ROSITA – Marcos Sotelo drives for hours down a dirt road that cuts through droves of fallen timber, a barren landscape that reaches out to the glum horizon in all directions.
Three small bodies shuffle across the scorched black earth and mangled forest like ghosts haunting the residue of disaster, sprinkling bean seeds about the wasteland in hopes of restoring life to the area.
Sotelo, a representative of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), steps on the brakes, descends from his maroon pickup – ash crunching beneath his boots – and asks the boys where they live.
“We lost our home,” says Bernando Saenz, the taller of the indigenous boys.
Their home was one of 11,000 destroyed when the Category 5 Hurricane Felix that plowed through the area 10 months ago.
These hardened young boys are among the 200,000 whose lives were interrupted by the hurricane that wreaked havoc throughout the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) last September.
Driving past mile after mile of ravaged woodland and shattered homes, it appears the disaster might as well have occurred yesterday.
States and non-governmental organizations have poured millions of dollars into the RAAN since the hurricane, with mixed results to show for their efforts. According to the latest report from the RAAN’s regional government council, foreign and Nicaraguan relief efforts have rebuilt about half of the 20,000 homes damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, and more than 1,300 others are still without roofing.
Local community leaders, however, give higher estimates for the number of homes still damaged.
In the RAAN, more than 60 percent of the roads are still in poor conditions and many communities are accessible only by river. President Daniel Ortega estimated last October that more than 230 lives were taken by the storm.
In a region where poverty indicators rival Africa’s – 80 percent of the region lived in poverty before the hurricane, according to a United Nations Development Program report – victories are now measured in relative terms.
“The movement of money and resources to the region has been incredible,” says Sotelo, a Nicaraguan agronomist contracted by the FAO to distribute bean seeds in disaster-struck communities.
Sotelo became a key player in the relief effort two months after the hurricane, when experts started warning about the possibility of famine. Ten months after foreign aid donors and emergency responders flooded the region with food and clothing, Sotelo is still putting in 16-hour days, traversing Nicaragua’s worst roads to find out whether the region is starting to recover.
The FAO has been key in distributing basic grains to the disaster-struck region. Nearly 50 agronomists set out into the region’s most isolated communities – sometimes walking for hours on foot – to distribute 16,000 quintales of high-quality bean seeds to 34,000 families.
Along with other organizations, such as Oxfam and Accion Medica Cristiana (AMC), the FAO has been key in providing longer- term humanitarian relief as the cash-strapped Nicaraguan government has struggled to respond to the disaster.
AMC, for its part, has delivered $350,000 in food supplies, more than 12,000 roofing panels, and dispatched mobile medical brigades that provided medicine, primary health care, and even psychological support for victims, according to an AMC statement.
“Relief agencies used to just give handouts and leave,” Sotelo told The Nica Times, bumping along the notoriously brutal highway that leads to the region’s capital, Puerto Cabezas.
Though relief has slowed, it’s still trickling in. The National Assembly just approved $17 million in World Bank financing to help the region recover, and the European Commission approved $11.6 million for water and sanitation programs, as well as financing for small producers in the region.
Sotelo is trying to help design a seed bank that will allow the region to develop its own seed reserves in preparation for future disasters. But Sotelo, who helped the FAO provide more than 50 percent of the bean seeds distributed here after the hurricane, says weaning the disaster-prone RAAN off it’s addiction to foreign aid is easier said than done.
The region has lived through 14 disasters – tropical storms, hurricanes, rat plagues and bouts of collective hysteria, known locally as “siknis” – in the past 17 years, according to Accion Medica Cristiana.
“Since it’s a zone that is always facing disasters, people are accustomed to getting handouts,” Sotelo said.
The Hand That Feeds
The Food and Agricultural Organization’s three-letter initials – FAO – has become a household name in the RAAN. The region relies on the continuous aid the FAO has delivered since the storm struck.
“When the FAO helps, it finishes the job. It does a quality job,” said Prinzapolka resident Leonel Flores, who received FAO beans after the hurricane flooded his riverside town. But the desperate situation has led some to bite the hand that feeds them. It was an empty FAO storage room in Puerto Cabezas that caused rioting after the hurricane. And Sotelo says he was recently held up in a highway blockade overnight as part of recent protests.
The protestors threatened to burn his pickup, he says, but eventually let him pass. FAO’s relief effort here has seen major success, but it’s also had its share of setbacks.
“There’s so much poverty. We thought the people would just eat the bean seeds and not plant them,” Sotelo says, noting that some 20 percent of the population doesn’t own land to cultivate.
However, it turns out that only around 6 percent of those who received FAO bean seeds ate them before planting.
The relief effort experienced a different problem, however. After the hurricane, the state-run grain distributor ENABAS positioned itself as a middle man to control scarce supplies of beans. Bean prices shot up, and many indigenous Miskito families were enticed to sell their bean seeds at high prices instead of planting them, Sotelo says.
“Now people here have less seeds, less food,” he says.
Other bean harvests have reportedly been eaten by birds and other animals, many of which have apparently changed their eating habits due to food scarcity.
Still, out of the 16,000 quintales of bean seeds distributed after the hurricane, 200,000 quintales of beans have been harvested so far this year – more than half of all beans harvested in the region after the hurricane. Bean exporters in Matagalpa have bought up much of the harvest, bringing some revenue back to the historically isolated and rural region, which has a population density of nine people per square kilometer.
Sotelo is now trying to make the project sustainable by setting up a seed bank that will help avoid crop shortages in the future.
After the initial relief effort, FAO told bean-seed recipients they could receive credit for more seeds in the future if they pay back the quantity of seeds donated to them after the storm.
The seed bank plans to sell the bean seeds it gets back from hurricane victims and use profits to finance the region’s farmers with seeds in the future.
But so far, few have returned seeds. In Siuna, where the FAO gave out nearly 4,000 quintales of bean seeds, the seeds paid back don’t fill up half the garage space in which they’re being stored.
Sotelo and others say getting a region that’s accustomed to handouts to change its mentality and repay the relief agency is a difficult task. It’s also one that could threaten the sustainability of the project.
“We’ve hit food insecurity hard. But that’s not enough. The tougher challenge is the harvest. We have to store enough for next year. If we don’t, our families are screwed,” says Sergio Larios, director of the Autonomous Public Agricultural Services (SPAA), an umbrella organization that coordinates public services in the rural RAAN.
“The seed bank is very difficult to manage without resources, but it’s so important,” Larios says.
Preventing Forest Fires
The FAO’s other small victory has been in helping to prevent devastating forest fires – a threat posed by the more than 1 million hectares of fallen timber. In conjunction with the Nicaraguan Forestry Institute (INAFOR), Oxfam and Accion Medica Cristiana, the FAO has spent the past nine months manning 250 local fire brigades in the region.
“Entire communities are trapped in by masses of fallen timber. They don’t come out. So how do you evacuate them in case of a fire?” Sotelo asks.
Each of the fire brigades was equipped with gloves, helmets, boots, water pumps and fire houses, flashlights and other fire squad equipment.
“We’re ready for any emergency,” says José Carlos Zeledon, head of a 20-man fire squad outside of Rosita.
Despite the eagerness of the brigades, a handful of massive fires broke out at the end of the dry season. A conflagration in May outside of Rosita devoured as many as 3,000 hectares of timber, a costly loss considering much of it was precious woods that normally fetchs a handsome price for export, according to Maximo Urbino, of the logging company MAPINIC.
The worst may be yet to come, however. Experts now say it may take more than three decades to remove all the fallen timber from the region, and about 40 percent of the wood is still in areas inaccessible by road.
On a recent visit to Zeledon’s home, which is surrounded by fallen timber, he told Sotelo that a few families have been hogging the chainsaws that the FAO and other organizations have donated to help them saw away at the downed wood.
Sotelo didn’t take the bait. He told Zeledon that his community has failed to organize itself.
The son of
performers, Sotelo manages to keep his wits about him despite the daily tragedy he deals with, the gut-jolting trips along bumpy roads, and nights sleeping on wooden floors or hammocks.
The people he meets along the way and a resilient sense of humor seem to keep him stable. Full of jokes, most not appropriate for print, he pulls them out at times when others seem to dwell on the region’s incalculable misfortune. Backslapping ensues.
His outlook has helped him to confront the enormous task at hand: getting aid to rebellious communities in the furthest and poorest reaches of Nicaragua. At least on the surface, this Nicaraguan Virgil touring Dante’s Inferno has been able to stare into the abyss without letting it stare back into him.
Despite the enormous challenge and limited measures of success, Sotelo is rewarded by the thought that his relief efforts have helped prevent a disaster from becoming an even greater tragedy.
“Many people feel a famine was avoided,” he says.