Hunger and resiliency in an indigenous community

“¡Me voy a morir de hambre!” “I am going to die of hunger!”

Upon hearing such cries coming from children in the second poorest country in the Americas, I would normally feel an immediate sense of compassion and urgency to do something to help. However, in this case, I chuckled and, speaking Spanish in earshot of the children, said to their father – and my close friend – “I’m not worried. I have learned that the Miskitu[1] people always have something to eat.”

The issue was that the local general stores in this indigenous village, nestled deep in the rainforest of Nicaragua, had run out of rice. Rice is an introduced crop,[2] and some Miskitu elders recounted to me that when they were children, rice was not consumed. Rather their staple food was wabul – a thick drink made from mashed, usually green, bananas and served steaming hot. Although the Miskitu still consume traditional wabul, they have grown accustomed to eating rice three times a day – and a meal may be said to be incomplete without rice.

Planting rice

The Miskitu practice a form of slash and burn agriculture. Using simple digging sticks, they plant rice which they harvest by the 100-lb bag. Each family stores many bags of rice to last through the year, but inevitably many families run out before the next harvest. During these periods, the rice purchased from local general stores becomes especially important. But since the local stores are dependent upon river merchants that come in small, handcrafted wooden boats only every few weeks, there are sometimes shortages of some goods.

The area’s general poverty in terms of material goods, modern amenities like electricity and plumbing, and access to good healthcare and education is striking. Indeed, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas (after Haiti); and this particular region is generally considered among the poorest in Nicaragua. I could see this poverty in heartbreaking detail during my year in Nicaragua… and yet perhaps because the lens through which I was looking was not that of an aid worker but rather a social scientist, I also saw a great deal more than poverty.

I was there to conduct dissertation research[3] on natural resource management and environmental values and attitudes, but as my training in anthropology taught me: everything is connected to everything. (Anthropologists have long emphasized the holistic approach of the discipline, but many non-anthropologists might better recognize the approach as “systems thinking.”) So I tried to learn about all aspects of Miskitu culture. And of course, since one cannot be friends with people and not have conversations about a multitude of things besides one’s specific research interests, I had plenty of opportunities not only to observe but also to hear expressions of the dual realities experienced by the Miskitu.

On the one hand, their poverty is extreme. Women and children walk barefooted to the river where they wash their families’ often tattered clothes on rocks; some houses have only palm thatch roofs; many children lack notebooks for school; and transportation is by foot or dugout canoe.

A house on the Rio Coco

On the other hand, some people articulated that their poverty was not like that in more urban areas. In the city, it was said to me, you have to pay for everything. If you don’t have money, you cannot obtain firewood, water, food, or even a place to sleep. Without money you have nothing. It was true, I had observed, that the Miskitu live in a comparatively clean, healthy environment[4] – and they have access to a bounty of natural resources: trees for building houses, fish for frying, and bananas for making wabul. All they have to do is put in the work and they can literally reap the fruits of their labors.

And yet, on this particular night, the children were saying, “¡no hay arroz!” “there is no rice!” “¡me voy a morir de hambre!

Apart from the over-dramatic tone of the children’s voices, what I knew when I said to their father (also my “host father” in the village) that I wasn’t worried because I had learned that the Miskitu always have something to eat was that two of his adult sons had not yet returned from their food-getting activities that day. They had gone into the monte, which meant they probably had visited some fields and maybe done a little foraging as well.

It was getting dark, and their mother was beginning to get worried. People sometimes get lost in the forest at night and never return. Sometimes people trip and fall on their own machetes. There are poisonous snakes and evil spirits.

Not too much later, the young men returned – and to the delight of all present, they brought with them a cornucopia of fish, tomatoes, avocados, plantains, bananas, and pejibaye.

That night as we were all gathered in the kitchen, I could see my host father’s face beaming through the dim light and smoke from the cooking fire. He declared that this is what he teaches his children: if you work hard and plant a variety of crops, you will never go hungry. I sensed the pride he felt for not only his sons but for his people’s traditional way of life. Many Miskitu exhibited a similar commitment to hard work and a zest for life.

The “cornucopia”

Unfortunately, there are some crises that transcend a delayed river merchant’s rice delivery, and hard work alone is not sufficient to cope. Despite my observation of the Miskitu’s diversified diet[5] and multi-pronged survival strategy – and despite my proclamation that they always have something to eat – there are times when in fact they have nothing to eat.  For example, when Hurricane Mitch came through in 1998 and Felix in 2007, Miskitu villages and crops were devastated, as were much of Nicaragua’s and Honduras’ coasts. And in 2005 many Miskitu faced starvation due to a plague of rats in the Río Coco area that destroyed 97% of rice, 50% of corn, and 30% of manioc plantations. At times of such immense catastrophe, government intervention and international aid are crucial for recovery.

Additionally, there are reports that the rivers have been abnormally low. There are two seasons, wet and dry, in Nicaragua. The Miskitu have knowledge and experience to deal with this natural variation. However, as river levels remains lower for longer, the occasional shortage of supplemental goods could become a severe and chronic shortage as fewer boats can travel the lower waters. More significantly, the changed river levels may reflect changed weather patterns. Annie Kelly reports in The Guardian that, “Over the past five years, unseasonal flooding has been followed by droughts during planting seasons… The Miskito are now struggling to adapt to keep pace with the changing climate.” The consequences of climate change for the Miskitu could be dire.

No amount of hard work by the Miskitu people alone can cope with these hugely transformative events. To the extent that these events and other problems will increase due to anthropogenic climate change caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, the hard work of the Miskitu will be thwarted by the habits of other peoples.  Sometimes the plight of the poor has been dismissed as the plight of those expecting handouts, but the reality is that global climate change does not select whom to harm according to their work ethic.

Mercedes Ward is a PhD student in Anthropology and the Research Assistant for Sustainability Curriculum Development at the University of Utah.

[1] There are several variations on the spelling of Miskitu, with “Miskito” being the most common. However, because the Miskitu language lacks the letter “o,” it is becoming increasingly common to see the spelling as “Miskitu.”

[2] For more about the introduction of rice to the Miskitu people, see pp. 134-135 in Helms, M. W. (1971) Asang: Adaptations to Culture Contact in a Miskito Community. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.

[3] This research was made possible through a Fulbright Student Grant.

[4] During one of my visits to Managua, the capital and largest city of Nicaragua, a good friend from the village where I was living during my fieldwork was also in the city. He became very sick with a rash covering much of his body. We went to a local hospital where he received treatment but never any definitive explanation of the cause. My friend speculated that the cause was the dirty bathing water he had been using since arriving in the city.

[5] On several occasions I heard comments made by non-indigenous Nicaraguans that the Miskitu only eat rice and beans, implying a very limited diet. However, one young indigenous man I met expressed that when he is in the city, he feels malnourished and misses the diversity of foods (manioc, sugarcane, coconuts, pejibaye, etc.) eaten by his people. The difference between these perspectives is significant.

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