MANAGUA – The lack of rains due to the weather phenomenon known as “El Niño” is preventing farmers from planting their crops – a situation that could result in a massive food shortage next year, warns Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food.
“I am extremely worried,” De Schutter said of the situation in Nicaragua. “This is the period during which farmers should sow so they can harvest at the beginning of next year. But the rains are not sufficient yet and the soils are not humid enough [to plant].”
The disruption in the planting cycle could spell trouble when it comes time to harvest next February and March, he said.
“I fear that in the beginning of 2010, we are facing a very dire situation in Nicaragua,” De Schutter told The Nica Times, after wrapping up a week-long visit to Nicaragua.
“The country has to be prepared and the community of donors has to be prepared to intervene.”
While “widespread malnutrition” is a serious problem in Nicaragua, De Schutter said he isn’t aware of any current reports of famine here. However, he admitted he is unaware of the situation in the remote indigenous communities along the hurricaneravaged North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), which lost thousands of hectares of crops to Hurricane Felix in 2007.
“I haven’t traveled across the country sufficiently to identify pockets of hunger, but there are very serious fears [of famine] in the next few months,” De Shutter said.
In some parts of Central America, the “El Niño” drought – considered the worst dry spell in 70 years – has already led to famine.
In Guatemala, President Alvaro Colom last week declared a national “state of public calamity” in response to a famine that has already claimed 460 lives this year, mostly in the northern part of the country near Mexico, according to wire service reports.
Famine, De Schutter explained, is different from situations of chronic malnutrition. Famine is a temporary and “brutal” worsening of hunger situations due to weather events, civil conflict or other factors that disrupt harvest cycles. In some ways, the food expert said, situations of famine are “easier to address than long-term malnutrition, which has structural roots.”
De Schutter, who was in Guatemala before coming to Nicaragua last week, said the situation in Nicaragua is not as bad as that in Guatemala, but says it’s not much better, either.
“Nicaragua is in a very difficult situation,” De Schutter said. “The situation is not as bad as Guatemala or Haiti, but it is close to those situations, and there is no time to lose.”
De Schutter said the emergency measures taken by Guatemalan President Colom allow his government to “react to situations of need in a very rapid way by freeing funds without having to go through a complex process of public tenders.”
De Schutter said that Nicaragua should prepare to take its own emergency measures. But first, he stressed, Nicaragua has to mend its relations with the international community to have access to the funds it will need to respond to the pending crisis.
“Any reduction of foreign aid could have a very severe impact on the government’s ability to react to a situation of emergency,” he said. “The dependence of this country on foreign aid, especially in the area of agricultural development, puts it in a very fragile situation.”
Since last year, Nicaragua has lost more than $150 million in budget and development aid due to serious questions regarding the country’s governability and commitment to democracy.
Sandinista Social Programs
During his visit in Nicaragua, De Schutter said he studied “in detail” the government’s hallmark poverty-relief programs Hambre Cero and Usura Cero, which provide food, agricultural assistance, and micro-credit loans to women.
Hambre Cero is an agricultural assistance and food-security program that seeks to benefit 75,000 impoverished households by next year. Usura Cero, meanwhile, has already provided small business loans to 86,000 women since it started in 2007.
In both cases, De Schutter said he was “impressed with impact of the programs” and the decentralized way they are set up. But he also urged the government to depoliticize the programs, to make them more transparent and not to use them as a form of government favoritism for party loyalists.
De Schutter said the decentralized nature of the programs, although good in theory, has also become problematic “given the important role of the Councils of Citizen Power,” or CPCs – Ortega’s neighborhood Sandinista groups created to replace civil society.
De Schutter also had mixed reviews of the government’s state food bank, ENABAS, which is run in close coordination with the CPCs. He said the food-bank initiative “should be supported,” but needs to be managed more efficiently to target those who really need low-cost food supplies, rather than just benefiting Sandinista loyalists.
“The way ENABAS delivers food with 3,800 selling points across the country is not efficient,” the UN food expert said. “It doesn’t reach the poorest households and it can benefit wealthy families who have access to selling points.”
De Schutter suggested that the government create a food-stamp program that targets the poorest families, regardless of party affiliation.
To depoliticize social aid programs and improve transparency, the government should incorporate all its social-aid programs under the Law of Food Sovereignty, Security and Nutrition, De Schutter said. He called the new law, passed July 16, a “potentially very important piece of legislation” and “an important step” towards improving transparency in government social-aid programs.
He called on the international donor community to support the government’s efforts and not base poverty relief on political considerations.
The food expert stressed that the overall effectiveness of the government’s social programs is plagued by mutual mistrust between the government, the opposition and the international community.
De Schutter said this “great mistrust” creates a “real temptation” for the Sandinistas to “privilege political affiliates” with government assistance programs, and for the opposition to refuse participating for “fear that joining the program will be interpreted as support for the government or subordination to the Sandinista Front.”
De Schutter urged both sides to “take a step toward the other.”
Nicaragua, he insisted, has to move beyond its divisions of the past, especially with a potential food crisis looming on the horizon.
If the country can’t get past its mistrust and polarization, Nicaragua’s ability to react to possible food shortages next year could become extremely complicated, De Schutter warned.