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Nicaraguans Plant the Seeds of Recovery

Agriculture: Efforts to rebuild after Mitch focus on growing a singular bean.


LAS ESCALERAS, Nicaragua — Just two weeks after torrential rain from tropical storm Mitch sent two-thirds of his coffee bushes sliding down a hillside, Pascual Salas went trudging back up that same foggy slope to try again--this time planting red beans.

The wiry farmer was struggling to ensure survival for his family of eight girls. But in the process he has become an important figure in a much larger cause.

Emergency food aid sent to Central America after last fall's storm is in danger of running out before the main harvest in July and August. And the isolated Isabelia Range, where Salas lives, is the only place where farmers stand much chance of making up the shortfall because it is the only part of the battered region that gets much rain at the beginning of the year.

With only machetes to clear the brush and sharpened broom handles called estacas for planting, a legion of peasant farmers like Salas is trying to grow enough beans--a main source of protein for Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador--until that main, midyear harvest.

With some unaccustomed government attention and a bit of luck, they may succeed.

The story of such peasant farmers is just one element of Central America's long-term struggle to survive Mitch. The most devastating natural disaster here in two centuries killed more than 9,000 people, destroyed farmland and homes, and washed out more than 100 bridges, schools and hospitals.

Families Weigh Options

Slowly, painfully and often without much help, Central Americans are trying to rebuild. From farmhands to factory workers, they are trying to replace homes and livelihoods. Many are reevaluating dreams for their children, weighing the family's need for breadwinners against the costs and prospects of education.

The chronicle of their struggle begins in this tropical Appalachia dotted with wood-plank cabins, where rough hands coax food from the thin topsoil.

None of Mitch's victims died here. In these mountains, the victims were the living.

Mitch struck after a year of drought and just as folks were about to harvest their biggest cash crop--coffee. It also ruined about half the corn and three-fourths of the beans that they normally would eat and store for seed. As a result, many families are eating only once a day--as they must do all too often anyway in Central America's hardscrabble hamlets.

Salas quickly salvaged what little coffee he could, sold it, bought seed and, as soon as the mud had dried enough, was out with his four teenage daughters planting beans.

"I'm trying to recover a little of what I lost," Salas said, tugging at the bill of his baseball cap.

That sentiment is echoed by other farmers across garden-sized plots here.

Their focus is on the red silk bean, a remarkable legume that softens enough to eat after just an hour and a half of cooking. Unlike other beans, it retains its texture through reheatings. Thus, it is perfectly suited to the Central American countryside, where families must gather wood to keep the cooking fire burning. By cooking a big batch of beans and reheating them for several days, they save fuel and time.

Tradition-bound peasants here are the only ones who grow the red silk bean, and they won't eat other kinds.

Governments and relief agencies can import corn and rice to help feed Central Americans. But the beans must be grown locally, in fields clinging to panoramic hills that would not be farmed in countries with the luxury of worrying about erosion. Even in the best of times, Nicaragua is not such a country. It certainly isn't now.

"Our only option is the apante harvest," the bean crop planted at the end of the year for harvest this month and next, said Irwin Gutierrez, supervisor of rural extension services at the Nicaraguan Agriculture Ministry.

Nicaragua's normal apante harvest would satisfy five months of domestic demand and provide enough seed for planting in May. An abundant harvest, however, would leave enough beans to export to its neighbors, in the process solving the region's shortage and helping farmers recover their 1998 losses.

Focus of Government Aid

Matagalpa, the province that includes Las Escaleras, yields about 60% of the apante harvest, permitting the Nicaraguan government to concentrate its help here.

It offered seed, fertilizer, insecticide, a machete, a file to sharpen it and a pair of boots to each farmer. Farmers can pay back the loan with twice as much seed as they received, plus a nominal interest payment. In addition, farmers who can meet rigid quality standards can sell their seed to the government for a higher price than they would receive on the market.

Aid organizations such as CARE arranged for farmers who lost their crops elsewhere to plant land here that otherwise would lie fallow.

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