July 2009


Taking the ferry from Granada to Altagracia, Ometepe

Taking the ferry from Granada to Altagracia, Ometepe

Colin, Rebecca, and I are on the Island of Ommetepe, an incredible tropical island in Lake Nicaragua. We are staying at a former Somoza coffee hacienda right on the edge of the lake. After a leisurely morning we rented bikes and went to the beach Santo Domingo and Ojos de Agua, which was surprisingly not a natural quarry like spring but constructed concrete pools that captured crystal clear water. The path to the pools cut through fields of rice and plantains, two of the main crops grown on the island. The other main crop is coffee.

Rice fields with workers spraying pesticides

Rice fields with workers spraying pesticides

A few weeks ago when I was visiting the island with my Dad and Brian, a guide at the organic coffee cooperative where we were staying told us that most everything was grown with minimum chemicals on the island except the rice, which requires herbicides. Rice is also grown primarily for local markets, whereas the plantains and coffee are export crops.   I thought about that today as we biked past several men on bikes carrying their fumigation backpacks.

Rice drying in front of a small house along the road.

Rice drying in front of a small house along the road.

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July 19, 2009

Flags fly as Daniel Ortega speaks, but the crowd was calm and composed.

Flags fly as Daniel Ortega speaks, but the crowd was calm and composed.

The 30th Anniversary of the Sandanista Revolution in Nicaragua.  The streets in Managua were packed with people wearing red and black and bright pink.  Coming over the hill by lake Tiscapa and down past the CEPRODEL you could see the white Concha Acustica adorned on either side with long blue and white streamers, the Plaza del Fe filled with people, and in the background the hazy lake Xolotlan.

“Be very careful if you go to Managua for the celebration, take care of yourself,” I must have heard a hundred times in Leon the week before.  Nicaragua is filled with grandmothers, I swear.  It was an absolute blast to see the plaza and the Malecon, which I only knew as deserted drab spaces, filled with life and music.  The mood was upbeat and whole families were out on the street.

Simon, Rachel and I

Simon, Rachel and I

We arrived the night before, and walked around looking at T-shirts of Che Guevara and Augustino Sandino, and stopped at the plaza where the ruins of the Cathedral that was destroyed in the earthquake of 1972 were lit up with Christmas lights.  I was with Nicholas, Rachel, and Simon, three English friends from Leon.  We met up with Pedro, an old friend of Nicholas’, and his whole family who had come from Matagalpa.  Pedro turned out to be a fantastic tour guide, and told us all the heroic revolutionary stories of Carlos Fonseca, Julio Buitrago, and others.

Even the Gigantonas made it to the plaza

Even the Gigantonas made it to the plaza

We partied to live street music until late, and slept in the next morning.  By the time we made it back to the Plaza del Fe on Sunday, Daniel Ortega was already speaking.  He spoke for a long time, talking about the coup in Honduras, US policy in Latin and South America, and most controversially defended the right for Latin American countries to re-elect Presidents.  He alternately referenced Yankees, Americans, the US, and Barack Obama, names which apparently he does not use interchangeably, although the nuances of each escaped me.  The crowd stood patiently, sweating in heavy air under the hot sun, and not reacting very noticeably to any particular points he was making.   As soon as he ended his speech, however, the music and fireworks exploded along with the crowd.  Everyone danced and sang, and started making their way out of the plaza to continue partying in their houses.  We walked back to a house that Belkis’s mom, a friend of Nicholas’, recently received as part of a government housing project in the center of Managua.  The whole family was working together, taking advantage of the crowds by selling beer and food.

If you ever find yourself in Managua on the anniversary of the Revolution, find the San Antonio neighborhood to party in afterward.  The Joventud Sandanista, or Sandanista Youth group, runs a stage in a small basketball court, where all day there were dance performances, music groups, and puppet shows. The part at night was rocking, but also small enough to feel intimate, like a proper block party.  In fact, the whole day felt that way – big, but manageable.  Crowded, but I kept running into folks I knew from Leon.  It’s a small country, but a big community.

Nicholas, Belkis, Rachel and I at San Antonio in the evening.

Nicholas, Belkis, Rachel and I at San Antonio in the evening.

Luis Rivas, the Reforestation project coordinator, and I are sorting through all the information we have for each client in the project, checking for inconsistencies and gaps before we send it all to the CEPRODEL headquarters in Managua.  Among other uses, the information we collected is going to be used to analyze the long term effects of this project on the farm diversity, diets and incomes of the participating families.  The diagnosis, an eight page questionnaire, was the first project that our student interns worked on with us back in May.

Luis showing Oscar, Bering, Orlando and I the diagnosis the first day of the students internship with us.

Luis showing Oscar, Bering, Orlando and I the diagnosis the first day of the students internship with us.

Luis looks through the paper copies, recalculating annual incomes from milk and firewood sales, and passes them on to me to enter in the computer.  We agonize over illegible handwriting and inconsistencies in numbers of cattle.  We make a best guess or circle the query in red with a note to our technical assistant to sort it out on his next visit.

Questions about the long term sustainability of pastureland mingle with whether a family eats more plantains or tortillas and how much they spend on agricultural chemicals annually. Honestly, what we are doing is an impossible task.  How do you evaluate the quality of a family’s life in a statistically accurate way?  Are we really going to be able to show how five hundred trees are going to change the lives of these families with our invented numbers?

One of the aims of this project and SosteNica’s work with CEPRODEL is to

Harvesting Lumber in El Guayabal, Nagarote

Harvesting Lumber in El Guayabal, Nagarote

emphasize to our rural clients the alternative value of the natural resources they have.  To value the shade that Genizero trees provide, the nitrogen fixing qualities of the Leucaena, the added nutrition in the family’s diet from a grove of orange trees, and the retention powers of the roots of the Guanacaste trees planted along the river banks.  Not everything has to translate into cash to have a benefit and improve your quality of life.  And yet after lecturing on the ecological, ideological, and invaluable qualities of the natural resources they all have and are entrusted to take care of, we spend hours trying to show that they are benefiting from them using the same empty numbers we are trying to get them to think outside of.

Several years ago I went to a lecture by Joshua Farley, a professor from the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, who talked about the importance of adding economic values to natural services.  We won’t be able to get the developers and governments of our world to take conservation seriously unless we speak in their language, he said.  If we subtract the value of fifty years of carbon sequestration by fully grown trees from the value of the house intended to be built on the forested property, how much is left?

His argument is not to think outside of our system of value = income, but to incorporate natural services into our system of values by translating them into virtual income.  Nothing physically changes if you put a value on the cooling effect of solid shade over a tin roof, or the money and labor saved by having a year-round river to water cattle.  But some people – and companies or banks – might look at these farmers differently, might put them in a different social class, might give them more opportunities, and might give them more reason to be proud of what they have.  I don’t know if that makes me feel hopeful or sad.

What is the best stretegy for changing the mentality of "poor" and "rich" to add value to natural resources and rural life?

What is the best stretegy for changing the mentality of "poor" and "rich" to add value to natural resources and rural life?

Back to entering data in the CEPRODEL office, beautiful quiet town of Nagarote.  A breath of practical work before the next wild adventure with more family who are arriving in a week.

We have hired a technical assistant who is a graduate of the UNAN Agroecology department.  He will work with the project for two years, following up with the twenty four clients who are still working to plant between 3 and 4 hundred trees on their farms.  He is a serious, responsible worker, who already moved from Leon to Nagarote and is renting a room here to avoid traveling daily, and so that he can leave easily at 5 am to get to the farms in the morning if needed.

The internet here is too weak to allow me post the pictures I’m itching to share.

Well, it is a country formed by volcanoes, I see volcanoes every day, and there are lots of opportunities to climb them.  So the brief hiatus from my farming work continues with tales of sulphur gas and molton lava.  And some howler monkeys.

A natural tunnel along the crater of Mombacho

A natural tunnel along the crater of Mombacho

Volcan Mombacho, a sleeping volcano outside of Granada, is a giant crate filled with jungle vegetation and howler monkeys.  We could hear them, but couldn´t get any good glances. We went with a small community cooperative tour agency, and although I wanted to support them and he was perfectly nice, I would choose to go with a more well-established tour group next time.

La Isla Ometepe got five stars from all of us.  Formed by two volcanos,

The Isla Ometepe from San Jorge, the nearest coastal town.

The Isla Ometepe from San Jorge, the nearest coastal town.

Concepción which is still active and Maderas which is not, the island is only accessible by boat.  It was a long trip to get there, with bus, taxi, boat, bus, and then little private pickup-taxi service by a very enthusiastic woman named Adelma.  We finally landed at a beautiful little coffee farm called Finca Magdelena, where we spend the next day learning about the history of the coffee cooperative and biking to a beautiful black-sand beach.  We didn´t climb wither volcano, but we appreciated the beautiful views of both of them.

Volcan Masaya also gets rave reviews.  We took the night tour, which includes going down into bat caves and watching the molten lava in the dark.  I was particularly impressed with this National Park; the guides spoke good english, the tour was well organized, the park well maintained, and everyone was very professional.  You definitely don´t need to pay an outside tour group to do this, the guides offered by the park are great.  Just get there early, because the museum has a substantial exhibit that is very good and we barely got to see half of it before they whisked us up to the steaming crater.

And this morning – Cerro Negro.  I wonder how many times I will climb this volcano before I leave here!  Twice and I´m ready to climb it again when my brother is here.  It is beautiful, so doable, and so impressive to climb right down into an active crater.  What an amazing earth we live on.

sorry for the stolen pics.  personal ones coming soon