Monday, February 06, 2006

Waslala and the Fear of Losing a Legend

Waslala is more of a myth than reality to most Nicaraguans. It was in these breathtakingly beautiful and isolated mountains of northern Nicaragua that guerrillas struggled against the dictator’s National Guard in the seventies. Carlos Fonseca, the young intellectual leader of the Sandinistas, was killed in combat here shortly before the triumph of the revolution.


In the eighties, it became one of the centers of heavy fighting during the civil war. After the war ended and throughout the nineties, political and bandit armed groups continued to roam its forests. The combination of struggle, resistance and violence has made this distant municipality well known through out the country.

I can still remember when I first traveled to this mythical place nearly a decade ago. The world became more beautiful as we advanced through the serpentine mountain roads. I caught glimpses of waterfalls between the trees, and majestic views of lush valleys spread out below us. As we drove around one particularly tight corner, we encountered another pickup truck racing towards us. It swung back onto its side of the road, but in the sudden movement, a woman flew out of the back. The man driving us managed to break before running over her, but she was badly injured from the fall. From where we were, it was a three-hour drive over rough roads to the nearest health center. That is how I first found Waslala: both beautiful and terrible. As the years have gone by, Waslala has changed. It has become slightly less isolated, its population has grown and the local economy has transformed.

When I arrived in the municipality of Waslala, it was isolated physically from the outside world. Its communities were distant and dispersed, and there were no communication services. The road to Matagalpa, the closest city, was at least six hours away in a four-wheel drive vehicle over bad roads. The first time I drove was to carry two patients to Rancho Grande, a neighbouring municipality, to find an ambulance. I was taking a woman in precardiac condition and another with a baby that had been born with its internal organs outside of its ribcage. We left at seven o’clock at night under torrential rains. Even with four-wheel drive traction, we slithered up and down muddy roads until we found the road before us blocked. A cargo truck had flipped over blocking the entire road, and two buses had slid sideways, slightly further up the hill where one had nearly fallen into a ravine. After two hours under the rain, we managed to pull the truck out of the way, and we continued onwards. When we arrived at the health center in Rancho Grande, we were told that the headlights of the ambulance were not working and we would have to continue on to La Dalia, the next municipality. At two in the morning, we finally arrived. The patients were taken by the ambulance the rest of the way to Matagalpa, and I returned alone to Waslala. One the way back, I came a few meters away from sliding into a canyon and into the river below. The road has gotten better since then. A small part has been paved, and it removes two to three hours off the trip. Although the road gets completely cut off at some place at least once every two years, it is generally in better conditions than it was. We also managed to get an ambulance in Waslala a year and a half ago.


The majority of people in Waslala live in the close to a hundred rural communities that cover the municipality. Many were ten to twelve-hour treks by horseback through the tropical forest covered mountains and by dugout canoes to cross the rivers. Although that is still the only way to reach some communities, five new roads have been built within the municipality, and this reduces most travel times in half, if people can pay the fare. Waslala now also has six telephones that occasionally work, Internet service that often functions, three radio stations, cable TV and, as I write, a cellular telephone tower is being installed. Waslala is becoming more open to the world and the world more accessible to Waslala.

The population has grown immensely. There is continual migration from other parts of the country to Waslala as the agricultural frontier moves farther east. All the communities are growing in size, and along the roads, villages are beginning to form. Waslala itself has grown from eight to twelve neighbourhoods, and there are several housing projects in process near Waslala and near the larger villages. This massive influx of people has caused several changes. The forests are quickly disappearing. The land is cleared for agricultural purposes, for cattle farming, or for firewood. At the same time, the strong community bonds and sense of solidarity seem to be weakening. Whereas once everybody in a community knew everyone else, now many communities are becoming very large, and the number of people changes the social dynamics.

Although the changes in accessibility and population growth have been significant, the economic changes are perhaps the most obvious visually. The streets of the town are now lined with new shops selling clothes, jewellery, pirated DVDs and construction supplies. New concrete houses are being built all throughout town, and there are two PlayStation arcades. Whereas once there were very few vehicles in the streets, now taxis, trucks, buses, pickups and motorcycles seem to be everywhere. Four microfinance organizations exist where before there was only one. Cooperatives and NGOs train producers in new agricultural techniques and help them sell organic coffee and coco. Cattle farmers send off truck loads of cows to Managua and ship cheese to El Salvador. The economy appears to be doing well and getting better. However, the majority of the population lives by growing basic grains, and from their point of view, the future does not look very bright. Agriculture is always precarious. It depends on normal weather to obtain a good harvest. Weather changing phenomena like El Niño and La Niña bring rain, or lack of rain, at the wrong times and destroy an entire year’s harvest. Aside from natural causes, subsidized American grains drive down local prices making it more difficult each year to make ends meet. The newly signed free trade agreement with the United States promises to make things even more difficult. The local economy has changed. With a quickly growing population, commerce, transport and a few other sectors are prospering; however, for the majority, life is becoming more difficult.

Since I first arrived here, Waslala has changed in accessibility, size and economic composition. It is no longer as difficult to reach or to communicate from. The population has grown quickly, and that in turn has affected the sense of community and the existing forests. Economically, it has improved for sectors such as commerce, while becoming worse for the small grain farmers. These changes bring benefits and disadvantages. Waslala is still a beautiful place and has wonderful people, and it is still difficult in many ways. As I get ready to send this off by email, however, I cannot help feeling that a little bit of the myth, of the legend I arrived in nearly a decade ago, is slowly slipping away.