MANAGUA – The drought ravaging parts of Nicaragua’s northern agricultural region and shriveling the harvests of tens of thousands of farmers is sparking an equally hot political debate in the capital.
While the media, local authorities and leaders of non-governmental agricultural associations are warning that food shortages could lead to famine, the Sandinista administration insists there’s plenty of food and no risk of hunger.
Responding to an investigative report published Jan. 19 in the opposition daily La Prensa chronicling the conditions of hunger affecting thousands of impoverished campesinos in the northernmunicipalityofTotogalpa, Madriz, Agricultural Minister Ariel Bucardo accused the media of conspiring against the Sandinista government to produce false image of chaos and desperation in Nicaragua.
Bucardo told official media outlets that Nicaragua has produced enough beans to cover Nicaragua’s demand and still export to other Central American countries.
“There are no generalized food problems in this country; there’s sufficient food, you’ve seen how the market prices have behaved. There’s sufficient rice, beans and corn,” Bucardo told official media outlets.
Still, the La Prensa report prompted Bucardo to trek up to Totogalpa himself, 216 kilometers northeast of Managua, to investigate the claims and help deliver 3,300 quintals of basic food supplies to the community. The food will be administered as part of a work-for-food program.
Government media outlet “El 19” stressed that the community of Totogalpa, led by Sandinista Mayor Melvin López, is not as bad off as the article in La Prensa implied.
On the contrary, El 19 reported, the community “denies there is hunger and is backing the efforts of the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity to diminish the effects of the drought.”
Drought, Not Famine
Though the government acknowledges conditions of drought in 36 municipalities, Bucardo insists “there won’t be famine.”
The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which has an office in Nicaragua, supports the government’s claim that current food supplies should be adequate to stave off widespread hunger.
“Our data show there is sufficient food in the country, so we see no risk (of famine),” FAO country representative Gero Vaagt told The Nica Times. “There are low-income families who have problems with access (to food), but that is due to poverty.”
However, Vaagt said, the drought afflicting the northern agricultural departments of Madriz, Estelí and Nueva Segovia is serious enough that it could lead to “hard times” from April until August, when the next rainy season should start.
He warned that calculations by the FAO last October showed that the corn harvest in affected areas was down 40 percent, and bean harvests down 30 percent. He said as many as 20,000 families – or roughly 100,000 people – were being affected by the drought, but that reserves should cover need and there’s still time to act before the situation worsens.
The UN food representative said Sweden recently donated $500,000 to the FAO for food security in Nicaragua. Vaagt said the money will go toward providing seeds, fertilizers and technical assistance to affected farmers to help during the next planting season.
Vaagt also said that Nicaragua, which has three planting seasons each year, has more “favorable conditions” for crop production than countries such as Guatemala, which had to declare a state of emergency last year due to famine.
“So there is certain hope despite the difficult moments,” Vaagt said. Others, however, are less optimistic.
Inadequate Gov’t Attention
Nicaraguan agricultural expert Cirilo Otero, head of the Center for Research on Environmental Policy, said there is already a food shortage in the northern agricultural zones, and if actions are not taken now, there could be conditions of famine by late February or March.
“The government’s response can’t come on the day the famine starts, it has to take preventive measures now,” Otero told The Nica Times in a recent interview.
Otero acknowledged that drought is a cyclical phenomenon, but said the effects are being felt “more severely” than in past years. He claims the condition is affecting some 50,000 subsistence-farming families, meaning some 300,000 people are experiencing food shortages.
Even more worrisome, he said, is that these farmers are now “without the possibility of producing food – they have no water, no credit and no infrastructure.”
The FAO, too, expressed concern that Nicaraguan farmers don’t have access to credit. Despite President Daniel Ortega’s campaign promise to create a state bank to provide agricultural credit, the so-called “Banco Produzcamos” is still not operational three years into Ortega’s term.
Though the issues of food security and campesino rights have been an avowed centerpiece of the Sandinistas’ government – including its pillar social program, Hambre Cero, which provides farm animals to small farmers – Otero questions the Ortega administration’s true commitment.
He said Hambre Cero has reached only 35,000 families in three years – out of 220,000 impoverished campesino farmers across the country. Plus, he said, the program is not being treated as a productive tool in the countryside, but rather as a political gift in exchange for votes. As a result, the program is not being implemented effectively, Otero said.
“The people see it as a gift, so they are eating the animals,” he said. “We have not seen results from Hambre Cero.”
Furthermore, Otero added, the president’s call to increased agricultural production has not been followed up by coherent policies. The proof, he said, is that there is more fallow farmland in Nicaragua today than there was when Ortega took office in 2007, despite promises to put the land back to work.
“Now there are 620,000 hectares of unproductive farmland,” Otero said. “When Ortega took office, there were 415,000 hectares of fallow land.”
While the problem is serious, Otero said, it is also easy to ignore for the government, because those who are affected are the poorest of the rural poor, unorganized and unlikely to protest. Many of these people, Otero said, will assume their burden silently, by either migrating or finding other ways to survive. But in the cities, Otero said, Nicaragua’s middle class and well-to-do won’t notice the food shortage, since most of food products sold in supermarkets are already imported.
José Antonio Navarro, president of the Nicaraguan Union of Agricultural Producers (UPANEC) and former Agricultural Minister under President Enrique Bolaños (2002-2006), said food shortages in the north also won’t affect export numbers, making it an easier problem to hide.
Sugarcane, coffee and peanuts – three major agricultural exports – won’t be affected by the drought, he said.
But, Navarro said, the government shouldn’t let itself get fooled by its own numbers.
“In some places, there will probably be famine if the government doesn’t take measures,” the ex-agricultural minister told The Nica Times this week. “The government keeps saying it has prepared a contingency plan, but no one knows what it is.”
Ortega this week repeated that the government has “programs ready to give corn, beans and rice to families, but when the time comes. We can’t get ahead of ourselves.” The priority right now, he said, is to help deliver food to Haiti.
“I’m sure that our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters in the drought-affected areas totally agree with what we are doing by bringing a little food to the Haitian people, because the situation there is truly tragic.”
Return of El Niño
In addition to responding to the drought up north, the FAO is also issuing an alert for future droughts related to the weather phenomenon known as “El Niño.”
Vaagt said Nicaragua has been hit by at least eight droughts in the past 30 years, the last of which occurred in 1997-’98. The northern region, therefore, is considered a “high risk” for future droughts, meaning steps need to be taken now to mitigate against future problems.
In addition, Vaagt said, climate change will make future droughts more difficult. He said the FAO is currently conducting a study on the impacts of climate change on campesino families in Chinandega, and hopes the findings will help to craft policies to deal with future droughts.
Agricultural policy analyst Otero says increasing poverty is also making it more difficult for people to deal with drought.
“Although drought is cyclical, it is worsening as people’s economic conditions worsen.” The FAO says water management is the key to managing future problems. Rainfall this year was 45 percent less than last year.
“There is a high probability that El Niño will strike again in three, four or five years, and the drought will be even more serious next time,” Vaagt warned.
The Ortega government last year announced the reactivation of an old plan to build a massive irrigation system on the Pacific coast by channeling water fromLakeCocibolca.
The plans for the irrigation system were originally devised by Soviet technicians in the 1980s and has been collecting dust ever since. Ortega said the plan is still good, and will help Nicaragua defend itself from future droughts.
But since last year’s press conference, there’s been no indication that the project is any further advanced than it was in 1988. And there´s no indication that it will be in place before the next drought hits.