MANAGUA – After accompanying President Daniel Ortega on a boat tour across LakeCocibolca’s contaminated waters, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt announced that U.S. experts will help Nicaragua protect its watershed as part of the trade giant’s push to increase food- safety standards in agricultural exporting countries.
Leavitt visited Nicaragua and other countries in Central America last week as the United States reels from what may be the largest salmonella outbreak ever caused by tomatoes, with more than 750 people infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The outbreak, the origins of which are still unknown, is prompting one of the world’s biggest food consumers to push for higher safety standards beyond its borders.
In their fourth meeting since Leavitt attended Ortega’s inauguration in January 2007, the former Utah governor and the former revolutionary agreed to bring a team of U.S. environmental experts here in July to help design a strategy to protect the country’s bountiful watershed. The project will focus on LakeCocibolca, which is threatened by widespread contamination associated with ranching and urban settlements. The lake is considered Central America’s future source of potable water for generations to come.
“It will have an impact on the quality of food that Americans eat when we buy it from Nicaragua, and will affect Nicaragua in a positive way,” Leavitt told students last week at the NationalAutonomousUniversity in Managua (UNAN). Cleaner streams translate to cleaner fruits and vegetables, which will in turn reduce water-borne illnesses that account for a high percentage of diseases, Leavitt explained.
The current U.S. policy that relies heavily on border inspections to weed out contaminated agricultural products is “inefficient,” he said. Overburdened border and port checkpoints can only monitor a tiny portion of the food constantly flowing into the United States, and fruits and vegetables that spoil while stuck in border inspection delays amount to a major loss for business.
That’s why the United States is instead “moving towards” a system that will allow U.S.-certified foreign producers to have their border inspections expedited.
That announcement came as good news to Ortega, who recently laid out his policy to stimulate Nicaragua’s agricultural productivity (NT, June 20).
Leavitt, who as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pushed for cleanair standards and helped organize a regional movement to protect the Great Lakes, said U.S. support will focus on educating young Nicaraguans about environmental awareness, particularly those who live near Lake Cocibolca.
Saving the hemisphere’s largest tropical lake won’t come without “a change in the hearts and attitudes of people who live upstream” he told an auditorium full of university students, explaining that waterborne diseases begin with contamination of streams that flow into lakes.
Leavitt’s stop in Nicaragua was part of a Central American tour to refocus the region’s health emphasis from treatment to prevention. Leavitt and Ortega also agreed to send Nicaraguan health-care workers to the RegionalTrainingCenter that the United States is developing in Panama.
Leavitt’s visit was a breath of fresh air for U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, which have grown tense in recent months. U.S. and other donor countries have been chastising the Ortega government for restricting democracy by disqualifying minority opposition parties from upcoming municipal elections.
Ortega has said outgoing U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli conducted a “disrespectful” and “meddlesome” policy during his three year post here (NT, June 27). Still, Ortega has managed to develop a close relationship with Leavitt over the past two years, and told reporters this week that the U.S. health secretary has “never put conditions” on his support for Nicaragua.
Part of that help came this week from another visit by the U.S. Navy medical ship Comfort. Staffed with U.S. doctors and nurses, the ship made a port call while Leavitt was in country. The stop was part of a regional tour to treat 85,000 patients and conduct up to 1,500 surgeries, according to a U.S. State Department statement.
Leavitt also announced U.S. dentists will join U.S. Southern Command military medical and humanitarian missions in coming months to provide preventive dental care to needy citizens in the region.
“I think we found a number of ways to work with the people of Nicaragua,” Leavitt said.