Sustainable.

It´s slithery, slippery, highly debatable, and sprinkled around like fresh ground pepper at a good Italian restaurant.

I ran into a group of American men today at the Spanish school where I try to sneak in a few hours of language classes every week.  We started talking, and it turns out they all live here and own businesses in town.  One man, Bill, owns a farming project and knows quite alot about the local farming scene, and after listening to my two-sentence over rehearsed explanation of what my project is, asked me to define what I thought sustainable development meant here.  Well, the thing is, that´s a whole conversation.  It´s not black and white.

I asked him what he thinks Sustainable Develpment means.  And so our three hour conversation started, during which he gave me a tour of the very upscale hotel in a beautifully restored building that he is part owner of.  His definition, I think I´ve gathered, is development that upholds traditional values, improves local resources, trains locals during the development process, and does minimal damage to the environment.  This is how he sees his roll in the community – to run a business that employs hundreds of locals, while training them in better business and service skills.  Eventually, they will have full time jobs and he offers them benefits.  Maybe someday they will have the skills to open their own business.  ” Sustainable Development”.

I ran into a similar situation in Ecuador, where a retired American couple had bought a gorgeous peice of land with a spectacular view, and were employing locals to build a large house using improved building methods than were used in local houses.  They saw themselves as doing a service to the local community, providing jobs and training.

It´s hard for me not to cringe when I run into a project here that is owned and run on foreign money.  It´s hard to explain exactly where that reaction comes from, because I do think their perspective is valid.  The problem is, the foreign owned businesses are at such an advantage, and rely on such large budgets, that I can´t imagine them ever passing on to local owners and surviving.  And the local owned micro businesses can barely compete.  But does the job creation and training make them sustainable development?  What happens when the owner decides he´s sick of Nicaragua and moves on to Costa Rica or Taiwan?

I still agree that what Bill and many other American and foreigners are doing here enhances the community in many ways.  They have the resources to restore old buildings that many Nicaraguans are very proud of, and often contribute to cultural events and public maintenance projects that everyone enjoys.  And from a historical perspective, well, foreign money has controlled when not influenced the development of Latin America and so many other parts of the world for hundreds of years, and it´s not about to leave any time soon.

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