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"

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

Captured rats

“The rats came and ate up everything. They destroyed our food,” says Briceño.

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

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

An unlit stove fire

The Miskito are known as “the children of the river,” because they inhabit small villages along the banks of the Coco, the longest river in Central America.

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 food

Juan Briceño, teacher

The Nicaraguan Government declared a State of Disaster in the region, and asked for WFP’s help in assisting the indigenous families affected.

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.

Food rations

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

Food rations

WFP, in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture, is providing rations of corn, beans, fortified cereal and vegetable oil to 4,450 people in 14 communities along the Coco River’s banks.

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

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

Loading the boats

The biggest obstacle the food aid must overcome to reach the Miskito is los raudales: the Coco River 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

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

Miskito volunteers

“If the boats capsize, the food will go to the bottom of the river along with the crew,” says Santiago Tablada, who is in charge of transporting and distributing the food for WFP.

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.

Slow progress

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

Food distribution

Progress is slow, with ankle-deep mud hindering the volunteers, and rain making conditions even more slippery. The Miskitos and their precious cargo travel in a line, negotiating fallen trees and chasing away insects as they go.

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

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

The boats bearing food aid arrive safely

Deteriorating environmental and health conditions, overcrowding and a lack of food have sparked a crisis which the Miskito attribute to divine will more than to the poverty and marginalisation they suffer.

Medical services, drinking water and electricity are non-existent in these communities, and diarrhoea, respiratory and skin diseases are common.

Isolated area

“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

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

Justina Henri with her son Kesner

Justina Henri, 30, was searching a ravine for snails to feed her children one day when the youngest one, 18-month-old Kesler, died in the palm hut where he lived with his twin brother, Kesner, and sister, 5. Kesler had had a fever and was vomiting, and did not receive any 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

Copyright: 2005 WFP/Sabrina Quezada

Miskito children

The climate is one of intense sun alternating with heavy rain, making for sweltering heat and humidity. At night, the Miskito villages are plunged into darkness and silence descends, while insects feast on “the children of the river”.

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.