected by the mudslide caused by Hurricane Mitch’s intense rainfall in 1998.

With the end of the revolution, the shift from a state-controlled economy to a market one—with its corresponding wave of privatizations—created a conflictive situation for the agrarian reform cooperatives. In 1991, as a result of negotiations between the Chamorro government and the Sandinista Farm Workers’ Association (ATC), many of them became part of a special sector known as the “Area of Worker’s Property” (APT). In Posoltega, the APT was made up of the Carlos Agüero Agriculture Company and eight cooperatives that managed an area of some 540 hectares, 42 of which belonged to the Roland Rodriguez cooperative and 33 to El Porvenir. The Callejas and Ulloa families—who lost these lands to confiscation by the Sandinista government—reclaimed their holdings and were compensated for them, but have persisted in their claim until today, which hangs over the cooperative members like Damocles’ sword, leading to rising tensions and the parceling up of some of the land.

When cooperative members attributed the mudslide to work being done by Callejas-Deshon in the extinct volcano’s cone, it was an expression of the growing tension between large-scale capital and the interests of the agricultural workforce, as well as a vague awareness that natural disasters are often not entirely “natural.” In fact, they were employing the mechanism found by Taussig: explaining a hard-to-comprehend phenomenon—in this case a sudden and brutal natural disaster, not the transition to the capitalist system—in terms of a group culture assimilated during the 1980s that tended to attribute economic and political-social causes to life’s events.

New crops, less self-consumption

El Tanque is a settlement initially made up mainly of survivors from the Rolando Rodríguez and El Porvenir cooperatives. During the decade since it was founded, some people not affected by the disaster have bought houses and land plots there from the original residents. These buyers are generally families who lived in surrounding communities and even some who had or have land on the volcano, but weren’t living there during Hurricane Mitch.

In the move from El Porvenir and Rolando Rodríguez to El Tanque, many customs have been changing. One significant change is seen in consumption and sales patterns. Twenty percent of El Tanque’s inhabitants indicated that they usually used their harvest for their own consumption in the past. Today, only 12.6% do so. In the Los Zanjones control community, the drop in self-consumption was much less, from 23 to 19%, maintaining almost the same level found in El Tanque prior to the hurricane.

Peasant self-consumption (or subsistence) farming is a constant in the economic units that make up the dual large-scale single crop/small-scale basic grains structure; a fundamental piece in the functioning of this model. It was also a constant for the semi-proletarianized peasants of the Pacific plains region.

According to Cristóbal Maldidier and Peter Marchetti, authors of El campesino-finquero, “the national agro-industry, both exporters (refineries and slaughterhouses) and food producers (oil, balanced animal feed and milk)” is concentrated in the Pacific plains zone. It is no longer made up of large estates used for pasture lands or cotton production. “Part of the large cotton structures were transferred to peasants in the 1980s in the form of cooperatives, with specialized and highly mechanized production systems. Little by little, cotton has been replaced by other crops such as corn, sorghum and soy.” Maldidier and Marchetti argue that small farms contain “intensive and diversified production systems that combine basic grains, fruits, plantain varieties, root crops and sesame. The shallow depth of the water table and the high water reserves in some soils allow an additional crop cycle in some of the plains’ lower micro-zones for planting watermelon or cantaloupe, the so-called “humid crops.”

The opportunities are now in Costa Rica

The “family backyard” or “small plot” economy only allowed for the most minimal subsistence production, creating a sort of reserve army of labor permanently available for the sugar cane and coffee harvests, which require large workforces. The introduction of peanut and soy crops in the Chinandega and León plains area—pushing that workforce off its land—generated notable changes and reduced subsistence farming from a presumed 80% to only 20%. When El campesino-finquero was updated almost a decade after the first version was written, Alfredo Ruiz and Yuri Marín found that more than 40% of the peanuts, soybeans and sesame seeds produced in Nicaragua come from the Pacific plains.

Residents of El Tanque calculate that while a cotton farm needs 20 employees, a peanut or soy farm only needs two. Migration to Costa Rica increased to compensate for the drop in jobs and income in a highly inflationary context. According to the 2001 National Living Standards Measure-ment Survey, Chinandega, with 20%, has the fourth highest percentage of households with family members residing outside of the country of all the nation’s 17 departments. The majority of its emigrants travel seasonally to Costa Rica. Migration studies calculate that around 105,000 Nicaraguans migrated to Costa Rica on a temporary basis in 2000.

This number has increased year after year. It is estimated that the Costa Rican agro-export sector alone absorbs some 60,000 of Nicaragua’s seasonal workers. Patricia Alvarenga Venutolo calculates that 75% of the agricultural jobs in Costa Rica are filled by Nicaraguans, and that the Costa Rican banana farms depend on Nicaraguans for 40% of their workforce. Eduardo Baumeister estimates that the seasonal Nicaraguan workforce accounts for 83% of laborers in the sugarcane harvest, 75% in the bean harvest, 66.7% in the orange harvest, 63.2% in the coffee harvest, 50% in the melon harvest and 45.7% in the banana harvest.

Work in Costa Rica, vacation in Nicaragua

This system has been changing. The Nicaraguan workforce today is more integrated into a regionalized labor market, thus breaking with the traditional scheme of a reserve army that subsists on small-scale farming while waiting for job opportunities during harvest seasons, once or twice a year. In Costa Rica, the solid and very large traditional agro-export industry and an emerging nontraditional agro-export one offer employment to Nicaraguans during different seasons of the year, harvesting coffee, sugarcane, bananas, strawberries and melons, as well as working in the construction industry and as domestic employees.

The periods of low demand for jobs are few and far between. When migrants return to their country with their savings—thanks to wages that are up to three times higher than they would have received in Nicaragua—they go on vacation for one, two or even three months, scorning the shameful act of picking up a machete or pickax. Administered carefully, their savings cover family expenses over the entire vacation period. If an emergency comes up, they might work for a couple of weeks at the Pellas sugarcane fields, whose foreman and trailer go out every day looking for new and old recruits, since migration has made local labor scarce and more costly.

El Tanque: “A country for free men”

Because it’s a typical peasant community with dispersed dwellings and farmers producing basic grains on small plots of land, Los Zanjones was always more fully inserted into the traditional economic system than Rolando Rodríguez or El Porvenir, which were cooperatives that managed 3-10 hectares of land per member. This was enough land to be free of the semi-proletarianization to which the residents of Los Zanjones were condemned.

According to the Posoltega municipal government’s land registry, the Rolando Rodríguez Cooperative possesses the Santa Narcisa and El Socorro farms, of roughly 310 and 300 hectares, respectively, for a range of 5-10 hectares per member. The agrarian reform title grants El Porvenir’s approximately 764 hectares to 113 members, averaging under 7 hectares per member. Once these farms were divided up, members received 3-9 hectares each. The land provided to these cooperatives was of better quality and higher per-capita size than the average 1.8 hectares possessed by the Pacific zone’s semi-proletariat. And although population increases have again forced new generations into the semi-proletarian system, it has not occurred to the same extent as in Los Zanjones.

In the case of the former members of the Rolando Rodríguez and El Porvenir cooperatives living in El Tanque, the disconnection from this system happened more quickly. What were the factors that set off a faster reduction of the subsistence economy? One factor had political features: as cooperative members benefited by the agrarian reform program, they had already broken with the prevailing division of labor.

In the framework of values, labor independence is a very valued asset. This trait is reinforced by people’s identity as mountain people: they lived on the foothills of the Casita Volcano, “a country for free men,” as Braudel generalized based on the Mediterranean. But to be able to maintain this spirit of independence, two economic opportunities would be needed: El Tanque’s land and migration.

Land divvying for melons

In response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch, German cooperation agencies purchased El Tanque—from the Carlos Agüero farm, which by then belonged to ATC activists—and paid off the outstanding bank debt. The distribution of land in the settlement followed an unusual and well thought-out scheme: one hectare for each affected family to replace its home, and other hectares were added as collective property. Currently, 41% of the beneficiaries still maintain their one-hectare lot, 4.5% have sold either the whole parcel or just the house to new residents, 31% have sold between 15% and 85% of their hectare, and 25.3% have purchased differing amounts up to just over three hectares to add to the one they already had.

All of the land remains in the hands of community members, as confirmed by the constant average of one hectare. The legal fragility of this small land market due to legal obstacles that make it hard to get titles has favored its endogamous nature. Most of those who have sold their property are heads of households who watched their children, parents or other relatives buried, losing all or almost all of their immediate family members.

The subsoil of El Tanque’s lots has optimum water retention and humidity for growing melons. Close to 30% of El Tanque’s heads of household are full- or part-time melon farmers. The connection between El Tanque’s farmers and the markets of Leon, Chinandega and the city of Posoltega has taken off as a result of cultivating melons and other vegetables, with sales that are 7% higher than before Mitch. And the connection isn’t just with farmers: 11% of former farmers and homemakers now make their living traveling two or three times a week to sell melons, other vegetables and beans. The proximity of populated urban markets and the availability of good soil for crops that sell well in these markets produced an occupational shift that helped break with the economy of subsistence farming/laboring on sugarcane and coffee farms.

They earn a lot more in Costa Rica

These elements alone, however, don’t fully explain such an abrupt break, which was also accompanied by a 7% drop in agricultural jobs. Migration is the other factor.

There wasn’t enough available land in El Tanque for the population growth. The growing number of young people compared to the unmoving number of arable land plots available became a mechanism for gradually expelling people. Some 97.6% of El Tanque’s migrants go to Costa Rica, while only 2.4% go to the United States. This pattern is more biased toward Costa Rica than is generally found in Nicaragua’s rural zones, where 80% goes to Costa Rica and 11.6% to the United States. Seasonal migration is the determinant factor that swings the balance in favor of Costa Rica, which is close to Nicaragua and can be reached in a single day, without exposure to excessive dangers.

Wage opportunities in Costa Rica are also very attractive. The table opposite shows the differences between the monthly minimum wage in Costa Rica and Nicaragua for the most common occupations found among El Tanque’s residents, and the lost opportunity costs for those who don’t migrate. The farmer who migrates to Costa Rica receives at least $197 more for his work. Women who work as non-remunerated homemakers in Nicaragua work as domestic employees in Costa Rica and earn a minimum of $195 a month. Looking at the distribution of jobs among those interviewed, we find that 43.4% are farmers, 16% bricklayers, 6.2% laborers, 4.8% teachers, 9% domestic employees and 7.6% small- and medium-scale merchants. If we look at the distribution of jobs that the 83 migrants from El Tanque would have had in Nicaragua and those they have in Costa Rica—during the low migratory season—we find they would have earned a combined total of $4,968 monthly in Nicaragua, while their combined earnings in Costa Rica add up to $22,784 every month. On a yearly basis, this totals $59,616 in Nicaragua versus $273,408 in Costa Rica.

Family remittances come, migrants go

These migrant workers send part of their savings home each month: 13.8% send $20 or less, 36.4% send $30-50, 32.6% send $60-100 and 17.2% send $150 or more. This amounts to a net foreign product, because the labor reproduction has already been paid and what enters Nicaragua is to cover other costs. It adds up to $6,754 and averages $81.37 per migrant laborer.

Leaving the country and finding a better paid job generates enough income not only to sustain oneself, but also to send an amount of money home that exceeds the income the migrant would have had in Nicaragua by $1,786. And since this $6,754 enters unadulterated to sustain family dependents—not including the wage earner who has already paid his or her expenses in Costa Rica—it can cover more of the needs of children and the elderly. Moreover, when the migrants who go to Costa Rica take their “vacations” in Nicaragua, they bring along an average $700 per head to share with their family.

Of these migrant workers, only 7.2% had decided to work in Costa Rica prior to Mitch, although there may be a bias here, given that the surveys inquire about household members living outside of the country. It’s very hard to obtain information about entire households that migrate, which was the norm during the 1980s. Between 1999 and 2002, 7.2% of households left. During that period, El Tanque’s inhabitants had expected the FSLN to win the elections in 2001.

El Tanque is a markedly “Sandinista” settlement, with much higher electoral votes for this party than the national average. Of those interviewed, 49.7% belong to the FSLN, 6% are liberals and 44.3% are independent or unaffiliated. The FSLN’s third electoral defeat in 2001, following the defeats of 1990 and 1996, led many more to leave. In 2003 alone, 8.4% of the population left, more than in the four previous years. In 2005, this percentage rose to 18%, dropping back to 14.5% in 2006 and 12% in 2007. The 27.7% who emigrated in 2008 are temporary migrants.

Why are more from El Tanque emigrating?

Migrations have also affected Los Zanjones, along with all rural and urban zones of Nicaragua, but El Tanque provided a larger flow of migrants: 9.6% of its population is outside of the country. This number is consistent with the almost 10% nationwide migration rate estimated by Baumeister, but given that only 27% of migrants are from rural zones and 73% from urban zones and the weight of rural demographics is 42%, no more than 6.4% should come from rural communities, which is closer to the 5% found in Los Zanjones.

So why is there more migration from El Tanque? The economic opportunity to go to Costa Rica is equally accessible in Los Zanjones and El Tanque.

There is one trait specific to El Tanque that could affect its high rate of migration: the population pyramid. Comparing the population pyramid in Nicaragua’s rural areas overall with that of El Tanque in the table below, we find a noticeably small percentage of people under 15 years old and over 65 in El Tanque. The population between 15-64 years of age also holds greater weight when compared to the entire rural population.

If we add the emigrants to El Tanque’s pyramid, this gap increases even more. This population distribution has an impact on dependency rates. The demographic dependency of the population over 65 is 4% in El Tanque, while it is 7% at the overall rural level. Similarly, the economic dependency rate (of children younger than 15 years and adults older than 65 years on the 15-64 year old population) is 65%, while the same rate for rural zones overall is 86%.

Young survivors, young migrants

The reason for this difference can be found in the impact of the deaths caused by the Las Casitas disaster on El Tanque’s population pyramid. The inhabitants of Rolando Rodriguez and El Porvenir who now reside in El Tanque lost 177 family members to the mudslide. If it weren’t for that tragedy, El Tanque’s population would be 20% higher than it is today. A third of the families lost 3-4 family members, while 42.4% lost 3-5. The hypothesis that the majority of mudslide victims were children and the elderly is reasonable, but unfortunately available data can’t verify it since the census of deaths did not include ages. If true, it could be the cause of such a unique rural family pyramid and hence of the lower dependency rate.

This lower dependency rate provides certain advantages to El Tanque. Experts have shown that a large very young or very old population leads to low incomes, low tax payments, more unmet social needs, and a low capacity to save. El Tanque has the conditions to create the opposite: higher income levels, more social needs met and a greater ability to save. However, in a context in which staying in Posolotega only offered limited options, the high number of people of the ages that predominate among migrants functioned as a critical mass that activated the cumulative causes of migration, since the visible benefits of migrating were clearly demonstrated.

Many young survivors have opted to break with the past and, endowed with the energy and audacity of a pioneering spirit as well as threatened with less available land, have migrated in greater proportions than other rural zones of Nicaragua.

Uprooted by the buried

The population in Posoltega is increasingly breaking with the large-scale cattle ranching/small-scale basic grain farming duality produced and sustained by subsistence farming/laboring on haciendas. The mechanization of new single-crop production on large haciendas, international migration and opportunities in other jobs—growing and selling melons—has contributed to this phenomenon. The decline in the dual structure is happening in El Tanque at a particularly rapid pace, partly a consequence of the fact that the cooperative members from El Tanque had broken their labor dependency when they became beneficiaries of the agrarian reform program in the 1980s.

As owners of their own cooperative business, a sense of freedom was nurtured in these foothills, which led many cooperative members to break this pattern through a bi-national arrangement: subsistence farming in Nicaragua and working on large-scale haciendas in Costa Rica. They spend their vacations in Nicaragua, this paradise where they can subsist and try to exercise the freedom to choose. They’re motivated not by the work ethic but by the frenzy to consume, as Polish sociologist Zigmunt Bauman explains, a trait of this second modern era we refer to as globalization.

The key factor for breaking with the previous system has been the advantage offered by migration. Its enabling element—including some atypical levels of rural migratory patterns—was the dramatic change in the population pyramid created when the Casita Volcano mudslide took so many lives. Those who are buried still have greater weight in this pyramid than those who were uprooted. And, in fact, more have been uprooted thanks to the number who were buried and the need to break with the past.

The proportion of young people who are anxious for something different incrementally feeds off of itself: a few migrate, then they in turn infect others. The availability of young people who are the right age to emigrate opens the way for more and more to keep doing so.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial board.

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