Nicaragua’s economy depends on agriculture. When the Sandinista government took over ex-President Somoza’s property in 1979 they found themselves in control of a million hectares of prime agricultural land. Apart from Somoza’s holdings about half the country’s land was in private hands. Just 1.2 per cent of the population owns 47 per cent of the land. Cotton, coffee, sugar and meat are the main export crops while the US-owned Castle and Cooke Company buys all the country’s bananas.
Rather than nationalize all land, the Sandinistas encouraged private owners to use their technical and management skills to bring the land back to full production. The message was clear: invest produce, provide good working conditions and a reasonable rate of profit will be assured.
The government provided credits for private farms to be rebuilt and nationalized foreign trade — thus controlling the produce rather than production.
But the big landowners are still suspicious of the revolution. Although production has continued, output has dropped dramatically. Private investment has slumped and the government has had to step in to guarantee production. In 1981, nearly 100 per cent of cotton and coffee production was financed from government coffers.
Despite the reluctance of large landowners to accept the new government there has been no move so far to bully them into line. With one million underused hectares, the potential for developing the state agricultural sector is immense. There are some 12 acres of land for each of Nicaragua’s 2.3 million people — enough to feed not just themselves, but many millions more.
A new Agrarian Reform Act announced in July, 1981 is a first step in making the country self-sufficient in food production. Idle lands have been taken over by the state and co-operatives are actively encouraged as the best way to increase food production.
Nicaragua has good reason for wanting to feed itself without reliance on foreign corporations or governments. Both the US and the country’s Central American neighbours have made their opposition to the revolution clear. First the US suspended all financial aid, then wheat supplies were cut off in April last year. The Reagan administration has also pressured the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and others to block loans to Nicaragua.
As a result the Sandinistas are looking elsewhere for assistance, including Europe, Japan, non-aligned Latin American and Arab countries and the Soviet bloc. In some cases this ‘independence’ is more symbolic than real. Instead of importing John Deer tractors directly from the United States, for example, they are now imported from Brazil. But the main aim is to reduce dependence on the US and to soften the blow of a US economic boycott against the country.
According to Nicaraguan economist Xavier Gorostiaga the country plans to be ‘self-sufficient’ in basic food grains (corn, rice and beans) within a year. ‘Once you provide this security you can move to a much more sophisticated kind of development but this basic security must be first' he says.
As part of this ‘food first’ approach the Sandinistas introduced the National Food Programme (PAN) in April last year. It aims not just to produce grain but also to develop collective work systems and encourage peasants to manage their own affairs and to help train new workers. In addition, the programme is also concerned with better nutrition, improvements in food storage, hygiene and preparation.
Private farmers are also encouraged to devote more land to basic grains. But peasant cooperatives are given the strongest financial incentives. The government offers agricultural loans far below commercial interest rates — at 8 per cent for working cooperatives, 10 per cent for credit and service co-operatives and 13 per cent for individual producers. Fixed prices, guaranteed storage and marketing assistance are also part of the package.
It is a big change for Nicaragua’s peasantry. Traditionally exploited and ignored, peasants now find themselves the centre of attention in the new cooperatives.
The Camilo Ortega Co-op is one of the new peasant-managed ventures just outside the town of Masaya. A technician working with Procampo, the organisation which locally distributes credits, technical advice and land, explains: ‘because it’s so close, this is one of the best places to grow food for the city’.
The 14 members of the coop appear to agree. As we stand by the newly-sown peanut and bean plants, the companeros explain their problems in getting started. Two of the members had withdrawn, wanting the fixed wages the previous farm owners had given them.
Acres of maize, sorghum, beans, rice and peanuts stretch out as far as the eye can see. So are there still problems now?
‘The lack of machinery — we don’t have any tractors. There’s a bit of plague on the bean crop but the companera from Procampo is coming to help us spray'. Production is increasing, they say. And they are now counting on two or three crops a year.
The PAN programme is very young — as is the revolution itself. And there is no doubt that the peasants at Camilo Ortega and other Co-ops face an uphill battle. The push towards food self-sufficiency will not change the workload of the average small farmer. Nicaraguan peasants have always worked the land. The only difference is they will now have some control over food production. And that kind of control is probably the best guarantee the Nicaraguan experiment will succeed.
Jane McIntosh is a UK-based freelance writer, recently returned from Nicaragua.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7