La Mariposa Sustainable Tourism

La Mariposa is embarking on a whole new set of projects, working closely with several very poor rural communities, with the focus of sustainable tourism benefiting directly those communitiesLas Conchitas (3)

The barrios we are working with form a semi-circle around the rim of the Masaya Volcano (the barrios of Panama, Camille Ortega, Las Sabinitas, Arenal, El Pochote, Venecia). These are the communities to the right of the land (marked in orange in the map above). The idea is to try to combine eco tourist initiatives specifically designed to work towards alleviating the worst poverty whilst at the same time offering incentives to community members to help us preserve and improve the environment. We have already had several community meetings (using the new land as a  base to organise and a meeting area) and it is already clear that local people are very worried about the effects of the lack of rain. We have had almost nothing in the first 3 months of a 6 month-long rainy season and this of course follows a 6 month dry season.  It is the worst drought since 1976.  Nearly everybody who has come to the meetings has lost one crop of beans and had a much reduced corn harvest (in other parts of Nicaragua cattle are dying of thirst and hunger). And these are people who live on the economic margins, for whom losing a  crop of beans is the difference between eating and not eating. It also means there are no seeds to plant the next time around.  What is remarkable is the level of understanding and discussion that of course these problems are the result of climate change and the situation is only going to get worse in years to come. One person commented to me that “rich people are not going to help us so we have to see what we can do”.

Beans ready to harvest in Camille Ortega...but there is less than one third of a normal crop

Beans ready to harvest in Camille Ortega…but there is less than one third of a normal crop

A major issue we will have to confront is the current devastation in the Masaya Volcano National Park, right on our doorstep.  The park was badly affected by fire a year ago, even though it is supposedly the most protected piece of land in Nicaragua. Strong rumours suggest the fire was deliberately set in order to allow for the development of various mega tourist attractions, which are now in their beginning stages, with backing from the European Union and Luxembourg Aid. The park has suffered from many unconstitutional activities including the organised cutting of precious woods, the extracting of water from the laguna in order to assist local road building and the poaching of rare animal wildlife ( a group of white faced monkeys seems to have completely disappeared). Firewood is taken out by the weekly truck load by commercial sellers as well as local people using it to cook. A current plan is to construct a hotel and various roads within the park boundary (also against the park constitution). Apart from providing a minimum number of low paid jobs, the benefit to the local communities will be derisory. But the damage to a precious nature reserve (the forest is – or was – Pacific dry tropical forest of which only 2% of the original remains) will be irremediable.

Middle left of the photo is a big bare patch...this is where the fire burnt off original Pacific dry tropical forest (25% of the park was affected). Still visible a year later.

Middle left of the photo is a big bare patch…this is where the fire burnt off original Pacific dry tropical forest (25% of the park was affected). Still visible a year later.

This is a guanacaste logged for precious wood within the borders of the national park (photo taken by me!)

This is a guanacaste logged for precious wood within the borders of the national park (photo taken by me! in May 2013)

We cannot work with the authorities to improve this dire state of affairs (we have tried and failed) so we are embarking on, in conjunction with members of the communities, an exciting though demanding combination of the following –

  • Establishing a rural tourism initiative through local homestays, volunteer work in local schools and in the campo and learning Spanish. There will also be a camping option for students and guests. Combined with local activities such as providing local guides for horse riding, bird watching, and hiking. The aim is to provide as much local sustainable employment as possible and therefore income directly into the communities  (very much along the model successfully used to date by La Mariposa).
  • Hand in hand with the above we would like to establish programs working in environmental conservation and improvement. We have already established a scheme whereby over a hundred of the poorest families have been provided with eco cookers, which use 50% of the amount of firewood used in traditional open fires and are also much healthier as they emit far less smoke.
    The info on the eco cooker - given to representatives of each of the communities along with a demonstartion.

    Info on the eco cooker – given to community representatives at the demonstration.

    The photos below show Marisol, from Coci Nica, who gave the demonstration and Carlos, from the Los Aguirres section of Camille Ortega who is walking slowly towards the cooker telling everyone that it is amazing, he can feel no heat at all coming from it! The second pic is of cookers about to be carried away to their new homes!

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  • We recently helped to install running water for several families in one of the poorest neighborhoods (Los Aguirres)- several Mariposa volunteers really enjoyed working hard on this project together with people from the beneficiary houses. More than one volunteer commented that “it is amazing how kind these poor people are – they kept offering and insisting that we take food and drinks from their houses”.
  • Volunteers and local people digging the channel for the  water pipes

    Volunteers and local people digging the channel for the water pipes

  • Future plans include providing solar panels and helping dig latrines.
  • One of the families who will benefit from a latrine.

    One of the families who will benefit from a latrine.

  • We are not asking for payment in any shape or form – but what we are asking of local people is that they help us with re forestation projects and we have already, to this end, donated/planted some 1,300 forest trees in the area. The Mariposa tree nursery has a few more thousand to donate and we are actively looking for sources of precious and rare trees. Future initiatives will include working towards eliminating chemical pesticides in the area.
  • 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

    School kids involved too.

    School kids involved too.

  • On the new land itself, plans are progressing to build a butterfly house to raise and release local species of butterfly, digging of  a frog pond starts this week,  actually two ponds linked by a running stream to encourage other wildlife especially dragonflies (powered by a solar pump). And of course plants  and trees(at present we are concentrating on those which attract butterflies and birds, especially the local groups of parakeets….we have had groups of over 30 feeding regularly on our fruit and seed trees) are being continually planted (though this is hindered by lack of rain). Plans for a bee project are in the initial stages.The aim is that these developments will attract more tourists to this area, some of whom might wish to stay in the communities and learn more about life here as well as the flora and fauna. Of course it will also be a wonderful resource for local people and Mariposa students to visit and enjoy.
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    This is the now almost extinct cocobola tree, we ahve planted two on the new land. Also known as rosewood, it has been mercilessly exploited for musical instruments and “fine” furniture

    If you look carefully you can see the BAT BOX!!

    If you look carefully you can see the BAT BOX!!

    Digging the frog pond...

    Digging the frog ponds…

    Nicaraguas national bird.....the guardabarranco. Alreday there are several living on the new land.

    Nicaraguas national bird…..the guardabarranco. Already there are several living on the new land.

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Forest Fire at Masaya Volcano National Park, by volunteers Dina and Colin

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Colin and I arrive at Masaya Volcano National Park three days after the forest fire to find the ground still smoking hot. Roughly 3 sq km, almost 5% of the park, was lost during this forest fire, the largest in the history of the park. Charred black earth stretches out from the crater, interrupted only by the white ash piles of what were recently plants and trees.

Our courageous park guide leads us deeper into the burn. First we pass only scorched stumps, but soon we begin to see trees with healthy, green crowns. However, we soon lose hope for these trees’ recovery, once our guide digs into the earth to reveal the burnt root systems. These trees are the standing dead. Without roots, these trees will soon wither and die. Their loss will be felt most directly by the park’s many animals that depend on these trees for habitat and food. More subtly, the entire forest will be hurt by the absence of the key ecosystem services provided by these trees such as erosion prevention. Healthy roots are the glue that holds nutrients and seeds in the soil to nourish the next generation of plants. Without roots, all of the soil’s nutrients and seeds will be washed away during the coming rainy season. The ecosystem will have to start from scratch, awaiting brave, pioneering seeds to float in and take hold.

The 17 park rangers and one hundred volunteers, fought tenaciously to limit the damage. They fought the fire entirely by hand with water containers on their backs and shovels in their hands. Our guide leads us down a wide track dug in a mere hours to hold back the flames. Days later, park guides are still taking 12 hour shifts walking the path to guard against new fires, flaming up from underground. Before we continue walking, our guide stoops to deepen a trench against this eventuality.

This ecosystem well deserves the valiant efforts of the park guards and volunteers. Born of volcanic rock, this unique tropical dry forest developed over centuries. The first arrivals on the lunar landscape were lichens, which slowly and surely decomposed the rock to create little pockets of soil where the first seeds could take hold. As plants grow and die, they enrich the soil and increase water retention. Eventually, trees can take hold, creating shade and habitat, which animals soon discover. In addition to being unique, Masaya national park cradles an abundance of life including white-face and howler monkeys, iguanas, deer, birds,and bats. The park boast 40 species of mammals, 29 species of snakes, 200 species of butterflies, 93 species of birds (20 migratory), and 500 species of plants. In the lava tunnels near the crater, over 25,000 bats of five different species roost each day to pour forth as a surreal wind at sunset.

Some species will be hit harder by the fire than others. Three of the species most harmed by the fire are Chocoyos (beautiful green parakeets), iguanas, and armadillos. The park’s chocoyos are well known for nesting in steep and sulphuric slopes of the active craters to avoid predators. During the day, they venture out of this wasteland to seek food in the verdant forest, where their striking green feathers provide the perfect camouflage. However as they fly over the burnt, black forest, they are easily spotted by predators. The iguanas will be heavily impacted because the fire struck during their reproductive season and their eggs will be easily visible to poachers and predators in the burn. Additionally, many of the yellow oleanders the iguanas prefer to eat were destroyed in the fire. The armadillos were most directly impacted during the fire itself, unable to flee the smoke quickly enough.

Despite many casualties of the fire, we still find many signs of life. Some trees have a white, milky sap that renders them resistant to the fire. Colin spots a lizard savoring his freshly caught breakfast on a burnt tree stump. Birds call from above. With the coming rains, this area will soon be covered in grass. No one knows how long it will take for this ecosystem to return to what it once was, but life will continue here.

Later during our visit, we hop in the back of a pick up to get a ride from some rangers up to the top of the ridge to better view the extent of the fire damage. The road cuts starkly between yellow grassland and incinerated earth. Along this path, rangers held the line preventing the fire from entering the rich and verdant Masaya coldera that has taken hundreds of years to develop into a cradle of life.

From the top of the ridge, we spot some smoke, not from a forest fire, but part of the nearby community in the park. Many people in the community are dependent on local wood for their cook fires. However, the wood in the park is protected from collection. Some community members frustrated with the prohibition and seeking a means to communicate their need for this basic necessity are believed to be behind some of the recent fires. Paulette and the Mariposa hope to identify the families most dependent on the wood and raise funds to buy them eco-cookers, which require less wood to burn. In the future she also hopes to employ local people in sustainable tourism projects around the park to mutually benefit the community and the natural treasures of the park.

We thank our guides and finish our tour beneath the cross above the Santiago Crater. The cross was originally placed there by the Spanish to prevent the devil from crossing out of what was believed to be a gate to hell. Looking at the cross now, I consider all of the impossible things humans have believed can be easily controlled such as volcanos and devils with a cross. On the flip side though there are such small actions we can take to prevent catastrophic damage. Providing eco-cookers and tourism training can help turn the tide in protecting this ecosystem and world heritage site for future generations. I wish Paulette buckets of success with this project and I will be sure to follow its progress in the future!

We arrive at the burn to find the ground still smoking hot.

Our guide digs into the earth to show us how the far spread under the earth.

We head deeper into the burn where some trees are still intact.

Close up of desiccated leaves.

Charred trees.

A nest in still green crowns.

The park guards and volunteers rapidly cleared this path to prevent the fire from spreading further.

Seeds in a scorched tree.

Seeds like the one above will be washed away during the coming rainy season.

Snake bones found in the burn.

Signs of life in the burn! A lizard enjoying breakfast.

This type of tree has some fire resistance thanks to its milky sap.

A shot of the area worst hit.

The grassy area above burned in a fire last year and gives us an idea of what we would expect to find in the burnt area next year.

The yellow oleander that iguanas prefer to eat.

Here the volunteers and park guards held the line and fought the fire back.

We stop at the top of the ridge for a better view and to take some notes.

Big picture view of the damage framed by one live and one dead tree.

Camouflage!

A ranger indicates smoke near a community.

Heading up to the cross.

Dog Clinic day

Every so often Ruth, the senior Mariposa intern who has been with us a year now, collects up any unspayed female dogs she can find and heads off to Granada to a vetinary clinic. She comes home dirty, somewhat smelly and grinning from ear to ear!! This is her account….

PS One of the future dreams of the Mariposa is to accomodate brigades of vets in our new study centre so if anyone reading this has any ideas, please get in touch!!!

RUTH’S ACCOUNT….

Every now and then La Mariposa goes to Granada with our pickup truck filled with female dogs.  There’s a clinic in Granada that operates on dogs for free to help people to have less puppies when they can’t take care of them. They have had two special Mariposa days where we could take up to 15 dogs per time to get them operated. First we got a few dogs operated that live at the Mariposa, the farm, the project or dogs from the workers.

Last time we went twice with dogs from the different barrios close by. We went into the barrio and talked to the people about the clinic, explained them that we would pick up the dogs in the morning and bring them back in the evening. A lot of people were really interested and we were able to take up a lot of dogs to get their operation. It’s a long day, starting at 6 am getting the dogs from all around and loading them in the truck. Some go in the kennel and others sit in the back of the car with us. Some are small, some are big, some are friendly, others are just really scared.

The drive on the back of the truck is very pleasant and with beautiful views. Upon arrival in Granada we drop the dogs off at the clinic and leaving them for the day. From then on is just waiting around, enjoying a coffee or two at one of the coffee shops and chatting with one of the vendors in the park. This lady knows what we do there and is always happy to have a small chat. She offers us a seat and talks about her life and her daily activities. It’s very nice and good for the Spanish.

At the end of the day, this varies at what time; we get a call from the vet that all the dogs are ready to go home….

This time all the dogs are a bit more sleepy and some of them easier to put back in the pickup. All the way back again and then it’s time to reunite owners with the dogs. This is the nicest part…seeing the owners waiting for their dogs and really happy to see their dogs back at their homes. The day ends with sitting on the back of an empty truck, enjoying the views and seeing the sunset.
A cold  bucket shower is more than welcome and our home stays and a plate of warm gallo pinto awaits when we’re all clean and done for the day…….It was enjoyable, worthwhile and I hope we can do it again soon.