Rats plague Nicaragua's "children of the river"
Nicaragua's indigenous Miskito communities recently suffered an invasion of rats, which razed crops and left many without food, until WFP rations ran the Coco River rapids to reach them. WFP spokesperson Sabrina Quezada reports. This story first appeared as a photojournal on the BBC News website.
“El Carrizo”, a tropical plant that grows along the banks of the Coco River in northeast Nicaragua, flourished this year. For the indigenous Miskito communities which live along the river, it was a sign of misfortune to come.
“El Carrizo flourishes and spreads its seeds once every 30 years, and every time it brings disasters,” says Juan Briceño, a teacher in the small Siksayaris community, 610 kilometres from the capital Managua.
This time the disaster was an invasion of rats, which razed crops and invaded shacks, ruining clothes and everything else in their way.
"The rats ate everything"
The rodents devoured 97 percent of the rice crops, 50 percent of the corn and 30 percent of the cassava plantations in the area, leaving 14 communities without food.
“The rats ate up the rice. They went into our bags of clothes and made big holes. They also attacked us and now there is a lot of hunger,” says mother-of-five Venancia Eleck, 36, who, like the other women of the Puswaya community, speaks only the local language, Miskito.
Children of the river
Their stove fires have not been lit in a long time. Families are surviving by scavenging snails, bananas and other wild fruits from the creeks.
“There aren’t enough bananas and snails for us all,” says Briceño, one of the community leaders who help WFP organize food distributions. “It’s like having a competition between families to get food for the children.”
State of disaster
The rats came and ate up everything. They destroyed our foodThe Nicaraguan Government declared a State of Disaster in the region, and asked for WFP’s help in assisting the indigenous families affected.Juan Briceño, teacher
The Ministry of Agriculture says the rat invasion was caused, not by the blooming of El Carrizo, but by a fire which engulfed a large tract of tropical forest, leaving the rodents without food or shelter.
A UN damage assessment mission found that the rat population among the river communities was six times higher than the acceptable limit.
To reach its destination, the food aid has to travel 750 kilometres from WFP warehouses located at the other end of the country, including 270 kilometres along bumpy dirt roads, and 330 kilometres by river, in small, metre-wide boats.
A generous donation from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is helping WFP cover the transportation costs.
Overcoming the rapids
The rations are loaded into 26 rustic narrow boats, which also carry rat poison to control the rodent invasion, and corn and bean seeds for agricultural rehabilitation.
The boats, which carry a maximum of two metric tons when fully loaded, run the risk of overturning or being smashed against the rocks as they navigate their way through the rapids.
The bottom of the river
The solution is to unload half of the food before the boats reach the rapids, and have some 60 Miskito volunteers carry the rations for two kilometres through the forest until they reach the point at which the river flows calmly once more.
Meanwhile the narrow boats are pulled through the rapids by cables and wait for the rations on the other side.
Once it has arrived safely, the food aid is collected by the women of the indigenous communities at local schools.
Poverty and marginalisation
Medical services, drinking water and electricity are non-existent in these communities, and diarrhoea, respiratory and skin diseases are common.
“The Coco River is an isolated area of difficult access, where the presence of government institutions is minimal,” says Gerónimo Giusto, Director of the Government Office for Natural Disaster Emergencies (Sinapred).
“There is a great deal of deforestation activity and little attention to the area’s development. The structural problems are numerous.”
No medical attention
In Justina's shack, as in most of the homes in Siksayaris, there is a wooden stool, two wooden boards that serve as bed and some plastic kitchen utensils, plates and glasses.
Justina and her children, like the rest of the women and children of the Coco River community, dress in ragged clothes and go barefoot; shoes are a luxury apparently reserved for men.
Natural disasters and neglect
In addition to the rat invasion, the Coco River area has suffered 12 natural disasters during the last 17 years, including seven hurricanes and five tropical storms.
But it’s the neglect that these Miskito communities are experiencing that is the most devastating disaster they have faced yet.