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The search for a new kind of government

The pickup bounced violently over the washboard road that headed north from the town of Puerto Cabezas. The landscape was flat, its monotony broken only by an occasional village or a stream. Most of the bridges were destroyed, and the driver would turn off the road to and down the steep sides of the gully to a crossing point. There he would pause, and then gun the engine to send the vehicle lurching over the rounded stones to safety on the other side.

At one such place, a pair of road workers, spotting the oncoming vehicle, hurriedly strung a rope festooned with rags across the road and demanded 10 cordobas (about 80 U.S. cents). Since the government did not have the equipment or resources to fix the road, the local community took the matter into its own hands, and the wihta (the Miskito Indian word for judge) authorized the collection of funds.

The destination that day was Bismuna, a Miskito Indian village on the coast, near the border with Honduras. The guide was Rodolfo Smith, an official with the local municipality. He sat squeezed in the middle of the pickup, shifting his legs each time the driver shifted gears.

Smith described how indigenous communities in this region retain much of their traditional political organization and autonomy in managing their affairs. Most have a council of elders, a headman, a judge, and other positions, all elected by consensus.

Historically, such communities have operated in political isolation. They have practically nothing to do with the local municipality, the regional government headquartered in Puerto Cabezas, or the central government in the capital of Managua. It sounds utopian–no overbearing government officials, no tax collector. But the reality is that these communities are desperately poor. If a child is lucky enough to go to school, he has no textbooks. A person can get sick and die without ever seeing a doctor. A farmer can grow a crop and have no way to get it to market. Without basic services and infrastructure, people in these communities have little hope for a better future.

Forging local democracy. But this isolation is soon to end. The people of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast are demanding to be heard, and Managua has responded with a program to strengthen the regional government. In the process, local communities will be empowered as full-fledged participants in a democratic system of decision making.

The new IDB-financed program will give teeth to Nicaragua's Autonomy Statutes. This legislation, adopted in 1987, recognized the political rights of communities on the Atlantic Coast, but never provided the means to exercise them. The program will provide support for the two autonomous regions into which the Atlantic Coast is divided: the North Atlantic Autonomous Region, a Miskito Indian area administered from the town of Puerto Cabezas, and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, a predominately Afro-Caribbean area administered from the town of Bluefields. In both areas, the program will strengthen the regional governments in the basic skills required for effective administration, including forging links with the municipalities in their jurisdictions. The municipalities, in turn, will get the training they need to handle money, raise taxes, provide services, and work with local communities and grassroots organizations. (For more on the program, see the link at the right.)

A case of worse practice. The road north passed through a wasteland of sandy soil mixed with rocks, in some places bare of vegetation. There were no people, no crops, and no cattle. There was little to suggest a human presence except for orderly rows of pine trees that stretched for kilometers. Someone clearly had big plans for this region. But something had gone wrong. Today, the trees stood skinny and poor. Many were dead; their needles turned reddish brown. In some places, whole swaths had been burned, leaving only forests of blackened poles. Tall fire-spotting towers now looked forlorn, their wooden supports festooned with vines.

Smith explained what had happened. These were the remains of an internationally funded project that the local people had not requested nor helped to design, he said. When the foreign technicians left, the plantations were abandoned. The people burnt them, sometimes to create pasture, sometimes by accident, and sometimes out of anger and frustration.

It was a dramatic example of the risks of carrying out development from the top down. Today, governments and development institutions have largely abandoned the paternalistic approach, recognizing the need to engage local people in designing and carrying out projects. In the new IDB-funded program, project proposals will come from the communities themselves, giving local people a stake in the outcome.

Assistance groups fill a vacuum. The road approached the outskirts of Waspam, a humble collection of unpainted buildings on the Coco River. The floods of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 hit this region hard, leaving behind thousands of homeless people and swathes of ruined cropland.

The driver parked beside an ambulance in front of a two-story building. This was the headquarters of Acción Médica Cristiana (Christian Medical Action), one of 16 aid organizations with offices here. Such groups have a great deal to keep them busy. Waspam is a town that has been defined by misfortune: first by Nicaragua’s bloody civil war, and more recently by Hurricane Mitch.

Some of the aid groups, like Acción Médica, have a long history in Waspam; others came to help only after Hurricane Mitch. Some are Nicaraguan groups; others are international, church-based, private, or sponsored by foreign governments.

For the most part, these groups provide the kinds of services that would normally be the responsibility of local government. Some groups help to improve sanitation and meet medical needs. Others provide housing. Still others distribute food to the poor. The walls of Acción Médica's operations center are hung with charts showing schedules of community visits. Its doctors, nurses and administrators see a steady stream of clients. It could just as well be a government health service.

Acción Médica's local representative is Pilar Oporta, a bundle of energy and common sense. She freely admitted that NGOs, no matter how well intentioned their efforts, often produce meager results in the end because they don't coordinate among themselves. But in Waspam, Acción Médica presides over a monthly meeting of all groups to evaluate problems, review programs, and look for least-cost solutions.

The aid organizations are also in close contact with local communities. According to Oporta, this represents quite a departure from the past, when locals were treated as objects of charity, not as partners. "In years past, outsiders came into the area and imposed their solutions," said Oporta. "They said, 'this is going to be the project, and this is what we will do'." Today, before going into a community, representatives from the aid organization first meet with the local leaders, including the headman, the elders, religious leaders, teachers, the nurse– "a little bit of everything," Oporta said. "We make a space for community participation. We plan together."

Oporta herself was born in the Waspam region, but her restless energy later took her abroad. She studied journalism and communications in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panama, then returned to Nicaragua to get her teaching certificate. Committed to the cause of her people, she studied the Miskito language "so that I could teach it correctly." She took a course in indigenous rights at a local university on the Atlantic Coast.

Although Acción Médica's primary mission is to provide health care, it has not been able to ignore the many other needs of the communities, most of which are interrelated. "We do much more than medicine," said Oporta. "We provide the people with pigs and chickens. We teach them how to cook vegetables. We distribute tree seedlings, so the people can plant and have something for the future. We've built 4,000 outhouses." Her group even supports education. While the government builds the schoolhouses, she said, Acción Médica provides the desks, the chairs, and often even pays the teachers.

The first priority has been to help families affected by Hurricane Mitch get back on their feet. Before Mitch, the people were poor, subsisting on the rice and beans that they grew, as well as a little fish from the river or wild meat from the forest. If all else failed, they could depend on wild bananas, which they would dry and grind into flour to make a kind of cake. But the powerful floods swept away the very soil. Today, when the people attempt to grow rice and beans, the seeds sprout, struggle for a while, and then die. Even the wild bananas are gone in many places, leaving the people truly destitute.

Housing is perhaps the most pressing need. Ordinarily, the humble dwellings of wood and palm thatch that are traditional to this region would have been easy to replace. But the hurricane destroyed the palm trees, and with them, a source of building material. The aid groups are helping to provide new houses with zinc roofs, and in some cases concrete walls. "If we didn't have these groups here," said Oporta, "Waspam would be dead."

Villagers voice suspicion. Leaving Waspam, Oporta offered the loan of a two-way radio in case the pickup ran into difficulties. The offer was turned down, unwisely, as it turned out. The road narrowed, split, split again, and the driver finally concluded that he was lost. Should they continue or head back? The decision was made when a sound like a gunshot came from beneath the suffering vehicle, and the left side sagged so low it almost scraped the dirt.

On the way back to Waspam, the pickup turned into the village of Saupuka. In poor, isolated communities like this, the new IDB project will meet some of its greatest challenges. The driver stopped before the red and white Moravian church, and a boy ran off to find the indigenous judge Prudaes Daniwak. Word came back that Daniwak was at a burial, but he would be along soon.

Soon Daniwak, Moravian pastor Eugenio Jerry, and several of the town elders assembled by the church. As they talked about their village, it became clear that, even more so than in Waspam, formal governmental institutions leave a very faint footprint in Saupuka. Village affairs are managed according to Miskito traditions. With no resources and practically no outside help, Daniwak and the others must deal with the usual problems of running a community, but magnified many times by the seemingly hopeless poverty.

"Here people are born poor, and die poor," said Daniwak. "Our town has 4,000 people, and they have 4,000 problems."

He worries most about the young and the old. "There is no work here, so our youths are idle. They may steal chickens, a pig, or even a cow," he said. When this happens, and the culprit gets caught, it becomes Daniwak’s job to apply what he knows of Nicaraguan law.

Then there are the elderly widows who have nobody to care for them, not even the church. "The church is poor too," said Daniwak. "When a poor woman dies, then the church helps with the funeral, but not before."

None of the village leaders had heard of the new IDB-funded local development program. Told that the program would fund projects requested by the communities, they were skeptical. They had heard promises before. But if they are asked, they will request a warehouse where they can store their agricultural products, and therefore be less at the mercy of middlemen.

The travelers arrived late back at Waspam. Oporta urged them to stay the night, and when that was refused, renewed the offer of the radio. Meanwhile, the pickup was left at a repair shop whose only visible equipment were an adjustable wrench, a steel mallet, and a welding torch. Smith and the driver walked over to the park to look at a concrete tablet inscribed with names of local people who had died in the civil war. Before it stood a tripod of rusty automatic rifles half buried in the dirt. They ran their fingers down the list, lingering on names of relatives and people they had known in school.

The re-welded bolt ("I used the best steel," claimed the mechanic) lasted only to the outskirts of town. By the time the driver of the pickup relocated the mechanic, the streets were empty and the moon shone full overhead.

The new repair held, even with an unexpected load of extra passengers. On one particularly lonely stretch of road, a flashlight signaled the pickup to stop, and a group of seven soldiers, automatic rifles strapped to their backs, climbed aboard. They had been pursuing a group of rebels who earlier had killed several policemen. Unsuccessful after weeks in the bush, they were now heading home.

The pickup approached the first streetlights of Puerto Cabezas. It traveled a few blocks and then lurched violently to the side, burying its bumper in the dirt. The soldiers climbed down and slipped into the night.

There are many ways to get to know something of the realities of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, and a trip to Bismuna is one of them.

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