Volunteer with the birds and bees – organic gardening in Nicaragua

La Mariposa has possibly the most varied range of volunteer projects anywhere in Central America! Children’s reading projects, working with disabled children, including helping with hydro and equino therapy (using our rescued horses!), helping out in a women’s cooperative bakery……just some of the options available – our website tells you more.

We offer a volunteer package –

  • Mornings volunteering at a supported placement and working alongside workers from the local community, this also gives opportunities for practicing Spanish
  • Afternoons in Spanish classes – our Spanish school is one of the top rated in Central America, the classes are one on one
  • Living in the house of  a local family.
  • You get to eat your produce at lunch in La Mariposa with the other Spanish students.
  • The cost of the whole package is $280

One of our most popular placements has always been on our organic veggie farm. Paulette, the founder of La Mariposa, also lives here with her daughter and a few rescued dogs, in a small straw built house.


Over the 6 years it has been operating, we have developed the farm on sound permaculture principles and we are always looking to improve. Though very small, half an acre or so, you will find we grow an impressive array of vegetable and native fruit trees which are consumed mostly by La Mariposa guests. We have taken the Principles of Permaculture to heart – you can see how we value diversity and the marginal – this applies to our relationships with people as well as to the land. We believe in looking for small, appropriate solutions and don’t have to feel we have to move faster and faster in order to find immediate answers. Change is often difficult, especially when it involves destruction or death (of a person, a dog, a tree) but has to be integrated into the way things are. This does not, of course, mean that we do not take a stand when the causes of change are exploitation and greed.

On a practical level we are undertaking the following…

  1. Water conservation is of course critical. The local municipality supplies us with water twice a week and we store this in the “pila”, a large tank which holds water both for watering the vegetables and for Paulette’s house. We water by hand in order not to waste any – this also helps us maximize local employment. We also use a number of ways to conserve humidity in the ground. For example, we spread straw around the vegetables and split the trunks of banana trees, which contain a lot of water, putting them on the ground to maintain moisture. Grey water from the household is reused on flowering plants. Building with straw also uses  very little water, as opposed to concrete dwellings.IMG_0073
  2. Although the original house has an indoor flushing toilet, we have built a latrine from bamboo which we ask everyone to use. It uses no water at all and is perfectly sanitary. In the wet season we collect rain water using a very simple system of gutters and pipes. IMG_0062
  3. Constant use of organic material to fertilize and enrich the soil is essential. We use a mixture of rice husks, soil from our worm project (the worms consume manure bought from local families who are still using oxen as a means of making a living), as well as compost from garden waste (leaves etc) and kitchen waste from the house. We also practice a rotation system and plant nitrogen fixing plants such as the marengo tree and plenty of beans! IMG_0066
  4. We have learnt to respond to local conditions – for example for a long time we tried very hard to grow root vegetables such as carrots and beets. But they do not work well in our conditions so we now concentrate on what does well…lettuce, eggplant, okra, tomatoes, spinach, kale, beans…..IMG_0060
  5. We have planted a number of trees on the land. Some are fruit trees (papaya, mandarin, orange, avocado, coconut) and offer food for both humans and birds. Dogs too enjoy a slice of avocado! Others provide shade for the house and resting areas thus eliminating the need for fans in hot weather. And some are specifically for the benefit of birds, both for food and to provide living and nesting space.IMG_0079
  6. We are proud to share this precious piece of land, not only with humans, dogs and cats but with as much wildlife as is possible in a place so close to the town center. We do not allow toxic fumigations to take place, preferring to control the mosquito population through natural means such as spreading lime on the ground. We also try and ensure the survival of natural predators such as spiders, frogs, lizards and bats. We do this by ensuring their food supply and also, where necessary, providing housing for them. When we have a fallen orange tree, which happens from time to time, we leave it on the ground to provide food and cover for lizards etc. Not only does all of this help the veggie production, it also ensure a relaxing and peaceful place in which to work, live and just be!IMG_0068
  7. Over the years we have placed special emphasis on encouraging butterflies and birdlife. The latter has been so successful that it merits a separate post! For the moment, note that the bananas hanging in the aceituna and capulin trees (native trees which provide food for wildlife, including our pair of variegated squirrels) are there, along with seeds and water, to encourage birds. We are proud to say that we now have a large group of red legged honeycreepers who spend a good part of the year with us as well as 25 or so other species.

    The stunning aracari, known here as felices (happy birds!)

    The stunning aracari, known here as felices (happy birds!)

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN VOLUNTEERING WITH US – read the website thoroughly, it will give you a good idea of how we work and your options. Write to us at lamariposaspanishschool06@gmail.com. We will send you a simple form to fill in, telling us your preferences.

Please note – your money also towards maintaining our employment project as well as all of the other environmental and community projects we support.


Trees of Life – Combating deforestation

Jadelina carrying estacas of jinoguabo

Jadelina & Gabriel carrying estacas of jinoguabo

Yesterday I went out to Cañada Honda to see how our tree planting is going. Half of the Mariposa staff were out there – some lugging around what appear to be nothing more than bunches of large sticks……but which are actually “estacas”, branches which grow into trees once planted.  Others carrying what are more obviously young tree saplings in plastic bags. Still others were wielding shovels and planting. Hazel, one of our admin team, planted over 40 trees just in that one morning!! And Guillermina of course also did her bit. The energy and enthusiasm of the team was amazing. We have now planted over 5000 trees, with 5000 more to go.

Guillermina doing her bit!

Guillermina doing her bit!

Gazing out over the ridges, the presence of rain clouds over the wooded bits and nothing but clear sky over the pitaya plantations reinforced our determination. And the New York Times agrees with us!


Luckily, the last week has seen a fairly steady amount of rainfall so most of the plantings are surviving. We have to be careful what we plant where and concentrate on species which we know will do well in this particular environment.

On the way back to La Mariposa for lunch, I spotted some illegal logging on a neighbouring pice of land. I went out to investigate on horseback and we took some photos of the devastation. We informed both the local police and the environmental department at the town hall…we will see what results that brings!

Bare patches being illegally deforested as I write...

Bare patches being illegally deforested as I write…

Close up

Close up

Meanwhile the government of Nicaragua continues to buy more “trees of life” to adorn Managua at night!! It sure is a surreal world we live in….. descarga

Learning to live with emphysema, drought and one more big project…..

Mantled Howler MonkeyJPG

I chose to ignore the diagnosis of mild emphysema. It was not denial – I like to think – rather a conscious, and unregretted, decision to live life as long as possible without the constant worry and pressure of a chronic illness. Two years later, it has progressed to moderate – now, I assiduously follow the advice of my wonderful lung specialist. Though unconvinced that driving through the grime and smog of modern Managua to get to her does not do more lung damage, I always feel much better after a consultation. Marie Elena is a large, buxom woman, ready with an enormous bear hug and her extravagant outfits always impress! Her father is a Palestinian exile, arrived in Nicaragua in the 1950s, married a Nicaraguan. Marie is Catholic but most of her friends are Muslim and one of her favorite fiestas is the feast after Ramadan.  Nicaragua is just so full of constant surprises!

And the medical advice has been pretty effective too. Going to her after a series of problems, a debilitating tiredness all the time, and then a particularly nasty episode – whilst translating on a walk suddenly I just could not breathe……quite scary. Now a mixture of inhalers and nebulizers has stabilized the breathing. The other challenge, of course, is dealing with the emotional impact….I don’t know whether researching on the internet helps or just terrifies!! Marie has had to reassure me more than once that awful internet stories do not necessarily reflect my prognosis. Right now I feel physically good and emotionally calm and focused.

Strangely enough the combination of feeling fit, healthy and not tired (oh what joy!!) has led me down two apparently contradictory paths. Firstly (doctors’ advice but also my own volition) to work less….and I do now spend less hours in the office. My truly amazing group of workers has, almost to a person, responded by being even more committed and helpful. This is especially true of my unbelievably loyal and supportive “admin” team…..it has been an up and down year for many reasons and they have taken over much of my work….but more than that their personal friendship and understanding has more than once brought me close to tears.

So I should be relaxing more and enjoying the sunshine, horse riding more, spending more time with Guillermina and tending my garden. All of which actually I do. But the second path is more one of experiencing, reading, learning, reflecting in a way I have never done before, discussing, teaching a bit, and above all feeling…..about the horrors we are inflicting on this beautiful world which is all we have to call home. Let me be a little more precise. Let’s talk about just one aspect…water.

Living through a drought…. a city girl in the UK, I was barely aware of water and its importance….I just turned on the tap and out it gushed, ready to be turned into a cup of tea or a bubbly bath (I am sure that much has changed in the 10 years I have been away – at least now it would be a shower!!). Where does the water come from? How much is there? How is it replenished? Who else is using it and for what?  Is it being polluted in any way? I would not have known the answers to any of these questions but now I do…..

The water we use at La Mariposa comes from deep municipal wells, water which has been stored for who know how many millennia in an underground aquifer. You don’t have to be an expert to realize that this water needs to be replenished nor to understand what will happen if we just keep on taking, never replacing. Demand increases incessantly…not just from the local population but from massive construction and the demands of sweat shop factories, especially on the southern side of Managua. I admit I have become more than a little obsessed with water…saving rainwater, digging latrines everywhere I can (do not require flushing…I hate with a vengeance the amount of water used to disappear from view our excrement!!), reusing cooking water to water plants, and on and on!!! I try and persuade others to use the latrine, shower less, not wear clean clothes every day (unless actually dirty!!)….but I know I run a risk of becoming very boring indeed. And for Nicaraguans who have been fighting the stereotype of being “unclean” ever since the Spanish conquest, that is a difficult change to make.

Back to the drought, happening in spite of all my best conservation efforts. The Nicaraguan wet season is – should be – May until November. Six months dry summer followed by 6 months wet (daily rain), sometimes stormy, winter. No rain equals no pressure on the aquifer (long term it also means there is no replenishment), therefore ever harder to extract water. So in a normal year, by April after 6 dry months, lower pressure in the aquifer means instead of water coming in twice a week from the wells (we store it in special tanks, often hotel guests have no idea that we do not have constant “on tap” water), delivery goes down to once a week and then even less……at that time of year, we often have to buy in water at a weekly cost of $500 to keep the hotel supplied.

Last year the rains were 3 months late. So the situation described in the previous paragraph was exacerbated. This year they are already 4 months late. ….though we have had maybe half a dozen showers since May…one just two nights ago started at midnight and lasted three glorious hours. I stayed awake the whole time, happy just to listen and smell the moistened earth through my open window……not a good rain by anybody’s standards, but something to hang onto. I now understand why indigenous peoples worship definite (I almost said “concrete” but that is the last thing anyone should worship) entities and not an abstract G/god. Made perfect sense to thank the rain for coming and plead with it to hang around a little longer!

One of my greatest comforts is to just sit in my tiny but lovely garden, carved out of the Mariposas vegetable plot.  This is where the emphysema and the drought cross paths! I am supposed to be chilling out, relaxing but instead I am deciding whether to use precious water on flowering plants or not. The arguments against are obvious. Those in favor not only include my emotional wellbeing, but also the food supply of insects, birds and small reptiles. I note gloomily that the plethora of butterflies and bees which I watched last year have all but disappeared….my colony of blue grey tanagers (only “mine” in the sense that I love them and care for them) is much reduced in numbers and there are far fewer bats around…..on the bright side, some of the frogs are surviving the drought in their specially built pond. So my relaxation time becomes my observing, feeling (sad, worried and then angry) time. Feelings which drive me to read and investigate. The next step is action….what can we do better? For example, we have learnt that the more ground cover we provide and the more nutritious it is, the less water we have to use. We have been putting this into practice for a while with vegetables, this week we will do the same for the flowers.

Blue-gray Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager

I don’t wish to sound overly dramatic but something about being aware of my own mortality makes me more conscious of what is happening around…and it is not a pretty sight. The state of my lungs is not dissimilar from the state of the world around me…..both are being gradually starved of the basic requirments to survive. It is driving me to do as much as possible to save at least little slices of the land and biodiversity.

Hence the current Mariposa project….

La Mariposa (www.mariposaspanishschool.com), in partnership with our newly formed NGO, Asociacioñ Tierra (www.asfltierra.org), is embarking on its biggest and possibly most important project to date. We are hoping to buy over 140 acres of land, Cañada Onda (means Deep Gully), in Palo Solo which is way out on the ridge beyond our Group Study Center. Over half of this land is original forest and we have already started to reforest the rest. This is critical because

  • The area around us is fast becoming a monoculture desert. The ever increasing popularity of exotic fruits in the US and Europe has led to clear cut logging across our municipality. Mostly pineapple and dragonfruit – both of which like pure sunshine, absolutely no trees.
  • 11894302_968272853233721_8382900151564339184_o
  • The massive deforestation is having a negative impact on soil through erosion and the local water supply as well as disappearance of local biodiversity and destruction of habitat for animals and birds including migrants. There are rare nisperal and ceibo trees, several acres of heliconia, different types of fungus, flocks of parakeets visit in the early morning and an ocelot was recently spotted…we are in contact with UNAN (University of Nicaragua) to help with an inventory of species
  • Look at the size of this ceibo...it would be a crime to log it for dragonfruit

    Look at the size of this ceibo…it would be a crime to log it for dragonfruit

  • This land will form a vital part of a biological corridor, linking still forested land on the Pacific side of the Sierras to the Masaya Volcano National Park, allowing animals and birds to move naturally through their habitat, thus helping their chances of survival.
  • The land is on the other side of the ridge from El Nisperal, a nature reserve (and organic, bird-friendly coffee farm (www.nisperal.org)) that is part of the Nicaraguan System of Protected Areas with whom we work closely to augment existing eco systems.  We are both planting trees close to the track dividing us to provide a bridge so howler monkeys who now live in El Nisperal can cross over into Cañada Onda thus doubling their territory.
  • DSC05213
  • As in all of our work, we will involve the community at every step. An NGO, Lone Tree Institute (www.lonetreeinstitute.net), associated with El Nisperal already funds a community library, and educational programs so our focus will be mainly on providing local employment wherever possible and raising incomes through promoting rural eco-tourism – we already offer weekend breaks with horseriding, hiking, bird watching, nighttime animal observation, using experienced local guides.
  • Met this little fellow on our first walk through Canada Onda

    Met this little fellow on our first walk through Canada Onda

  • For 2 years now, our rescued horses have grazed on part of this land. Stabled at the Study Center they have had a daily walk to and from their pasture – tiring especially for the older ones. Now we are renovating a rancho so they will live permanently at Cañada Onda!!
  • Chepe living in his new home

    Chepe living in his new home

  • We will work with AMARTE (an NGO with a long history of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife) to release appropriate wildlife on the land. This may include monkeys, sloths, deer, cats and birds.
  • We are already reforesting and several groups of young environmentalists from all over La Concha have asked to help. We also plan very soon to hold meetings with local small producers of dragonfruit to establish how we can work together.
  • 110

La Mariposa has over 10 years’ experience working in rural, eco based tourism and for the past couple of years we have successfully developed our (relatively tiny!) nature reserve here in urban San Juan.

Our track record of working jointly with communities will ensure that this venture too achieves its goals.

The cost of this land is $97,000 – this is a remarkable bargain (our nature Reserve was the same price but for 12 acres!!!). The reason is location – somewhat remote and not fertile for any crop except dragonfruit.  But perfect for our purposes! The current owners  want it conserved,  for that reason they have given us an extraordinarily reasonable price.

A deposit of $30,000 has been paid (Paulette’s accumulated pension!)

So we are looking to raise $67.000

You can help either through donation or taking part in one of our Mariposa packages.

For US donors opting for a tax-exempt donation, you may give on-line or via check to Lone Tree Institute (501(c)(3) non-profit organization). See www.lonetreeinstitute.net for details on how to donate. Please earmark your donation “For Canada Onda”.OR through paypal on the homepage of our La mariposa website (also tax exempt)… http://www.mariposaspanishschool.com/index.html

“UK tax payers can donate to the special appeal by Sustainability Partners, registered charity no. 1119345, which will increase the value of the donation by 25% through GiftAid. For details see www.sustainability-partners.org.uk “


Eco cookers donated by La Mariposa

Eco cookers donated by La Mariposa

MAS MARIPOSAS ….Announcing that La Mariposa has a sister organization.

Our NGO is in the final stages of its formation -approved by the State of Colorado and now just a short wait for US federal approval.

Our reasons for taking this step (some of you I know think it is long overdue!)  (1) we will have  a legitimate base upon which to fundraise and apply for grants and (2) Paulette will have somewhere to leave La Mariposa in her will, thus ensuring that its operations remain for the benefit of the whole community (and of course Guillermina).

Legally, administratively and financially Mas Mariposas will be a completely separate organization from the business. This means that the Spanish school and hotel will function as normal but instead of using our income to directly fund projects, it will be donated to the NGO. Our 15 or so project workers, for example, will be paid by the NGO.

In practice, of course, we will continue to work very closely together.  The NGO will work with the same kind of community and environmentally based principles as La Mariposa and will look to support already existing projects that spring in one way or another from the community. The principle of not imposing our own ideas or solutions will still be paramount. It will also follow our well tested principles of minimum bureaucracy, maximum effectiveness and maximum local employment. Unlike many NGOs, Mas Mariposas will not be a single issue organization. It is our belief that you cannot tackle problems in isolation (whether skinny street dogs or disabled children without wheelchairs) without addressing the fundamental issues of poverty and environmental degradation.   Obviously La Mariposa will continue to play the major role in offering local employment as well as supporting other employment opportunities such as the women’s cooperative bakery. But clearly the most disadvantaged groups, such as disabled children and their families, need extra and very specific help which Mas Mariposas will continue to provide. The work will stay varied and responsive, the hope being that we will be able to access higher levels of funding than the Mariposa business has been able to provide.

Some examples of our current projects

  • donating eco cookers to the poorest families, at the same time donating tree seedlings
  • Selecting trees from La Mariposa tree nursery to plant out in the communities

    Selecting trees from La Mariposa tree nursery to plant out in the communities

  • assisting with the provision of latrines and water pipes in the poorest barrios
  • Mariposa volunteers laying water pipes with the Aguirre community

    Mariposa volunteers laying water pipes with the Aguirre community

  • supporting disabled children and their families through the Los Pipitos project,
  • Guillermina working on the equino therapy project

    Guillermina working on the equino therapy project

  • rescuing horses and dogs and offering them permanent refuge
  • rescuing wild animals and returning them to the wild
  • Marlon releasing a rare green iguana back into the wild

    Marlon releasing a rare green iguana back into the wild

  • bringing the horse project together with Los Pipitos through offering equino therapy
  • supporting community based out of school projects and reading corners, providing children in some of the poorest barrios with play and learning opportunities
  • Reading corner

    Reading corner

    working with MINED to develop our successful model of in-school support in the most deprived schools

  • working in many different ways to protect and enhance the local environment and involve members of the local community in these efforts – including planting and donating trees and other plants, demonstrating a successful organic gardening model, producing our own compost, using sustainable building methods, recycling trash and grey water, acting to protect wild animals, reptiles, birds, butterflies, bees and other insects….
  • preserving local cultures, for example, through supporting local dance groups and local knowledge of natural medicine
  • Dancing at the Xmas party

    Dancing at the Xmas party

  • supporting local sports leagues in some of the poorest barrios
  • establishing and maintaining a nature reserve, combined with an education aspect for both visitors and local people
  • XS 20141113 butterfly 5a

Bird Watching in Nicaragua and more – trees, butterflies, long legged guinea pigs…..at La Mariposa

Bird Watching at La Mariposa

The stunning aracari, known here as felices (happy birds!)

The stunning aracari, known here as felices (happy birds!)

It seems our efforts over the past few years to protect and enhance our environment are beginning to show results! We have worked hard to look after existing trees, especially in the Nature Reserve, a piece of land purchased with the help of loans and donations from generous Mariposa students in mid-2014. There we built a huge retaining wall of quarried stone and volcanic rock to protect the roots of some large trees, including a beautiful Genizero (Samanea saman) and a Guanacaste (Enterolobium ciclocarpum). A native tree, the Guanacaste is now almost extinct locally as its wood is very popular in furniture making and the demand for “rustic” furniture has exploded with increased tourism. An indigenous word, it means “tree of ears” referring to the shape of the seed. Making the best of the last weeks of the rainy season we planted 2000 seedlings of a wide variety of trees but focusing on rare, native species and what will work to attract and help feed birds, butterflies, other pollinating insects, bats and the few reptiles and mammals who live with us. So as well as planting species such as the Guanacaste, Pochote (Pachira quinata), a tree pollinated by bats, and the magnificent Ceiba (Ceiba pentandra)  – also known as the cotton tree as its fluffy white fruit fibers were once used to stuff pillows and mattresses (kapok) and whose flowers provide food for birds, bees, beetles and squirrels, we also included lots of fruit trees and other food producing species such as Tempisque (Sideroxylon capirii), super popular with parakeets. Sadly, I will not be alive to see these trees reach their full height but I hope others enjoy them and they continue to sustain lots of wildlife!

One of the genizero trees at the reserve, covered in orchids and bromeliads

One of the genizero trees at the reserve, covered in orchids and bromeliads

The madero tree, its pink flowers are food for birds and iguana

The madero tree, its pink flowers are food for birds and iguana

At the vegetable farm (where I have my small straw house) we have a very small piece of land but even so we have made it a haven for the local birdlife. Planting a Capulin (Muntingia calabura) tree which seems to produce small red seeds almost year round was a major success, the one just outside my patio is constantly full of Saltadors, Blue-grey Tanagers , Hoffmans Woodpeckers, Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, Motmots (known here as the Guardabarranco, it is the national bird and is so named as it builds its nests in banks – barrancos – of earth) and Orioles, both migrant Orchard and Northern Orioles and our own resident Spot-Breasted family. All munching away on the copious harvest of the Capulin!

The beautiful blue grey tanager, one of our breeding residents

The beautiful blue grey tanager, one of our breeding residents

Another common Mariposa resident

Another common Mariposa resident

The glorious rose breasted grosbeak, loves to feed on the capulin. A welcome migrant.

The glorious rose breasted grosbeak, loves to feed on the capulin. A welcome migrant.

Also present in large numbers are the Clay-Coloured Robins; a plain looking bird but, a member of the thrush family, a delightful songster especially at the end of the dry season. Nicaraguans will tell you they sing to call in the rains. The local name is Zinzontle which is Nahuatl and means “bird of many songs”. Furthermore, our Capulin tree is festooned with bunches of bananas, a feeding tray for seeds and fruit and an ingeniously designed drinking bowl. Carlos and Noel scramble up the tree every day to replenish supplies!! We also provide feeding points on our other three pieces of land and do not forget to put some lower down for ground feeding birds and animals (careful of course to avoid potential harm from our rescued cats).

Food and water

Food and water

The planting of flowers, as well as just being pretty, also help to bring in insects, including many varieties of butterfly. Mostly just through observation, we are learning which flowers are good for butterflies (some species will go to a variety of flowers but others are more fussy) and whenever we spot anything on sale at the viveros in Catarina, stop and buy whatever we can. We also ask students to bring us in seeds – the Butterfly Weed (Viborana) for example is not at all common here but is important for the going extinct monarch butterfly as well as others. It has been hard to persuade the gardeners at La Mariposa that “weeds” such as the wild zinnia (Tithonia rotundifolia) provide flowers which attract butterflies and seeds which feed birds. Many gardeners here, just as in the US, want to see blocks of strong color (bougainvillea) and fancy flowers (double and triple zinnia) which do not do much for butterflies or hummingbirds! One of my favorite pleasures is to watch, early in the morning, Blue-Black Grassquits and a Painted Bunting hopping about amongst the zinnias and daisies and then in the sun of midday, butterflies making the most of the same plants!

A Painted Peacock in the garden

A Painted Peacock in the garden

XS 20141113 butterfly 5a

On 2nd January 2015 we did our first ever bird count (thanks to Sally Gladstone for persuading us and telling us how to go about it and of course to our intrepid bird guide, Alejandro – more of him later) and the outcome was quite astonishing to me at least (please do not forget I knew nothing about trees or birds or anything much really….learning on the job!!).  We counted, spending roughly 2 hours in each location, 30 species at the nature reserve, 25 at the farm and 38 at La Mariposa itself. Sally checked the list and gave me some interesting information. The Red Legged Honeycreeper, of which we have a family group at the farm (they just love the bananas!) were not seen at any of the other 5 locations where the count was carried out. We have three different kinds of Hawk, one of which, the Red-tailed, is quite rare. I have a real soft spot for the Roadside Hawk in the Mariposa grounds as we released one here some years ago and it is almost certainly the same one or maybe a descendent; I saw 3 together a couple of years ago. I am so happy they survive because their habit of eating young chickens does not make them too popular!! Also unusual is the Golden Winged Warbler; the little fellow from Tennessee is, on the other hand, very abundant. Another of my personal favorites is the groups of Parakeets (both Pacific and Orange-Fronted) who arrive in groups of 10 or so to feed at the reserve. It is not that easy now to see them in the wild as opposed to in small cages….actually, I love them all and am so glad that we still have birds to feed and preserve. See below for the full list.



Inevitably it is not all good news! Our neighbors at La Mariposa are busy, as I write, hacking vegetation to bits in order to plant citric trees.

Loss of habitat

Loss of habitat next door

This means, specifically, loss of habitat for a group of Long Tailed Manakins who used to live amongst their coffee bushes and is a threat to the nests of the guatusas (long legged guinea pigs who live here in spite of sharing their territory with 12 dogs!!). The fact that the land is now much more open also makes them more vulnerable to being hunted. The birds we are helping by leaving more of our land untouched and putting out extra food. We are investigating the possibilities of capturing the guatusas and taking them down to the reserve where there is far more space for them to hopefully live safely.

Night shot of gustusas feedeing on bananas

Night shot of gustusas feedeing on bananas

La Mariposa, together with Alejandro who is a recognsed bird expert here in Nicaragua, are now incorporating bird watching walks into our monthly program. Alejandro will also offer tours further afield though these will be at additional cost to our package prices. And in the summer of 2015 we will have an eco built cabin in the reserve so bird fans can stay on location to see some of the best and rarest! His facebook is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Birding-Nicaragua-Travels/525230747587641

Thanks to John Kraijenbrink for the butterfly and some bird photos, Ann Tagawa for bird photos and Phil Careless for the nighttime guatusa! Also thanks to sally and Alejandro for getting me interetsde in birds. And to Ismael for getting the trees planted!!

Gray Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Red-billed Pigeon 8
White-winged Dove 2
Orange-fronted Parakeet 9
Pacific Parakeet 10
Squirrel Cuckoo 1
Cinnamon Hummingbird 2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 2
Canivet’s Emerald 1
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker 5
Great Kiskadee 2
Boat-billed Flycatcher 1
Yellow Warbler 4
Tennessee Warbler 1
Blue-gray Tanager 1
White-throated Magpie-Jay 1
Rufous-naped Wren 3
Plain Wren 2
Clay-colored Robin 5
Blue-black Grassquit 4
Olive Sparrow 1
Black-headed Saltator 2
Greyish Saltator 3
Western Tanager 1
Great-tailed Grackle 4
Spot-breasted Oriole 2
Orchard Oriole 1
Northern Oriole 1
Turkey Vulture 1
Red-Billed Pigeon 1
White-winged Dove 5
Inca Dove 1
Cinnamon Hummingbird 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Turqoise-browed Motmot 1
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker 2
Barred Antshrike 1
Tropical Kingbird 1
Yellow Warbler 3
Tennessee Warbler 6
Blue-gray Tanager 4
Red-legged Honeycreeper 1
Black-headed Saltator 1
Grayish Saltator 3
Buff-throated Saltator 2
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 4
Painted Bunting 1
Western Tanager 1
Spot-breasted Oriole 2
Northern Oriole 3
Melodious Blackbird 1
Rufous-naped Wren 4
Clay-colored Robin 4
Turkey Vulture 6
Roadside Hawk 1
Red-billed Pigeon 2
White-tipped Dove 2
Ruddy Ground-Dove 2
Squirrel Cuckoo 1
Cinnamon Hummingbird 3
Steely-vented Hummingbird 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Canivet’s Emerald 1
Plain-capped Starthroat 1
Turquoise-browed Motmot 3
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker 2
Yellow-bellied Elaenia 1
Dusky-capped Flycatcher 1
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Great Kiskadee 1
Social Flycatcher 1
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 1
Long-tailed Manakin 1
Yellow Warbler 3
Chesnut-sided Warbler 1
Magnolia Warbler 1
American Redstart 3
Rufous-capped Warbler 1
Tennessee Warbler 20
Golden-winged Warbler 1
Blue-gray Tanager 6
Rufous-and-White Wren 1
Plain Wren 2
Clay-colored Robin 9
Blue-black Grassquit 1
Grayish Saltator 1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 4
Western Tanager 1
Spot-breasted Oriole 1
Orchard Oriole 5
Northern Oriole 2

Happy Xmas and an activist New Year from La Mariposa and Paulette


Dear all

A brief note to wish all of our students and supporters a Happy Xmas and a Great New year.  And to give an update on where la Mariposa is up to. Plus a little bit of personal stuff!

2014 has, on the whole, been a very good year for La Mariposa. A major development has been our purchase of a piece of land right in the center of the pueblo but ideal for setting up a small  nature reserve which is what we have spent the last 5 months working hard on. The land has some beautiful enormous trees, covered in bromeliads and orchids (flowering now!) as well as plenty of good coffee. With the help of numerous volunteers, we have planted a few thousand more trees, created a butterfly garden by planting whatever flowers we can get our hands on, building a frog pond, bat boxes, a dual purpose latrine (use number one is obvious, the other is collecting urine for compost!!!) and in Jan we start building the first straw build cabin there.  We also use the land as a base for some of our community projects…especially re afforestation and the eco cooker project (we have so far donated, no cost, no strings attached, some 200 eco cookers to the poorest families in the poorest communities with the hope that their use will reduce firewood consumption. And thus reduce the felling of trees around here which in general, as everywhere, goes on at an alarming rate. Meyvi, the worker employed on this project visits all of the families afterwards to ensure they are being used correctly. Success rate so far is about 95%!! A personal project is my “heritage” chicken project!! Yes, I have finally lost my marbles. Actually they are lovely. In contrast to the dreadful explosion of factory farmed chickens in Nicaragua, these are chickens of varied breeds (some have no feathers on their necks and heads, others have feathers on their legs which look like trendy boots and still others have their feathers ruffled up the wrong way!!) – they get on reasonably well with yet another bunch of rescued dogs.  I have become a bit of a bird fanatic in my dotage so we now have bird feeders (mostly bananas) everywhere and they are attracting a wide range of birds both resident and migrant! Seeing a couple of aricaris (like toucans only smaller) feeding from a bunch of bananas quite makes the day!! I am really excited that this year we are going to do a bird count on our land, together with some of the other conservationists nearby.

Eco cookers donated by La Mariposa

Eco cookers donated by La Mariposa

Linked in with the Nature Reserve is our new program of rural tourism. The idea is to offer an alternative set of afternoon/weekend activities in some of the poorest communities close to us. I was truly shocked to discover quire recently that there are still families with no running water, no sanitation and no electricity and remote from any school! But they have the great advantage of being situated close to the Masaya Volcano national park with spectacular views over the volcano, great birds and wildlife – all in all excellent tourist potential!  The new program will be a mix of horse riding and hiking the trails, bird and animals watching (we are building a special observation hide), visiting and talking to local families, learning about their history, some of the local myths and legends. Agriculture around here is interesting too – there are small scale coffee and tobacco farms where students can take part in the harvest as well as pineapple, pitaya, fruit trees of all varieties, corn, beans, squash…….some of it is organic and some not. Students can learn a lot about environmental issues around here, most of which of course are not just relevant here but globally. One of these communities, Venecia, is situated on the shores of a stunning, but hugely polluted, crater lake. We are of course doing a lot of project work in these communities such as building latrines (for the use of the community and visitors), funding a teacher to help the kids read and write in the community of Los Aguirres, helping with laying water pipes, regular clean ups of the lake, reforestation and so on. It is a demanding project but an exciting one and we are hoping to get the first takers for the new program in the New Year.

Trekking the rim of the Masaya volcano and visting indigenous communities along the way

Trekking the rim of the Masaya volcano and visting indigenous communities along the way

Aside from this project, we currently support around 15 projects in La Concha generally. Several of them are children’s projects…reading corners, out of school clubs, community centers and support units within schools. We are even funding a night guard for a school where there are no resources to pay for one. Our work with Los Pipitos, a project for disabled kids, has really taken off this year. We now employ a physical therapist and, thanks to a generous grant from Peaceworks, we have been able to put in electricity and furbish a therapy room. For the past few months Wednesday afternoons have been horse therapy afternoons. We simply brought together two projects…the rescued horses (of which we now have nearly 20) and the disabled kids. They love it and we now have a horse and cart to take the kids who cannot sit on a horse. A huge benefit of this has been it gives Guillermina a job to do which uses her strengths; she enjoys herself enormously and has just expanded her repertoire to organizing a football team for the kids twice a week.

Life however is not all work and I am increasingly taking time out for myself and Guillermina. This is helped greatly by the new team that I now have around me! For those of you who have been here you may well remember Marlin, now the head of the Spanish school and doing an excellent job. I never thought I could find someone as good as Bergman (his leaving was pretty horrible, not suitable material for a Xmas letter!!!) but Marlin is good at the job and also honest and communicative. He really enjoys helping with the projects. Then Richard was promoted to run the activity program…also a runaway success. We have a new admin worker and accountant, Hazel who is also terrific and of course Rosa continues as head accountant though she will leave us for a while in Jan to have a baby. Chester now heads up the administrative team and the interns. So I am surrounded by wonderful, competent young people who really go out of their way to be supportive and involved. The rest of the staff group has been pretty much unchanged for some time…Ismael still runs everything; Emilia heads up the kitchen….we now employ 60 people, possibly the achievement of which I am most proud! Management meetings are great fun!

What this means for me is I can take more time off. A few months ago Guillermina and I moved out of La Mariposa where we have lived for some 8 years and into our little hobbit house on the farm. The house is built mainly out of straw with a tiled roof, lots of patios and a garden that I just love.  Much to my surprise, Guillermina enjoys being there with me…we potter about, she helps feed the rescued dogs and cats (too many!) and put out food for the birds. I listen to music and read a lot, I am trying to read more and more in Spanish. We have planted a flower garden that is attracting butterflies, special trees to help bees and other insects. Apart from the odd scorpion, all life is welcome! It is a great getaway for me.


It is hard to leave the house now but I still want to travel some more in Nicaragua. Especially because I have become more and more caught up in environmental issues and I want to go see first-hand what is happening in the areas where campesinos (of course not the rich!) are already being forced off their land to make way for the canal, the zona libre, a tourist complex and I dread to think what else. I have this year visited Bosawas, the biggest stretch of rainforest in Central America but rapidly disappearing. I saw part of it burning– huge, magnificent trees being burnt to make way for yet more cattle ranches – and now the canal. But I have written blogs on these, please read them because these are global issues not just local Nicaraguan ones!



This year I got my Nicaraguan citizenship which means I can happily start to get involved in some form of environmental activism: that is my goal for 2015!! I can be sent to prison but I cannot be deported!!


Well I think that is about it!!

We wish you a happy holiday and a globally aware New Year!

Paulette, Guillermina and La Mariposa team.


Nicaraguan Canal….connections and questions by Paulette Goudge


Homosapiens is the only species to be progressively destroying its home, the planet, not only through climate change, pollution, deforestation, poisoning our oceans and soils but also through our addiction to the big project.  We now know, beyond doubt, that such a toxic combination could very easily render the planet uninhabitable within the lifetime of our grandchildren and yet we continue with our addiction to the grandiose, the fast, and the “glamorous” without apparently making any connections! The human race is increasingly addicted to big projects….wherever one looks …the mining industry, the agriculture industry, the building industry, methods of communication and even the food on our plate – it is all about doing things on a bigger and bigger scale and as fast as possible. Transport, both of people and things, is no exception. This all takes a huge toll on the planet, using ever scarcer resources and adding accumulatively to the forces of destruction.

I, for one, have a lot more questions than answers about the proposed canal in Nicaragua. Most of the scientists, economists, politicians, commentators seem to have answers but they also have their own agendas. That is the way of the world; no one is “objective”. The problem is they are mostly less than honest about what those agendas are. I will come clean about mine. I would like to preserve as much of the environment as possible for the sake of future generations and because I hate to see Nicaragua taking the same destructive path that my own country of origin (the UK; I am now a Nicaraguan citizen. I have not left Nicaragua in nearly 10 years) has long since embarked upon. Also these issues are global issues. We all have a responsibility as global citizens to think them through and act. I also care about poverty; a quick glance at our website will offer plenty of evidence of how La Mariposa has struggled to provide local people with sustainable employment as well as looking for other ways to help the poor. For the record, I am a long term supporter of the Sandinista government though not uncritical.

Nicaragua is obviously not alone in its developing obsession with big projects. We are just going along with the rest of the world. Nicaragua does not need a canal. But apparently the rest of the world “needs” one. Why? Because ships are being built that cannot go through the existing one.  Hold on a minute!  Why do we “need” such enormous (and presumably faster) ships? The answer is that we not need them. Some of us want them – to carry essentially two things – oil and plastic things from one side of the world to the other. How can this be justified, in the era of climate change and destruction of the oceans? How many people really “need” more plastic baubles and cheap T shirts (now also mostly made of plastic)?

The redundancy of oil is particularly acute in the case of Nicaragua as the majority of its energy is already being produced by renewable sources. So why on earth are we currently building, and at the most incredible speed (working round the clock), the biggest oil refinery in Central America? The practical answer is to process Venezuelan oil but there is no answer to the moral question …..why an oil refinery when Nicaragua plainly does not need the oil, except to fuel the increasing number of outsize vehicles,  and the world in general needs to be moving away from dependency on oil?

What part the canal will play in the Chinese challenge to US world hegemony remains to be seen.  I do not know if there is any agreement on whose navy gets to use the canal, maybe I just missed it.  Protestations of Nicaraguan “sovereignty” ring hollow when one considers how little effect Nicaraguan laws, especially in relation to the environment, have on the operation of internationally controlled zona francas. Mucho menos, even less will they be in control, I suspect in the case of the canal. Who, it must be asked, will be policing the inevitable secure zone alongside the canal? Again maybe I just missed this information.

The major promised benefit for ordinary Nicaraguans focuses on jobs as the main route to poverty alleviation. However, Xang Jing is undoubtedly a good businessman (at least one assumes he is or he would not be where he is now) and good businessmen, in this capitalist world of ours, do not get to be rich and successful worrying themselves about poverty or environmental issues. On the contrary. Big projects do not, globally speaking, have a good track record in alleviating poverty. Of course there will be jobs on the construction though I imagine, as any good capitalist would, Xang Jing will keep costs, including wages, as low as possible. Construction work is, by definition, short-lived – though I accept there is bound to be another big project following on for some workers to move on to! How many jobs is also an interesting question…I would guess that the most intensive phase will be at the beginning (building the camps and road access) but surely the bulk of the excavation will be done by massive machines and not by people. Further I suspect that the top best paid jobs will not go to Nicaraguans at all. Any more than is the case with any foreign run outfit, anywhere in the world.

There are two aspects to reducing poverty. The first is a sustainable, reasonable income, which the canal will not provide. The second factor is how that income is spent. A family may have a “reasonable” income, say, with a member employed in a zona franca. But if she suffers from cancer as a result of working in a place where she is constantly breathing in small textile fibers that float in the air – then most of that income has to be spent on medicines (most are not covered by social security). Industrialized agriculture, mining, construction – especially in impoverished countries – all take their toll largely because “good businessmen” put profits before the lives and health of their workers.  This adds to poverty.

Poverty is not just about money. The basics that we need (need as opposed to want) to live are air, water and food. Nicaraguans will not be helped to access any of these by a canal. But they may all be adversely affected. I imagine a fair amount of cement will be used in the construction – cement is Nicaragua’s single most polluting industry.  Plus the loss of trees (it is not relevant whether they are in a national park or someone’s back yard) will both add to the carbon dioxide in the air (increasing global warming) and reduce the amount of oxygen.

Water….where is the water in the canal going to come from?  And the damage to the potential drinking water of Lago Cocibolca is incalculable. I live in the meseta of La Concepcioñ, our water comes from an underground aquifer. We also supply much of the new (big) constructions along the Carreterra Masaya.  I asked an ENACAL official what happens when it runs out, as it will. I have not received an answer.

The issue of food security in Nicaragua is a disgrace. An incredibly fertile country, we should be able to produce all our food requirements easily. But instead it is easier to buy US rice in the local markets than home grown. Why? Partly because of unfair subsidies to US farmers but also because so much of the land here is used (again by good businessmen) to grow export crops for profit.  A large percentage of land is given over to coffee, sugar, tobacco which (when you think about it) are simply drugs for Western consumers. These products, together with the zona franca output (mostly clothes in the case of Nicaragua), are sold as cheaply as possible to maintain demand. So profits have to be at the expense of paying the workers low wages, often just above “extreme poverty” level.  More and more land is being used and forests felled to supply the hamburger market with beef. Cows, incidentally, also contribute their fair share to global warming just by existing as they emit so much methane gas! The canal will aggravate this dire situation by encouraging the export of more and more, faster and faster!

Importing more and more plastic baubles and cheap T shirts is not the answer to poverty. People are increasingly pressured to buy trash (just go look see what is on sale in your local market) which is deliberately designed to last for the shortest possible time. So people have to buy more. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty but, of course, ensures good profits.

Furthermore, the talk about poverty reduction through job creation also ignores the jobs and productive land that will be lost. Outside Brito, the first eviction notices have been served and people are not being offered the market value of their land. I think many of us would resist being thrown out of our houses and lands for the sake of the greater good! But it is always so much easier to bully the poor. And where are the dispossessed to go?

The effect of the canal on the existing tourist industry can only be imagined.  It will take just one oil spill (and please do not tell me this cannot happen…human error is always a factor even in the grandest projects) to ruin the southern shores of Omatepe (what value then being an international biosphere reserve?) and the shores of Lago Cocibolca. Should the oil reach the islands and beach of Granada??….that is the direction the current flows and that is where most of the trash ends up. The southern part of the Pacific coast will no longer offer amazing sunset views and surfing paradises as it will become a traffic jam for barges and ships waiting their turn to enter the canal. Plus more oil spills – most oil spills at sea are not the major Exxon disasters but merely ships cleaning out their tanks and dumping their waste whist waiting about. This will accumulatively have a dire impact on Nicaragua’s reputation as a relatively unspoiled tourist destination. Precisely what attracts most visitors. Many community and environmental based tourist organizations could be hit hard. With the loss of more jobs! Building a major tourist complex alongside the canal (another splendidly grand project for sure!!) will not address these problems.  Especially as the probability is that such a complex would be largely foreign owned and when that happens the profits (for example of the Hilton hotels) do not stay to be invested in Nicaragua……and tourist complexes do not in general have  a strong record of concern for the community or environment .

I have personally been “informed” by an INTUR official that the number of tourists in Nicaragua will go up exponentially thanks to the canal. I just do not see this and I have been working in tourism for the past 10 years. Why would anyone come to see a sea level canal? The Panama Canal is surely more interesting with its lock systems. Maybe just because it is bigger….but this has limited attraction I would argue.

So far I have considered the environment in terms of how it is essential just to ensure human existence. But of course there is a much deeper significance. Biodiversity keeps us healthy. So do clean air, soils and water. But to my mind at least we are not the only species that has a god given right to live on the planet, though I have heard government officials argue that what is put on this planet is here just for our use. The fact that nature (in its many forms…trees, plants, wild animals, birds insects) has been ruined does not mean that we should go on trashing it!! This too is an argument I have heard several times….well, Nicaragua is now so deforested that what does it matter if we fell more  trees and replace them with various designs of concrete! This is OUR HOME!!! If your home has a leaking roof does that mean you trash the rest of it? The usual response would be to repair it…….and repairing at least some of our environmental damage would provide jobs…..

A final point on poverty reduction and environmental protection.  One of the most impressive aspects of the current government has been precisely its poverty reduction strategies which have had an observable impact on extreme, especially rural, poverty. How did they do this. With small, local schemes…such as micro loans to small businesses (bicycle repair shops and the like) and producers, housing and roofing projects, ensuring every schoolchild gets a daily meal. That is what works. This approach has worked in the experience of creating and sustaining jobs at La Mariposa.

But the most important change towards reducing poverty and, at the same time, helping the environment is for Westerners especially to consume less (the USA has 5% of the world population but consumes 25% of its resources) and pay a fair price, incorporating the true cost of the product, whether it be a pair of jeans made in Nicaragua, coffee or rum.

A couple of last points….something that was apparently not thought about before work started on the Panama Canal. Where will all the excavated soil go? I cannot even contemplate what might happen should there be a major earthquake….it would be good to see the disaster plans.

The risks of this project are too enormous, both for Nicaraguans and in the context of what is happening globally. I, for one, will be doing whatever possible to oppose it.