I sat down to write this post at least five times. I want to tell people a little about Bluefields, Nicaragua and the challenges that exist here, but that’s not easy to do. Bluefields is unlike any place I’ve ever been, and I’ve travelled and lived abroad quite a bit. At one point, I thought I’d try to find some statistics to paint a picture of the poverty here. At another point, I just started rambling about specific things that I’ve seen and experienced. Then I thought, maybe pictures are the way to go. None of these approaches even begin to explain this place that I currently call home. For the moment, I offer a couple of anecdotes.
Do Bluefieldeños Need a Passport/Visa to go to School in Managua?
That’s like asking someone from California if they need a passport and visa to go to school in Washington, DC. But that’s what a friend from Bluefields was asked when he arrived in the capital city of Managua to start college. Bluefields is the largest town on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, with over 40,000 people. It is the seat of government for the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), which consists of a large percentage of the land mass of Nicaragua, but a very small percentage of the population and even smaller percentage of the nation’s wealth. It is entirely isolated from the rest of the country; geographically, politically, culturally and otherwise. Even university students, whom are obviously among the more educated in Nicaragua, don’t know anything about it, and even think of it as another country.
There are no roads connecting Bluefields with the rest of Nicaragua, so you must either fly in on a tiny, expensive prop plane, or you can take a small, crowded motorboat for a couple of hours, followed by a 5++ hour bus ride to get into the capital. Even this arduous, cheaper route costs about US$35 roundtrip, which is a whole lot of money in Nicaragua.
Industry in Bluefields: a pound of shrimp and a papaya
There is very little industry in this part of Nicaragua, and not a lot of potential to build it up. There is natural beauty, so why not promote tourism? Great, except that the infrastructure to get tourists out here is so poor, it would take a tremendous amount of investment to get that going. There is a lot of fishing, but that generally translates into super cheap seafood here, yet because of the very high costs of transport to get it to the rest of the country, the small-scale fisherman are forced to sell at the low local prices, while a lucky few are able to earn the big profits involved in larger-scale transport. How about agriculture if the population density is so sparse? Evidently the soil out here is not good for growing much, especially nutritious vegetables. This is a double-edged sword. Not only are people unable to grow their own food or build a business in agricultural production, but nearly all produce is imported from the western side of the country, making it very expensive.
In Bluefields, I can buy a pound of beautiful, succulent shrimp fresh out of the water for US$1.50. A papaya, however, will set me back US$4.00, and is probably a little beat up. The local fisherman that I buy the shrimp from has gotten up before dawn, boarded his tiny boat, and spent the morning catching shrimp. He walks through the streets, calling out “chacalín, chacalín, chacalín” to announce to what he has to offer, and continues doing so until his catch for the day is gone. The papaya was grown in the western part of the country, harvested, and most likely sold from a farmer to a larger transport company, who takes it on the long journey to Bluefields and sells it to someone in the local market. In both of these scenarios, the local person selling the product is receiving very little income. The shrimper, because the local price of shrimp is so low. The fruit salesperson, because of the incredibly high overhead in getting that one papaya all the way out here.
I recently traveled by boat and bus from Bluefields to Managua with the family I’m living with here. My host mother tried to beat the system, both going and coming. She planned to bring her daughter in Managua several pounds of shrimp and oysters, as these items cost over three times as much in Managua. The port authorities and the municipal dock, however, would not allow her to take them on the boat. Then, as we returned to Bluefields from Managua, we brought back several heavy bags of produce, trying to take advantage of the cheaper prices for produce in Managua. Sadly, as we unloaded our goodies, that big, beautiful papaya we had bought for half the price, was nothing but a soggy, squished mess. Even on an individual level, transporting basic products to and from Bluefields is extremely difficult.
So where does microfinance fit in?
That’s a tough question that organizations such as ADEPHCA, Kiva’s field partner in Bluefields, struggle with. Poverty here is extreme and pervasive. There are many challenges to economic development in Bluefields that go well beyond the isolation and lack of industry. Look for my next blog post, which will outline some basic theories as to why repayment rates in Bluefields are significantly lower than what is standard in microfinance. For the meantime, we should all have a special appreciation for an organization like ADEPHCA that, despite all the challenges, continues to do what it can to try to help those who need it most.
Click here to see any currently fundraising loans for ADEPHCA and start lending!