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.

https://justlists.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/principles-of-permaculture/

Mariposa Community Environmental Education

Las Conchitas (3)

The orange line encloses the new land (called Las Conchitas) just purchased by La  Mariposa. It is very close (as the crow flies anyway!!) to the existing Mariposa….just follow a straight line to the bottom of the above photo and you will be here (though in practice of course we have to go round by the road as our neighbours would on no account let us walk through their orange plantations!). you can see how incredibly close we are to the Masaya Volcano National Park. I have written previous posts (and on facebook too) about problems with this park (and indeed with other reserves too, such as Bosawas) including the impact of  a massive fire which destroyed about 25% of the forest (the damage is still visible one year later) and the ongoing impact of illegal logging of precious woods, taking firewood out of the park, hunting animals within the park…etc etc. Our hope is that having this land can help in some small way to conserve and improve the environment locally…maybe to offer a sanctuary to some of the beleaguered park wildlife and to act as a resource for concerned local people who are seriously worried and affected by global climate change as well as what is happening on their doorstep. The communities that are currently working with us are those that go out on the right hand side of the photo.

 

So below are some of our ideas so far…….we would love to get comments and suggestions….and help!!

Overall objective of Las Conchitas

  • To establish an environmental education centre for both local people and visitors to the Mariposa (both Nicaraguans and extranjeros)
  • To build an extension of some aspects of the current Mariposa (Spanish classes, accommodation….especially camping) in the hope of bringing in some income to support the first objective
  • Entrance to the new environmental education centre (to be!) and Mariposa camping

    Entrance to the new environmental education centre (to be!) and Mariposa camping

Progress so far

  • Reforestation (about 700 fruit and forest trees planted. PS the fruit is for wildlife!)
  • Live fencing planted around bottom edge of land
  • Mapping for potential camping areas, this was carried out by Bettina and Chad a couple of Mariposa volunteers. Map complete and some costing work begun. There is the possibility of using wood from 2 fallen trees to construct camping platforms.
  • Constructing bat boxes, a volunteer family is working on this now.
  • There is an existing house on the land with 2 rooms (one large), a patio, latrine. Needs renovating but could be either the nucleus of the EE centre (favoured option) or communal eating area for campers….
  • Meeting held on the patio of the house on 5/6/14 (see below)
  • Hard at work planting trees

    Hard at work planting trees

Meeting with community representatives

  • Present were several Mariposa workers (including teachers, maintenance staff, gardeners, project managers) and people from Las Sabanas, Arenal, Camillo Ortega, Venetia (poor rural communities close to the Masaya Volcano National Park) and several problems were identified. These included – contamination of drinking water from use of, amongst other things, flushing toilets – shortages of drinking water – lack of rain especially this year affecting the bean crop – logging of precious trees including in the national park – taking out firewood – loss of local biodiversity – poisoning of soil from use of pesticides – disappearance of pollinating insects esp bees.
  • Some tentative ideas were suggested for addressing some of these problems but with the necessary caveat that many of them have global origins. It was stressed that the over exploitation of the land and natural resources has gone hand in hand with the exploitation of the poor. In the case of Nicaragua, this started with the Spanish 500 years ago and still effectively goes on today under CAFTA.
  • La Mariposa will take on paying for the help of 5/6 community activists to help us work  directly with the local communities.
  • One of the issues we talked about...use of pesticdes and the disappearance of bees (yes, here too)

    One of the issues we talked about…use of pesticdes and the disappearance of bees (yes, here too)

FUTURE PLANS

  • Develop the land primarily as a nature reserve (with possibility of camping etc) – to include (1) water feature (pond, moving water) for frogs dragonflies etc (2) a butterfly and hummingbird centre (mariposera) (3) planting of fruit trees and flowers to help with nesting/feeding places for bats, birds and iguana, also install feeding places and nesting boxes (4) investigate how we might help larger mammals eg deer (almost extinct here due to hunting), guatusas, ?????? (5) plant rare and native trees, shrubs, flowers as much as possible to increase biodiversity as well as caring for the trees and plants that are currently growing there……this work will include building a retaining wall to contain the roots of two large cenizero trees and removing a rubbish tip from the edge of the land.
  • One of the beautiful cenizero trees, covered with orchids and bromeliads

    One of the beautiful cenizero trees, covered with orchids and bromeliads

  • Work with the local communities through the paid reps to identify where we can combine help with environmental education and improvements. For example, Franklin has identified 8 families, living in the poorest area close to the national park, who have no electricity and take firewood from the park. One possible solution is to offer them solar panels and eco cookers in return for their help in protecting the national park.
  • EE centre – to include (1) wildlife observation and information (2) permanent exhibition on what is happening to the environment both locally and globally with historical and geo political explanations (3) workshops, seminars, practical demonstrations from local people and others on what we might actively do in our own lives such as implementing worm projects (save on pesticide use and expenditure), build eco cookers, use eco friendly building materials etc. (4) trails and walks offering info on plants and wildlife and the links between this and current environmental issues (5) a small library where people can access info on eco building, organic farming etc (6) meeting spaces for large and small groups
  • With the local communities and the reps, establish links and dialogue with (1) members of other communities around the national park who might be interested in this initiative eg Nindiri AND relevant authorities including (1) the local town hall and their environmental team (2) the national park authorities and MARENA (3) the EU, currently funding a tourist initiative in the national park (4) the national press
  • Establish an NGO with the above objectives
  • And of course it would not be La mariposa without a rescued dog or two....this is Linda doing her best to help out! Thank you Chad for the photos!!!

    And of course it would not be La mariposa without a rescued dog or two….this is Linda doing her best to help out! Thank you Chad for the photos!!!

Spanish school….choosing the best

WANT TO CHOOSE A GOOD SPANISH SCHOOL???

It can be hard but applying the following criteria might just help….

  1. Quality of the teaching ….the most intensive learning comes from one on one classes. The teacher can follow your agenda and go at your pace. At La Mariposa, if you would like to spend your conversation class watching monkeys or walking through the village, just tell your teacher. We offer 2 hours per day of grammar and 2 of Spanish, but again you can change that because the agenda is YOURS! Tripadvisor is a good place to check what previous students have thought of the level of teaching. Check that the school invests in teacher training in both grammar and conversation. A good clue as to the overall quality of the school is length of time the teachers stay …..Schools with  a quick turn over are unlikely to deliver good Spanish classes. Another important factor is flexibility. Can the school respond to your particular needs? Does it provide specially designed classes for kids?1381576_699962506699412_225681156_n
  2. What else do you want to do? ….some schools are near the beach, others in a city. La Mariposa is in very pretty countryside, good for activities such as hiking, horse riding (we have several rescued horses) and bird watching. We offer a full afternoon and weekend activity program which has a unique combination of trips out (you can visit the highlights of Nicaragua with us including Leon, Granada, Laguna de Apoyo, Masaya Volcano, Pacific beaches) and activities designed to help you know more about Nicaragua, its history, culture and politics.1010159_695410627154600_360760650_n
  3. What else helps to learn Spanish?….does the school have good resources available, such as exercise books and dictionaries? At La Mariposa we have developed our own grammar book reflecting the uniqueness of Nicaraguan Spanish. What are the classrooms like? It is much easier to learn in pleasant surroundings, with natural daylight than in a tiny, windowless room. As some students have found the wildlife around the Mariposa distracting, we can also offer purpose built indoor classrooms! Climate is important; it can be hard studying in high muggy temperatures. La Mariposa is 500 meters above sea level, nearly always benefiting from a cooling breeze. Even in April (the hottest month) the temperature is pleasant.1619075_761108263918169_1666743701_n
  4. Where will you stay?…. most schools offer a homestay option  and you can always make your own arrangements in a local hotel or boarding house. A few schools have their own accommodation on site….but no one offers the eco hotel facilities of La Mariposa. Situated in green, lush gardens, surrounded by native trees and flowers, it provides an ideal spot to chill out after class or study in hammocks and outdoor ranchos. Solar power, solar heated showers, recycled grey water, our own organic vegetable garden…..1596090_607896185913825_634265896_o
  5. Is it value for money?….when looking at the price be sure to see what is included. The school fees may look cheap but if you end up paying a hotel, food and extracurricular activities on top it can work out much more expensive. This is why we offer a package price of $400 per week ($450 in the high season) which includes 20 hours of Spanish, accommodation in the hotel, 3 meals per day and all programmed activities. We are such good value that we won a Tripadvisor award in 2014….
  6. How safe is the school?….safety is obviously an important issue for everyone. Nicaragua still has something of a negative reputation in this respect, largely due to the bad publicity in the 1980s. In complete contrast, however, Nicaragua is now the safest country in Central America. There is certainly a level of crime and we advise all our guests on certain basic rules to follow especially in relation to taking care of possessions and money. All rooms, including homestays, have a place to lock away valuables.
  7. Does the school help the local economy and/or community? ….is it providing LOCAL employment and shopping in the community to help the local economy? You can get a pretty good idea of this from the website. But be aware that some websites are very vague about this aspect of their work. The more detail there is about what a Spanish School is actually doing to help, the more likely it is to be happening on the ground. And you can always ask to see the projects once you have arrived. And later be sure to write up your views on Tripadvisor so future students have the benefit of your experience.
  8. And if you wish to volunteer/intern? ….the combination of studying Spanish in a classroom and then practicing it in a volunteer setting and with a homestay family ensures the most rapid progress!! Check the range of volunteer placements available (you may want to change once you are there) and be sure that volunteers/interns are not being used to put local people out of their jobs. Because La Mariposa funds over a dozen different projects in the community, we can offer a range of placements. The money volunteers pay us goes directly into keeping these projects going. Most students opt to combine volunteering with homestays……check that the homestay families are well known to the school and there is a training scheme in place for them.1463600_737739699588359_1408528771_n

The Mariposa Eco Built Study Centre

Our new study centre is a pretty amazing place. It is built on a piece of land about 10 minutes from the original Mariposa, up on the ridge behind and with exceptional views over the pueblo of San Juan de la Concha. The smoky live crater of the Masaya volcano is visible to one side and the outline of Lake Managua, with the hills of Esteli in the background, on the other. The above photo shows a pile of volcanic rock in the foreground which we used in building the walls of both the dormitory and the classrooms, and in the background is the volcano which would have originally thrown out these rocks during an eruption. The rocks are now lying around in people’s backyards and fields, making life difficult for crops and grazing animals. So it helps out that we buy this rock, transport it here and then use it.

The first part of the study centre (there are 3 – the comedor or eating/meeting area, the dormitory and the classrooms) is located where there had previously been a house, which the sellers took with them but leaving the cement floor behind. So we used what was already in place and built the comedor over the existing floor. This photo shows the frame going up for the thatch roof. Sadly the skill for thatching has died out around San Juan so a team from near Leon came in. They are super fast and very professional.

This photo shows the recycled tyres which formed the foundation and retaining wall for the classroom building. The tyres are filled with earth which is then compacted down hard. Interestingly, this was the only sustainable building material which proved hard for the building team to get their heads around! The team consisted entirely of local guys from San Juan, as per the objective of the Mariposa of always providing as much employment for local people as possible. It occurred to me that all of the other materials we used – the rock, bamboo, straw, palms for thatching – all these have a history from indigenous times and are therefore part of local knowledge.

You can also see in this photo some of the volunteers who came to work with us on the project. We were particularly lucky to have two architecture students from the University of Maine who helped with the design of the comedor (the wavy lines were their design) and with the tricky bit of the classrooms being on a fairly steep slope.

Sadly, we had to render the straw walls of the comedor with a thin layer of cement in order to keep undesirables such as dampness and mice out! This is a great picture of Noel rendering one of the arched windows which he designed and built. Once he got into the notion of wavy lines there was no stopping him! Noel had built several straw bale houses before ours, including his own, but he commented that they were all just boring square jobs!! Our entire team worked exceptionally well and had the project finished within four months and on budget!!! A team of 14 guys, plus occasional volunteers, and everything done by hand including digging out 15 metre deep latrines.

The straw walls before rendering. Beautiful.

This is the dormitory, two rooms which will have four bunk beds in each. The beds themselves are made from strips of recycled tyre rubber and are very comfortable.

The almost finished classrooms. A great design incorporating the tyres, volcanic rock, cana and straw. The view from the classrooms is also pretty wonderful.

La Mariposa Group Study Centre

Our new group study centre is really coming along fast. The eating and meeting area which is built out of straw bales is absolutely amazing. There will several arch shaped windows overlooking great views to the north and a huge Panama tree to the south. The windows will have ledges for sitting and gazing! Work is also well under way on the dormitory but we have now started, with the help of two architects from the University of Maine the building where Spanish classes and other classes on Nicaraguan history, culture, politics will take place. The centre will of course also host groups who want to do volunteer work on our community projects.

Below is a photo of one of the south facing windows and another view of the inside of the eating area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Mariposa study centre for groups

This will be a great place to take Spanish classes, study the history of Nicaragua or undertake voluntary work in one of the nearby Mariposa supported projects.

Great photo of the new dormitory building going up on the new land. It will provide accommodation for up to 16 and there  ill also be local homestays available. It is built out of volcanic rock and cane (both super sustainable materials and available locally). You can just see the eating and dining area in the background, built from straw bale with a thatched roof. I shall be sorry when we have to plaster over the walls and lose the wonderful smell of hay we have right now!!

Mariposa Study Centre

This weekend saw the beginings of the construction on the new land. The idea is to create a centre for groups to come and study, both Nicaraguans and students from abroad. We can offer courses (for foreign university students, high school kids, church groups) not only in Spanish but also history, developement issues, environmental issues and others. Some we can teach ourselves (my doctorate for example is in development studies) but we also have many Nicaraguan contacts who can offer exciting courses. This all started with the University of Maine who sent  a group of students down last year and are doing so again this year. We designed a custon made curriculum together with their professors – a mixture of Spanish, volunteer work on one of our projects, with classes on, amongst other things, history and eco-tourism. Each student is, furthermore, undertaking their own individual project – everything from eco-architecture (which of course fits well with helping us with this new build) to how Nicaragua is viewed by North Americans. A lot of really stimulating stuff!

The building then will have a dormitory area for groups of up to 16 and we will also be able to offer homestays with families in the local barrio. The classrooms will be built alongside the part of the land with spectacular views over Lake Managua, the Volcan Masaya and as far as Lake Cocibolca. So if anyone gets bored in class there is something to gaze at! There will also be a number of chilling out areas and places to do the Spanish homework!

The photo below is of me and Ismael, his brother Marcos (who is heading up the whole building team) drawing the plan of the dormitory building which will be of volcanic rock and a locally grown cane.

The first part of the construction to go up is the eating and meeting area. This will have  a lovely palm thatched roof and a specialised team from just outside Leon started work on Saturday and will finish the work on Tuesday!!! The wooden posts are eucalyptus which is good to use because as a tree it grows super fast and is also bad for surrounding vegetation as it sucks up a lot of water. The walls will be straw bale, work starts on that today.