This post is also available in: Spanish
Derrick Charles is the co-representative of MCC Nicaragua. This post is part of our ongoing series on migration.
“The guy who lives there is in the United States. The one over there is in the United States. That one over there is in Costa Rica. They’ve all gone.” Nicolás Rodriguez Espinoza, born and raised in the community of Uhuto in Chinandega, Nicaragua looks at the houses down the road.
“When it rains, we have everything,” he says. “Today, things have changed. Today, people have left things get out of control . This temperature, this climate change…”
Nicaragua is heading into the third year of drought which is making life increasingly challenging for smallholder farmers like Nicolás, who lives in Central America’s dry corridor. Traditionally, there are two planting seasons for these farmers: a first planting when the rains begin in May, harvesting in August; and a second planting in September, harvesting in November. At that point the dry season begins.
However, in the last two years the drought has meant minimal harvesting from the first planting, leaving many farmers in a vulnerable position, with limited food and seeds for the second planting. There was just enough rain in last year’s second planting season for a harvest, but now, once again in the dry season, the nation as a whole is suffering from an increasing number of dried up rivers and water sources. Up to 60% of surface water sources and 50% of underground water sources are gone, either having dried up or been polluted.
These weather patterns seem to result from a tragic combination of the effects of the El Niño phenomenon and global climate change. In Nicaragua, some of this is also attributed to deforestation and a failure to protect environmental resources. “Deforestation, slash and burn, pollution; that practices have brought it on us and we recognize that this affects us significantly,” says Nicolás. As much as 75% of Nicaragua’s forests have been cut for crop and pasture land. Many people do not see any other options but to look for possibilities outside of Nicaragua.
As suggested by the International Monetary Fund’s plan to exit the country in 2016, Nicaragua has made significant progress in macroeconomic gains and decreasing extreme poverty. Still, the nation continues to be one of the poorest countries in Latin America and the third poorest country in the western hemisphere.
Daniel Ortega’s government hopes that the age-old dream of a canal will propel Nicaragua ahead. In addition to the economic stimulus the project could bring, the Chinese investor, HKND Group, has promised to include a reforestation effort to plant half a million trees. Some view this as a way to access money on a scale that can clean up previous environmental damage. At the same time, many argue that this would still be an environmental crisis, endangering wildlife and Lake Nicaragua, or Colcibolca, the largest freshwater source in Central America. In addition, the canal would displace many people, including indigenous communities whose land rights are supposed to be legally protected. And, considering the canal built by the U.S. in Panama, it seems like a real possibility that any economic benefit to the Nicaraguan people themselves would not be seen for years to come.
“When we have a good rainy season, people don’t need to worry. They sell their corn, sell their beans, there is [economic] movement. But with the way things are, people are very, very, concerned,” says Nicolás. When farmers aren’t able to harvest, they look elsewhere to provide for their families. “The migration from my community, from my community, is at 20%,” he says. “The remittances that migrants send home is the only way many people are surviving.”
Where are they going? Nicolás says migration takes various forms for Nicaraguans. Some travel for two months each year to nearby El Salvador. They’ll travel in March and work for a few months in something like manufacturing, cattle, or masonry. They’ll return in April when it is time for the planting season. Others will travel to Costa Rica or Panama. Women will clean homes and men will work with masonry or the coffee or orange industries. They might come back in December, when families gather for the holidays and school is out. In January, they’ll set out again for another year.
If Nicolás had to move, he says he’d move to Matagalpa. “It’s cool there,” he says, but not internationally. There are many moving internally, he says, toward Estelí, Nueva Guinea, and other places that seem to promise a better opportunity.
As farmers look ahead toward this coming planting season, they consider their best options. Do they risk planting and investing their labor in their fields? Or, given the past two years of drought, would it be a better bet to look for work elsewhere? “The number of migrants is climbing, because the needs here are greater now,” says Nicolás.