Damage Wasn't an Act of God but Act of Man Hurricane Mitch: The Senate needs to end its bickering and authorize the $956-million aid package for the region.
By JACOB GOLDSTEIN, DANIEL FABER
[T] his week, as we watched President Clinton's Central American tour, we were reminded of the legacy of Hurricane Mitch. The torrent, which dumped 39 inches of rain andbrought winds of up to 155 mph when it hit Central America last October, completely destroyed the region's infrastructure, killed some 10,000 people and left more than a million homeless.
A tragedy of this scope would commonly be called an act of God, but in recent months, public comments by scientists, government officials and environmental activists in Central and North America have revealed a disturbing truth: Thousands of those who died in the storm were not killed by an act of God--they were killed by acts of humankind.
A long history of development built on economic inequalities and disregard for local ecosystems had created a landscape on the brink of disaster. When the storm hit, the landscape collapsed.
Indeed, the recent disaster was merely a dramatic moment in a decades-old trend. Even before Mitch, crop losses and infrastructural damage stemming from flash flooding were widespread throughout the region, averaging some $40 million to $50 million a year in Honduras alone. In 1982, the deforestation of Monte Bello in El Salvador resulted in a massive landslide that killed more than 1,000 people.
U.S. policy has played an important role in the evolution of Central American development. In the early 1960s, President Kennedy created the Alliance for Progress to promote the growth of export agriculture in the region. Since then, the United States has consistently encouraged Honduras and Nicaragua--along with their regional neighbors--to aggressively increase production of exportable commodities like cattle, bananas, coffee and melon. But the pursuit of this policy has increased the disparity between the wealthy few and the impoverished masses as giant oligarch-owned ranches and plantations have usurped the lion's share of prime farmland and displaced millions of subsistence farmers.
Many of the displaced have moved to shantytowns that ring most of the region's crowded cities.
In Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, successive generations of squatters have climbed the hills that surround the city, clearing the land to make room for shacks and to gather wood for fuel, and rendering the hillsides extremely unstable. Meanwhile, thousands of peasants have settled on previously uninhabited riverbanks and flood plains at the margins of the city. When Mitch hit, this settlement pattern proved deadly: The hills collapsed in mudslides, damming the Choluteca River. Water poured freely down the denuded slopes, causing massive flooding. Thousands of people--almost all of them poor--drowned.
Outside cities, displaced peasants eke out livings in marginal lands that have not been appropriated by the wealthy. In most cases, this means moving into the mountains, clearing a patch of sloping, forested land, farming it for a few years, then, when the land is no longer arable, moving higher into the hills. As in the cities, clearing hillsides primes them for collapse.
Thousands of mountainside subsistence farms throughout Central America were destroyed when Mitch hit. A single mudslide on the Las Casitas volcano in Nicaragua entombed several villages, killing more than 2,000 people.
The region is at a critical juncture. In order to raise hard currency badly needed to meet debt payments and rebuild devastated infrastructure, Honduras and Nicaragua likely will intensify the exploitative practices that exacerbated the recent disaster. But there is an alternative in which the reconstruction could serve as a catalyst for change, allowing these nations--with the aid of the international community, particularly through debt relief--to develop a more equitable and sustainable agricultural system. This is a tall order. But unless fundamental and dramatic changes occur, last year's tragedies will play out again and again.
These changes can't occur without significant U.S. assistance. During his visit, President Clinton proposed that the U.S. give $956 million in aid, including funds for watershed management, ecosystem restoration and soil conservation. But the package is caught in partisan wrangling in the Senate. The aid package crucial to a sustainable future for the region; the Senate must release the funds the president has requested.
Hurricanes will continue to sweep through the region, but sound social and environmental policy can radically reduce the human misery they cause. As Nicaraguan environmentalist Oscar Jara wrote in Mitch's wake, "Mas que la naturaleza, nos matan la pobreza y los malos gobiernos,"--poverty and bad government are deadlier than nature.
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Jacob Goldstein Is a Freelance Writer Who Lives in Berkeley. Daniel Faber Is a Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University and Author of "Environment Under Fire: Imperialism and the Ecological Crisis in Central America" (Monthly Review Press, 1992)