VICTORIA, British Columbia — Nicaragua is one of the most impoverished nations in Latin America, with an estimated 30% of the population living below the national poverty line, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). Poverty is especially prevalent in the autonomous regions of the country’s Caribbean coast, where most Indigenous communities reside. Due to the rural and isolated nature of the Caribbean coast, Indigenous communities in Nicaragua face disproportionately high levels of food and water insecurity compared to the rest of the country.
Issues Impacting Indigenous Nicaraguans
In 2019, more than 80% of Indigenous communities “in the northern and southern autonomous administrative regions” of the nation did not have access to basic water and sanitation services. As a result, these communities face a high burden of diarrheal and other waterborne diseases.
Food insecurity is also a pressing issue for Indigenous communities in Nicaragua. In 2013, the Caribbean coast had the highest malnutrition levels in Nicaragua and a higher prevalence of underweight children younger than 5 than the national average — 25% in comparison to the national average of 22%. In terms of region-wide statistics, the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) average in this aspect stood at just 3%.
Deforestation in Nicaragua
Nicaragua is home to the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, which is one of the largest tropical rainforests in the Americas and is considered to be one of the richest ecosystems in the world. Indigenous communities in Nicaragua rely on the rainforest for their primary economic activities, which include crop production, livestock rearing and fishing.
Rampant deforestation by the gold mining and cattle ranching industries threatens the livelihoods of Indigenous communities in Nicaragua. Between 1987 and 2017, the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve lost roughly 592,000 hectares of rainforest. The advancement of mining and cattle ranching into Indigenous territories “has damaged local watersheds” and has contributed to the contamination of community water sources. Additionally, these industries often force Indigenous communities to relocate to less fertile land, leaving them vulnerable to food insecurity.
Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, are common on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast and have a devastating impact on communities’ food and water security. In November 2020, 3 million Nicaraguans experienced two hurricanes, Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota, which hit the northern Caribbean coast within 14 days of each other. The tropical storms destroyed more than 5,000 homes and caused more than $20 million in damages to the agricultural sector in addition to more than $6 million in damages to water and sanitation infrastructure. These storms left indigenous communities in Nicaragua without access to water and electricity and had a severe impact on their livelihoods.
To mitigate the impact of the hurricanes on Indigenous communities in Nicaragua, the WFP worked with local authorities to distribute more than 80 metric tons of food to the families impacted most harshly by the hurricanes. The WFP also worked to restore communication lines and electricity by providing the city of Puerto Cabezas with a generator.
El Porvenir Takes Action
Carole Harper, a Californian judge, founded the nonprofit organization El Porvenir in 1990. The organization works with rural communities in Nicaragua to improve standards of living by increasing access to sanitation and drinking water services through three programs:
- Sanitation. The majority of rural and Indigenous communities in Nicaragua do not have access to basic sanitation services. The lack of sanitation infrastructure contributes to the contamination of surface water sources, which communities use for their potable water and washing needs. El Porvenir partners with communities to build household double pit latrines and community wash stations as well as handwashing facilities in schools, reducing the burden of disease from untreated waste.
- Drinking Water. Most communities on the Caribbean coast acquire their drinking water from contaminated surface water sources like rivers and streams, increasing their vulnerability to water-borne diseases. El Porvenir supports communities by building wells and installing electric water pumps. It also conducts water quality testing to increase the consumption of safe drinking water.
- Watershed Restoration. To restore local watersheds from the impact of deforestation, El Porvenir has initiated reforestation and agroforestry programs within communities on the Caribbean coast. By planting nurseries and incorporating tree planting among crops and livestock, communities can work to restore damaged agricultural land. Reforestation and agroforestry can also help replenish groundwater resources and improve the soil’s ability to absorb rainwater. Communities can utilize these techniques to improve food and water security.
The Caribbean Coast Food Security Project
To increase food security and improve nutrition, the World Bank in partnership with Nicaragua’s Ministry of Family, Communal, Cooperative and Associative Economy (MEFCCA) implemented the Caribbean Coast Food Security Project from February 2015 to December 2019.
Working with impoverished rural communities, the project provided education on the use of agricultural technologies and introduced a wide variety of nutritional crop species. It also provided food storage infrastructure to ensure long-term food security. As a result of the project, more than 10,000 families utilized improved agricultural practices and technologies. This increased agricultural productivity by 78% and increased by 91% consumption of nutritious food among children younger than 5 and women while allowing communities to expand into agribusiness markets.
Food and water security are inherently connected to improved living standards. While Indigenous communities in Nicaragua continue to face high levels of poverty, the work of NGOs and international organizations supports these communities in making great strides to improve their livelihoods.
– Kaitlyn DeWeerd