San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Campesino Families Demand Promised Land

LAS TUNAS, MATAGALPA, Nicaragua– The embankment along the highwaythat runs through this northern agriculturaldepartment resembles a wartimerefugee camp. Entire families of starvingcampesinos swelter beneath makeshiftblack-plastic tents in a desperate plea forland ownership.The landless campesinos come fromdifferent regions of Matagalpa, one ofNicaragua’s most economically desperatecoffee-producing regions.For more than two weeks, thousands offarmers have blocked the main highwaythrough Matagalpa to protest the government’stwo-year-old unfulfilled promise togrant them government-held land.AFTER several rounds of pressurenegotiations last week, the Ministry of theInterior last Friday announced it wouldtitle 6,000 hectares of government land tothe campesinos.The individual plots, which come outto about three hectares per family, will bepaid off to the government over a period of20 years, according to Alfonso Sandino,Vice-Minister of the Interior.But even with the renewed promise ofland titles, the campesinos this weekdeclined the government’s offer to be bussedback to their respective areas of origin.Instead, protest leaders said, the disenfranchisedfarmers will remain along thehighway until the government agrees alsoto provide financing for crop production,agricultural tools and plastic sheeting, aswell as help create new jobs in the north.MOST farmers in this once-rich coffee-producing region of Matagalpa are victimsof the world crash in coffee prices,which has seen the value of beans dropalmost 50% since 1997. The result hasbeen dramatic wage cuts, bank foreclosuresand widespread unemployment in thecoffee-producing sector.The World Food Programme, which runsfood assistance programs in the worst hitareas, estimates that some 300,000Nicaraguans have been affected by the crisis.Many of the landless campesinosdepended on coffee plantations for jobs,lodging and food. But the crisis during thepast five years has forced many to leavebeleaguered fincas where they had livedand worked their entire lives.“THE majority of these people havenowhere to go,” explained protest leaderSergio Matamorro. “We’re honest people.We want to work but we have no land, nooptions.“We’re not askingfor free handouts,”he added. “Wewant a deal to pay offthe land. Some workershave possessedland illegally. Wedon’t want to do that.We made a writtenagreement with thegovernment andpromised we wouldn’toccupy the land.”With scarce food and no sanitation,health conditions in the camps set up byimpoverished protesters are harrowing, especiallyfor the elderly and the very young.ACCORDING to the United NationsChildren’s Fund (UNICEF), 38% of childrenunder 5 living in the camps sufferfrom chronic malnutrition.“It’s awful for the children – the terriblehunger, the thirst,” said campesina JuanaGonzález, as she clutched her crying toddler.“We can’t returnto the haciendabecause there’s nowork and we’ll die ofhunger there too. Wehave to do this for ourchildren.”At least one newbornbaby re-portedlydied of malnutritionduring lastweek’s protest at LasTunas.Julio Vega, Minister of the Interior,blasted the campesinos for bringing elderlyand infants to the protest, claiming itwas a cruel form of human rights violation.BUT the situation back on the farms isjust as dire.“Each day these people struggle tofind work so they can buy food,” said theWorld Food Programme’s SantiagoTablada. “They have to ration the foodthey have. One day they eat, one day thedon’t, so they make it last.”At Matagalpa’s hospital, where thepediatric unit is receiving an average of 15patients a day, doctors say they are alarmedby the increasing admission of malnourishedchildren.Cases such as that of DamarisGonzález’s one-year-old, who is recoveringfrom a blood transfusion for anemia causedby malnutrition, demonstrate the hardshipfaced even by those who still have jobs.“My husband earns 20 cordobas ($1.27)a day,” she says. “With that we have to feedour whole family. It’s just not enough.”AS the crisis continues, Dr. Samuel Ruizand his hospital staff said they are frustratedthey can only treat the symptoms of malnutrition,but cannot address the root cause.“We’d like to give our patients bettertreatment, better medicine, but there’s a lackof resources,” he says, shaking his head.“The real issue is how we address this poverty.I wish we had a treatment for that.”

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