ON THE RECORD
Central America After Mitch: Your electronic link to civil society and the reconstruction of Central America
Volume 8, Issue 6 May 21, 1999
In this issue ...
In the News
- US Refusal to Permit NGO Participation in Stockholm
- Feature of the Day: Early Warning in Nicaragua
- Temporary Bridges Tumble as the Rains Begin To Fall
The Limitations of Early Warning by Donna Vukelich
- Prone to Disaster
- Holes in the Civil Defense Safety Net
- Death from the Mudslide
- The Government Drags its Feet
- Political Commitment
A Disaster Foretold by Donna Vukelich
- Mapping Out the Danger Zones
- Rehabilitation Rather than Relocation
In the News
US Refusal to Permit NGO Participation in Stockholm Angers Activists
The Clinton Administration has rejected an appeal that
nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives join the
American delegation to the forthcoming meeting of the consultative
group in Stockholm.
The decision has surprised and angered activists, and strikes many
as being totally at odds with US commitment to participation. One
official from a prominent NGO in Washington described it as "a spit
in the eye from a country that will lecture Central America about
Officials from USAID have said that there is insufficient time to
prepare the legal basis for NGO participation, but if there was
political support few doubt it would happen. USAID officials are
also understood to be reluctant to have aid projects discussed by
NGOs who might conceivably receive contracts as a result of
decisions taken in Stockholm.
There are many precedents for NGOs participating on delegations at
governmental meetings. The US routinely includes NGOs on its
delegation to the annual session of the UN Human Rights Commission,
which discusses highly confidential charges against governments.
There are fewer precedents, if any, for NGOs to participate in
meetings of the "Paris club" groups of donors. But the
InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB), which is chairing the
Stockholm meeting, has made much of the "higher NGO presence" in
For the NGOs themselves, participation at Stockholm has become
something of a litmus test of the commitment of donors' towards the
participation of civil society in reconstruction. Several other
delegations, including Spain and Sweden, are planning to include
Meanwhile, plans are moving ahead for the NGO forum meeting, which
will take place on Sunday and Monday, prior to the donor
Some 100 individuals are also expected to meet on Monday with
representatives from the World Bank, IDB, and UN Development
Programme (UNDP). The Swedish and American aid agencies are also
expected to attend.
For the agenda and timetable of the NGO meeting, visit the web site
of the Swedish NGOs:
NOTICE: On the Record will be publishing from the Stockholm
Feature of the Day: Early Warning in Nicaragua
From the Editorial Desk
After Honduras, Nicaragua was the country worst hit by Hurricane
Mitch last October. On October 30, as many as 2,000 Nicaraguans
died when two villages were swept away in a torrent of mud
caused by Hurricane Mitch. It was the single worst loss of life
in the entire region.
Now the cycle may be starting again. This year's rains have
washed away temporary bridges, disturbed the planting season,
and raised fears of another disaster. So traumatized were
Nicaraguans by Mitch, that some are seeking counseling at the
sound of raindrops on the roof.
Can these disasters be prevented? Nicaragua is one of the most
disaster-prone countries in the world. It has an effective
early warning agency in INETER (the Nicaraguan Institute for
Territorial Studies) and a nation-wide system of civil defense.
One UN assessment found that INETER had performed better than
its counterparts from Honduras and El Salvador. Perhaps,
suggested the UN, this was because INETER was run by civilians,
as opposed to military.
During Mitch, timely information from INETER was able to save
hundreds of lives. But the government was much less responsive.
As DONNA VUKELICH reports in the following articles, early
warning is of limited use when a government is not interested
in acting on the information and mobilizing communities. Nor
does it help those who are living in exposed villages on
mountainsides that have been stripped of vegetation in the
relentless search for fuel.
Temporary Bridges Tumble as the Rains Begin To Fall
Heavy rains have been falling on Nicaragua for the past two weeks,
causing damage throughout the country especially in those areas
still recovering from Hurricane Mitch.
Residents of 12 different neighborhoods in Managua are in constant
danger of flooding, according to municipal authorities. The most
serious problems are those neighborhoods along the shores of Lake
Managua. Also affected are those near open drainage ditches that
have not been properly constructed and are likely to overflow after
In addition, a number of temporary bridges in the Leon-Chinandega
region, most notably one over the Rio Negro, less than 10
kilometers from the Honduran border, were washed out last week.
Several huge trailer trucks ended up in the river and traffic along
the major highway (a key commercial route linking Nicaragua and
Honduras) was blocked for hours.
The temporary bridges were installed after Hurricane Mitch ripped
out the original ones last year. Posoltega is being called
"defenseless" against the rains. Three of the municipality's
communities had their communications with the rest of Nicaragua
severed by last week's rains.
Along with the physical impact of the rain, which some specialists
say could lead to another mudslide given the extremely precarious
conditions on the slopes of the Casita volcano, the Posoltega
survivors are dealing with tremendous psychological trauma. Many
people are terrified of the very sound of the rain, and hundreds
are still living as refugees in very makeshift housing.
(From Nicaragua Network Hotline, May 18, 1999; email: <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
The Limitations of Early Warning
by Donna Vukelich
Less than a week into May, traffic ground to a halt on the
Panamerican highway south of Managua after the temporary bridge at
the Ochomogo River near Nandaime the country's only route south
to Costa Rica gave way to one of the first rains of the season.
For more than 18 hours, vehicles were prevented from crossing, and
people had no choice but to walk over a hastily improvised
pedestrian bridge. One woman, who had balanced a huge box on her
head as she crossed, breathed a sigh of relief after making it
across. Then she shook her head. "What is this poor country going
to do when the rains really start?"
More than six months have passed since the rains of Hurricane Mitch
devastated much of the northern half of Nicaragua. In a country
still traumatized by levels of precipitation never before seen in
this century, the rainy season is once again setting in. It has
sparked fear and concern among many, instead of the celebration
that usually accompanies the first planting season.
Thousands of Nicaraguans still live as refugees, trying to make
sense of the enormity of the disaster they managed to survive. At
the same time, several government bodies are struggling to prepare
for what the US weather service warns may well be a particularly
severe hurricane season. Nicaragua could be caught short yet again.
This is making Nicaraguans very nervous indeed.
Prone to Disaster
Claudio Gutierrez, long-time director of INETER (The Nicaraguan
Institute for Territorial Studies) and a civil engineer by
profession, notes that Nicaragua is extremely susceptible to a
daunting range of natural disasters.
The country is located in one of the most seismically active areas
in the world Managua has twice been leveled by earthquakes in
this century and is also vulnerable to floods, tropical storms,
and hurricanes. Since the earthquake in 1972, Nicaragua has
suffered damage of US $2.136 billion an astonishing figure in a
country where yearly exports were under US $500 million for years.
In this decade alone, Nicaragua has suffered two volcanic
eruptions, a tsunami, several tropical storms, and one severe
Floods are a virtual given for much of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast,
which historically has borne the brunt of the storm systems blowing
in from the Caribbean. Hurricane Joan slammed directly into the
Atlantic Coast city of Bluefields in October 1988; and Hurricane
Cesar also wreaked havoc on the Atlantic Coast in 1996.
But Mitch went far beyond anything that had gone before and was
far worse than anyone could have imagined. First, Mitch was one of
the century's strongest storms reaching the highest category of
intensity recorded in the International Scale of Hurricanes and
the single most destructive storm ever to hit Central America.
Secondly, the hurricane system was moving at a torturously slow
pace some 5 km/h. This was so unusually slow for a storm system
that Mitch seemed to have ground to a halt right over Honduras. In
addition, Mitch made a significant change in course after it had
been constituted as a tropical storm, one that virtually nobody was
able to predict.
And, finally, the levels of precipitation were nothing less than
mind-boggling. In the area around Posoltega 328 mm of rain fell in
the entire month of October 1997; yet in the last ten days of
October 1998, the same area received 1,116 mm. of rain.
Holes in the Civil Defense Safety Net
Two main institutions bear the burden of understanding, preventing,
and preparing for natural disasters like Mitch. These are INETER,
the Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies, and the Civil
Defense office. INETER has long been the center of technical
expertise on natural disasters in Nicaragua. It is a technical
entity that provides reports of weather changes to the presidential
offices as well as to the National Civil Defense Office (which is
part of the Nicaraguan Army.) Reports are also regularly sent to
the media, but are not necessarily published in any consistent
manner in the print media, though they often turn up as part of the
weather reports on the national televised news programs. INETER is
linked to a number of regional meteorological networks most
notably the hurricane center in Miami and is also part of
regional efforts to monitor ongoing seismic activity.
Like most institutions of government in Nicaragua, INETER and the
Civil Defense Office suffer from a serious lack of resources after
more than eight years of public spending cuts and draconian
structural adjustment. Government departments lack the means to
communicate and collaborate with each other. Networks between the
government and the population tend to be weaker still.
Over the last 15 years, the Civil Defense office in Nicaragua has
been working to increase the professional expertise of its
officials as well as its general level of preparedness. Precisely
because so many people in Nicaragua live in areas that are
extremely vulnerable to natural disasters, the National Civil
Defense office has set up a countrywide system of civil defense
committees. Of Nicaragua's 147 municipalities, 57 have been
designated "priority areas" by the Civil Defense office because of
their high level of risk.
Yet only 32 of those municipalities have functioning civil defense
committees. Those civil defense committees include the mayor (as
well as the regional governors on the Atlantic Coast), delegates
from governmental ministries, church representatives and the like.
One municipality that did not have a working committee is
Posoltega, which had never before experienced serious problems due
to floods or storms.
Nicaraguan journalist Roberto Fonseca dubbed the Civil Defense
offices the "Cinderella" of governmental institutions, and quoted a
high-level officer as saying: "If we want to implement a complete
civil defense system, we would need to invest around $10 million
dollars." The office's annual budget is just under US$300,000.
A shortage of funds has also taken a serious toll on the army, the
police force, and the Red Cross. These are all institutions that
play pivotal roles in the wake of natural disasters in other
Death from the Mudslide
This lack of resources would be problematic in the best of times.
It is tragic in times of natural disasters like Mitch.
Civil Defense and INETER were on alert from October 21 onwards, but
nobody could have imagined the scope of the disaster that was to
hit Nicaragua. INETER officials first became concerned in
mid-October last year, when a series of several large tremors,
accompanied by scores of smaller ones, left Nicaraguans on the
Pacific side of the country feeling jittery and on edge.
On October 21 (ten years to the day that Hurricane Joan hit
Bluefields and just days after the series of tremors) INETER
reported the presence of tropical depression no. 13 in the
Caribbean, some 600 km south of Jamaica.
On Friday, October 23, the three morning dailies reported that
tropical storm Mitch was headed straight for the Atlantic Coast.
That morning, the Civil Defense offices were crowded with
journalists and government functionaries who were on hand for an
official change in command. Col. Jose Garcia taking over from Col.
Ramon Arnesto Soza who had been at the head of the office for
several years. The dignitaries had to negotiate nearly a foot of
water, because two days of rain had flooded the national offices.
(Although he had officially been transferred out of Civil Defense,
Soza worked around the clock during the hurricane.)
Within two days the storm had been upgraded to a hurricane. Though
it was still quite a distance from Nicaragua, the regional civil
defense committees in the autonomous regions of the Atlantic Coast
(RAAN and RAAS) sprang into action. Because of intense rains in the
RAAN and the RAAS, the national civil defense offices had carried
out simulation exercises there in 1996.
Additionally, because the RAAN and RAAS have a long history of this
kind of weather phenomenon, the communities there had a
psychological edge over the rest of the country. They began to
evacuate people. It is clear that early evacuation saved hundreds,
if not thousands, of lives in the small communities that dot the
riverbanks in the RAAN.
As the final week in October wore on, the situation worsened
progressively. Yet nobody was prepared for the call that came from
Posoltega on the morning of October 31. Mayor Felicitas Zeledon
made several calls the first one to the President and the second
to the civil defense office. What she reported seemed incredible.
The day before, part of the Casita volcano had simply slid away,
burying the two small communities of El Porvenir and Rolando
Rodriguez. They were obliterated by a wall of mud that slid down
Zeledon initially reported some 1,000 deaths, but the final toll
was estimated at nearly 2,000. Civil defense officers report the
eerie feeling of flying over the volcano, and seeing a seemingly
endless expanse of mud. Nothing that indicated any sign of the
nearly 3,000 people who had lived in the two communities was
Farther down the slopes, the scenes were horrifying. The media
showed haunting photographs of Posoltega vast expanses of mud,
with scores of cruelly deformed bodies, trees and the wreckage from
homes visible as the only reminders of life there. One little
Nicaraguan boy told his mother that it looked "like the Titanic,
but in mud."
The Government Drags its Feet
It had now been more than a full week since INETER alerts had been
issued and the constant rainfall was creating havoc all over the
country. Incredibly, however, President Aleman seemed to be
dragging his feet. In fact, media reports indicate that he accused
Felicitas Zeledon of being "alarmist," and of exaggerating the
reports about the scope of the tragedy in her municipality.
The government never seized the initiative to respond more quickly
or to request timely aid from abroad helicopters could have
saved scores of lives in the first days and a state of emergency
was never declared.
As is so often the case in Nicaragua, part of the problem was
political. Many of the municipalities hardest hit are represented
by FSLN (Sandinista) mayors (18 of 23 in the Leun-Chinandega area
alone). The government allegedly did not want to give any farmers
excuses for not paying off their loans. Because both Aleman and
Vice-president Enrique Bolanos have had a contentious relationship
with the Nicaraguan army, they are loath to cede a higher profile
to the Civil Defense office.
In some cases, the painfully slow government response seems to have
been caused by outright negligence. Moravian pastor Norman Bent, a
ham radio enthusiast, had been following Mitch's path and was
warning the many indigenous Miskito communities along the shores of
the Coco river, which serves as the border between Nicaragua and
Honduras in the country's north-central and northeastern regions.
Bent, who is part Miskito, says that "as a pastor, I was working to
save my people." He accused the government of reacting in an
unconscionably slow manner. "All these communities voted for
Aleman," he said. "But they are isolated now, and nobody in the
government cares." In the end, people spent days huddled together
on the tops of small hills, waiting for help to come.
INETER played a highly positive role during Mitch. It was extremely
informative and technically top-notch. The Civil Defense and
airforce (which plucked people off rooftops and treetops) also made
essential contributions. But all seem to have fought a losing
battle against government indifference.
If a government does not take measures beyond technical warnings
and eleventh-hour rescue efforts, such tragedies will be almost
impossible to avoid. When people live on the eroded, impoverished
slopes of a volcano, or along the banks of a river on flood plains
that are transformed into mud flats at least once or twice a
decade, they are at risk on every day during the rainy season.
"Vulnerability and this is true for any natural phenomenon is
the sum of a series of economic, social, environmental, and
cultural conditions," said Claudio Gutierrez of INETER in a recent
His comments make perfect sense, yet the powers that be in
Nicaragua do not see the situation this way. The government dealt
with Mitch in what was at best a patchwork fashion. It has made few
efforts since then to take steps to avoid similar, albeit on a much
smaller scale, kinds of damage during this year's tropical storm
Part of what the Nicaraguan government is taking to Stockholm as
its overall package of requests is requests for increased funding
for INETER. INETER's wish list includes both hydro-meteorological
and geological projects.
That is crucial, but it is also vital that the Nicaraguan
government accepts that natural disasters are a regular occurrence
and takes this far more seriously than it has to date. First and
foremost, this means undertaking serious prevention programs that
involve the population on a far greater scale. It must also include
the relocation of those populations living on lands so precarious
that their safety simply cannot be assured.
Gutierrez both recognizes and laments the fact that in Nicaragua it
has been customary to "respond to the effects of disasters, rather
than trying to prevent them." If disasters are dealt with only
after the fact, the destruction they cause will surely increase in
A former civil defense officer said, off the record, "The civil
defense structures here can't do it alone. They need to get people
out of the dangerous areas and then prepare them for what may come
floods, storms, anything. It can be done, but it would mean
making the prevention of natural disasters a priority at the very
A Disaster Foretold
DONNA VUKELICH points out that the impact of Hurricane Mitch was
felt most heavily by poor Nicaraguans living on the margins.
Their poverty, in turn, stripped the soil and the forests
and so made the land more vulnerable. This cycle must
be broken, and poverty addressed, if future disasters are
to be prevented.
Nicaragua's extreme vulnerability to natural disasters is
inextricably linked to the model of agro-export production that has
forever changed the country's face.
Half a century ago, the area in and around Leon and Chinandega was
known for its oranges and small and medium-sized, generally
prosperous, farms. Wholesale cotton production began in the early
1950s in a boom, lasting for several decades, that left the soil so
saturated with chemicals that many women who nurse their children
today are feeding them dangerously contaminated milk.
Most of the area is bleak, with the land fast approaching
desert-like conditions. This zona seca (dry zone) is home to some
of Nicaragua's poorest peasants.
Half a century ago, the north-central region of Las Segovias was
chilly, mountainous and heavily forested. When General Augusto
Sandino fought against US Marines in the late 1920s and early
1930s, his headquarters was in Las Segovias. It is said that the
heavy forest cover made it hard for US planes to locate his troops.
Much of the area was clear-cut by US lumber companies that were
offered attractive concessions under the Somoza dictatorship.
Today, only a few small stands of pine remain.
In the last several years, the hills of Jalapa, once the
breadbasket of Central America, have been turned over once again to
tobacco production to satisfy the renewed worldwide interest in
cigars with the attendant environment risks. Peasants eke out a
living, their yearly incomes only a fraction of what a family needs
In fact, Nicaragua's regions of poverty, which would include Leon
and Chinandega and Las Segovias in the northwest, correspond almost
exactly to the country's most environmentally degraded areas.
Mapping Out the Danger Zones
A third, quite similar map, could have been drawn in November 1998.
This time, it was the zones hardest hit by Hurricane Mitch, which
corresponded to the zones of poverty and environmental destruction.
When people live on ecologically-fragile lands, and natural
disasters are routine, tragedies are almost inevitable. For the
impact of those disasters is to be even somewhat softened, a series
of preventive measures need to be put into place.
In early May, a group of ecologists in Nicaragua said that a number
of small communities located on the precarious slopes of volcanoes
or mountains were living right in the path of potential mudslides
or landslides. INETER has 47 separate areas currently registered as
"danger zones." But technical experts have only been able to visit
nine of those areas so far, and the visits were still at the level
of preliminary studies.
The most vulnerable areas are also usually quite remote making
last-minute evacuations extremely difficult and often impossible.
And, of course, not only are the actual lands dangerous, but people
live on those lands in flimsy, inadequate housing.
David Rios, president of COBEN (the College of Nicaraguan
Biologists and Ecologists), has made several visits to the Casita
volcano area in recent weeks. He says that residents of the
remaining communities located on the slopes of the volcano (there
are at least five) should be evacuated and relocated to avoid any
tragedies during this rainy season or in the coming years.
INETER geophysicist Wilfried Strauch calls the Casita volcano a
"danger zone...with the very real possibility of a new mudslide,"
noting that in some areas the rocks "are as soft as soap."
Rehabilitation Rather than Relocation
The residents have told INETER that they want to leave, but are
unable to because they have nowhere to go. "The people living on El
Casita should be offered housing and employment," Rios says. "But
the government hasn't dealt with them. They aren't there because
they want to be there, they were forced up there during the cotton
boom and now they're stuck there."
Rios said he is particularly concerned about several other areas,
including the Mombacho volcano (near Granada and home to a cloud
forest natural reserve), the Maderas volcano on Ometepe island, and
the Musun mountain in Rio Blanco, in the dead center of Nicaragua.
INETER and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure have
begun construction of a massive retaining wall at El Casita.
However, at least one environmental expert called it "folly" to
undertake such an expensive effort one that will likely not even
be functional in the event of a major landslide. In any case, says
the expert, the money being spent on the wall could well have been
used to construct modest housing for area residents who need to be
While moving people off precarious lands is imperative, other
preventive measures are of equal importance, according to David
Rios. These should include programs to rehabilitate the land, plant
forests, and assist peasants in basic land-use techniques.
Rios says that the entire northwestern volcanic chain of Los
Maribios, which runs the length of the Chinandega-Leon region has
been seriously deforested over the years, as has much of the
surrounding land. The situation is much the same throughout the
country. Natural floodplains have been vastly expanded by the total
devastation of any plant or tree cover during Mitch.
Even with only several serious rains to date during this season, a
number of provisional bridges that went in after Mitch have been
washed away. One of them, at Ochomogo, caused blocked traffic on
the Pan-American Highway for some 18 hours. At the Rio Negro near
Chinandega, several huge trailer trucks ended up in the river.
Much of the environmental devastation on the Pacific Coast stems
from the cannibalization of the land by peasants. They are so poor
that they have no other choice but to use every last bit of
available soil and lumber. According to the Civil Society
Coordinating Body for Emergency and Reconstruction (CCER), "even
before Hurricane Mitch, the situation in the country was clearly
fragile and unsustainable."
In other words, Mitch exacerbated, rather than created, the crisis
currently facing the country. Given this, says ecologist Juan
Carlos Martinez, a new vision of development is needed that is
environmentally sustainable and allows citizens to participate in
their nation's development from the very earliest age.
Donna Vukelich is a writer who lives and works in Nicaragua. Email: <Donna@nicarao.org.ni>
Contacts for this issue
The Swedish Foreign Ministry, Swedish NGO liaison group,
and the IDB have all opened web pages on the Stockholm
Swedish NGOs. For the agenda and timetable of the NGO meeting,
NGO background papers, consult:
The Swedish government:
The IDB: www.iadb.org/exr/prensa/1999/cp9699.e.htm
For details of the Central American NGO participation,
contact SDN-HON at email: <email@example.com>
In the next issue: A penetrating look at how Nicaraguan civil
society has mobilized in the run-up to Stockholm