Colonial Cities : A Trip to Granada (La Mariposa Adventures)

Written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern

Less than an hour away from La Mariposa stands Granada, the oldest colonial city in Nicaragua. Rich with history and filled with colonial-era architecture, it’s also a popular destination for La Mariposa students… and for good reason. As we cruise through the narrow streets, each new turn leading us to brightly-painted houses and views of tall cathedrals, our guests point from one thing to another. One student’s excited for the chocolate museum, another one can’t wait to see the fancy buildings; there’s something for everyone.

We start our tour by climbing out of the Mariposa bus and onto a sidewalk, where Chester announces that we’re visiting a cemetery.
“A cemetery??” one person murmurs, “why a cemetery?”
It’s true, the cemetery isn’t exactly the first place you’d expect to start a city tour… but this particular cemetery is actually extremely important in Granada’s history and identity.
You see, Granada was originally founded (colonized) in the indigenous Xalteva area by the Spaniard Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who named Granada after his hometown. During the colonial period, it became one of the central cities for commerce… later, it disputed political and historical importance with León (its rival city), saw multiple pirate attacks and invasions, and withstood William Walker’s attempt to burn it to the ground.
sidenote by Hannah: Nicaraguan history is incredible and you should look it up. Also, William Walker was a US American and a Very Bad Person.

The Europeans were the ones to build the enormous cemetery of Granada, as well. Today, it’s the only one of its kind in Nicaragua, marked by chapels and religious statues, mausoleums and marble. The graves near the center of the cemetery are the most elaborate ones, owned by extremely wealthy (and often famous) families — Fruto Chamorro, the first official president of Nicaragua, was buried there. The other graves, with names and dates in a larger structure, belong to soldiers, or are rented out to various families. And the smallest ones on the outskirts of the cemetery, marked sometimes only with a cross or a stake, belong to the poorest families. Inequality persists into the next world, it seems!

After this brief lesson on colonialism, cemeteries, and capitalism, we climb back into the buses.
We hop out again briefly to see the Fortaleza de Pólvora. Originally built to store gunpowder, as the name suggests, this fortress was used to accommodate soldiers and later to imprison people. Today, it acts as a museum with a rotating schedule of exhibits, open to the public. We couldn’t go in that day, though (it was closed?) so we took some pictures and moved on.

We take a quick break at the cigarmaker’sNicaragua is well-known for its handcrafted cigars, apparently, and a pleasant man explains the process while another demonstrates how to bind the tobacco, press it into molds, and wrap it. He hands around a fragrant leaf for us to look at; it’s dark, papery, and unexpectedly sweet smelling. For $5 USD, he adds, you can even buy/make your own cigar here!
(A few students try it, but most of us are content to hang back and watch.)

Our next stop is a church, the Iglesia la Merced. Albeit the facade looks rather old and a little crumbling, it’s lovely and quiet inside, with dark wooden benches, several statues, and a stained glass window. There’s also a small sign advertising the “best view of Granada”, and for thirty Córdoba (about $1 USD) paid to the man at the front, you can climb a short (but narrow and pretty steep!) set of stairs to the bell tower and see the view for yourself. Once we’ve gotten to the top, we can look east towards the Granada Cathedral — the bright yellow and white one near the central plaza — and Lake Cocibolca, or south towards the Mombacho Volcano. Tiled rooftops and colored houses are all around. It’s definitely worth the climb.

From the cathedral, it’s a quick walk to the chocolate museum, the Granada ChocoMuseocomplete with a pool, a hotel, a small café, and a shop where they sell everything from chocolate bars to “Nicatella” to chocolate liqeur to cacao tea. After a brief (and energetic) history of chocolate and some enthusiastic sampling, we browse the shop a bit and then we’re ready for lunch.
We head to the Cafe D’Arte and make ourselves comfortable for an hour or two (and talk to some street vendors who are selling ceramic bird whistles and handmade vases and personalized maracas —  I love the whistles and I can’t help buying one). Then those of us who are heading to the islands pile back into the bus and head for the lake… it’s time for a boat tour!

The islands are mostly owned by Nicaragua’s rich and famous, or rich and famous foreigners who decided that they’d like a personal island in Nicaragua, and our guide seems to enjoy pointing out random islands and namedropping as we go. He also points out the view of the volcano — “we were there last weekend!” one boy notes — and the other islands along Lake Nicaragua. We spot several birds, a heron, and a few spider monkeys, too.

It’s fun for all of us, even the excited four-year-old across from me who keeps leaning out the side of the boat to put his hands in the water; he leans so far that I reflexively grab onto the back of his lifejacket to keep him in the boat, and decide that it’s probably a good idea for me to keep an eye (and a hand) on him at all times. “I wanna swim!” he tells me, and I start to laugh. But he gets his wish when we dock at a small hostel and restaurant, where a small swimming pool (built, apparently, around a huge rock) invites all of us to splash around.

After all, there’s something for everyone in Granada.

 

Beach Day! A Trip to La Boquita (La Mariposa Adventures)

Written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern

La Boquita Beach, a little less than half an hour away from the pueblo (town) of Diriamba (which in turn is only about twenty minutes from La Mariposa), is one of the most popular visitor beaches in our area, so we have a trip there as well! It’s raining when our two microbuses set out — especially during wet season in Nicaragua, which is May-November, showers are frequent and often unpredictable — and so when we arrive, there’s practically no one here except for our group. But the younger students run right into the waves and the older students pick their tables in the outdoor restaurant on the shore and it’s pretty clear that, rain or no rain, we’re having our beach day.

There are several different restaurants on the beach, each with a series of thatched-roof shelters and light wood tables, framed by hammocks or bamboo seats and large pots of flowering plants. A pleasant family greets us and hands us menus, so we make ourselves comfortable there.

Thankfully, the rain goes away both suddenly and quickly (also fairly typical for wet season) and the sun is out and shining brightly within the first hour or so of our stay. One of the boys rents a four-wheeler to drive up and down the beach (although there are also horseback rides available), and more of our students join one another in the water. I find an assortment of shells near the rocks along the shore and wave at a group of little girls splashing in the waves.

The beach day is probably the most laid-back weekend trip we have; it’s the least structured, and so it allows guests the most amount of freedom. It’s surprising how quickly the time passes here (and between orders of pineapple juice,  and trips to the little pulperia, corner shop, our students manage to keep busy). Several of us stretch out towels on the sand and soak up the sunshine until it gets too hot to stay there much longer, while the others decide to walk up the beach and see what they can find, collecting coral and shells along the way. The sand is warm and soft under our feet.

Lunch is delicious, if a little bit more… well, whole than we might have expected… but no one else seems surprised. Here at La Boquita, the seafood is fresh and the more common grilled meat is equally tasty (and the rice, as per usual, is excellent).
Yes, that is a whole fried fish. Also, in case you were wondering, that orange dish is not in fact a real mango. I was disappointed too. But the sauce still tastes great, trust me!

Since I’m from Portland, where the ocean is usually way too cold to swim, it’s new to be able to bob up and down in the waves, which if not warm are definitely swimming-pool temperature. I mention this to the others and they laugh, but I’m dead serious… this isn’t something I’m used to! This becomes clear when a giant wave knocks me and another student off our feet and sends us spinning head-over-heels and inhaling saltwater, but it lasts only about seven seconds before we surface, more surprised than injured.

Oh well, you win some you lose some. I’d rather be swimming in the ocean than sitting in the rain, and besides, what else can you expect from a beach day?

 

 

El Mural de La Mariposa

 

img_0149En los cerros alrededor de La Concepción está pasando igual lo que pasa en muchos países del mundo, especialmente los países pobres. Lo que pasa aquí refleja la situación mundial del cambio del clima, destrucción de los océanos y deforestación. Nuestros bosques desvanecen mas y mas para sembrar, en nuestro caso, pitaya (dragon fruit) para exportar a los Estados Unidos y Europa. Dragon fruit actualmente es la fruta de moda especialmente por su color llamativo.
La foto muestra áreas de despales recientes, áreas ya sembradas con pitaya o piña y áreas todavía con unos pocos árboles.

Este tipo de monocultivo generalmente no beneficia mucho a las comunidades pobres. Provee algunos trabajos, por cierto, pero son temporales y mal pagados. Y la comunidad ha perdido mucho, incluido sus fuentes de agua que han desaparecido con los bosques. Y además donde no hay árboles llueve menos. Aquí hemos tenido 4 años de sequía. Este cerro también es importante porque forma parte del abastecimiento del agua para Managua.
Otro impacto muy preocupante es la pérdida de biodiversidad. Un ejemplo bien conocido y tan crucial para la sobrevivencia de los seres humanos – es la devastación de las abejas, otra vez al nivel global. Sin flores y montes, con muchos químicos (pesticidas etc) sus números están cayendo dramáticamente.

En nuestro región estamos perdiendo muchos especies de árboles, de plantas, de aves, de reptiles, de insectos, de animales. No solo es triste por el paisaje, puede ser un amenaza muy grande para nuestro futuro.
En este desierto los que pueden sobrevivir son los carroñeros – los zopilotes, los ratones – irónicamente los que no le gusta para nada a la gente!

En el mural se ve muchas cosas de la naturaleza que ya están desapareciendo – el guanacaste por ejemplo, un árbol muy grande, magnífico, está siendo cortado mucho para la madera que es bueno para hacer muebles. Los hoteles tienen mucha responsabilidad por eso! También la iguana ya es un animal en peligro por pérdida de su ambiente y la caza.

Cañada Honda es la reserva natural de La Mariposa – tenemos más o menos 100 manzanas (140 acres) donde hay bosque, flores y mucha vida salvaje! También hay dos manantiales que preservamos para ayudar la comunidad, Palo Solo. Hemos sembrado muchos árboles para reemplazar el bosque. Las ranas, las boas, las arañas, las abejas, los grillos, los monos, los cusucos, los árboles de cortez, la heliconia – todo tiene protección contra el fusil y la motosierra.

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Vamos a iniciar describiendo de la esquina de la derecha hacia abajo y alrededor:

La rama es del guanacaste – un árbol nativo de regiones tropicales y fue común en el bosque seco del región del Pacifico. El nombre viene del idioma nahuatl – guauh = árbol y nacastl = oreja por la forma de la semilla que parece una oreja humana. Este árbol puede alcanzar 30 metros de altura y hasta 4 metros de ancho. Ahora está amenazado porque está siendo cortado por su madera que se usa mucho en muebles artesanales – actualmente muy popular en los hoteles turísticos.

Sentado en la rama hay un guardabarranco – el ave nacional de Nicaragua y también de El Salvador. Tiene una cola muy rara que parece una raqueta que ellos mueven de lado a lado. Solo se encuentran en los bosques tropicales de las Américas. Comen frutas e insectos y hacen sus nidos en barrancos (por eso su nombre!).

A la derecha se ven varias flores diferentes de heliconias. Ahora son muy popular como plantas del jardín pero están desapareciendo en las áreas silvestres otra vez por el despale de los bosques. Nicaragua es uno de los diez países donde el despale es lo más fuerte.

La rana ojos rojos (no es venenosa) está amenazada por la pérdida de su hábitat natural, contaminación de las aguas y masiva captura para ser exportada al comercio de mascotas.

Las mariposas (una malachite y un simple checkspot) hace unos años fueron muy comunes pero se ven menos y menos cada año. Los insecticidas han destruido muchos insectos incluyendo las abejas que son muy importantes para polinizar las plantas.

La iguana verde podemos ver normalmente en las ramas de los arboles cuando hay sol. Les gusta calentarse! Ahora están perdiendo su hábitat rápidamente. También sufren mucho por la caza ya que hay gente todavía a quien le gusta comer su carne.

Un ave que es muy abundante en todo el país es el zopilote (este es el zopilote negro) y a menudo viven en grupos grandes. Comen la carne podrida y son muy importante para mantener el campo limpio. Otro animal que en general no es muy popular con la gente es la araña! Pero otra vez nos ayudan mucho – en este caso a cazar los insectos como los zancudos.

Hay muchas variedades de colibrí en Nicaragua pero la mayoría están amenazados por la destrucción de su hábitat.

La flor amarilla es del árbol cortez que fue muy común aquí pero ya casi no se ve.

Y finalmente la boa magnifica!  Esta serpiente puede alcanzar hasta cuatro metros de longitud. Come más que todo ratones y es completamente inofensiva para los seres humanos. Pero mucha gente tiene miedo, está asociado con espíritus malos, y por eso se mata mucho. También está sufriendo la pérdida de su hábitat natural.

 

BIODIVERSITY AND LA MARIPOSA

How much do we understand about the importance of biodiversity? The answer, it seems, is very little.  We cannot plant a bunch of mango trees and call it a forest…..acres upon acres of teak trees is a plantation, a monoculture crop not a forest.  A forest is one of several eco systems (meadow lands, coral reefs are others) that make up the planet, each supporting a massive diversity of life. Even though human life is dependent on this diversity, we do not, apparently, think biodiversity is worth preserving. Each day around 100 species become extinct. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson argues in “Extinction : A Radical History” we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet, in which 25 to 40 percent of all species are expected to disappear by 2050. Because extinction is generally a silent, invisible process, we are rarely forced to confront its inherent tragedy and the potentially vast ecological ripples of even a single species’ eradication”.

This silent but deadly process ought to be scaring us into taking action. Consider the case of bees, whose path to extinction is being relatively well documented though there is still debate over the cause – possible offenders include pesticide poisoning and malnutrition. Microwaves from radio towers could also be destroying their ability to navigate. Their disappearance would be a direct hit to the human race as nearly all fruit and most vegetable species (ie much of what we eat) owe their pollination to insects; mostly bees. What will happen without them?

Such processes are interwoven with other parts of the jigsaw of factors destroying the planet – a jigsaw that is very much in evidence in this area around La Concha. Continued deforestation and land clearance for monoculture crops such as pineapple and pitaya have led to the virtual disappearance of plants that provide food for the bees. One, the beautiful abejon (which actually means “big bee” – see photos above) has virtually disappeared from fields and hedgerows. 10 years ago they were plentiful…now hardly to be found, along with most other wild flowers. The variety of garden flowers which used to help nourish bees and other vital insects has been replaced almost uniformly with plants providing instant color, such as bougainvillea, and don’t take too much work to grow. However, they are utterly useless as a source of bee food.

You can take any species virtually at random and just the quickest internet research will give you the same story (except for the scavengers – vultures, cockroaches, rats – they are doing very nicely, thanks to us!). Over and over again. Take frogs as another example – almost one third of the world’s amphibian species are threatened with extinction. This not normal – 200 species have gone since 1980 – pollution, disease, habitat loss and so on. I recently found a mutant frog with a large lump growing on its back. In this area I am sure that highly toxic fumigations carried out to control mosquitoes are at least partly to blame. And the sad irony of course is that the noxious gas kills many natural predators, including the frogs, whilst mosquitoes seem to be becoming resistant!

red eyed tree frogs

So what are we doing at La Mariposa? We plant the widest possible range of trees and plants with minimum bougainvillea!, always taking into account which birds, animals, insects will any given plant help survive. We use almost 100% organic methods to grow our veggies. We dig ponds to help frogs in their fight for existence – frogs, lizards, spiders and bats are particularly welcome at La Mariposa as voracious mosquito eaters.  We are also planning to hold an Environmental Fair in June – a mix of educational stalls, tours around the vegetable patch, veggie food and herbal teas for folk to try, competitions…..one of our ideas is to hold a competition for the best bee and butterfly (also good pollinators) friendly garden, offering a substantial prize for the winner.

But I often feel we are just hanging on by our finger tips, as I notice another hedgerow plant or type of wild flower seems to have completely disappeared, I hear yet another chainsaw hacking yet another tree to pieces…….to quote Schneider-Mayerson again “conservation efforts have widespread support and can boast a few modest (and temporary) victories, they have been overwhelmed by the ongoing wave of anthropogenic annihilation”. That about sums it up….but nonetheless we shall keep going in the hope that others join us and we can save at least a few species!

 

Trips out and other things to do……

 

Mariposa students who opt for our activities package are hard put to find a better way to appreciate the diversity, beauty and interest that Nicaragua offers – both the country and its people. We plan activities on a monthly basis, every weekday afternoon and weekend, there is something going on. We include things-to-do close to home, such as riding our rescued horses, and longer trips to some of Nicaragua’s most famous historical towns, volcanoes, lakes and Pacific beaches. Each activity is carefully organized and we always provide transport and bilingual guides from La Mariposa.

And if you want to go somewhere that is not scheduled during your time with us, we can organize a separate trip.

The variety is truly awesome!

Saturdays are our day out, rotating the cities of Granada and Leon, Mombacho (a dormant volcano covered in cloud forest), and La Boquita, our closest Pacific beach. Sundays we do local hiking or horse riding on our rescued horses.

Other trips out include visits to San Juan del Orient where students can try their hand at the local pottery and buy unusual and beautiful gifts in the workshops.  Masaya is the home of traditional handicrafts including world famous hammock making, leather goods, guitars, wooden jewelry and there is a lively market where we take you to stroll around, souvenir shopping.

Of course we also include activities designed to help you get to know something of Nicaragua’s fascinating history and culture, often picking up on themes students will have discussed in Spanish class – popular topics include the revolution and how Nicaragua has emerged form a period of war (the Contra War) into a stable peace. We also hold regular discussions around current day issues, such as the proposed Canal – will it happen or wont it?? Many of the trips out have historical interest visiting, for example, the gorgeous San Francisco Museum in Granada. You are always accompanied by an expert bilingual guide from La Mariposa and we use local guides when appropriate.  And we don’t forget local culture – we invite students to have go at cooking, learn some salsa and watch folklore dancing.

La Mariposa is renowned for our work with local community and the environment. We support a number of different projects – varying from equino therapy for our disabled children to maintaining nature reserves and growing organic vegetables (which we eat in La Mariposa).  Monday afternoons are dedicated to showing you some of our work.

Thanks to our hard work in environmental projects, especially establishing nature reserves near La Mariposa we are also now offering bird watching tours – both as part of our normal program and, for those interested in going further afield we can organize outings with one of Nicaragua’s leading bird experts.

Having organized activities now for 10 years, we are well able to vary activities according to the season and to local events, ensuring students always get the best possible experience.  Night time walks when the moon is full in the dry season, Easter parades by boat around the islands of Granada, Christmas meals out in the barrio after watching the parade in San Juan – are just some examples of how we respond to local events and culture!

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COME AND JOIN US!

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/

Nicaraguan Canal….connections and questions by Paulette Goudge

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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.