October 2013


I receive many comments from people who want to come to Nicaragua and get dirty – volunteer on a working farm or with an organization promoting sustainable farming or gardening.  So here is a quick list (by no means exhaustive!) of recommendations with organizations and volunteer opportunities I personally have experience with.  If you are planning a trip, I have also written about my general recommendations for how to prepare and what to bring with you!

A note about volunteering in a developing country:  When I first began researching volunteer abroad opportunities ten years ago, I was taken aback at the fees requested by many organizations.  Why should I pay to volunteer?  Isn’t my help enough?  After living in a developing country and supervising volunteers I understand why and believe it is very important to take into consideration.  The time and investment in training volunteers to adapt to a new culture, a new language, entirely different transportation systems and work ethics is time intensive and costly.  A days salary at minimum wage is approximately half of what a bed in a hostel costs.  Trading a day’s worth of (probably unskilled, at least at first) work for room and board just doesn’t make economic sense for many NGOs.  Research the costs of living in the area where you want to work and make sure that is part of your decision and commitment.  There are some hostels who offer discount rates for guests who are volunteers, or who run their own charitable projects and may offer room and board in exchange for working with their initiative, but in general expect to at least pay your own room and board.  Making a contribution to the organization you are volunteering for is a way to ensure that your time volunteering really does contribute a net positive to their efforts and doesn’t become a strain on their resources because of the additional time/attention you require.  If they ask for a fee to volunteer, ask them how they calculated it to understand their justification before making a judgement about whether it’s reasonable or not.

Study Spanish First: Your ability to contribute to an organization is severely limited if your communication is limited to English!  Unless you have a specific skill that you know you have to offer and know that you are willing to help an organization by doing more office based work like online research, writing grant applications in English, helping with marketing materials, or web design, dedicating the first portion of your trip to language acquisition will be well worth your time.  If your interests lie in working with the rural sector here (as I imagine most of this blog’s readers are), I highly recommend the Hijos del Maiz language school in Achuapa.  The school offers one-to-one classes with young members of the rural community of El Lagartillo who have been certified as Spanish language instructors.  The school is unique in Nicaragua in that it provides a real rural living experience with comfortable accommodations, quality instruction, and the ability to spend the afternoons helping cattle, corn and bean farmers, learning to cook traditional Nicaraguan foods, or volunteering in a rural school.  I highly recommend this school to anyone who wants to understand not only Nicaraguan Spanish but also the campesino lifestyle.

Volunteer for Sustainable Farming/Gardening: Many people are interested in supporting sustainable gardening and farming in Nicaragua.  The first thing you should do is be realistic about what type of skills you can offer – even if you already speak fluent Spanish.  What experiences do you have that can contribute to the organization?  Be upfront about what you can bring to a project when you first contact an organization.  If you do have experience farming in the states or Europe, be prepared to encounter completely different crops, diseases, and issues than you are familiar with!  Budget time for your own learning before you will be able to then teach others.  You definitely don’t need to have had direct experience growing plantains, yuca, chayote, passionfruit, or pitaya in order to participate in a gardening initiative (although if you do that’s a definite plus!)  Experience working with youth, graphic design, networking skills, connections to agricultural universities that could offer technical support, are all good ways you can boost the efforts of a small NGO without having direct farming experience yourself.  Here is a short list of a few organizations I have come across that I know have the conditions to take volunteers and are good starting places – contact them and they can probably refer you on if they don’t offer the experience you are looking for or it doesn’t seem like a good match.  There are hundreds of organizations in Nicaragua and this is only a very few – if you have had experience volunteering with gardening or farming specifically for an organization and want to list it send me the link and your recommendation and I will post it.

NicaPhoto: An excellent small NGO in Nagarote that provides after-school education for primary and secondary school students.  The project includes several opportunities to garden with the children – in a good-sized project garden that grows food for the kids lunches, or in the garden/park/playground at the nursery school NicaPhoto helped to build.  Ronnie Maher, the director, is from the US so she can help with language transition and has extensive experience organizing volunteer groups.  

Norwalk Nagarote Sister City Project:  Also in Nagarote, close to Managua, this is a sister-city project that also has many opportunities to work with youth – sports, education, computer and English classes – and runs a sustainable educational farm.  Their farm provides food for nursery school snacks, events, and also the local market.  At 2 manzanas (3.4 acres) it definitely qualifies as a small farm and is a great opportunity for someone with some farming experience in the states who would like to contribute to an agricultural project on a larger scale than a kitchen garden.  The farm is managed jointly with SosteNica, another US-based NGO working with sustainable housing, farming, and Microcredit in Nicaragua.

UCA San Ramon: This is an active, vibrant union of small coffee cooperatives.  The UCA San Ramon was one of the first small farmer cooperatives to invest in rural eco-tourism and they currently offer a range of tourism opportunities from sustainably built adobe rural hostels to home stays and wild-life treks.  There are a myriad of opportunities to volunteer with coffee farmers, in kitchen garden projects, or with some of their other agricultural products they support that contribute to local food security and economy.  They are also known for their progressive development policies that include gender equality, anti-domestic violence and sexual education.

UCA Miraflor: Located in the cloud forest reserve Miraflor just east of Estelí, this small farmer coffee cooperative also has a reputable community tourism project that offer either a night or two at the house of a campesino family or a longer term stay with volunteering in the coffee plantations (make sure you plan your trip between November and February if you are intent on being there for the harvest!), in a kitchen garden project, or in the local schools.

Center for Biointensive Farming in Nicaragua:  This is a new demonstration, investigation, and training center for the Biointensive farming method in Nicaragua is in Tipitapa, very accessible from Managua and Masaya.  Strictly organic, the biointensive method has been scientifically proven to conserve water, build soil, and provide more food per area than other types of sustainable farming.  As it becomes more established, the center would benefit from some enthusiastic, independent volunteers to put some labor into its first season.  The list of members of the Biointensive Movement in Nicaragua is a great page to browse if you are looking to connect with other organizations in Nicaragua that promote this type of small-scale farming.

Nuevas Esperanzas:  You can live comfortably in the vibrant colonial city of León and volunteer with Nuevas Esperanzas, which works with communities in the impressively volcano chain east of the city.  Known for their high-quality work with creating potable water systems and rainwater catchment tanks, the organization also works with sustainable farming and food security issues, family gardens, and is starting a rural community tourism initiative.

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October 2013 is Fair Trade Month, when consumer advocacy groups, companies, and certifications raise awareness of the reasons why fair trade is important, and promote buying and using socially and commercially sustainable, fair trade products in place of commodities which may harm the environment, the economy, communities and disadvantaged individuals.  Despite it’s good intentions, the campaign hasn’t been visible at all on the ground in this Fair Trade producer country.  I can’t help noticing the one-way flow of information and energy within this movement that has legitimately transformed the way that trade impacts hundreds of thousands of small producers’ lives.  Since beginning my work with agricultural cooperatives almost a year ago, I have had the privilege of seeing and experiencing the incredible results of implementing a trading structure that supports small producers.  And I also am able to see its shortcomings in the field, where the newest innovations in ethical trade need to be focused.  Like a missed opportunity this “Fair Trade” month for companies and advocacy groups to support producer cooperatives in recruiting new members and launching local awareness campaigns in their own countries, not only in consumer countries.  When Fair Trade USA decided to break away from the Fair Trade Licensing Organization’s international standards to certify plantations and reduce the amount of certified ingredients necessary for labelling, they sent a clear message to agricultural cooperatives that have toiled for years to create successful democratic businesses – we care more about profit margins and consumer demand than your participation in the market.  Ouch.  So while consumer advocacy groups shuffle around to take sides and pour resources in re-educating the public on new standards and symbols, agricultural cooperatives have to huddle, suck it in to prepare for an even more competitive market on top of coffee rust and whatever climatic disaster is waiting around the corner.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, tomorrow Oct. 16th is World Food Day.  This year’s theme is Healthy People Depend on Healthy Food Systems.  Access for consumers to quality food is just one piece of a food system, and it’s an important one – besides the social and other health costs associated with lack of access to good food, the costs of malnutrition alone could account for as much as an estimated 5% of the global gross domestic product (GDP).  Both upstream and downstream from agricultural food production are important links in the food system that impact the lives and diets of many people.  Availability of soil amendments, financing, regional land policy, and road quality all have an impact on both local and global food systems.  Ethical trading structures like Fair Trade can have a direct impact on a subsequent food system – like the example of this Coop in Achuapa, Nicaragua.  Innovations to ethical trading structures should improve information and resource feedback, continue to empower small producers and provide ways for them to increase ownership over links in the supply chain, and support them in building parallel local markets so the overall effect of good fair trade is healthier food systems – and healthier people – around the world.