From Minefields to Orange Groves
by Roberto Fonseca, National Demining Commission of Nicaragua
Years ago, before it was cleared of landmines, 292 anti-personnel mines were buried in the area of San Pancho-San Carlos.
Four years ago, when 10 active minefields existed in the area of San Pancho-San Carlos, on the border of Costa Rica, it was impossible to imagine the view that today is registered by my digital camera. A few meters from the border, Caterpillar equipment roars and removes reddish soil. "There are approximately $20 million [U.S.] invested in the Project," assured Juan Bautista Sacasa, President and associate of the Frutales del San Juan company, a joint-border mega-project located close to the border with the Costa Rican neighbors. "Before, these lands were used for livestock; today they are dedicated to the cultivations of oranges for export, a more competitive crop," signals Sacasa. They are correct; during the 2004 harvest, they produced approximately 600,000 crates of oranges, equivalent to approximately $1.5 million in export.
Until April 2001 in the area of San Pancho-San Carlos, the Army of Nicaragua registered a total of 10 minefields on the border area with Costa Rica, which contained around 292 million PPMIRS-II and POMZ mines. But it was not the only mined area. According to Lieutenant Colonel Sergio Ugarte, Chief of Staff of the Nicaraguan Army Corps of Engineers, along the length of the border there was a total of 127 minefields, which contained close to 5,583 sown mines. These minefields were located in the municipalities of Cardenas, San Juan del Sur, El Castillo, San Juan del Norte and San Carlos, where today the mega-project of Frutales del San Juan is located—a total of 96 mined kilometers. Thanks to the work of the deminers, 386,654 square meters were cleared, with 2,319 PPMIRS-II, POMZ and PMN anti-personnel mines destroyed. Once the deminers concluded their work, the southern border was declared a "mine-free" area on April 20, 2001, in a public event. It was the first event of its kind in Nicaragua.
A Different Panorama
Currently, in place of the deadly artifacts, there are 750,000 orange trees planted, principally of two varieties: the pineapple (piña), an early variety and Valencia, a later variety. They amount to 2,500 hectares, offering the area a completely different panorama. "This is an awesome farm," says a proud Gustavo Yglesias, administrative manager of Fincas for the Costa Rican multinational TicoFrut, associate of Frutales del San Juan. "The actual potential of this project is very big and we hope it continues in this fashion. The varieties of oranges have behaved well in Nicaragua; for this reason, they continue to be planted," he adds. The final goal of the project, according to Sacasa, is to cultivate approximately 4,000 hectares in total and to plant around 1.3 million trees. In seven years, it is estimated to generate some 3,000 temporary jobs during the harvest season and 500 permanent jobs. "Nicaragua has much more critical potential than Costa Rica, due to its land being suited for orange cultivation from San Carlos to Acoyapa. Costa Rica does not have these lands," states Sacasa. "The idea is to incorporate thousands of small and medium producers of the area to cultivate oranges through cooperatives and productive associations. We would give them the technology and the expertise to develop this cluster of great potential," adds Sacasa.
Exportation to the United States
The oranges that have been planted and harvested on the Nicaraguan side are transported to the other side of the border into Costa Rican territory. From there they travel about 90 kilometers to be processed in the TicoFrut plant, owned by the director Carlos Odio, another associate of Frutales del San Juan, together with Carlos Pellas and the brothers Coronel Kautz. The general manager of the project is Emilio Pereira, ex-Minister of Finance (1990–1996). During the 2004 harvest season, they estimate they will produce 850 trailers of oranges and in the following year between 1,700 and 1,900.
"The oranges are processed and shipped in concentrate. They are packaged and transported in a refrigerator to the Port of Limon in Costa Rica where they are exported to Tampa, Florida, in a juice tanker," explains Yglesias, the Costa Rican technician. Among the buyers are the giants Coca-Cola and the multinational Tropicana. "We enter the United States free of taxes due to the benefits of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, but with the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) we ensure that these benefits will not be temporary," he concludes.
A Project of Great Importance
The Minister of Development, Industry and Commerce (MIFIC), Mario Arana, appreciated the great importance of the agricultural export of the Project Frutales del San Juan project, which is carried out by national and Costa Rican investors. "The importance of this project is based on its being transnational. The industrial processing capacity is located in Costa Rica, while both countries host the cultivation of oranges. This is an investment that will help to transform trans-border development," commented Minister Arana during a walk-through with President Enrique Bolaños Séller.
In Minister Arana's opinion, the planting and exporting of oranges can become a very competitive conglomerate for Nicaragua, especially if the thousands of small and medium producers of Rio San Juan and Chontales that perhaps dedicate themselves to the cultivation of agricultural products with smaller potential are incorporated. "There is already some experience, an established logistics, to extend this technological model to small producers in the area, to small colonies that want to join this conglomerate," concluded Minister Arana.
When Life Gives you Landmines, Make Orange Juice
Landmines are devastating devices that cause death, injury and pain. Yet the people of San Pancho-San Carlos in Costa Rica have found a way to convert the angry energy of a landmine-affected area to a peaceful and fruitful (no pun intended) outcome. The orange groves in Costa Rica have brought funds, pride and a fresh start for an old minefield. Hope for the future is strong and well-grounded; juice producers large and small are working towards a positive end result.
*All photos courtesy of the author.