BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Washington — Nicaragua is one of the most impoverished countries in Central America, afflicted by political instability, violence and natural disasters. In April 2018, protests in the capital of Managua erupted over suggested changes to the social security program, which would essentially require Nicaraguans to pay more taxes without receiving more benefits. The government crackdown on protests resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people. Since then, political unrest and human rights violations continue to harm Nicaragua’s economy and citizens’ security. Poverty in Nicaragua increased by more than 1% between 2019 to 2020, pushing more Nicaraguans into harsh living conditions. Ometepe is a small island located in Southern Nicaragua in Lake Cocibolca, only accessible by ferry or plane. As an already remote location, Ometepe experiences many difficulties, but one organization, Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Islands Association (BOSIA), facilitates assistance to Ometepe and maintains the relationship between Ometepe and Bainbridge Island, Washington.
History of Conflict in Nicaragua
Similar to other countries in the region, Nicaragua’s history is filled with violence and corruption, which only worsens the effects of poverty and economic downturn. The country has faced many difficulties since the initial Spanish colonization, including dictatorships, turmoil between regimes and political groups and interference by many other countries. Hurricanes and earthquakes strike frequently, destroying infrastructure and killing hundreds of people.
Recent events revolve around current President Daniel Ortega, who served his first term in 1984 after leading the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in ending the 44-year-long Somoza family dictatorship in 1979. After his reelection in 2006 and winning a second term in 2011, changes to the constitution allowed him to serve a third term beginning in 2016. With his wife Rosario Murillo becoming the vice president, many believe Ortega has authoritarian control over Nicaragua’s government. His ties with the FSLN were called into question after the events regarding social security changes in 2018 became deadly.
Facts About Poverty in Nicaragua
Decades of continued conflict have only magnified Nicaragua’s economic and social disparities. In times of violence, the government neglects reforms and foreign assistance withdraws. Several facts about poverty in Nicaragua provide insight into the country’s economic landscape.
- In 2018 and 2019, the Nicaraguan economy shrank by about 4%.
- About 30% of the population lives in conditions of poverty.
- Only 50% of families living in rural areas are above the poverty line.
- Chronic malnutrition affects 17% of children under the age of 5.
- Large regional differences mean that there is unequal access to healthcare and education among low-income families compared to wealthier households.
- About 70% of the country’s population works in agriculture, making their livelihoods dependent on outside factors such as weather, natural disasters and price fluctuations.
Life in Ometepe
Ometepe has a population of around 35,000 people, most of whom practice subsistence or cash-crop farming. Life is cyclical, following the growing seasons and working with the sun. Most families earn less than $3 a day, which is below the line of poverty in Nicaragua. Since the 1990s, tourism to the island was steadily growing but has since declined in recent years. Most of the population has access to clean water, thanks to community projects that built wells and gravity-fed water systems.
Healthcare has also improved in the past three decades, from only one doctor on the entire island to nine health posts and two larger healthcare centers. COVID-19 posed challenges to Ometepe as it did everywhere, with added stress on the healthcare system and education disruptions affecting children. The events in 2018 made it difficult for ferries to reach Ometepe for a short time period and decreased tourism, which used to bring money into the economy.
All About BOSIA
Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Islands Association is a nonprofit that focuses on friendship and mutual respect. Its goals are to develop relationships, support cultural exchange and increase awareness of problems confronting developing nations. Delegations of students and professionals frequently exchange, gaining education and insight alongside friendship. BOSIA listens to residents of Ometepe and residents of towns throughout Ometepe initiate community projects.
Since its founding in 1986, BOSIA has assisted in countless projects in Ometepe. This includes developing libraries, building cafeterias and clean water systems, providing braille typewriters, teaching Nicaraguan sign language to deaf and vision-impaired students and giving scholarships and grants to students and healthcare workers. Additionally, BOSIA works with coffee growers in Ometepe to buy beans and roast and sell the coffee in the U.S. city of Bainbridge Island. The cooperation provides a market for the farmers with fair trade prices and the profits go toward funding projects and employing an agronomist to educate farmers on ways to increase crop productivity and organic farming methods.
The Borgen Project spoke with David Mitchell and Paul Carroll, trustees and committee members of BOSIA, to learn more about the coffee cooperation. BOSIA began buying coffee in 1991 after farmers said they had nowhere to sell their coffee beans while also grappling with the issue of losing their land. BOSIA buys green coffee beans from two cooperatives on Ometepe, usually the entire harvest, and imports a shipping container once a year to be roasted in Bainbridge Island. The coffee is organic and fair trade, meaning, when market prices are low, BOSIA pays the farmers more than the going rate.
The yearly coffee production is typically 10,000 to 30,000 pounds, and although the past few years brought challenges to the cooperation, BOSIA’s agronomist was able to find a solution. The coffee plants in Ometepe were infected with coffee leaf rust, a fungus that spreads on the plant’s leaves, drying leaves out and killing the plant. Combined with older plants, this led to a decline in production.
The agronomist worked with farmers to improve farming practices, and due to this effort, there is now a surplus of coffee production. Sales in Bainbridge and at farmers’ markets in California and Canada slowed due to COVID-19 and reduced tourism. Excess coffee would normally be sold in Ometepe, but the unrest stemming from the events of 2018 have led to fewer tourists visiting, and therefore, fewer purchases. BOSIA bought all of the coffee beans produced and is currently working on finding new outlets to sell through. Farmers of Ometepe also grow other crops. However, overall decreased sales affect farmers negatively, although Carroll states that BOSIA does not know the full extent of this impact.
The political unrest of 2018 spilled onto Ometepe, resulting in property damage and minor injuries and creating new difficulties for the island. As the conflict continues, more people are pushed into poverty in Nicaragua. With elections coming up in November 2021, the future is uncertain, although some still remain hopeful that positive change is possible throughout Nicaragua. In the meanwhile, BOSIA’s programs and initiatives are positively contributing to the resilience and recovery of Nicaragua.
– Madeleine Proffer