Nicaragua is pretty much tied for being the second poorest country in the Americas. Haiti takes the crown, with Nicaragua and Bolivia right behind. And Nicaragua holds this unfortunate distinction in large part due to civil wars in the 70’s and 80’s. Luckily, Nicaragua has been experiencing economic growth since 1994 (surely punctuated by some slow downs), and of course I am here with the Peace Corps working on expanding economic opportunity. However, I want to point out just how vulnerable Nicaragua is to the environment and how adverse climate scenarios could completely derail economic growth here. Yes, this is a post about global warming/climate change.
Nicaragua already deals with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides and mudslides, hurricanes, droughts, and forest fires regularly. And some of these can be severe, such as the 1972 earthquake in Managua or Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Blizzards and tornadoes are probably two of the only types of natural disasters that Nicaragua does not have to contend with. With a long Pacific coastline even tsunamis are a constant threat.
And with global warming this could all get worse. Nicaragua is ranked as the fourth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. It has two coastlines. Flooding is already a problem in the country, and the Caribbean Coast has some of the poorest infrastructure in the country. A strong hurricane or other event that causes widespread flooding could leave the communities on the Caribbean Coast completely isolated, with no way to receive relief from the more populous western side of the country. Anyone remember Tacloban? I can easily see that happening in Nicaragua. Plus, the Caribbean Coast isn’t lined with beaches like the Pacific Coast. It is a series of lagoons, with the majority of the population living on the coast. As sea levels rise these cities and communities could become completely inundated.
Nicaragua’s vulnerability to climate is amplified because agriculture is the largest sector of the economy. Many climatologists are predicting El Niño to emerge this winter. But farmers here don’t care one bit about the technical definition of El Niño or when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will declare that we are officially in an El Niño event. This year’s rainy season is off to a drier start than usual. If the rains don’t pick up soon the harvest will be impacted. This will seriously impact the income of farmers, especially since crop insurance is far less widespread in Nicaragua than it is in the United States. Not only will the income of farmers go down, but food prices will go up nationwide, which is a big problem in Nicaragua, where food price inflation is already high.
A big cash crop in the north of Nicaragua is coffee. And higher temperatures in the north (the five coffee producing departments of the north are Matagalpa, Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Estelí, and Jinotega being the largest producer) may be promoting the introduction of a destructive fungus that is destroying the coffee crop. In certain parts of Central America coffee rust has decimated more than 50% of the crop (and wholesale prices for coffee beans are up worldwide as a result). Nicaragua has historically resisted coffee rust because of its high altitude and low temperatures, but with temperatures in the north on the rise coffee rust is creeping in and reducing the crop. Plantation owners are having to cut back on their seasonal hiring, which only harms coffee pickers, who are among the poorest and most vulnerable people in Nicaragua.
In the face of these effects of climate change – effects on people more vulnerable than you probably are; people that you have not thought of before – there is plenty that you can do to help. And I don’t mean turning off the lights and recycling. Of course you should be doing that, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really make a difference. What the world needs is for all countries, developed and developing, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, China, India, and Republicans are resisting this call, so what you need to do is support policies that will implement the change we need. Whether this means outreach and education, protesting, writing scholarly reports, journalistic opinion pieces, international diplomacy, artistic representations of the cause, or whatever it is you do, just do it. Otherwise, that coffee you love may disappear, you may never get to see the lagoons of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, and more people will die.