Nicaragua: already a victim of climate change

Dry land between Managua and Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

The brown landscape was more like scrubby desert than the ‘savannah’ recorded on a land use map of 1979. Savannah is living grassland with trees, their tops forming an open canopy, but on either side of the road from Managua to Matagalpa, in Nicaragua, swathes of grass were dead or dying. Dry streambeds and parched soil suggested not the middle of the dry season but the end. It was February; there had been torrential, damaging rains in November, but ten rainless weeks since, and another ten before the expected start of the next rainy season in May.

Rivers with no water, or just a trickle, were frequent sights in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in February 2011. This nearly empty river is at Sardinal in Costa Rica.

Climate change has already come to Nicaragua and threatens to destroy the livelihoods, and ways of life, of small farmers and everyone who depends on them. It’s hotter, so evaporation is faster. When rain does fall it cascades over the hard-baked ground, unable to sink into it. The top, best layer of soil erodes away, and the muddy waters flood homes, villages, towns.

Wide expanses of Nicaragua are becoming useless for agriculture. “Where is Nicaragua?” I have been asked. Many people remember a war between ‘Contras’ and ‘Sandinistas’, and a colourful US lieutenant colonel called Oliver North who diverted money from weapons sales to Iran into secret funding for the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, a Central American republic bordered by Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, the Pacific to the west and the Caribbean to the east. In the 1980s the CIA-sponsored Contras fought against the left-leaning FSLN, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional, which had booted out the plutocratic dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. The FSLN survived the Contras but lost the presidential election in 1990 to the media magnate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, and remained in opposition until their leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra won the 2006 election.

Tropical Nicaragua, 13 degrees north of the Equator and a former Spanish colony, is poverty-stricken and has difficulty retaining a degree of independence. The nation does not have the resources to tackle climate change as well.

“Nicaragua is a Potemkin village,” said Robert Pillers, director of the charity Potters for Peace, whose office is in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua. He explained that the Russian minister Grigory Potyomkin, or Potemkin, is alleged to have ordered the construction of village façades to impress Empress Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea in 1787. Modern Nicaragua is a façade, a rudimentary network of tarmacked roads, bordered by Esso and Petronic filling stations, and by aid projects financed by foreign governments and NGOs, and with an airport for politicians and officials to jet in and out, but the rest of Nicaragua, nearly all of it, is almost as poor as destitute Haiti.

Crossing the border from Costa Rica, in a bus containing a group of 12 curious Irish and British supporters of Fair Trade, was a good introduction. Heiner and Rodrigo, our guide and driver, charmed and bribed their way past the immigration and customs officials with the help of fixers in T shirts and jeans, who lacked any recognisable identification. Unofficial fees are necessary to the local economy, which does not have much else. Foreign aid and remittances home from migrant workers together amount to about 40% of national income.

In Costa Rica they said that about one million Nicaraguans come every year to bring in the coffee and sugar cane harvests and to do other farm work, because Costa Ricans are more prosperous and not that keen on back-breaking toil. We met a family in a sugar cane field near San Ramon, slashing with machetes, bundling the cane and tossing it into a trailer. A small girl, whom I will call Lucia, was sitting quietly by the trailer. She was six, in the field while her parents toiled to earn $20 a day between them. This is a better income than at home, as in Nicaragua 48% of the population exist on less than $2 a day, according to the Center for Development in Central America.

Lucia spends her days among the sugar cane.

Cutting cane: a migrant worker earns about $10 a day.

Lucia’s mother showed us her calloused hands, cut and bruised despite gloves. The family were employed by a sugar co-operative, which supplied them with housing and met the labour regulations stipulated by Fair Trade buyers, but it was still dauntingly hard work.

Nevertheless, Costa Rica was providing work and wages that Nicaragua could not match, and is unlikely to be able to match in future unless the depredations of climate change can be halted. Given our reluctance to take climate change seriously, how likely is that?

Next: Is Fair Trade as fair as we think it is?

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