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NICARAGUA: Of Forests, Floods, Fatalities and Famine

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Oct 24 2007 (IPS) - The forces of nature are giving Nicaragua no respite. After the hurricane that devastated the country’s northeastern Caribbean coast in September, weeks of torrential rains have claimed lives and caused economic damages, and now the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is warning of famine.

Hurricane Felix ploughed into the country’s northern Atlantic region on Sept. 4, leaving a death toll of 102, with 130 people still missing, and 220,000 people homeless. Economic losses were estimated at 900 million dollars, and crops in the area were completely wiped out, according to the national system for disaster prevention and relief (SINAPRED).

The government was seeking international aid when another natural disaster hit. Heavy rains fell for 50 consecutive days, starting before hurricane Felix, and flooding large areas on the Pacific side of the country in the north and south. The administration declared a state of national disaster on Oct. 19.

“This is worse than Mitch,” said President Daniel Ortega, referring to the damage caused by the hurricane in October 1998 that killed over 3,000 people, left 700,000 families homeless and caused damages to the tune of between 1.5 billion and two billion dollars.

SINAPRED estimates that as a result of the rains, 216,000 people have been forced out of their homes in the departments (provinces) of Estelí, Madriz, Chinandega, León, Managua, Masaya, Granada, Rivas, Jinotega and Matagalpa, in the north and west of the country. When the Grande river flooded the city of Matagalpa in the department of the same name, eight people died and 10 are still missing.

Incomplete civil defence reports mentioned total or partial destruction of 22,000 homes, and the loss of over 3,000 kilometres of roads and highways, including eight bridges. Over the last week, the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) has recorded rainfall of more than 100 millimetres a day.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Ariel Bucardo said that thousands of hectares of forests have been devastated, as well as 143,274 hectares of rice, beans and maize, the staple foods of the Nicaraguan diet.

Based on these reports, FAO representative in Nicaragua Laura de Clementi warned of the possibility of famine in coming months, unless the government invests at least three million dollars in purchasing seeds for sowing the next season’s harvest.

“If you don’t sow now, hunger will be rampant next year,” she said.

In Nicaragua the rainy season is from May to October, and the dry season is from November to April.

De Clementi said that production conditions in the rural areas which provide 90 percent of Nicaragua’s food supply are dire. That is why she is calling for seeds to be bought and distributed to farmers immediately, “because in a few months people will be asking for food.”

De Clementi urged the authorities to buy food in the short term, and called on the international community to prioritise food aid.

Prior to the alert sounded by FAO, U.N. resident representative Alfredo Missair had warned that the vulnerability of people in the areas hit hardest by the natural disasters would increase the already wide gap between rich and poor.

The poverty gap has grown “alarmingly” over the last five years, undoing all efforts to improve living conditions for the 47 percent of the population of 5.4 million who live on less than a dollar a day, he said.

Even before the advent of hurricane Felix, the northern Caribbean coastal region, home to more than 300,000 indigenous people, was already in a state of poverty, malnutrition and economic inequality, he said.

Eighty percent of the region’s population was already living in extreme poverty, and a further 16 percent were poor, according to the 2005 census.

In 2005, authorities declared a state of famine in the indigenous communities living along the Coco river and in the north of Chinandega, two of the areas that have been hit especially hard now.

According to Vice President Jaime Morales, although the international community has sent disaster relief donations to mitigate the humanitarian crisis, the rural areas are so “fragile, vulnerable and poor” that the aid cannot make inroads into chronic malnutrition, which affects up to 50 percent of the people in some districts.

Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco warned of the risk of landslides due to flooding, and of the possible collapse of the Augusto César Sandino international airport owing to the river torrents that sweep down from the hills surrounding the south of the capital city.

“This is hardly a ‘natural’ disaster, because the flooding is caused by merciless deforestation in the mountains,” said Marenco, who promised a municipal plan to reforest the southern slopes of Managua, and to build embankments to prevent flooding of the city.

Jaime Incer Barquero, a biologist and geographer, said that unless the government implements a strategic plan to curb environmental damage, the country could be on its knees within a few years because of the effects of global warming.

“Nicaragua is not to blame for the hurricanes and storms, but it is responsible for the destruction of its forests, which form a protective barrier. Rain causes greater damage to land stripped of its trees than to forested areas,” the scientist said.

Before the September and October rains, the authorities had launched a campaign to reforest 60,000 hectares of woodlands a year.

But now “this project has been suspended because of the national emergency, since the entire state apparatus is concentrating its efforts on overcoming the crisis caused by the heavy rainfall,” a government statement said.

According to the Environment Ministry, in 1950 there were eight million hectares of forest in Nicaragua, compared to just three million hectares today.

U.N. agencies like FAO, the European Union, and countries such as Norway, Venezuela, the United States, El Salvador, Honduras and Cuba have sent emergency aid.

Natural resources management expert Guillermo Bendaña said that the challenge is not so much that of obtaining aid for crisis relief, but “to see whether it might be possible to get the country to stop destroying its environment, because the greater the extent of deforestation, the worse will be the soil erosion effects of the rains,” he told IPS.

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