Thursday, October 24, 2019

A garden for Doña Gladys

A new project the PUMAs have been working on is creating organic gardens for families who have an interest in growing, using, and selling produce beyond the typical stuff found in markets on the island. One PUMA guide, Edgard Condega, has a degree in agronomy and is very excited to share his organic gardening knowledge as a way to bring better nutrition to the island's residents and visitors through more sustainable farming.

Edgard and the PUMAs started building the first garden as a pilot project recently, but have done an immense amount of work already.

First order of business: a stout fence. Chickens and
pigs roam freely here, so penning in plants is the only
way to guarantee they'll grow.

One of the reasons for the fence
visited us while we worked...
Most of the beds had been prepared in the previous weeks, but it definitely is a process to build them.


First, loosening the dirt is a must on this volcanic island. Fortunately, this particular spot had been a farm for plantains (a large monoculture crop here), so the ground was relatively easy to work.

Elieth breaks soil with a
barra (spud bar).

Once the soil is the proper texture, other additives are mixed in as needed including sand, compost, and ash.
The volcanic rock here produces
soil that usually needs its pH
raised, so here, Edgard adds ash.
Some plants go in beds:

Doña Gladys plants some
eggplant seeds.

But larger plants like vines, shrubs, and trees usually go in their own small holes.
Edgard, Elieth, and Ramon Ivan
 plant pepper starts.
Elieth adds stones around the
seedlings to protect them.

It is a fair amount of work to put these together, and nothing is cheap - especially the fence. But if this project works out well, the PUMAs hope to have a stall where the garden owners can sell some of their produce. This garden is our first attempt, so we'll keep you posted on what happens!

The benefits of hard work on a
garden - Doña Gladys let us have
some green coconuts. Yum!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

1000 trees

Remember the 1000 bags of dirt from a month ago? 
They have grown: 

We started out giving trees to the kids from our Junior Ranger program to plant and care for at their homes:

But there are still a lot of trees to go! Next, we are working with local partners to plant the trees in areas that need restoration. Our partner organization, Si A La Vida, has a working farm with a forest that was destroyed in the 2017 hurricane Nate. So our Centro PUMA staff gathered kids from our Junior Ranger program, and partnered with kids and staff from Si A La Vida to plant trees.

They planted a total of 120 trees, plus donated an extra 30 to the farm workers to replace losses or plant elsewhere. Their farm is part of a network of forested areas that are habitat to many animals including the endangered yellow-naped amazon parrot. Every native tree here adds a positive benefit to the environment.

It was a day of very hard work in very rocky soil, so many adults came and helped the kids.

But a great experience for the kids to take part in restoration of their local habitat.

 This is still a time of great uncertainty in Nicaragua, so we are proud to be able to create tangible results while offering practical skills to our participants.

And it's fun to see these bags of dirt:

 become this beautiful nursery in a short time with a small investment.

There are still many more trees to plant this year, and we are working on ideas to fund this project next year. Thank you to Si A La Vida, New England Biolabs Foundation, and all of you for your financial and moral support!  You can donate to our project here

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

1000 bags of dirt

Why are we filling up 1000 bags with dirt?

And Why are we enclosing them in chicken wire?

We have collected native seeds, and hand-sifted over 1000 liters of potting soil into planting bags to create a tree nursery at Centro PUMA.

Deforestation is an issue in Nicaragua that can be solved with community effort. The guides of Centro PUMA together with our Junior Rangers are planting 1000 native trees to help offset habitat loss. We aim to plant these trees later this year or next year in yards, farms, and in protected areas to restore lost habitat.

Of the many species that may benefit from these trees, the endangered yellow-naped amazon parrot finds one of its last hopes for recovery on Ometepe island. We are exploring how to work with the community to restore its habitat while combating poaching through education and through economic incentives of ecotourism. 

Come visit Centro PUMA to see our new tree nursery and to check out our other community projects! If you are too far away to visit, you can still be part of the effort by sustaining our project with a donation: about 20 cents helps us grow a tree in our nursery. 

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.

English!
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: http://latinousa.org/2018/07/24/nicaraguaincrisis/ 

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, guiasunidos.org/contact-donate/ (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.