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Central America: A Disaster
That Was Waiting to Happen

By Daniel Faber

 

Hurricane Mitch was the deadliest disaster to ever strike Central America. More than 11,000 people have died. In Honduras, the hardest hit country, one in every 1,000 is dead or missing. Millions of Central Americans are homeless; and millions more face disease and starvation. Entire neighborhoods have disappeared, and most of the crops have washed away. The Nicaraguan and Hondurans economies have collapsed. The region's infrastructure lies in ruins.

Though many public and private officials were surprised by the magnitude of the destruction, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Environmentalists had repeatedly alerted Central American leaders that a so-called "natural" catastrophe was possible given the profound poverty and environmental degradation of the region. Their warnings were largely ignored. Instead, those in power continued to promote a model of economic development which favored production for international exports over production for local needs, and the exploitation of natural resources for the profit of the few rather than the sustenance of the many. Today, the result is an unparalled economic and ecological disaster.

American foreign policy has also played a pivotal role in creating this crisis. Since the Alliance for Progress in 1961, the U.S. government has provided billions of dollars in military and economic aid to promote the rapid expansion of export agriculture under the control of large landowners and multinational corporations. This small class of oligarchs hold power in the region and monopolize the best land and the natural resources that come with it. It also receives the bulk of U.S. foreign development aid and financial credit to generate coffee, timber, beef cattle, cotton, bananas, melons, vegetables, and other cheap export commodities for the U.S. and other first world countries. In El Salvador, for instance, the export oligarchy controls 60 percent of the land.

But the expansion of export agriculture has come at the expense of the Central American people and their environment. Forcibly removed from their fertile farmlands over the last four decades, tens of thousands of poor peasant families crowded into the steep surrounding hillsides and interior rainforests and cleared trees to plant food crops. The result: more than two-thirds of Central America's tropical forests--among the most biologically diverse in the world--were destroyed to produce marginal agricultural lands. For instance, most of the poor in Honduras live in the fragile Choluteca Valley and western hills bordering El Salvador and Nicaragua, even though the U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that only 14 percent of the country's total land suitable for intensive agriculture is located in these areas. Here the flooding and loss of life from Hurricane Mitch was among the worst.

Compelled to over-exploit their small holdings to survive, Central America's poor family farmers have worked their lands to the point of ecological collapse. As a result, they have seen a massive escalation in recent years in soil erosion, habitat destruction, deterioration of watersheds, mudslides, and flash flooding. In Honduras, where more than 75 percent of the land slopes more than 25 percent, soil erosion averages a phenomenal 40 to 202 metric tons per acre over nearly 5.44 million acres of agricultural land. Even before Hurricane Mitch, crop losses and infrastructure damage from flash flooding were widespread throughout the region, averaging some $40 to 50 million a year in Honduras alone. An estimated 4.5 million acres of the region's degraded agricultural land needs immediate reforestation.

As the ecology has broken down, tens of thousands of families have been forced to give up their farms and move into urban areas looking for jobs. With regional unemployment at 40 percent before the hurricane and no running water or electricity, these people crowd into growing slums located upon riverbanks, steep barren hillsides above towns and cities, and other precarious areas. Most of Mitch's Central American victims, including the 1,500 people swept away by the Casitas volcano landslide in Nicaragua, were the poor who resided in these environmentally unsound areas. Their deaths were due as much to widespread poverty and environmental neglect as to the rains of the hurricane itself.

Some countries have tried to address the root causes of disaster. In the early 1980s, the U.S. and international environmental communities praised the Nicaraguan government's social and environmental programs. To attack poverty, the Sandinista government granted land titles covering nearly 5.2 million acres--one-third of Nicaragua's farmland--to more than half the country's peasant population. This halted migration into tropical rainforests and other fragile lands, and allowed for large-scale reforestation and ecological restoration. These programs, however, broke down under the weight of the U.S.-backed contra war and embargo in the late 1980s, and the economic policies of Nicaraguan presidents Violeta Chomorro and Arnoldo Aleman and the Clinton administration in the 1990s.

Central Americans clearly need our help. But we must do more than send food and rebuild bridges. We must take action against poverty, social injustice, and environmental destruction in Central America and pursue policies to raise the living standards for all citizens. History has shown us that development rooted in social inequality will only worsen the existing environmental and economic crisis. If we fail to fix the root causes of this tragedy, more natural disasters will be waiting to happen.

Daniel Faber is an assistant professor of sociology at Northeastern University, and the author of Environment Under Fire, a book on Central America's ecological crisis.