Central America: A Disaster That Was Waiting to Happen


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

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.