A Solution to Nicaragua’s Dust Bowl
“When the wind blows strong in León, the sky changes color. Doors and windows slam shut. Darkness swallows the daylight and dust falls like ashes over the houses, buildings, churches and offices.” This statement from Maynor Salazar describes a common occurrence in Nicaragua: giant dust storms. Heavy winds pick up fine dust that whips through towns and cities. The air can get so thick that it becomes impossible to see. Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Nicaragua’s dust storms have made life difficult for families trying to climb out of poverty. Moreover, these dust storms form through extensive and overbearing farming of brittle soil. Fortunately, there is a solution to Nicaragua’s dust bowl.

Problems

Nicaragua continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the World Bank, around 13% of Nicaragua’s population lives on less than $3 a day. The giant dust storms that ride through the country only exacerbate the problem. Winds can whip dust as fast as 18-30 mph. There is little shelter against Nicaragua’s dust bowl. Many houses in Nicaragua are not airtight, so the dust easily gets in. This also causes numerous problems. Dust storms can create clouds so thick that it makes it hard to see. Traffic slows to a near standstill. People can barely stay outside without masks. In addition, dust particles can carry bacteria which spreads disease and lowers air quality. Nicaragua has experienced increased cases of influenza and pneumonia, as well as skin irritation and contaminated water due to dust storms.

Additionally, incomes halt when a dust storm rages. Many Nicaraguans sell goods in stands outside of their house. Dust storms make it nearly impossible to continue their business, which many rely on to provide for their families. It is clear that these giant dust storms have created numerous problems for poor communities. A solution to Nicaragua’s dust bowl would provide relief for the millions of people living in poverty.

Peanut Farming and the Storms

Nicaragua’s dust storms do not have natural causes. These storms are a result of peanut farms. Peanuts are one of Nicaragua’s main exports, and the industry continues to grow. There are three problems with peanut farming that lead to dust storms.

  1. The soil in Nicaragua is very dry. Farmers simply cannot afford to have their soil irrigated all year. Only 10% of land used for peanut farming undergoes irrigation all year. This allows the wind to easily carry soil into cities and villages.
  2. Nicaragua has exploited its soil far beyond what is sustainable. Once farmers harvest the peanuts, they collect the “stubble.” Stubble is the remaining stem and leaves of the plant that root in the ground. In addition, farmers pack up the stubble and sell it as cattle feed. When the harvest is finished, there is nothing but dirt left. Peanut farmers in Nicaragua grind their land for every last resource. This means that the dried soil is not rooted in plants or nutrients. It has all been tilled by farmers.
  3. There are no trees surrounding these farms to serve as “wind-breakers.” Many peanut farmers have cleared all surrounding trees for their land. This means that once the wind picks up the dirt, there are no trees to block the dust from getting out. Trees are effective at preventing large dust storms. Unfortunately, many of these trees have been removed.

A Solution

Because these dust storms are a result of human intervention, humans can also prevent them. The Nicaraguan government has initiated a program to plant trees around peanut farms to serve as “wind-breakers.” The Nicaraguan government has also offered tax breaks for irrigation systems. Aside from stopping dust storms, this is a step towards sustainable and environmentally friendly farming. Nicaragua has long suffered from bad farming practices, and the consequences show. Additionally, by providing tools like irrigation and wind-breaker trees, Nicaragua can continue to grow its important industries without harming the environment and its people. Promoting renewable farming has proven to be a solution to Nicaragua’s dust bowl.

Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Nicaragua continues to suffer due to its numerous dust storms. These storms have many negative impacts such as halted traffic, slowed businesses and spread diseases. Furthermore, peanut farmers in Nicaragua grind the already dry soil so much that the wind easily carries it away. There are very few trees that surround these farms. As a result, this makes it easy for the dust to get into cities. Fortunately, this means that these dust storms can be stopped. Local authorities are planting trees around farms to serve as wind-breakers. The Nicaraguan government has offered tax breaks for irrigation systems to moisten the dry soil. Farmers are on the path to more sustainable practices. A solution to Nicaragua’s dust bowl has already begun to sprout.

Evan Weber
Photo: Flickr