Saturday, March 30, 2019

Weathering the crisis, Winter 2018-2019

Weathering the crisis
Tourism nearly ended in Nicaragua this year. Since ecotourism and volunteering was an original focal point, we had to refocus on the education part of our mission.

Our project's resource center, Centro PUMA, has been staffed by Nicaraguan tour guides since last April. When Jeff returned from his summer job in October, the difference after 6 months of political crisis was stark. Hotels were empty or boarded up,

no tourists crammed onto the ferry, and Jeff found himself one of the few remaining "gringos" in town. But arriving at Centro PUMA, bicycles lined the street; inside it was teeming with people. The project is thriving.

We saw two initial opportunities for education this season, teaching English and leading environmental education (EE) with children. 

Environmental education with kids
Inspired by a "Junior Ranger" program by a partner organization, Paso Pacifico, and by a summer day camp that we ran with Peace Corps last year, we initiated our own "Junior Ranger" program to take advantage of "summer" vacation that kids have between December and February.

We visited Paso Pacifico's program on the nearby Pacific coast, where we were inspired by kids releasing sea turtles from a hatchery to protect them from poaching.

Also, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was evacuated last year decided to finish her EE project through a master's degree program. Kari designed a book of EE activities specific to Ometepe and then returned to her neighboring village, Balgue, to teach her program. In January, with Kari's curriculum and funds that were donated last year through our "Nature Libre" campaign, we began biweekly Junior Ranger events, one class at Centro Puma in Altagracia, and one class at the local grade school in Balgue. In case you didn't see it, here is one of our campaign videos from last year, featuring Kari and Amanda before Peace Corps evacuated:

This year, our Junior Rangers were led by Jeff, Kari, and 5 local guides, Elieth, Arlin, Ramon Ivan, Roxana, and Levis. January was filled with adventures. We held workshops and local walks, learning about plants, animals, and geology of the area. For example, since we live on a volcanic island, the kids built baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes

and used soft boiled eggs to learn about plate tectonics and magma.

On their last weekend of vacation, we took them on a bus excursion to explore their island.

We visited one of the last remaining patches of old growth lowland forest,

saw a bat colony living in a tree,

Visited ancestral petroglyphs,

took part in climbing demonstrations with our endangered parrot researchers,

Performed a trash pickup on the beach,

And, of course, ended the day playing on the sun-soaked beach.

We returned the kids back home by bus, tired but elated.

Summer was over for the kids, and though we are continuing junior ranger classes on a monthly basis, in February we began to focus on English teaching. Our guides speak better English than most English teachers, so when they proposed to use Centro PUMA for lessons, we were able to fill a community education need while employing tour guides.

Our adult English classes are called "English Cafe" where we practice informal conversation with the incentive of free coffee and snacks. Designed by Chelsea, another master's student who partnered with us this year, English Cafe was designed to augment the formal, grammar-based English classes that are offered locally to motivated adults. The local classes generally don't have enough opportunities for speaking and listening on a conversational level. Eventually we hope to have more foreign tourists and volunteers join in, putting the Unidos (united) in Guias Unidos.

English Cafe remains a regular program we offer, but our English classes for kids really hit a community need. As word got out about free English classes, demand exploded, and we had to deal with growing classes with limited teachers.

As Jeff's seasonal stay came to an end and he worried about how to help with English classes (not his specialty) and how to manage the crowds, word got out to the small group of tourists and expats who were slowly repopulating Ometepe. Foreigners with native or fluent English, many with experience teaching second-language speakers, started volunteering with our guides. We are so thankful to all of these people for their help.

Guide education
We haven't forgotten our original project idea: teaching tour guide skills. We led 6 workshops on skills including interpretation, environmental education, visitor needs, and natural resources.

One of our workshops was a birding excursion, led by a local expert, to explore the possibility of leading a Christmas Bird Count in the future.

And Kate came down for a week to help with a class on learning styles, using multi-sensory and audience-centered approaches.

Although much of our focus this year was on education, we are looking at grants and opportunities to work on reforestation, endangered species conservation, and community projects such as healthy gardens and backyard habitats. Our focus for next year will depend partially on where we can secure funding, but we always have big ideas.

A note on the political crisis
We would like to stay politically neutral, a delicate position during the worst political crisis that Nicaragua has faced in over 30 years. We therefore encourage you to do your own reading on the situation to form your own opinions. But the crisis has deeply affected the country and therefore our project and partners. It has also affected us on a very personal level. Many tourism-dependent families are in despair, some falling into mental health and substance abuse problems. We have seen marriages end, friends consumed by alcoholism, and Jeff attended a friend's funeral; one of the few crisis victims on Ometepe happened to be a close neighbor.

We believe that social and environmental projects such as ours can be a light and hope for the future if they are thoughtfully integrated into communities, as we believe we are doing. But during this time, ecotourism income will not be as available for our project as we had intended. We are grateful to New England Biolab Foundation for renewing their grant with us this year, and for all of you who have sustained us with your donations.

Please be a part of our project by continuing to support us! Any donation you can offer makes a difference.  For example, a donation of just $11 pays a sustainable day's work for a local guide or partner, $150 pays our Center's monthly rent, or $800 keeps our entire project running for a month. Tax deductible donations can be made online at this link here. Thank you!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Esperanza - A Ray of Hope

We have good news and bad news.

The bad news:
The political situation in Nicaragua has declined since Jeff left in April, with violent repression of protests in cities around the country. For a good background overview, check out Latino USA's recent podcast episode: 

Ometepe Island, however, is living up to its nickname, Oasis de Paz (oasis of peace), and has had no major violence and only a few, mostly peaceful protests. There are still huge impacts on the island, however, such as fuel and food shortages, commerce slowing to a halt, and tourism all but drying up. The tour guides we work with are used to not having 100% reliable income, but many are having real trouble with a complete lack of tours. Some consider migrating to Costa Rica as tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have done already. Keep in mind that Nicaragua’s population is 6 million normally, so current refugee numbers are equivalent to well over a million people fleeing the US for refugee status – and that is just to one country. Many other countries are seeing refugee applications from Nicaragua, including Panama, Mexico, and the US.

So what do we do? How can we help? Nicaragua has in its constitution (Article 27) that foreigners may not interfere in Nicaraguan politics. A quick review of Nicaraguan history quickly explains why that might be. Foreign meddling, most especially by the United States, has caused many problems for the Nicaraguan people. Political interference is really not appropriate. But if citizens have to leave the country due to violence or resulting economic distress, who will be there to rebuild?

The good news:

Nicaraguans have done this before in living memory, and are working hard to keep their lives on track. Their resilience is inspiring.

We had arranged for three guides to keep the resource center open to the public three days a week after Jeff left, paying them a general worker’s day wage to do so (a guide can earn much more in a day, but then has to hustle for business a lot of the time – less secure, but potentially more money). Due to tourist high season coming around during this time, we spread the work out so three people would work one day a week each. They are encouraged to do whatever community outreach they feel appropriate, using the community center as a base.

Now that they have so much time on their hands since there are no tourists to guide, they have started more community outreach than any of us anticipated happening. They are providing English lessons, computer services, environmental education, art classes, and the like – all on their own time and free to the community.

People are flocking to the center, especially children but even adults.

They are inviting in school classes to introduce local kids (and therefore their families) to what is available in the center.

And they’re taking students out for environmental education trips in their backyards.

Beyond our resource center, they’re lending equipment we brought down to do research into local endangered species, just as we intended. Shout out to LOCOs (Loreros Observando Conservando Ometepe), who study the Amazonian yellow-naped parrot, and a group of generous birders in Minnesota who donated the binoculars!

What we can do is to continue supporting these amazing folks in their community work. We have increased the open hours of the resource center to five days a week. We are hoping to pay folks for more hours of instruction for community workshops. They refuse to give up hope, and so do we. We have grant money from New England Biolabs Foundation and hope to renew that grant for next year, as well as donations from wonderful friends and family. If you have the means, please consider donating to help keep our resource center open and wages paid to keep these amazing people working. You can find donation options at our website, (or more directly here).

With all the chaos of the news, I have found hope in our work with the good folks of Ometepe. A huge thanks to Elieth Alvarez who manages our books and timesheets on top of giving English classes and keeping the center open, and to Arlin Hernandez, Edgard Condena, Ramon Ivan H.G., and Diego Hernandez for their hard work and infinite patience.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A look back on Winter of 2017-2018

It has been 6 months since Guias Unidos came back to Nicaragua as a project of Earth Island Institute, our first time abroad as part of a registered nonprofit organization. Time has flown by so quickly that we want to look back and answer the question, “what have we accomplished?”

Unifying resources
Our mission is to inspire community based, conservation-minded tourism, by unifying local and international expertise and resources. Here are a few highlights of how we did this:

Trever, a National Park Ranger from the USA, volunteered with us for 5 months (read his blog post here). Trever spent his first couple months primarily taking Spanish classes. He worked on Trail projects and helped with general needs such as training and renovating our Resource Center. Here we are working with the guides on a beach trash pickup,
A truck full of trash is the result of a community trash pickup along the beaches of Santa Cruz.

And here’s Trever with local guide Yilmer building a new trail on Volcan Maderas National Park,
Trever and Yilmer forge a new trail through the cloud forest.

and being the photographer on a field trip with the kids.
Trever manages multiple cameras while photographing the field trip.

Chelsea, a former park ranger and currently a master’s student with University of Montana, spent January partnering with us in developing educational tools and training. In addition to organizing a geology hike up Volcan Concepcion,
Chelsea enjoys the view near the top of Concepcion.

she helped teach summer camp with Peace Corps.
Chelsea collects trash with kids from Balgue, Ometepe. That's Kari from Peace Corps photobombing in the background!

Chelsea set up a fantastic training trip to visit Volcan Masaya National Park, to learn more about local geology at the park’s museum and to look into the active volcano at nighttime: 
Looking into the fiery pit of Volcan Masaya at nighttime

She then hosted a geology training session. Here you can see Chelsea and Trever tag-teaming the training.
Chelsea and Trever teach a class on geology

Chelsea plans on returning later this year to help develop more educational materials and community education. Chelsea also set us up with a meeting with Victor Vereb, a European geographer who is interested in creating a Geopark on Ometepe.
Victor discusses Geoparks with a group of locals and Guias Unidos' volunteers

On a more local level, Guias Unidos set up an exchange visit with Fundacion Colcibolca at the Mombacho Nature Reserve. The rangers at Volcan Mombacho near Granada have arguably the most developed system of trails and guides in the country. We funded 4 of the Ometepe guides to take a day trip to visit and learn about their training and resources. 
Guias Unidos guides (PUMAs) and Fundacion Colcibolca guides get together on Volcan Mombacho

In exchange, the Mombacho guides took a trip to Ometepe to visit our new Resource Center and take a volcano tour. As the tours on Ometepe take a little longer than those on Mombacho, we hosted our guests for the overnight visit.  

Training guides

In addition to our exchange learning trips and Chelsea’s geology classes, Trever and I were able to organize two classes on interpretation (how to develop engaging tours and presentations). We had a lot of fun in the classes, and we hope to do more. We lost the camera that took these pictures, but if we find a picture, we’ll post it soon. 

Community Education
School “summer vacation” takes place between late November and early February, making our winter season ideal to focus on programs with kids. With our “Nature Libre” campaign (see our December blog post), we raised $1300 for experiential education for kids, with a focus on field trips. With these donations, we were able to rent buses for 3 separate field trips, bringing about 100 kids to the local nature reserve, Charco Verde.
3 very happy groups of kids visiting Charco Verde nature reserve

For most of these kids and the parents who chaperoned, it was not only their first time to Charco Verde, but it was their first educational field trip ever. As promised, we made a video of our trip, in the spirit of the last scene of the movie Nacho Libre:

As these trips cost less than $100 each (less than $3 per kid), we still have funds for more programs. We plan on doing more camps next year, and we are also working with Peace Corps to create a “Junior Ranger” program for kids to learn about nature and go on more field trips.

The highlight of our contribution to community education is our Resource Center and library, which we founded this year. We chose the name PUMA for our center and the group that works there. 
Welcome to Centro PUMA!

Although there are no pumas who live on the island, they are a species that spans the entire Americas, representing our unity across borders. Puma also stands for Protectores Unidos por el Medio Ambiente, or protectors united through the environment. As I and all of the USA volunteers are gone for the summer, a group of PUMAs is operating regular public hours of the "Centro PUMA" library.
Some of the PUMAs sport their new t-shirts
In addition to being open to the public 3 days per week, Centro PUMA has hosted events, such as story time in partnership with Peace Corps Nicaragua. In one memorable event, we read “El Lorax” to a group of kids before watching the movie together.
Amanda reads "El Lorax" to piles of snuggling kids

Thanks to donors

Thanks to all the families, friends, and strangers who believed in us and donated over $5000 in cash and needed items to our project this year. This includes a group of generous Minnesota birders who donated 2 suitcases full of (about 20) binoculars to our project. Finally, a huge thanks to New England Biolabs Foundation ( who awarded us a $7000 grant that has made the majority of our work possible this year. 
Kids have fun with the donated binoculars on their field trip

A word about the political situation in Nicaragua:

It was a coincidence that I (Jeff) happened to fly out right as political unrest spread across the nation, but it will give us some time to observe developments from a distance. Protesters started in mid-April with a demonstration against social security reforms, but soon grew in numbers to protest against the government. President Daniel Ortega, who helped overthrow a dictator in the 1970s, is now being accused of acting like a dictator: eliminating term limits, influencing elections, and removing opposition parties from the running. In the past month, there have been dozens of deaths as protesters clashed against counter protesters and and police reportedly fired live rounds into crowds. Many people fear the beginning of a revolutionary war in Nicaragua. Since the protests began, Ortega has rescinded his social security reforms, but the unrest has continued. Many now insist that Ortega step down from his presidency. We understand that the situation is complicated, but we hope that Nicaragua can continue find a peaceful resolution to its disagreements. In the meantime, we plan on continuing with our project, but we intend to proceed with caution, especially as pertains to our volunteers. For those of you interested in volunteering, please keep in touch with us as we assess the developing situation.
April 23 march protesting police violence and deaths (Reuters photo)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A tour of our new Resource Center

One of our goals for this year was to establish a central office that can be used as a learning center, classroom, library, visitor center, and housing for our volunteer directors. It's been a long journey and it's not done - but we've made enough progress over the past 5 months that it's time for a virtual tour of our Resource Center.

In December we located a rental house available that is just a block from Altagracia's central park and the main bus station in town. It is a large house with a gigantic plantain orchard out back, but it needed a lot of work. We spent the next 3 months cleaning up hurricane debris and planting a garden, fighting termites, fixing walls, repairing doors, furnishing, and scraping endless expanses of flaking paint. Sometimes neighbor kids would come and help us out.
Look at that pile of sticks in the left-hand corner and guess what it might be for!

After months of removing paint, our guide partners came over for a work party, and we got most of the main room painted in one day.

Kate and the kids pose in front of the newly decorated wall.

We decided to make our main-room library shelving and furniture out of scrap wood from the hurricane, which saved us money but required a huge amount of work. Some new friends from CONNACT global helped us for a day of sanding.

And so our main room was transformed into a mini library.

The mountains painted on both sides of the room are on the same sides as their corresponding volcanoes on the island: Concepcion (below) and Maderas (above). Below is the kid's section of the library with kids books in Spanish and English, crafts, games, and a high throne. Recognize the bench we were sanding before?

With the help of Amanda from Peace Corps, our library was available for our first storytime event with local kids.

Although we have not officially opened with regular business hours, we have hosted test openings on a few random days. The neighbor kids quickly find out and enjoy reading books and doing crafts in the kids section. Yes, they do sit on the throne!

After months of clearing debris out of the garden, we landscaped around a stubborn tree stump and added a large trellis. A line of young passion fruit vines line the left side of the trellis, and we hope that they will provide shade and lots of fruit within the next year or so.

We also fenced in a smaller garden to keep neighborhood chickens away from the more delicate edible plants and seedlings. We have a bunch of herbs and greens planted, and there is still more room for some rows of veggies or other fun foods.

Back to inside: the kitchen was the first room we furnished. It may look humble, but it's quite a luxury by Ometepe standards.

Our office space is still developing in the room between the kitchen and library, but we finally have a desk and shelving for the guide books and materials.

On the other side of the office is the door to the bedroom. We added a deadbolt to the door for privacy and security, and we also raised the wall to the ceiling--before, you could climb over the wall into the bedroom (look at the first picture of the blog to see the same type of half wall). An open wall is fine if it's in a private house, but being part of a public office and library, the bedroom needed to be fully closed.

The bedroom may not be large, but it has everything a bedroom needs. This enables us to include housing for our volunteer directors or project managers.

 We're still working on the last room. We've fixed the doors and added a giant cot that can be stowed in the new storage closet. It still definitely needs to be painted. This extra room off to the side can be a reading room for the library, a classroom, and a temporary bedroom for guests. It's currently being used as a guest bedroom.

Renovating the Resource Center has taken a large amount of the time this season in Nicaragua. We hope that it will require a lot less work next year and will enable us to focus on and develop our other projects. We are very encouraged by the positive attention our library has earned with the neighbors, and we hope that it also appeals as much as a center for learning and administering our project.

Update: As of April 20th, we have finished all of our major painting and renovating of the Center, which we are calling Centro PUMA for our crew, the "Protectores Unidos por el Medio Ambiente", or the "United Protectors of the Environment." Our last touch on the center before inaugurating it was to paint the outside and add signs. Here's the before and after:

Now come visit us at Centro PUMA on Ometepe!