'IoS' Christmas Appeal: The healing power of happy pigs

A mountain community, at the mercy of extremes of climate, is planting, raising animals and tackling natural disasters with help from Christian Aid
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The Independent Online

In Nicaragua this summer, they had much the same problem with the bean harvest as we did in Britain. As the sun scorched the fields and prayed-for rain failed to fall, tender legume crops failed. In Britain, we feared that Bird's Eye might have to put up its prices. For Nelly, in the mountainous community of La Labranza,it meant that she cannot feed her children this winter.

Nelly lives in the northern region of Matagalpa, where the crops scent the air with spearmint and coffee, and children fill in holes in the roads in the hope of a lobbed coin from a passing driver. Her house is a mud construction with a tin roof - from a distance, it looks as if it has been thrown at the side of the hillside by a giant hand, and stuck. Its position is dizzyingly beautiful, but dangerous.

In 2004, a great storm, una tormenta, as the locals call it, lashed this hillside. There were floods and landslides nearby, and some of the land that Nelly used to grow crops was lost for ever. In her precarious home, she is constantly afraid of another such disaster - a risk made even greater by the increasingly unpredictable climate. But tropical storms like the one in 2004 at least bring rain, which has been seriously lacking in recent years.

"For the past eight years, people have noticed that the rain is not so good," she says. Before, there was plenty of rain. Not any more. The beans I planted should have been enough for 20 100lb bags. Now I am wondering if I will get five bags."

Elsa Velasquez, a briskly efficient woman who co-ordinates a disaster prevention committee in the area, says she knows why the rain no longer falls as it should in Matagalpa. "Back in the 1980s, that mountain had a forest so thick that people used to get lost in it," she says. "Now you can see that it is clear of trees. Deforested areas get less rain. Also, trees prevent landslides. So we are educating our community about the need for reforestation."

Elsa and the committee have founded nurseries and tree-planting schemes, helped by a local organisation called the Community Movement of Matagalpa (MCM). With the support of Christian Aid, The Independent on Sunday's partner in this year's Christmas appeal, it provides education and training, as well as more practical assistance.

In this area, 70 families have been given pigs with donations from MCM. They cheerfully forage around the hillsides, eating banana peel, spoiled vegetables and windfall chayote fruits. A community organiser, Ciriaco Ortiz, explains: "When little pigs are born, people give one back to the fund and one to their neighbour. Now there are 410 pigs." The fund has also provided 550 chickens to families in the area, along with loans of fertiliser that are paid back at harvest time. When the rain fails, this fund is all they have to fall back on.

MCM, which has worked in the area on community development programmes since 1979, and has been funded by Christian Aid since 1992, started helping local people prepare for natural disasters after Matagalpa was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Lucila Castro was only 19 when it happened, but she will never forget. "It kept raining for days," she says. "We could see the mud flowing down the hills, the earth cracking wide open and water pouring down the cracks. There was a terrible noise and the rock under our feet was shaking. I heard my neighbours telling me to leave." When she went home after two days, the area was devastated. "There was a calm, which was scary. There were lots of cracks. There was no electricity, water or communications. We were very isolated." This is why Mrs Sevilla works so hard to make sure that, should anything like Hurricane Mitch happen again, the community is prepared.

"MCM has provided us with training," she says. "And it would be much better now: they have helped us to build a community house in a low-risk area to shelter people in a storm." MCM has also provided a bridge in the community, which means that children can go to school, even during a flood. Now, local people come together in their time off to make sandbags to shore up the river bank. "Before MCM came, we were not very organised," says her sister-in-law, Maritza. "But now our situation has improved a lot."

Nelly is fattening up her obliviously happy pig. The children chatter about planting trees as they cross the river on the way to school. Everyone is praying for rain - but not too much rain.

"This year was quiet, which was a blessing," says Lucila, with one eye on the sky beyond the hills. "But we are always prepared for any eventuality. With your help, maybe we can achieve even more."

The Independent on Sunday's 2006 Christmas Appeal has been launched to raise money for the victims of climate change. To donate now, go to: www.christianaid.org.uk/ climateappeal

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