NicaNotes: From Building Roads to Bamboo Handicrafts: A Story of Nicaragua’s Social Economy

An interview by Jorge Capelán

(This interview was originally published by the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in London: https://nicaraguasc.org.uk/2021/11/from-building-roads-to-learning-the-ancient-techniques-of-bamboo-handicraft/)

[Jorge Capelán is a Latin American journalist and political analyst who has worked for many years in Nicaragua. He appears weekly on news analysis programs and writes for several online news outlets.] 

Construction worker Mauricio Antonio Núñez lost his job in 2018 because he defended the government during the violence associated with the failed coup.

Mauricio Núñez shows some of his work in bamboo.

I visited him in his workshop south of Managua to find out about his new vocation as a bamboo craftsperson thanks to the support of the MEFCCA, the government ministry for the social economy. In addition Mauricio is a member of a co-operative set up to grow and sell bamboo.

Over 80% of the Nicaraguan workforce is employed in the social economy which creates 60% of disposable income. For this reason the Ministry of Family, Communal, Cooperative and Associative Economy (MEFCCA) is one of the country’s key ministries. Whole sectors of the economy are owned and controlled by this sector ranging from transport to food production to retail.

The sector is responsible for a large variety of startups such family owned shops, peasant co-operatives, and women’s organizations. MEFCCA supports these enterprises with training, funding and promotion. The logic of MEFCCA is not based on reproducing capital for its own sake, but rather to address the needs of the self-employed workers, their families, communities and society as a whole.

“We’ve been working with bamboo for three years now,” Mauricio explains. “I was totally ignorant about bamboo, and I had never even thought I could do drawings or art.” he adds. The progress Mauricio has made was rewarded in November 2020 when he won third place and a prize of 5,000 córdobas (£100) in a handicraft contest organized by MEFCCA.

When MEFCCA announced in 2018 that they were going to organize a bamboo training project in the area where Mauricio lives he signed up ‘out of curiosity’.  He immediately felt a love for working with bamboo and has since taken MEFCCA courses in making toys, furniture, masks, chandeliers, walking sticks as well as how to do lamination and run a business.

Mauricio went on to explain what the training has meant to him: “I never imagined I could do this. I think the only thing that was missing was a little bit of discovery and some training and encouragement. I’m still learning because I’m new, I’m not like people from other places who already have ‘that gene’ [of craftsmanship that has been passed down through generations].”

The courses are taught by Nicaraguan, Central American, and also Taiwanese teachers, the latter from a country with a long tradition of using bamboo, not only for handicraft, but also for large constructions.

At the beginning, Mauricio received only training but when his commitment became clear, he received a loan from MEFCCA to buy raw materials and tools.

“From there I started to work a little more, to have clients… If you look here you will see that I have almost nothing, because they call me and ask me ‘look, can you do such and such a thing’ and then I make it.” “Everything associated with working with bamboo requires a wonderful technique’, he stresses, “it may look easy but it isn’t.”

The first piece he sold was a mask. “People loved it,” he says. “Now I have clients waiting for orders, but I tell them that they have to be patient because you have to make sure that what you are delivering is [a good product]; bamboo is very delicate.”

Mauricio Núñez checks on a stand of young bamboo.

To ensure that it is well cured, the bamboo must be cut according to natural ancestral techniques during a particular phase of the moon and then dried evenly in the sun. If this doesn’t happen correctly there is a risk that termites will start eating it so “even if the piece looks beautiful” it will be a bad product.

Bamboo is grown in the Central Pacific region of northern Nicaragua. New varieties have been introduced including very thin varieties and thicker ones used in building construction.

Mauricio acknowledges how grateful he is to MEFCCA for the support they have provided so that he can dedicate himself to bamboo: ‘If it weren’t for MEFCCA, I wouldn’t be doing this right now; who knows how I would be… ‘

This is ongoing support not just in the form of technical training and loans but also on how to set up and run a business. ‘For example tomorrow they have invited us to a course on how to design an eye-catching logo.’ he says.

Mauricio is also member of a ten person co-operative that currently buys bamboo from other places such as Matagalpa, but they have also started to grow it in Managua to use as raw material and to sell plants to other people.

Briefs

72% of Nicaraguans Have at Least One Shot
The Nicaraguan Ministry of Health reported that 4,550,279 doses of vaccines have been administered to the population over two years of age. Jazmina Umaña, director of the immunization program, said that 76% of pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women have been immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; 54% of children between the ages of two and 11 with the Cuban Soberana vaccine; 64% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 with the Cuban Abdala vaccine; 67% between the ages of 18 and 29 with the Russian Sputnik Light and the British Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines; and 81.51% of those over 30 with Oxford/AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines. To date, 72% of the Nicaragua population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, Dr. Umaña said.

A new shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTec vaccine from the World Health Organization COVAX Mechanism was received on Dec. 13. Dr. Umaña explained that the shipment contained 827,190 doses. During the reception of the shipment, which was provided by the World Health Organization’s COVAX Mechanism, the Pan American Health Organization Representative in Nicaragua, Ana Treasure, stated that “PAHO congratulates the Ministry of Health for the immense work they are doing to advance the COVID-19 mass vaccination program in Nicaragua. It is impressive to see the brigades’ visiting homes, workplaces, public spaces, and remote areas throughout the country guaranteeing access to these life-saving vaccines. The commitment of Nicaragua healthcare personnel is the strength of the family and community health model.” For his part, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative Antero Almeida highlighted that “UNICEF wishes to congratulate the Nicaragua Government for the acceleration of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign that is showing, with clear and impressive data, the commitment and responsibility of the authorities and the Nicaraguan people in the fight against the pandemic”. (Nicaragua News, Dec. 14, 15, 16)

Higher Economic Growth Projected
On Dec. 13, the Nicaragua Central Bank published its “Third Quarter Gross Domestic Product and Nicaragua Economic Forecast Updates” report. The report stated that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) registered 9.7% during the third quarter of 2021 with a cumulative growth of 9.9%. BCN President Ovidio Reyes noted that “the growth was driven by increase in exports, national consumption, public and private investment, as well as the general dynamism of the different economic sectors”. He added that “the data presented will allow us to recalibrate the economic growth forecast for the country going from an estimated growth between 6% and 8% to a projected GDP increase between 7.9% and 9.5% by the end of 2021.” (Nicaragua News, Dec. 14)

Advances in Health in 2021
Nicaragua closes the year 2021 with the best hospital network in Central America. Twenty new health centers and hospitals were inaugurated—including the Chinandega Departmental Hospital—and dozens more were remodeled and updated. Community medical brigades made thousands of visits. Health Minister Dr. Martha Reyes stated that infant mortality has declined from 29 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2006 to 12.8 in 2021. With the construction and staffing of maternity wait homes around the entire country, maternal mortality has declined from 92.8 a 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births during the same period. Chronic child malnutrition has declined from 21.7% to 9.3% of children under five years of age. Cancer diagnosis and treatment has vastly improved, including, for example, 22,200 endoscopies and 15,700 ultrasounds for the detection of stomach and prostate cancers. (Informe Pastran, Dec. 21)

Greater cooperation for highway infrastructure
The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) approved a US$ 382.6 million-dollar loan on Dec. 14 in support of Phase X of the Nicaragua Road Maintenance and Expansion Program. CABEI President Dante Mossi stated that “as the Central American Bank, we support initiatives that contribute to poverty reduction, expanding highway connectivity, boosting tourism, as well as strengthening regional commercial integration”. Phase X of the Nicaragua Road Maintenance and Expansion Program includes construction of four highways and sixteen bridges, benefiting 534,820 inhabitants in nine municipalities on the Pacific coast and both Nicaragua Caribbean Autonomous Regions. The connections between the Caribbean Coast cities and the Pacific strengthen national security and sovereignty as well as national unity and economic development, according to analysts. Meanwhile, the coastal highway, now under construction, will allow better access to Pacific Coast beaches for national and international tourists.  (Nicaragua News, Dec. 15; Informe Pastran, Dec. 20)

More Technical Assistance to Small Producers
The Nicaragua Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) trained and delivered Technology Packages to 399 small producers in the Department of Granada on Dec. 12. The Packages included improved seeds and tools to install storage silos to incentivize greater production of basic grains. The donation is part of the Rural Development Program that the Nicaragua Government is promoting throughout the country with support from the Italian Development Cooperation Agency. (Nicaragua News, Dec. 15)

640 New Property Titles
The Office of the Solicitor General announced that 640 new property titles were turned over yesterday to families in ten municipalities of the Departments of Río San Juan, Boaco, Estelí, Madriz, Masaya and both Nicaragua Caribbean Autonomous Regions. Solicitor General Wendy Morales stated that the titles were delivered house to house, in compliance with Covid-19 prevention measures, The program is part of the Legal Certainty and Family Stability Program that the Nicaraguan government is carrying out nationwide. (Nicaragua News, Dec. 16)

Increase in Fixed Private Investment Reported
The Nicaragua Central Bank (BCN) published a report last Tuesday on “Fixed Private Investment” corresponding to the third quarter of 2021. The report indicates that fixed private investment in Nicaragua totaled US$ 503 million during the third quarter of this year, 39.8% higher than the same period in 2020. The report also noted that cumulative private investment registered US$ 1.47 billion, a 35.2% increase over the previous year. The economic sectors with the highest capture of private investment net flow were construction (20.5%), and machinery and equipment (52.8%). (Nicaragua News, Dec. 16)

New Small Businesses Established
Vice-President Rosario Murillo reported that 950 new businesses were established in Nicaragua between November 16 and December 15, 2021, generating 4,520 new jobs. These new small and medium size businesses were in sectors such as transportation services, sale of food products, miscellaneous stores, credit centers, real estate, remittances, as well as mechanical and carpentry workshops. A total of 11,989 businesses have been established this year in Nicaragua, creating 59,945 new jobs in the country.  (Nicaragua News, Dec. 17)