GOD made this land for corn!’ exclaims Victorina Sanchez, hands on her hips, looking with satisfaction at the long rows of green, cob-laden stalks. Along with 15 other former tenant farmers and farm-workers, Victorina, a robust, barefoot peasant, is now part-owner of a co-operative farm on the bank of the Gallo River in northern Chinandega. ‘Before,’ she tells us, ‘this farm belonged to a Somocista.He let the rich soil grow over with weeds and kept only a small herd of cattle to prevent the likes of us from planting on it.’ When the owner abandoned the property in the final weeks of the dictatorship, it was first made into a state farm and then, in the spring of 1982, turned over to Victorina and her fellow co-operative members. ‘All this went to waste before. Now it produces enough grain to feed our 15 families and dozens more. This is the way things were meant to be.’
Growing more corn - and beans and rice and all the other foods Nicaraguans need - lies at the heart of the Sandinista revolution. Transforming Nicaragua into a country that would produce harvests bountiful enough to feed everyone was a primary goal of those who made the revolution. With the triumph over the Somoza dictatorship, realization of that goal quickly became vital to the success of the revolution itself.
The final insurrection against Somoza in 1979 severely disrupted Nicaragua’s food production, leaving the country more dependent than ever on food imports. In the first year following the revolution concern that food shortages would hit the poor hardest led the new government to use more than 100 million scarce dollars to import food, principally from the United States. At the same time, the government strove to promote domestic production in the hope of rapidly reducing food imports. It liberally extended credit to food-producing campesinos (something virtually unheard of before), set a low maximum rent for land cultivated with food crops, and trucked seeds, fertilizers and tools into the food-producing interior. Groups of landless farmworkers, eager to grow their own food crops, were loaned, free of charge, unused land on farms expropriated from the Somocistas.
Then, in 1981, soon after inauguration, President Reagan cut off US credits to Nicaragua for wheat imports. His move left no doubt that Nicaragua’s aspirations for self-determination meant they had to rely on their own efforts.
No one can say for sure if Nicaragua would have achieved national food self-reliance by now were it not under military and economic siege by the United States. Certainly, the rapid recovery of most food crops after the devastating war against the Somoza dictatorship was promising. Overall food production figures, even through 198 3-84, are respectable enough, especially if we keep in mind the 1982 natural disasters. For in May 1982 tropical storm Aleta washed away tens of thousands of acres of newly planted food crops as well as rural roads and bridges. Unprecedented flooding was followed by a severe drought, which badly damaged the replanted crops as well as the pasture for dairy cows and beef cattle.
Despite big increases in the national consumption of rice and beans, production advances in 1982 and 1983 allowed Nicaragua to do away with imports of these two staples of the local diet. Rice output more than doubled between 1977-78 and 1983-84, and bean output went up 37 per cent.
But the gains Nicaragua had begun to make in achieving national food security have been fettered by Washington’s military and economic aggression. One fact alone illustrates the grave consequences of military aggression on food production. Over 70 per cent of Nicaragua’s corn and beans are cultivated in the mountainous northern zones hit hardest by contra terrorist attacks. The contras have burned thousands of acres of crops. Thousands more cannot be cultivated or harvested because of the risks involved. By 1984 more than 120.000 peasants and their families in the war zones had been forced to flee from the contras. abandoning their homes and fields. Many who stay behind leave their families to join the military. For those who continue to farm, the war has hampered their ability to trade. Because of the danger of entering war zones farmers are left without markets for their goods or products to buy. The result is that they stop producing for the market altogether, affecting both their own quality of life and the nation’s food supply.
Food production has also been crippled by the mining of roads and ports, the bombing of bridges and warehouses and the assassination of agricultural technicians. Efforts to raise fish production, increasingly a substitute for beef, were dealt a blow by the mining of the Sandino and Corinto ports in March 1983.
The external economic sanctions against Nicaragua have also taken a heavy toll on food production. The Reagan administration’s blocking of loans from the World Bank and other international financial agencies, coming on top of the depressed world market prices for Nicaragua’s coffee will only exacerbate the shortage of foreign exchange.
Foreign military and economic aggression so overshadows all internal errors, shortcomings and other setbacks that it has become impossible to weigh the importance of these internal factors independently. It has also become increasingly difficult for Nicaraguans to take corrective measures while fending off attacks.
When I think about Nicaragua’s prospects for the future, I remember what Santos, a peasant member of a co-operative in northern Madriz province, told us in the summer of 1984: ‘Newly planted corn is very delicate. Too much or too little rain, insects, diseases, cows on the loose - . all kinds of problems can come up and ruin your crop. It’s the same with our baby revolution. Too many attacks on our co-operatives, too many workers taken out of production for defense, not enough food for our people - this war could wipe out everything we’ve been working for. Like that corn out there, we need peace in order to grow.’
Joe Collins is co-founder of the Institute of Food and Development Policy in San Francisco (see page 29) and the co-author of Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. He was called in as an adviser on food policy by the Nicaraguan Government immediately after the Revolution.