“Nicaragua’s upheaval has claimed hundreds of lives and changed everything for Valesk a Valle, Lesther Alemán and Douglas Costa.” – Tom Costa
Three months ago, Valeska Valle was a church-going dance freak whose best friend was her dog.
Douglas Costa plotted to take a master’s at the University of Oxford.
And Lesther Alemán was a communications student who harboured not-so-secret dreams of donning his country’s blue-and-white presidential sash.
Then came the outbreak of what some call the Nicaraguan spring on 18 April – and everything changed.
“I’m no longer the same Valeska I was on 17 April,” said Valle, during an interview at the Managua hideout to which she and her fellow student protest leaders have retreated since their uprising against Daniel Ortega began almost 12 weeks ago.
The upheaval – which has so far claimed more than 300 lives and looks set to intensify this week with three-days of protests and a nationwide strike – has transformed Valle, Costa and Alemán into reluctant renegades and, in doing so, turned their lives upside down.
Valle, who is 22, said relatives had shunned her since she announced she was popping out to buy Coca-Cola on 18 April but instead slipped off to take a front-line role in the struggle against the man she calls “el Tirano”.
“Most of my siblings have turned their backs on me,” said Valle, a final year accounting student who was born and raised in Masaya, a one-time Sandinista stronghold that has become one of the key focuses of resistance. “Of my seven brothers and sisters, five told me it would be better if I said I was an only child. Most of us here have been rejected by our families.”
President Daniel Ortega says changes implemented on 16 April have been cancelled.
Nicaragua’s president has withdrawn changes to the social security system that triggered deadly protests and looting.
President Daniel Ortega said in a message to the nation that the social security board of directors had cancelled the changes implemented on 16 April. The overhaul was intended to shore up Nicaragua’s troubled social security system by both reducing benefits and increasing taxes.
The changes touched off protests across the Central American nation that escalated into clashes with police as well as looting. The demonstrations appeared to expand to include broader anti-government grievances.
Human rights groups said at least 26 people were killed in several days of clashes. Dozens of shops in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua were looted during unrest that extended into Sunday.
Unlike his appearance on Saturday with the police chief, Ortega announced the cancellation of the overhaul accompanied by business executives who account for about 130,000 jobs and millions of dollars in exports.
Earlier in the day, Pope Francis said at the Vatican that he was “very worried” about the situation in Nicaragua and echoed the call of local bishops for an end to all violence.
Images broadcast by local news media showed looted shops in the capital’s sprawling Oriental Market district and at least one Walmart.
Police apparently did not intervene on Sunday, in contrast to what had been a strong response to earlier demonstrations in which dozens were injured or arrested.
“We are seeing social chaos in Nicaragua provoked by the absence of government leadership, and the crisis has been combined with poverty, and that in any society is a time bomb,” sociologist and analyst Cirilo Otero said.
Ortega had said on Saturday he was willing to negotiate on the social security overhaul, but said the talks would be only with business leaders.
He seemed to try to justify the tough response against protesters by the government and allied groups, accusing demonstrators, most of them university students, of being manipulated by unspecified “minority” political interests and of being infiltrated by gangsters.
Nicaragua has been one of the more stable countries in Central America, largely avoiding the turmoil caused by gang violence or political upheaval that has at times plagued Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in recent years.
But top Nicaraguan business lobby COSEP has backed peaceful protests against the government, and said it would not enter talks with Ortega to review the social security plan until he had ended police repression and restored freedom of expression.
A former Marxist guerrilla and Cold War antagonist of the United States, Ortega has presided over a period of stable growth with a blend of socialist policies and capitalism.
But critics accuse Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, of trying to establish a family dictatorship. The country remains one of the poorest in the Americas.
MANAGUA, Jun 19 2014 (IPS) – More than 30,000 members of the Mayagna indigenous community are in danger of disappearing, along with the rainforest which is their home in Nicaragua, if the state fails to take immediate action to curb the destruction of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, the largest forest reserve in Central America and the third-largest in the world.
Arisio Genaro, president of the Mayagna nation, travelled over 300 km from his community on the outskirts of the reserve in May to protest in Managua that the area where his people have lived for centuries is being invaded and destroyed by settlers from the country’s Pacific coastal and central regions.
In early June, Genaro returned to the capital to participate in several academic activities aimed at raising awareness on the environment among university students in Managua and to protest to whoever would listen that their ancestral territory is being destroyed by farmers determined to expand the agricultural frontier by invading the protected area, which covers 21,000 sq km.
The Mayagna chief told Tierramérica that in 1987 the nucleus of what is now the biosphere reserve had a total area of 1,170,210 hectares of virgin forest and an estimated population of fewer than 7,000 indigenous people.
In 1997, when it was declared a Word Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the reserve covered more than two million hectares of tropical rainforest, including the buffer zone.
By 2010, when the indigenous people living in the reserve numbered around 25,000, the jungle area had been reduced to 832,237 hectares, according to figures cited by Genaro. The presence of non-indigenous settlers within the borders of the reserve had climbed from an estimated 5,000 in 1990 to over 40,000 in 2013.
“The y are burning everything, to plant crops. They cut down forests to raise cattle, they log the big trees to sell the wood, they shoot the animals and dry up riverbeds to put in roads,” Genaro told Tierramérica.
Antonia Gámez, a 66-year-old Mayagna chief, also made the trek from her community to speak out in towns and cities along the Pacific coast about the situation faced by her people in Bosawas, whose name comes from the first syllables of the main geographical features that delimit the reserve: the Bocay river, the Salaya mountain, and the Waspuk river.
“All of our families used to live on what nature provides; the forest is our home and our father, it has given us food, water and shelter,” she told Tierramérica in her native tongue, with the help of an interpreter. “Now the youngest ones are looking for work on the new farms created where there was once forest, and the oldest of us don’t have anywhere to go, because everything is disappearing.”
Gámez said that in the forest, her people planted grains and grew and harvested fruit, and hunted what they needed for food with bows and arrows. She added that there were abundant crabs and fish in the rivers and wild boars, tapirs and deer in the forests.
“Now the animals have gone. With each bang from a gun or mountain that is cleared, they either die or move deeper into the jungle. There aren’t many left to hunt,” she complained on her visit to Managua.
Part of the reserve is also inhabited by Miskitos, the largest indigenous group in this Central American country, where by law native people have the right to collectively own and use the lands where they live.
The complaints by the indigenous people were corroborated by Tierramérica in conversations with independent academics and activists as well as government officials.
Anthropologist Esther Melba McLean with the Atlantic Coast Centre for Research and Development at the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University has led studies that warn that if the invasion by outsiders and destruction of the forest are not brought to a halt, both the Mayagna people and the native flora and fauna of Bosawas could disappear in two decades.
“The destruction of the forest would mean more than the end of an ethnic group; it would mean the end of the site where 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity is found,” she told Tierramérica.
The reserve is home to endemic species like the Nototriton saslaya salamander and the crested eagle, which are listed as endangered by local environmental organisations that point out that there are still many species that have not even been documented.
According to environmentalist Jaime Incer, an adviser on environmental affairs to the office of the president, if the destruction of the indigenous territory continues, “in less than 25 years the jungle will have completely disappeared.”
A study published in 2012 by the German development cooperation agency, GIZ, Nicaragua’s National Union of Agricultural and Livestock Producers (UNAG), the European Union and the international development organisation Oxfam warned that it would take 24 years to lose the forest in Bosawas and 13 years to lose the buffer zone around the reserve, at the current rate of deforestation.
Incer told Tierramérica that in response to the indigenous community’s complaints and the backing they have received from environmentalists, the administration of President Daniel Ortega, who has governed since 2007, has begun to take measures against the destruction of the forest. “But they have been insufficient,” he acknowledged.
Ortega ordered the creation of a military battalion of more than 700 troops to guard the country’s forests and nature reserves. The government also organised a committee of national authorities aimed at coordinating actions and applying a zero tolerance approach towards people and organisations accused of destroying the environment.
Alberto Mercado, the technical coordinator of Bosawas in the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, said at the Central American University in Managua on Jun. 10 that the government has been carrying out actions to curb the destruction of the reserve.
He said the authorities had removed dozens of non-indigenous families from the nucleus of the reserve, and that they had brought people to trial who were dedicated to illegally selling land in Bosawas.
Mercado said dozens of lawyers have been investigated and suspended for allowing sales transactions involving indigenous property. In addition, he said, the authorities have been combating trafficking in local fauna and flora.
“But the struggle is huge…traffickers identify the ‘blind spots’ and that’s where they make their incursions into indigenous territory, fence it in, claim it is theirs, and that’s how the trafficking of land starts,” the official said, sounding discouraged.
The complaints of the indigenous community have gone beyond national borders, and have reached international human rights organisations. The non-governmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre also filed a complaint with the Organisation of American States (OAS).
Vilma Núñez, director of the Human Rights Centre, told Tierramérica that she had denounced the situation faced by the Mayagna people during the 44th OAS General Assembly, whose main theme was “development with social inclusion”, held Jun. 3-5 in Asunción, Paraguay.
“The state and the government should guarantee the right of the Mayagna and all indigenous people in this country to live on their own land, and defend them from extermination,” Núñez said.
MANAGUA, Jun 4 2015 (IPS) – Nicaragua, the Central American country with the most abundant water sources, and where water – “agua” in Spanish – is even part of its name, is suffering one of its worst water crises in half a century, fuelled by climate change, deforestation and erosion.María Esther González is one of many residents of the Nicaraguan capital whose daily lives are affected by the water shortages. She lives in a poor neighbourhood in Managua’s District One, where piped water is now available for less than two hours a day.
González, the head of her household, hasn’t slept well for the past four years, because she has to be alert and ready when the water starts to run, any time between 11 PM and 3 AM.
She then has two hours or less to fill up a number of containers, wash clothes and clean her small home, before the pipes run dry again.
“For four years I’ve had to keep a vigil late at night to collect the water for our daily needs,” González told IPS.
But sometimes three days go by before the water runs, and Nicaragua’s water and sanitation utility, the Empresa Nicaragüense Acueductos y Alcantarillados (Enacal), has to distribute water in tanker trucks to many neighourhoods in the capital.
“People now have to walk long distances to find water, and those who can afford it buy water from farmers who have wells on their properties. The problem is that not everyone can afford to buy both water and food.” — Arístides Álvarez In Managua – whose name also contains the word “agua,” – a city of 1.6 million people, the problem is more visible due to media coverage of the frequent protests by entire neighbourhoods taking to the streets.
But the shortage is a nationwide problem, and threatens the living conditions of the country’s 6.1 million inhabitants, and especially the rural population.
Arístides Álvarez, a member of the non-governmental network of Potable Water and Sanitation Committees, told IPS that in rural areas in central and western Nicaragua thousands of families used to depend on wells and rivers that have dried up.
The community organiser said, for example, that in some communities in the department or province of Chinandega, 140 km northwest of Managua, three rivers that supplied at least 1,300 rural families now run dry during the November to May dry season.
“Today people have to walk long distances to find water, and those who can afford it buy water from farmers who have wells on their properties,” Álvarez said. “The problem is that not everyone can afford to buy both water and food.”
According to Álvarez, rural families were desperately waiting for the rains that should fall in the May to October rainy season. But this May the rain was scant and sporadic.
Ruth Selma Herrera, the former executive president of the Enacal water facility, told IPS that another problem affecting water supplies is the lack of investment in the water system and poor water management.
“At least 150 million dollars are needed to upgrade the water distribution network, because the pipes are old and the losses due to leaks are enormous,” she said.
But no short-term solution is in sight.
El Niño poses a threat
According to forecasts from mid-May by the U.S. National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, there is a 90 percent chance that the El Niño climate phenomenon will continue to affect Central America through the Northern Hemisphere summer and an 80 percent chance that it will last through the year.
El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a cyclical phenomenon in which the surface temperatures of the equatorial Pacific rise and have repercussions on weather around the world as the currents flow west to east.
In response to warnings of a new drought, the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development sounded the alert about food and nutritional problems for the people living in the so-called “dry corridor” – an arid region in the northeast and centre of Nicaragua encompassing 33 of the country’s 153 municipalities, characterised by low rainfall and high poverty levels.
The concern, expressed in a report on the country’s economic situation for 2015 presented in April, is that in the dry corridor, home to over one million people, food production and consumption could decline again due to the drought-related loss of grains and livestock, similar to what happened last year.
In 2014 the central government sent emergency aid – food, water and medicine – to that area affected by the drought caused by El Niño, which periodically leads to drought on the western Pacific seaboard and the centre of the country, with a major drop in precipitation during the rainy season, according to the Centro Humboldt, a local environmental organisation.
The organisation’s concern was shared by the local World Bank delegation.
World Bank representative in Nicaragua Luis Constantino told the La Prensa newspaper that the Bank and the government were currently discussing a strategic plan for the dry corridor.
“We are focusing on water management programmes,” he told the paper. “We are proposing a conference (with experts) to discuss options for the dry corridor, mainly to ensure that local governments have enough water to supply the population, but also to discuss maximising irrigation possibilities for agriculture and livestock.”
Jaime Incer Barquero, a Nicaraguan scientist and adviser to the president on environmental issues, told IPS that climate change has been expressed in Nicaragua through the El Niño and La Niña effects, associated with drought and flooding, respectively.
This country has Central America’s two biggest lakes: the 1,052-sq-km Lake Xolotlán and the 8,138-sq-km Lake Cocibolca, also known as Lake Nicaragua. In addition it has 26 lagoons, over 100 rivers, four reservoirs and five of Central America’s 19 largest river basins.
Different organisations say the level of soil erosion in Nicaragua is 10 times higher than the maximum rate that permits an optimum level of crop productivity, and this is affecting the country’s water sources.
The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) reported that Nicaragua’s soil is eroding at an irreversible pace because of the conversion of forest to pasture land for extensive grazing.
The maximum tolerable soil loss in the country is four tons (degraded due to poor agricultural and livestock management practices) per hectare per year. But in Nicaragua soil loss stands at 40 tons a year, CIAT researcher Carlos Zelaya explained during environmental workshops held in Managua in May.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) confirmed the magnitude of the problem.
“In Nicaragua land degradation is around 30 percent, and as high as 35 percent in the west,” said FAO food security facilitator in Nicaragua, Luis Mejía.
Incer Barquero, the presidential adviser, said that if erosion is not curbed, “in less than 50 years we’ll stop being called Nicaragua, and water will be a distant memory.”
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes
MANAGUA, Mar 14 2015 (IPS) – Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the Americas, is tapping into its depleted coffers to upgrade its aging military fleet with costly new equipment from Russia – a move that has sparked controversy at home and concern among the country’s Central American neighbors.