Devastating dust storms cause 'eternal black summer' where it hurts to blink or cough

In the next part of our NextGen International project, young people from Nicaragua tell their stories about the climate catastrophe.
Here, Marcos Vargas, who volunteers with our charity partner Raleigh International, writes how demand for peanuts in the UK and Europe is driving unnatural dust storms in Nicaragua.
Learn more and support the work of Raleigh International here.

Doors are locked, window shutters are lowered and people put on their face masks.

This is not a lockdown, but a normal summer in the Central American city of Leon, Nicaragua, which is battered by unnatural dust storms every year – due to demand for peanuts in the UK and Europe.

Peanuts are one of Nicaragua’s biggest exports, but because of the way they’re grown, cities suffer from dust storms every summer that affect air quality.

Peanuts are one of Nicaragua’s largest exports
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Image:

Charles Herrera)

“Before the pandemic, I wore face masks due to dust storms. Our homes are never clean,” says Pedro Caballero, a 22-year-old student living in the Chacraseca district of rural León, who has devoted himself to agricultural production.

“I’ve suffered from dust blisters all my life and for me summer is the worst time of the year. I’m always sick in the dusty season, I just have to wait for the winter.

“We have to eat quickly, we have to keep the containers with water and food, doors and windows are always closed.”

He says his family is directly affected in the summer due to the house’s proximity to peanut crops.

Pedro-Caballero says he and his family suffer from the dust every summer

“I live in a farming community surrounded by crops and the worst time is after the peanut harvest. The ground is completely dry, the land remains loose and when the wind blows the houses are completely covered with powder,” he adds.

This harvest is exported to Europe in record quantities.

In 2018, 64,000 tons of peanuts were shipped to the UK, accounting for 70% of total Nicaraguan peanut exports, leading to overexploitation of Nicaraguan soils.

More than 20,000 hectares of land in León – the size of about 37,000 soccer fields – are dedicated to peanut cultivation.

Marcos walks through a field that grows peanuts
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Image:

Orlando Valenzuela)

The problem existed before peanut cultivation when the land was used for cotton, but that gave way to peanut cultivation in the 1950s.

Since then, the land has been decimated because the soil has been exploited far beyond the level of sustainability.

Dust gets so bad in Leon that some residents call it the Eternal Black Summer.

The dust from the fields blows into the surrounding towns
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Image:

Charles Herrera)

Hanzell Benavides, 26, a Raleigh International volunteer, says: “Peanut harvesting every six months during the summer leads to respiratory diseases and poor sanitation in the areas.

“The worst thing about dust storms in León is how irritated the eyes and skin get from the excess dust.

“You can’t blink without feeling dust particles in your eyes, and you can’t cough without breathing dust particles in.

“Even traffic is getting worse, motorists can’t see the road and shops have to close.”

Marcos holds a peanut crop between the dry ground
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Image:

Orlando Valenzuela)

After harvesting the peanuts, farmers collect the stubble, the remaining stalks and leaves of the plant rooted in the ground, and then sell them on as animal feed.

But this process removes any remaining plants and nutrients in the soil, leaving only dirt, which then causes the dust storms.

dr Xiomaea Castillo studied the soils on which peanuts are grown
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Image:

Orlando Valenzuela)

Additionally, each time one of these hurricanes hits, the soils lose significant amounts of fertility.

And trees, a natural windbreak, have been felled to make way for more farmland, blowing the dust into surrounding communities.

dr Xiomara Castillo, soil scientist from León, explains: “Peanut cultivation is a good example of how agriculture is increasingly degrading our soils.

Marcos examines one of the crops
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Image:

Orlando Valenzuela)

“The process of growing peanuts, mainly during harvest, involves tractors lifting the peanut’s root structure, which contains the peanut kernel, and sifting and filtering to remove any fine particles from the soil.

“Because there is no windbreak system or ground cover system, trade winds blow across the country and carry away virtually all fine particles.”

Among the companies importing peanuts from Nicaragua is KP, one of the UK’s largest peanut brands.

A spokesman said: “We have a strict supplier selection policy which includes a requirement that suppliers comply with our Responsible Sourcing Policy and a requirement to be a member of SEDEX.

NextGen reporter Marcos Vargas
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Image:

Orlando Valenzuela)

“We have a long-standing partnership with our supplier in Nicaragua, who deals directly with the farmers they source from. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America and agriculture forms a significant part of the economy.

“We recognize the challenges associated with dry season dust storms that predate the peanut industry in Nicaragua, and we are committed to working in partnership with our supplier to help influence the use of more sustainable and regenerative practices around the world Region.

Raleigh International is a global youth action organization supporting a global movement of young people to take action for the planet.

Young people are at the forefront of building a fairer, more inclusive and greener world and are actively addressing the planet’s most pressing crises through Raleigh International’s global campaign, Action Not Excuses.

Dame Chance – meaning “to give a chance” – is an Action Not Excuses campaign led by young people in Nicaragua to reduce deforestation and improve green livelihoods.

Dame Chance fights deforestation and unemployment by helping 6,000 local farmers increase forest cover.

Through the work of this Action Not Excuses campaign, young people from rural communities are developing new employment opportunities and working with local communities to conserve and protect Nicaragua’s precious forests.

“Application of good agricultural practices is a contractual obligation for all farmers who deliver to our peanut supplier.

“Since 2012, our supplier has worked in partnership with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Environment to plant 960,500 trees, representing 649 hectares in Nicaragua.

“Tree planting is a key strategy to stabilize soils, restore watersheds and create living barriers to reduce dust storms. Our supplier is working towards the long-term goal of replanting a total of 3,000 hectares of trees by 2027.”

Nicaragua fact file
Wivili, Nicaragua
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Image:

Mayor Orlando Valenzuela Cisneros)

  • Central American country, between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, borders Honduras and Costa Rica.
  • Poorest country in Central America, where almost 25% of the population live in poverty.
  • 0.8 tonnes of CO2 are emitted per person, compared to 5.4 tonnes in the UK.
  • Over 80% of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources.
  • 21% of Nicaragua’s forest area was destroyed between 1990 and 2005.
  • Home to rich biodiversity, including America’s second largest rainforest.

The Daily Mirror’s NextGen International project builds on the success of our UK initiative, where we gave young people a voice and published the stories that matter to them.

Now global, the project focuses on the climate crisis and empowers young people in six countries to tell their stories of how the crisis is affecting them.

Countries involved in the project are Nigeria, Nicaragua, Solomon Islands, Brazil, Nepal and Mongolia.

The project originally worked with a group of six teenagers in Kabul, Afghanistan along with our charity partner Save the Children.

Halfway through the project in August, Kabul fell to the Taliban and it was no longer safe for the young people to continue.

Afghanistan was selected because it is one of the countries most affected by climate change in the world.

It is very unfortunate that the project could not be completed in the country, but the safety of the young people involved was of paramount importance.

The Mirror was funded by the European Development Journalism Grants, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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