Creoles of Nicaragua - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Creoles who live in small rural villages and on farmsteads are predominantly agriculturists. Some are engaged in shifting agriculture, but in many cases soils are of high enough quality to sustain cultivation on a permanent basis. A wide variety of crops are grown, including rice; red beans; a number of edible tubers such as cassava (manioc), coco (Spanish: quequisque ), and dasheen (taro; Spanish: malanga); sugarcane; maize; and tree crops such as bananas and plantains, avocados, cacao, coconuts, citrus fruits, pineapples, mangoes, and other tropical fruits. Creole farmers also raise domestic animals such as dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl, pigs, horses, and sometimes cattle. Agricultural production is primarily a subsistence activity, but surpluses are marketed through local traders or regional market centers. Some rural Creoles are able to meet their cash needs entirely through their agricultural activities, and some have reached a level of relative affluence through the cultivation of cash crops like coconuts, cocoa, rice, and sugarcane and the raising of cattle. A few of these farmers even hire seasonal labor to assist them.

Most rural Creoles fish as well as farm. Fishing in the coastal lagoons and inshore areas is an important source of cash and subsistence. Fishermen utilize 5.8to 7.6-meter dugout canoes ( duris ), which are propelled by paddles and sails. A few prosperous fishers use small outboard or inboard motors. Fishing for scale fish is done with hand lines and gill nets. Shrimp fishing is done seasonally with cast nets. The shrimp are generally boiled in salt water and sun dried. Periodically, local fishing companies and traders buy the excess shrimp and scale-fish catch. A few rural Creole communities are also involved in lucrative commercial lobster fishing. This activity is undertaken in open outboard speedboats ( pangas ) or larger (6to 21-meter), diesel-powered wooden boats, with traps. The catch is sold to processing plants located in Bluefields and on Corn Island. Turtle fishing, which was once an important activity in Creole communities, is now restricted to two Creole villages.

Domestic productive activities such as baking bread, making coconut oil, or raising chickens for sale, which are usually undertaken by women, are also important sources of currency for some families. Many rural Creole men migrate for prolonged periods to other areas of Nicaragua or to the United States to engage in wage labor. They typically work in maritime-related occupations. Remittances from these activities are an important component of the Creole economy.

Many urban Creoles are engaged in independent subsistence and petty-commodity production relating to either farming or fishing activities, which are similar to those in the rural areas. Most of these families also engage in a variety of other economic activities, such as domestic petty-commodity production (e.g., baking) and some form of wage labor; however, urban Creoles typically strive to be employed as professionals (teachers, lawyers, nurses), office workers, administrators, civil servants, and self-employed artisans (mechanics, shipwrights, furniture makers, and carpenters). As in the rural areas, labor migration and remittances are important parts of the urban Creole economy.

Industrial Arts. Creoles are skillful carpenters and woodworkers. They construct and repair wooden boats of up to 21 meters. They build their own houses, and some are engaged in furniture- and cabinet-making. Creoles also make much of their fishing equipment, tying a variety of net types. They manufacture some of their domestic utensils, furnishings, and clothes; however, the bulk of the Creoles' manufactured needs are purchased. A large portion of Creole material culture is based on consumer goods imported from the United States.

Trade. In the rural villages, reciprocity governs the exchange of subsistence goods, particularly among extended families. Creoles have been involved in market relations for over two hundred years, however, and these currently dominate Creole trade relations. Although some Creoles have become successful traders and shopkeepers, in Creole communities such positions have historically been held by Chinese and mestizo merchants.

Division of Labor. Creole women work at domestic tasks an average of three to four times longer each week than do Creole men. Women are exclusively responsible for the central domestic tasks of cooking, washing, ironing, household cleaning, child care, and the care of small domestic animals. Both men and women fetch household water and engage in daily marketing; men engage in cleaning the yards and gathering firewood. Men do most of the fishing, but women help process and prepare the catch for sale. Both men and women are involved in agricultural activities. In general, men have central responsibility for such crops as rice and beans, which have commercial as well as subsistence significance, whereas women are more centrally involved in subsistence crops such as cassava and coco. Men usually undertake the clearing and burning of plots. Both adults and children engage in planting, weeding, and harvesting; women are more responsible for the former two, and men for the latter. Marketing outside the community is usually undertaken by men. In the urban areas, both men and women work in a variety of white-collar occupations. Creole women formerly made up the bulk of the unskilled labor force in local fish-processing plants, but, with increased remittances from the United States in the 1980s, this activity has slackened.

There has traditionally been a degree of economic differentiation within Creole communities. The older, better economically connected, and better educated members of the Creole elite tend to occupy professional, administrative, and civil-service positions, whereas most Creoles are small producers or self-employed skilled laborers.

Land Tenure. Each Creole village has extensive communal lands that have been deeded to it. Each villager has use rights to such land. In practice, individuals are able to stake a lasting claim to particular plots of communal land by making permanent improvements to it, which is usually accomplished by planting tree crops such as coconuts or mangoes. The rights to particular parcels that are claimed in this manner are inherited and can be sold to other villagers. It is even possible to sell to outsiders such improvements and, hence, the rights to exclusive use, although this is not commonly done. In areas of shifting cultivation, a villager who wishes to utilize land usually asks permission of villagers who have previously farmed the area. In areas of dispersed farmsteads, like Corn Island and around Bluefields, land tenure is freehold. Family ownership of land is common. Household dwellings are usually owned by the female head of the household or by the wife of the male head of the household.

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