By Peter Devereux
MANAGUA — The Central American presidents met in an ecological summit here on October 12 and 13. The agenda was carefully slanted toward a future sustainable development, deliberately refusing to consider the consequences of past development, including mercury contamination of some workers who were prevented from presenting their plight.
US Vice President Al Gore arrived for five hours to give his blessing to the summit amidst SWAT teams and other high security measures. He was the highest-ranking US official to come to Nicaragua since the 1979 revolution, and US security officials were obviously edgy about what might have been public animosity after the estimated $17 billion and uncountable human cost that the US inflicted on Nicaragua over the Sandinista years.
The right to protest, so staunchly defended by the US when the Sandinistas at various critical times during the war required prior police notification of protests, was completely suspended by the minister for police for the duration of the summit.
A group of campesinos who arrived from the countryside to demand attention from the government to a more just rural wage were violently repressed by the police and trucked back to the country with a police escort.
Workers formerly employed at Pennwalt, contaminated along with Lake Managua by mercury, were advised to go home immediately to avoid the same fate.
The presidents signed an "Alliance for Sustainable Development" which includes plans for a Central American biological corridor and the total elimination of leaded petrol in Central America by July 1995.
The presidents committed themselves to introducing, within two years, specific legislation in each country to monitor and control the pollution of air, water and soil. The recently formed Central American Commission for Environment and Development will supposedly monitor compliance.
The summit included a visit to the Masaya volcano national park, where the presidents symbolically released baby parrots, most of which were so small they were not yet able to fly and some of which refused to leave their cages until shaken out.
Greenpeace was represented in Managua for the summit by members of its regional Guatemala office, including former Sandinista National Parks director Lorenzo Cardenal. Greenpeace had produced a folder detailing the unsustainable development practices currently occurring in Central America, in contrast to the official optimistic tones.
The Pennwalt factory is a classic example of unsustainable development. Set up in 1967 to produce chlorine and caustic soda, it has become notorious for the over 40 tons of mercury that it poured directly into Lake Managua over some 25 years. In tests on 32 of the workers in 1992, 30% were over international toxicity levels.
In January 1992 the ministers for finance, environment and health signed a decree to close the factory. The ministers affirmed that the processes there "release the contaminating agents mercury and chlorine gas, which generate risks and grave danger for public health".
According to the finance minister, "This measure should be interpreted as a clear message that growth in Nicaragua cannot be at the cost of the environment or the people".
Despite the decree, the factory did not close its doors — or its waste pipes and pumps — until September 1992. Since then its former workers have been protesting in front of the offices of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), asking for compensation for the sickness and disability they now have as a product of working for years with mercury and chlorine. The bank has been their target because it repossessed the factory grounds and equipment after the closure to cover unpaid loans.
The workers are desperate for justice and looking for support, both financial and practical. They request that people write to the BCIE asking for justice for the Pennwalt ex-workers: Banco Centroamericano de Integracion Economica, Apartado 772, Tegucigalpa, Honduras (fax: 388 594). Copies of letters should be sent to the Nicaraguan NGO Commission on Environment, Health and Disability, Apartado 968, Managua, which is trying to coordinate the international campaign as part of its work to publicise the links between a healthy environment and a healthy population.
[Peter Devereux is an Australian Volunteers Abroad environmental adviser with the Sandino Foundation in Managua.]