The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) has periodic trips, both domestic and international, that enable participants to receive education on certain topics and to engage with local communities. For two years, I have been scheduled and rescheduled for a trip to Haiti. Finally, when the trip was canceled this April, I had an offer to transfer to a trip to Nicaragua. With the help of a financial award, I was able to attend the May 2016 Climate Change Justice trip with UUCSJ.
An Untold History
Perhaps the most baffling part of the trip was the historical background we were given. We were asked to read Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle which describes, as the title would suggest, not only the history of Nicaragua but the intense trifling the United States has had. Between this text and then several class sessions in Managua at CEPAD with instructors such as Aynn Setright, we were able to grasp the complex social, economic, political, and cultural chaos that makes modern-day Nicaragua.
The histories general start with the recorded ones the Spanish brought. The enslavement of tribal peoples from the various geographical regions of Nicaragua is no new story to the Americas, sadly, and its largely Mestizo population today is testimony of that. Then, in later centuries, interests in creating a canal across Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua adds to America, Britain, and Spain’s desire in controlling the land. The Liberals of Leon and the Conservatives of Granada, we are told, disputed back and forth over where the Capital would be and who would be in charge until it was settled that Managua, directly between the two, would take over. (Ironically, no indigenous groups built at Managua because it is on the fault line. As a result of moving the capital here, earthquakes have destroyed the city, the largest stopping the clock on the cathedral tower in the cultural plaza.) Periods of unrest are the trend in the 20th century, with the United State’s William Walker declaring himself as Nicaragua’s president, the control of a corrupted National Guard, and then three generations of dictators under the Samoza family. In 1979, the Sandinista Revolution resulted in a period of reform until 1990.
To this day, however, the elections do not go without the United State’s meddling in them, and corruption continues in the modern “democracy” – especially in program spending and addressing the class gaps. As the book we read told us, the GDP for Nicaragua has been at about $800 with most of the population earning about $200 annually. Cheap labor, rather than coffee, is considered the major export of Nicaragua. This “export” contributes to the gap. We witnessed these gaps and also the lush spending of the modern government. Google “Trees of Life” to see the way thousands of dollars have been spent in Managua: artificial tress with lighting have been constructed all over the city, some with paid guards posted at them 24/7.
Meanwhile Nicaragua continues to struggle with its issues of a very monocrop-based economy. Presently, the coffee industry is its major crop. The rich soils from volcanic ash contributes to its success. However, changes in the climate have altered the environment of the various altitudes and regions in Nicaragua that were once naturally ideal for these crops. Additionally, arroyo, or “coffee rust”, is killing crops at a rate that is threatening the future of campesinas. When these farmers sell to companies that don’t actively seek for Fair Trade agreements, the gap between the farmers and the middlemen increases. Now, Nicaraguans fear what will happen if they cannot overcome the coffee rust.
After spending several days in Managua, our group traveled to Prodecoop in Esteli to learn about their Fair Trade program. We also visited various programs such as FEM and Las Diosas, which work to employ and support women, educate women on health, and prevent domestic violence. On the way out of Esteli, we headed north towards Honduras and stayed two nights with homestays in the little village of Quibuto. Quibtuo is in the Fair Trade coffee business and has a complex organization of small farmers working together to support themselves. My host dad walked me around his farm and showed me his coffee trees, including the leaves that were tainted with coffee rust. His finco included many contraptions for sorting the coffee cherries before they go to a beneficio. He also picked some beans from his sieves and showed me what he calls “cafe oro“, also verde.
We got to ride to the top of the mountain, which was sadly dry for the rainy season, and visit a large farm on the hillside. There, we worked at a demonstration area to prepare soil with ash, plant coffee beans in rows, cover them with weeds and water them, then select “matches” (sprouted beans) to plant in small bags that we prepared. We took a couple of bags that were already trees over to a farm. There, we were shown how banana trees had been planted as fast-growing shade sources. Under these trees, we dug a couple of holes, cut the bottom and sides of the bags for good root starting, and planted the trees. That night, we finally had thunderstorm. The rain on the tin roof was so loud, I was convinced our shack was going to wash down into the dry riverbed at the bottom of the mountain.
A couple of things I learned from this experience: 1) I can actually have conversations in Spanish; 2) I want to study climate change in Nicaragua to support these indigenous communities; 3) buying Fair Trade (100%, not just partial, certified) is really important; and 4) Equal Exchange, who had representatives on the trip with us, is exactly what it advertises itself as being: 100% Fair Trade and actively working with these communities.
I also got to visit the Guardians of Yaosca River (and to swim in the river). The long and winding road from Rancho Grande took us to the riverside where an outdoor feast was arranged. On the way, we stopped to observe a mountain. 363 natural springs, they said, exist in the mountain. B2Gold, from Canada, is threatening to do open-pit mining in that hillside. None of the community members are in support, yet B2Gold keeps manipulating the situation. We also passed the entrance to an existing mine. Next to it was a billboard showing B2Gold’s ‘support of community health’, ironically. “That man in the hat,” said one of the Guardians, pointing to the billboard. “Did not give consent for his face to be on the B2Gold billboard. He is not in support of the mine. But they keep manipulating things to make it look to the public like we are in support.” He told us they no longer sign documents, unless it is their own petition, because B2Gold will just transfer their signatures to something saying they support the mining of the mountain.
On the riverside, two young women sang a song. It ends “I cannot live without water, I cannot live without air, I cannot live without forests, but I can live without gold.” I was surprised by how little has been covered on the problems of mining and exploitation of communities in Nicaragua. I also became interested in learning more about MARENA, the organization that I have since discovered should be responsible for environmental impacts and protection in Nicaragua. (We later had met with a priest in Rancho Grande who didn’t believe there was any accountability; to me, there appears to be an organization, but I’m guessing different presidents oppose MARENA’s “meddling” in their profits when trying to exploit labor, resources, etc. – and speaking out against the government has been resulting recently in missing people or corpses.)
While people were quick to boycott jewelry, someone reminded us that electronics use gold in the circuitry. Our phones, our computers, everything. I also reminded them that solar panels, wind turbines, cars,…those all depend on mining as well. Maybe not of gold apart from circuitry, but various minerals and metals nonetheless.
To read more on this topic, here is one article I have managed to find: B2Gold at Rancho Grande
Although this is not an extensive coverage of my trip, or of these topics, I wanted to put something out there so people can understand the injustices that continue to happen in Nicaragua. The resilience of the people, despite recent huge population losses from the revolution, is really impressive and somehow contagious. The street art in Managua and across the countryside, often with “FSLN” emblazoned in paint, was also inspirational for how social movements happen, continue, and are remembered.
To end, I scanned a water color I worked on this week. It features the National Bird, a Turquoise-Browed Motmot (Guardabarranco Comun). These guys apparently bury their eggs. He’s on a branch above new leaves, some with Nicaraguan flag patterns on them, protecting the sleeping babies. Behind the bird, outlines of revolutionaries and also the famous image of Sandinista himself. The red and black colors represent the FSLN.