All photos taken by Orin Langelle in Nicaragua unless noted.
The following article was published twenty years ago in ACERCA NOTES when I was the coordinator of ACERCA (Action for Community and Ecology in the Rainforests of Central America). ACERCA’s findings cited climate change as one of the factors that exacerbated the tragedy caused by Hurricane Mitch. Climate change was not on the minds of many people twenty years ago. Little did I know then that climate change would be on so many people’s minds today and actually be recognized as a major threat to life on Earth if systemic changes do not happen economically and politically in the next twelve years. – Orin Langelle
The Special Report was excerpted from the “Preliminary Report to the Nicaragua Network Environmental Task Force.”
SPECIAL REPORT: HURRICANE MITCH IN NICARAGUA
Environmental Degradation, Deforestation, [Climate Change] Exacerbated Tragedy
by Orin Langelle
From October 25 to November 2, 1998 Nicaragua suffered a full scale disaster with Hurricane Mitch. Action for Community and Ecology in the Rainforests of Central America (ACERCA) called for and organized an environmental justice fact-finding research delegation to the region co-sponsored by Witness For Peace). In the first part of February , the ACERCA-WFP delegation traveled in Nicaragua to get an eye-witness account. The delegation was the first from the United States to look into environmental factors of the hurricane. The following information is from many sources.
Although Hurricane Mitch was a Category Five Hurricane with winds that ranged from 250-300 kms per hour with intense rain, the Nicaraguan government took no measures to prepare. In actuality, Hurricane Mitch did not hit Nicaragua, but Nicaragua suffered horrendous indirect effects.
Hurricane Mitch exposed in Nicaragua what has been present for many years. Decades of land abuse and environmental neglect magnified the hurricane’s devastating toll in death and damage. A combination of many social, political and economic factors caused the environmental degradation that exacerbated the tragedy. Deforestation played a major role. United States policy toward to Nicaragua contributed to these factors. Other factors include Global Climatic Change. Additionally, the government of Nicaragua ignored many warnings that could have prevented the tremendous loss of human life.
Hurricane Mitch destroyed roads, communications, houses and wells. Raging rivers washed away farmland and many zones were flooded for long periods of time. The damage to agriculture, ranching and human life was unprecedented with thousands dead and tens of thousands homeless.
The hurricane hit the poorest of the poor and will have long-term effects on food production for the entire populace. Seventy-two percent of all that was planted was lost. Small farmers were hit the hardest losing 90% of their beans and 80% of their corn.
Brief Historical Sketch Leading to Mitch
Development and exploitation of resources and people began with the Conquistadors ad has continued to this day.The United States, through financial and military support and intervention, has influenced Nicaragua for many years, from the 1800s to the present. In the 1950s, large cotton export operations flourished in the Pacific, clearing land, ruining soil with monoculture crops and pesticides, and forcing people to move to more marginal lands. Deforestation was rampant. This and other export commodity crops such as coffee, sugar, tobacco and cattle pushed the agricultural frontier toward the eastern rainforests. Behind this was the US sponsored Somoza dictatorship.
A revolutionary government came into power in 1979, inheriting poverty, environmental devastation and debt. The US, unhappy about a government it could not control, took measures to eradicate the new Nicaraguan government which had begun taking drastic measures to alleviate the social and ecological crisis it inherited. After the Sandinistas assumed power in 1979, the US used a “clean up” operation, to eliminate the perceived “socialist threat” throughout Central America. The real purpose of the ‘clean up” was to set up governments in Central America that would be conducive to the neoliberal free market economy. These economic policies force the exploitation of natural resources and people.
Neoliberal policies are directed in part by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank through Structural Adjustment Policies which divert spending from the social sector (health, education, environment) toward debt payment. SAP’s benefit big business and certain government officials involved in those business ventures. At present  Nicaraguan owes over US $46 billion. The US is a major influence in World Bank policy of how much money is loaned and is the only country with the power of an adhoc veto. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, behind Haiti.
Environment Prior to Mitch
Much of Nicaragua prior to Mitch was in an accelerated state of environmental decline.
One hundred thousand hectares per year are deforested. Before Mitch it was estimated that a record 300,000 hectares would be lost in 1998 alone; no one will now know due to Mitch.
Eighty percent of water sources are contaminated. Contamination in the Atlantic region is from mining, the Central region from petrochemicals related to agricultural practices.
Seventy-five percent of rivers in the Pacific region have dried up in the last 30 years due to deforestation and land abuse. There is a tremendous scarcity of water.
Tons of topsoil per hectare are lost each year in the Pacific region. In the dry season winds blow off the topsoil and in the rainy season it washes away.
Deforestation in the Pacific region has led to less rainfall in those areas. Some will become desert zones.
In 1998 there were 15,000 fires in agricultural and forested areas. For three months, Nicaragua appeared to be in flames. The forest fires destroyed vegetation under trees and when Mitch saturated the ground with water, many trees were swept away.
Nicaragua was an ecological disaster waiting to happen. When tree cover was eliminated and crops such as cotton were planted, there was an intense overuse of agricultural chemicals. The soil lost its capacity to hold plant life. Winds caused dust storms and further depleted the soil. Additional, the lack of trees next to rivers could not hold the banks together.
The majority of the land was in the hands of a few people and the poor were forced to move to the agricultural frontier or to survive by degrading the land, soil and forests. This further destabilized the soil. poverty and environmental degradation are intrinsically linked.
When Mitch rained, as much as 40 inches in a three day period, where there was no tree cover and little plant life to slow the rain runoff, sharp surges of water rushed off of mountains and fields into rivers causing flooding and mudslides of unprecedented portions.
Global Climatic Change
Two of the most important environmental concerns are deforestation and Global Climatic Change.
Global Climatic Change is making is making predictability impossible. Each year severe weather events will come more often. More hurricanes are inevitable. Global Climatic Change will affect Nicaragua (and other countries in Central America) because they do not have the appropriate technologies needed to cope with it like other developed countries.
Responsibility lies with industrialized countries, especially the US. Excessive levels of carbon in the atmosphere and lack of green to absorb the carbon are causing the severe El Niño effects.
Wiwili – Deforestation and Flooding of the Rio Coco
Although only five centimeters of rain fell in the village of Wiwili on the Rio Coco, water in the Rio Coco rose 20 meters washing away 640 houses and affecting 1300 other houses. Deforestation upriver was to blame. The Nicaraguan government was warned about flooding on the upper reaches of Rio Coco but did not notify the people downriver of the upcoming flood.
Las Casitas Volcano
The circumstances surrounding the collapse of the Las Casitas volcano crater lake should indict the government of Nicaragua for gross negligence. At 11:40 am on Friday, October 30, the crater lake of the Las Casitas volcano collapsed causing a mudslide that swept down the side of the mountain careening over small villages in its path killing over 2500 men, women and children.
On Wednesday, October 28, INETER (Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies) warned the government that conditions were becoming unstable throughout Nicaragua for potential mud and landslides. In the village of Posoltega on Thursday, October 29, Mayor Felicita Zeledón alerted the media of those conditions. President Alemán called her an alarmist. After the volcano collapsed on Friday, Zeledón told the media that she estimated 1000 people died. Alemán called her a liar. The government had enough time to begin evacuation of the surrounding communities but did not take action.
Some people were stuck in the mud for up to six days. Limbs had to be amputated due to complications for being submerged in the mud. Others were carried kilometers away. Some people are still sick [when the article was originally written] from swallowing and inhaling mud. Many survivors are traumatized. Many lost entire families.
continued: In an interview with National Assembly congressman and member of the government’s Environmental Commission, José Cuadra, Cuadra blamed congressman Eduardo Callejas for the collapse of the volcano. Cuadra said that Callejas deforested the slopes of the volcano in the 1960s and 70s. Pedrofélix Obregón and Elvira Blass of Comunidad Ambientalistas told us in addition to the deforestation of Las Casitas, Callejas was building 11 telecommunication towers on top of Las Casitas and also was building a road to the top of the mountain, further damaging the integrity of its slopes. Centro Humboldt’s Magda Lanuza told us that Callejas was still cutting trees on the slopes for coffee production as late as last year .
In January of this year , Callejas was placed on the Environmental Commission.
José Cuadra Assassinated on 18 August 1999
“Keeper of Morals” Shot Under Suspicious Circumstances
José Cuadra was held in considerable esteem by most of his colleagues, and called the keeper of morals by one legislative reporter. He had a strong anti-corruption track record, protesting a pay rise, which his fellows voted for themselves in the beginning of 1999. He also fiercely contested the recent enormous rises in the cost of electricity.
His killers used high-powered AK assault weapons.
Some of Cuadra’s colleagues, most notably Conservative Party Chief, Noel Vidaurre, speculate openly that the motive for his death was political.
When the ACERCA delegation met Cuadra in Managua in February 1999, Cuadra, in addition to putting the blame on Eduardo Callejas for the volcano collapse, said that he had information that President Alemán planned to make one million dollars a month as Nicaragua’s President. Cuadra also told ACERCA that he was investigating Alemán’s ties to the multinational fishing industry.
Lawmaker, 2 Others Killed in Shooting August 19, 1999 – From the Los Times Times Wire Reports:
A leading Nicaraguan Conservative Party lawmaker, the son of the Conservative Party chief and their driver were shot to death, National Police said in Managua. Jose Alfonso Cuadra, 40, Julio Enrique Ruiz, 26, and driver Francisco Celino were traveling to a political function when they were attacked by three armed assailants in the northern province of Matagalpa, Capt. Isabel Largaespada said. The National Assembly suspended its legislative session to mourn the “irreparable loss of one of its outstanding members.” In 1997, Cuadra was second vice president of the Assembly. Ruiz was the son of Conservative Party chief Julio Luis Quezada.
Note on a photograph by Langelle
This photograph on the right is an image that is etched in my brain. It is the one that never goes away. This photo impacted me on a very real aspect of what it means to be a concerned photographer – documenting a reality of a tragedy – hoping that the image of that tragedy will be used to prevent another. I took the photo while standing on a mass grave.
And today that photograph can be viewed as a warning of the climate chaos that has begun – and may it help counter the societal amnesia from which we collectively suffer.