LA SABANA, Madriz – Felipe López can’t read or write, and until recently, the sinewy old man beneath a cowboy hat had never tried a glass of milk. Tucked away in the green mountains near the Honduran border, López has lived an isolated life of war and poverty.
“Nobody’s ever helped us, until now,” said López, the sun gripping his leathery skin as he bends over to milk his cow that was given to him by the Sandinista government.
López is one of more than 500,000 campesinos living in extreme poverty who are being targeted by an innovative Sandinista program to combat hunger in Nicaragua’s countryside, where about 70 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. The program also aims to stimulate agricultural productivity and jumpstart the dwindling cooperative movement in rural Nicaragua.
“This government is accused of being populist. But we’re prioritizing social necessities and expressing them in public policies,” said Sandinista sociologist and economist Orlando Nuñez, the program’s mastermind.
Named Hambre Cero, or “Zero Hunger,” Nuñez’s brainchild aims to reach about twothirds of all campesinos in Nicaragua by the end of President Daniel Ortega’s five-year term in 2011.
The ambitious program gives impoverished mothers “tools for production” – a packet of farm animals and seeds to grow animal feed and basic grains – and trains families how to raise and breed their animals.
The ambitious second stage of the program is aimed at getting the families to save about $300 each and then pooling those resources among groups of about 50 families to create cooperatives to spend the money on production or exporting.
Critics are already saying the two-year-old program is a good idea that is failing in practice. There have been cases of destitute campesinos immediately slaughtering and eating the pigs and cows given to them, and the program in general is struggling with the insidiously Nicaraguan problem of underfunding.
“It’s more like a campaign ploy than a real interest in transforming the economy,” said economist Cirilo Otero, founder of the Managua-based Center for Environmental Policy.
The $150 million program is drawing funding mostly from the Venezuelanfinanced ALBA-Caruna, a cooperative fund that is expected to undergo belt-tightening as Venezuelan coffers are hit by lowered oil prices. But the program has also found some additional funding in recent months.
Hambre Cero is set to receive $20 million in financing over the next two years from the Inter-American Development Bank and another $30 million from the Nicaraguan government.
Still, the program’s director, Gustavo Moreno, last week reportedly handed in his resignation in part due to the Ortega government’s cuts in program funding as part of its wide-ranging budget cuts amid the economic downturn and dwindling flow of foreign aid.
Moreno, a long-time aide to Sandinista commander and economic advisor Bayardo Arce, as well as a former Nicaraguan ambassador to Cuba during the 1980s, says the biggest challenge facing Hambre Cero in addition to the lack of funding is organizing campesinos.
On that point Moreno coincides with Otero, who says many campesinos still remember the failed Sandinista attempt in the ‘80s to “force” collectivism upon farmers.
“The most difficult part will be organization. The individual triumphs over the collective in the campo,” Moreno says. Yet he insists, “It’s not something we can’t change.”
At his office in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAGFOR), along the Masaya highway outside of Managua, Moreno recently sat down with The Nica Times to explain the ins and outs of the ambitious program.
Hambre Cero, he said, began with a census undertaken in conjunction with municipal governments and the controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), which nominated poor families to participate in the program.
MAGFOR agronomists, who have become the backbone of the program, then selected from that list of candidates a group of women who fit the program requirements of living in extreme poverty, owning at least a manzana of land, and having at least one child.
By aiming the program exclusively at women, Hambre Cero also seeks to revolutionize gender relations in Nicaragua’s countryside, Moreno explained.
Though the program has come under fire by opposition leaders for using the CPCs, or Sandinista community groups, in the process of deciding which families are nominated for the program, Moreno says the project is politically blind. He insists that MAGFOR, which has become the de facto administrator of the program, is nonpartisan, with 60 percent of the personnel left over from the previous administration
of President Enrique Bolaños, of the Liberal Constitutional Party.
Indeed, up in Madriz, liberal MAGFOR agronomist Orlando Caballero says about a quarter of the program’s beneficiaries in his rural municipality of La Sabana are non-Sandinistas.
“At first I thought they were going to politicize it. But I benefitted from the program,” said lifelong Liberal Party member Ada Maria Cardenas, as she flips corn tortillas over an open flame in her shanty in La Sabana, her Hambre Cero cow mooing out back.
While the program has clearly reached across party lines, Moreno sets no goals or quotas. He said a representative of the Ortega government’s Truth and Reconciliation committee, which aims to pay reparations to Contra war victims, recently solicited the percentage of Hambre Cero beneficiaries who are former contras.
“The project isn’t dedicated only to Sandinistas, though some Sandinistas may not want Liberals to benefit from it,” he said. “The poor man has no party.”
Stretched Too Thin?
Once the program identified its target population, it began with what has been the most expensive part of the program: distribution of resources.
Families in the far reaches of Nicaragua’s rugged countryside – as far as indigenous settlements along the isolated Río Coco on the Honduran border – were given 10 hens and a cock, a pregnant cow and pig or goats, materials to build a corral and chicken coop, worms to help keep the soil rich, seeds for animal feed and basic grains to help combat malnutrition.
MAGFOR agronomists, many of whom were given veterinarian training as part of the program, were then expected to visit each beneficiary family every 10 days. Part of the problem, Otero points out, is that the MAGFOR agronomists are stretched too thin. While each agronomist is expected to attend to 50 families within 10 days, he said the workload for each agronomist should be about a tenth of that in order for them to be effective.
“The program needs more technical assistance. We can’t hope poor families will produce in a sustainable fashion,” Otero said.
MAGFOR agronomist Franklin Rodríguez says he has struggled with a lack of transportation to attend to the 50 families across La Sabana, but said the Ministry recently bought him and other agronomists motorcycles to expedite their work.
The distribution phase had its own problems. Many cows that were transported from wet to dry climates didn’t acclimate. Some pigs didn’t produce piglets or milk for their piglets. Other families slaughtered their animals or quickly ran out of animal feed.
But Otero, who has been very critical of many of the government’s programs, remains optimistic about Hambre Cero.
“If we can have 50 percent success, this will be a great success,” he said.
The Curse of Giving
Aside from logistical and budgetary setbacks, the program faces the challenge of trying to change a deep-rooted culture of dependence on humanitarian aid.
Since the 1972 earthquake, many impoverished Nicaraguans have relied heavily on foreign aid to get them through nearly four decades of devastating war, poverty and natural disasters.
Campesinos have become used to receiving handouts, especially from the Sandinista government, which took control of some 40 percent of Nicaragua’s arable land after the 1979 revolution and redistributed much of it to campesinos.
To this day, sociologists say that a culture of handouts persists as many poor families fail to pay loans to microfinanciers.
Moreno hopes Hambre Cero beneficiaries will help change that and encourage beneficiaries to follow through on their obligations to pay back $300, which represents 20 percent of the value of the $1,500 in farm animals and equipment they receive. The money will be deposited in a pooled savings account to benefit the cooperatives.
“People who don’t want to pay want to live in a fantasy world in which people give them gifts. This can’t be a program for the shameless,” Moreno said. If they don’t pay, they won’t be eligible for more credit through the government, he said.
Once the savings are pooled by “nuclei” of about 50 women, the groups will be trained in how to organize themselves in cooperative-like groups that will manage those funds (the program will matched saved funds two to one). The group will then hopefully reinvest their pooled funds in production.
So far, beneficiaries have had most success producing pigs, so Moreno wants women to save enough to construct a pork processing plant where campesinos will fatten and process pigs for the Nicaraguan market and for export.
Otero agrees this is a good idea, considering Nicaragua currently imports much of the food it consumes.
Otero doubts that the Sandinista government will be able to encourage campesinos to organize.
“The Sandinistas tried organizing cooperatives in the ‘80s, but they failed,” Otero said. “The negative history of cooperatives is still on people’s mind.”
When the Sandinistas turned the government over to the transition administration of Violeta Chamorro in 1990, there were nearly 4,000 cooperatives across the countryside, many of which had been used as Sandinista reservist units and therefore had a militaristic bent. When the Sandinistas took power again in 2007, there were about 600 cooperatives left, only half of which played significant role in Nicaragua’s economy.
In the 2008 state of the nation report, the Sandinista government claimed to have created 10,000 jobs last year through associations and cooperatives.
Otero questions the statistics on the Hambre Cero program. Though the government says Hambre Cero has already reached some 32,000 beneficiaries, Otero doubts the program has reached even half that amount.
Because of the government’s lack of transparency – no one has audited its reported achievement – the analyst doubts that they are reporting the numbers accurately.
“They hide information. If they hide it, something’s wrong,” he said.
But for those who have benefitted from the program, the project has generated some hope and self-esteem in a countryside that needs lots of both.
“It gives us a future, you have to think about the future of your kids. We were always working just to get by,” said Alba Martinez Pérez, as piglets suckled on her Hambre Cero pig. “Now we feel a bit more proud.”