Link to a better future for our twin

Confronted every day by news of the appalling situation in the Middle East, readers may not feel that there is much to celebrate in the world at present.

Confronted every day by news of the appalling situation in the Middle East, readers may not feel that there is much to celebrate in the world at present. However, a group of Norwich citizens is celebrating the 20th birthday of the El Viejo Friendship Link.

This link was set up in 1986 as an initiative of the Norwich Central America Group. It was conceived during the period following the overthrow of the despotic Somoza dictatorship when the democratically-elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua was under attack from CIA-backed 'Contra' rebels. A number of British cities and towns set up links with towns in Nicaragua as a gesture of support for the government. In 1985, the Norwich Central America Group approached the Nicaraguan twinning authorities with a view to finding an appropriate town for Norwich to link with. The town of El Viejo in the north west of the country was suggested, as it is the centre of a large agricultural area that had been particularly targeted by the US-backed 'Contra' militia.

In 1987, over 100 citizens met at Norwich City Hall and signed a declaration of friendship with El Viejo. The city council approved formal civic twinning in 1999.

So what do we know about El Viejo? It is the largest municipality in Nicaragua. Like Norwich, it is an old and historic city. It has the sea on three sides, as does Norfolk - but there the similarities end. The climate is sub-tropical with an average temperature of 27º C. It is fairly flat but the Coseguina volcano lies to the north and the still active San Cristobal volcano lies a few miles to the south.

Large areas are planted with sugar cane. Some cattle rearing takes place and rice, sorghum and beans are cultivated. Bananas used to be a major crop until multi-national companies moved their operations elsewhere - but not before hundreds of banana workers were poisoned by the virulent pesticide Nemagon for which the producers, Dow and Shell, refused to accept liability. Cotton was also a significant crop until the collapse in international prices. Nicaraguan coffee suffered a similar fate.

Life in El Viejo today is harsh. According to a UN report in 2003, a massive 82pc of Nicaraguans subsist on less than one US dollar per day. Twenty-five percent of primary school children fail to go to school because of poverty and hunger. Health care is unaffordable by most of the poor.

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The situation in El Viejo was exacerbated by the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The local council sought the help of the El Viejo link on behalf of families whose homes had been destroyed in the flooding. The Link rose to the occasion magnificently and, with the help of the people of Norwich, raised enough money to provide new homes for 42 families. They also raised sufficient funds to provide the new community with a healthy water supply, latrines and a small two-classroom primary school. The delighted families moved into their new homes in 2000 and named the settlement “The Norwich Settlement”.

That's what I call 'making a difference' - and is just one area where the Link has helped improve the lives of the people in El Viejo.

Their current project involves the provision of 200 scholarships to children who would otherwise grow up to be unemployable - with all the attendant social problems that would bring to an already deprived area. The scholarships provide a school uniform, exercise books, pens, pencils, schoolbag, and covers the parental contributions to each school involved. To keep this project alive and maintain the 200 children in school until the end of 2008, the Link must raise at least £5,500 each year.

Nicaragua is still not free from the not-so-benign interference of the US. Two areas in particular give cause for concern: the Bush Administration's use of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to further expand corporate rights in Central America, and the US Ambassador to Nicaragua's attempts unduly to influence the outcome of the elections in November 2006 to secure the victory of their preferred candidate.

There are two complementary ways to counteract this deadly 'trickle down' effect of corporate oppression. One is by supporting El Viejo Link's ability to keep us informed about the effect it is having on our friends in Nicaragua; the other is by grassroots assistance to as many school children in El Viejo as possible.

To find out more about the work of the Link, e-mail: Ralph. gayton@ntlworld.com

Donations may be sent to: The Treasurer, El Viejo Link, 4, Church Road, Tasburgh, Norwich NR15 1ND.