March 2011

One of Nicaragua’s national newspapers, El Nuevo Diario, ran this article yesterday, linking two things I had never put together before: the Catholic Church and the threat of extinction for iguanas in Nicaragua.  Iguanas are a typical Nicaraguan dish eaten year round, but as the Nuevo Diario points out, the fact that they are “green-blooded” instead of red-blooded means that they are acceptable fare during lent.

We have iguanas living on our roof in the center of León.  They can be heard all hours of the day, scratching along the fiberglass sheets and ceramic tiles.  When they cross over the skylight in the bathroom they cast an enormous distorted dinosaur shadow along the wall.  The males fight, knocking each other off the tree limbs and roofing, and every now and then they fall into our courtyard and scurry behind the potted plants.

They have every reason to be scared of us.  We are giving them one safe roof, but I often see the neighbors kids behind our backyard throwing stones with slingshots at the iguanas in the trees.  Granted, kids will throw stones at lots of things, but in this case they are probably actually trying to kill dinner, not just goof off.


Pedro Sanchez caught this iguana for his family to eat, and was so impressed at its size that he stuffed the skin with ash to preserve it.

Are you sick in bed with a fever and chills?  Someone is bound to tell you (or bring you!) iguana soup.  It’s supposed to be rich in iron, the perfect get-well meal.  Until reading the article in yesterdays newspaper, I hadn’t made the connection between celebrating lent and increasing consumption of iguana.  The article encourages Catholics to find other ways to avoid eating red meat during lent, and respect the un-enforced laws against the illegal sale of iguanas for pets or meat.  I have seen iguana in the markets, and the boys along the highway who hold up their iguana for the commuters on the highway to buy (I have a friend who buys them every now and then, and then feeds them in yard where they live happily and grow to enormous sizes). It’s visible; certainly not eaten in the quantities that beef, chicken, and pork are but clearly a traditional dish and delicacy.


I have eaten iguana.  Most foreigners don’t, and I know in certain areas it’s in danger of extinction.  But here’s the dilemma – it’s an important source of food for poor rural families.  Imagine one family in the isolated country side – beef and pork are rare treats, saved for large festivities or for selling to market.  When I first arrived here I was faced with a decision about eating meat.  I have been vegetarian in the past; in the states I pretty much only eat meat I purchase (i.e. I or my family will buy what we decide is quality meat, mostly organic or pastured, but when I eat out it’s mostly vegetarian).  My choices have always revolved around a protest of factory farmed and over-medicated meat; I have no moral beef with consciously raised or hunted meat.

The first time I was served iguana I panicked.  I was staying with a rural family for three nights.  The first night we had beans, cheese, and tortilla for dinner.  Then again for breakfast.  Then again for lunch.  At dinner, the family proudly told me their son had gone out with his slingshot and caught two iguana so they could serve me meat.  The environmentalist and anthropologist in me were in a terrific struggle.  Eat an endangered animal, or offend a family by refusing their gesture?  I ended up eating the iguana, and I have done the same since then whenever it was offered to me by a rural family, which thankfully has not been very often.  The meal below – an example.  Hidden below the plantain chips and salad are pieces of stewed iguana with vegetables.

I have never and will never purchase iguana at a market or restaurant.  I don’t particularly like it – it’s a bit tough, stringy, doesn’t have much meat or flavor.  I can’t stomach iguana eggs; they are dense and dry and I don’t agree with robbing nests so I draw a line there.

I haven’t seen many iguana farms for food production.  At the Cerro Negro reserve outside of León, the park center maintains an iguana rehabilitation project.  They raise and set free hundreds of iguanas a year, probably a portion of them to be hunted and lunched upon, but hopefully a portion of them to live and reproduce freely in the surrounding forest.

Deforestation is listed as a main reason for the disappearance of iguanas, after illegal sale on the international exotic pets market and consumption.  Forest fires, lit by accident or by hunters of the very same iguana who light brush on fire to scare the lizards out, decimate their habitat.  At least for the time being, whenever I need to console myself while being proudly served a beautiful meal of iguana by a señora in the countryside, I know I’m helping by working to reforest their habitat.  And of course there are those gangs of iguanas on my roof, waking me up at 3 am with their boxing matches.  May they live long, happy lives and never find themselves on my plate.


The Nicaraguan summer, or verano, is November through May, during the dry season when it doesn’t rain.  The only crops that survive are perennial crops like fruit trees, crops that have been well established during the rainy season, and anything planted with irrigation.  Because many of the fields are bare right now, waiting for late April and early May plowing and soil preparation, the Reforestation and Watershed Protection project that I work with through SosteNica is concentrating on soil conservation.  The open fields are ideal for marking out  terraces with an Aparato A, a simple instrument used to measure the slope of a field and find the level terraces that will, when planted or lined with rocks, help to prevent soil erosion in the heavy rains that begin in May.

The days when we go out to the farms to lead workshops or work with farmers are long.  We leave León by 7 am, taking either the fast newer highway or the old potholed highway toward Managua.  At some point I get off a bus and onto the back of the motorcycle, driven by Vernon, our Agroecologist.  The country roads right now are incredibly dusty, we wear heavy jean jackets to protect ourselves from the sun and dust, and I carry a handkerchief to hold in front of my mouth and nose so I don’t choke.  Sometimes the dust is so deep that Vernon has to slow the motorcycle down and put his feet down as if he’s crossing a river to keep our balance on the bike.  There’s a very short season change here between dangerously muddy: slippery and poor traction – to dangerously dusty: powdery and poor traction.

The first step when we work with the farmers is making the Aparato A.  The poles need to be straight, carefully measured, and the last detail is making sure it is properly balanced, and the exact point is well-marked in the center of the cross-pole where the string rests when the Aparato is perfectly level.

On this farm, we started at the top of a shrubby hill behind the farmers house.  The Aparato A measures the slope of the hill; with one leg uphill, the downhill leg is held up until the string falls on the center mark.  By measuring the distance in centimeters the second leg hovers above the ground, and dividing by 2 (the legs are 2 meters apart), you can deduct the slope of the hill.  That will tell you the distance you should build the terraces in order to sufficiently reduce erosion.

Two of our participating farmers, Pedro Sabino and Juan Enrique working together to measure the slope at Pedro’s family farm.

After the slope is measured and you know how far away to make your terraces, you can use the same Aparato A to mark them.  This time, both legs of the tool are on the ground, crossways around the hill, and the level point is marked with a stake.  The stakes are then connected, like a big connect-the-dots, and planted with grass, shrubs, or nitrogen-fixing plants.  The roots on the plants retain the soil, and the plants themselves catch sediments carried downhill by rainwater.  On Juan Enrique’s farm, the terraces will protect the back of his new house from being washed in by sediments.

While we’re onto soil conservation, might as well take the time to make a compost pile.  Instead of burning all the leaves and kitchen scraps, why not turn them into the rich organic matter which feeds your crops and helps filter the rainwater down to the aquifer.  Of course, when you are on your own time and not in a workshop, you can make your compost pile in the evening instead of under the scorching mid day sun.

At this farm, the family earns much of its income making and selling charcoal.  The dead wood from nearby forests is cleared out and then burnt very, very slowly in a big pit.  The chunks of charcoal left are sorted by size and packed into sacks and bags to be sold in markets.  The woman on the right is paid just under US$1 for making up 100 small plastic bags of charcoal.  Dirty work.

Luis Picon and Felipa Mayorga at their farm.  After we built the compost pile and talked for a most of the day about soil amendments, the conversation moved to their granddaughter who is still single at 26, and how young people just aren’t the same as they used to be.  There aren’t any young men good and responsible enough for her, said Luis, trust me, we weren’t so well behaved ourselves when we were young but they’re worse now these kids.  Oh yes, agrees Felipa, if you know what he put me through!  He’s caused me some trouble over all these years! I know why she’s still single, believe me.

One of the farms was an hour off of the main road, only accessible by horse or motorcycle.  At the end of the day, I was elected to ride the horse while my two colleagues set off on motorcycle.  My guide was the farmers eight year old son, Osmar.  He spent the entire hour trying to face backward on the horse while talking constantly.  I heard the whole history of his family, how his grandfather was forced to sell a whole piece of land, how he was born at home with a caul and was lucky his father had a cigarette ready so when they took the amniotic sack off him the cigarette smoke made him alert and saved his life, and how that very same horse he is riding once spooked at a snake and bucked him off and he hit his head on a rock and nearly died.  I was glad he was riding that horse instead of me.

The horse I was riding was blind in one eye.  I thought for a while about whether that was good, i.e. 50% less chance of spooking, or not good, i.e. more nervous.  But aside from the chatter it was an uneventful hour of slow walking to the main road, where there was a little venta for Osmar to buy some chocolates for his sisters before returning to his house with both horses.  I waited until the painted school bus going toward León passed by, getting back to the city around 7pm.  Another long hot dusty summer day done.