Monthly Archives: October 2011

El festival del bosque seco tropical


One of the mapaches, Maria Esther, presenting her tree

This month I climbed two volcanoes and marched in a parade with cardboard sea turtles and students on stilts as León celebrated the bosque seco tropical, the tropical dry forest.   SONATI, an environmental education organization I’m volunteering with, hosted a weeklong series of free events, open to everyone.  (The name stands for Sociedad y Naturaleza Internacional or “International Society and Nature”).  Each day the general public and school groups could learn more about the ecosystem surrounding León through guided walks and hikes in and around town.  One day I accompanied the students from my English class to the botanical gardens, where each presented a tree native to the tropical dry forest.  “Los mapaches,” the raccoons, as their group of fifth graders is known at Sonati, described their trees, traditional uses, and threats.

The mapaches with two of the guides (also their teachers) from Sonati

In another part of the festival, several colegios, high schools, participated in a mural contest, creating colorful images with environmental messages.  The catch: they had to use all recycled materials (except for cement).  I visited one school in the final days of finishing their mural, as students spread cement and fixed bottle tops and pieces of ceramic, glass, and mirror to create designs.  Each school was responsible for an original design, conceived and carried out by students.  A student there proudly showed me his pencil sketch of a section of the mural, with a frog catching an insect and the national bird, the plume-tailed guardabarranca (the “turquoise-browed motmot” in English).  One of the boys working with him had collected shells from the beach to represent the trunk of a tree, while another carefully glued long pieces of mirror for butterfly wings.  Their message read, “Be the change you want to see in the (world),” with the earth represented by blue and green plastic bottle tops.

Affixing butterfly wings


Detail from the mural

Further down the wall, a group of girls cleaned cement off of the bottle tops while their teacher stood on a ladder gluing tops for the message, “The forest gives us life.”

The weekend featured the culminating events of the festival: a volcano hike and the carnaval.  Both activities have greatly increased in size since 2010, the festival’s inaugural year.  At 6 a.m. over 400 people boarded six school buses that trundled up the dirt roads to the base of the Volcan las pilas.  Teenagers and families struggled to climb the steep trail, which cleaved through loose volcanic sand then leveled out in the shade of secondary forest.  Many people wore flimsy sandals and carried heavy bags of food for lunch, with no hiking gear to speak of.  Yet, amazingly, the vast majority made it up the four-hour trek to the summit.  On the way up I met some girls who’d taken off their shoes and were walking back down the trail, and I gave them a pep talk and some water to convince them to keep going.

When we finally summited (after a much-needed break for lunch), they all agreed the vista was worth it: immense Lake Xolotlán, the distant church spires of León, the bright blue crater lake Asoscosa, and green growth spilling down the volcano’s flanks.  A fumarole smoked above us and soon mist rolled in, reducing visibility to less than 100 feet.

We were surrounded by secondary forest and ranchland—the primary forest was cut down as recently as a decade ago.  The previous weekend on an exploratory hike with Sonati we bushwhacked down from the summit to primary forest, completely shaded by hundred-foot gray-barked ceiba and feathery-leaved acacia trees, the faint trail littered with yellow jocote fruit and matted with ferns.  We walked vertiginously close to the sheer edge of the crater, where green foliage poured down beyond our view, a tangle of canopy and vines, calls of white-face monkeys echoing below.

The next day the mapaches put the finishing touches on their skit, song and dance performance for the carnaval.  But a few hours before the parade was set to start it started raining—hard.  Just 30 minutes before the skies cleared.  I quickly painted raccoon eyes on each mapache and we jumped on a crowded bus to cross town.  There we joined hundreds of students from other schools, dressed as turtles, flowers, and trash monsters. One girl wore an incredible dress designed by her mother made entirely out of woven, diamond-shaped pieces of plastic soda bottles.  A giant caterpillar was brought to life by a handful of teenagers, like a dragon from Chinese New Year.  A group of teenagers waved banners with messages like, “the tropical forest is life” from atop stilts.  Since this is Nicaragua, where there is always music, and also a carnaval, one of the trucks in the parade blared salsa, merengue, and even reggaeton as we danced through the streets.  People came out of their homes and stores to cheer and wave and vendors set up stands to sell food and drinks.

The mapaches were at the head of the parade carrying Sonati’s banner and taking turns leading dances.  When we arrived at the city center each school group performed and were judged for the quality of their environmental message.  As representatives of Sonati the mapaches were not part of the competition, so they performed first.  With perky tails made of shredded, re-used plastic bags threaded on wire, they pretended they were on the banks of a river, washing their food, when a hunter appeared, capturing some for pets and scaring off the rest.  Then the hunter returned to cut down trees and throw trash in the river.  At the end of their skit, the hunter was enlightened by one of the raccoons, freeing the ones he captured, and bringing the trees back to life (my starring role—a resurrected tree!)

First place in the competition went to a high school whose performance included beautiful costumes made out of recycled materials, a graceful dance, and dramatic scenes of destruction of a forest followed by its restoration.  A light rain returned during the last performances, bringing the energy of the day to a quiet end.

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Emergency in Nicaragua

UPDATE:  Nicaragua has been mostly dry for the last four days, as Hurricane Rina passed us by.  Now comes the work of repair and reseeding.

Original Post:

We’ve had 10 days of nearly continuous rain in Nicaragua (and throughout Central America) as a result of first Hurricane Jova, then a succession of tropical depressions.  In that time over 60 inches of rain has fallen in Central America, washing away bridges and roads and leaving entire communities without access to transportation or food supplies.  For comparison, Hurricane Mitch, the last catastrophic weather event, dumped 34 inches of rain over the course of several days in 1998.

Today I finally reached my host family in La Pita, northern Nicaragua, by phone, since they do not have a cell signal in the house and weren’t able to leave during the heavy rains.  They told me they’ve been without bus service since the road to the village was damaged in the first days of the storm.  The government recently resupplied the tiny village store with basic goods that sold out immediately.  My host sister Deyra said they had run out of food but were hoping their father would get to town to restock, via another road about an hour uphill on foot from La Pita.  Worse, the Defensa Civil, government engineers, told them to evacuate their house because of the danger of a landslide from the steep hill above, but they chose to remain because there’s nowhere else to go.  Deyra told me that the wind blew water into their adobe house via openings in the roof and all their clothes are wet, though she was remarkably hopeful, because a break from the rain today would allow them to dry some of their clothes.

In other communities around Nicaragua there has been severe flooding, forcing people to evacuate their homes, and critically for the future, leave behind crops and animals.  The government reported yesterday that the country has lost hundreds of thousands of acres of crops, and that thousands more acres are in danger of total loss.  The death toll in all of Central America has topped 100, with 16 deaths in Nicaragua.

The weather forecast is for at least another week of rain.  Even if the rain stops, the rivers and lakes will continue to rise, and there are millions of dollars’ worth of road and bridge repairs to be made.  The presidents of Central America recently issued a call for help from the international community but I have observed little coverage of the disaster in the American press.  I’m still researching which international aid organizations are mobilizing aid and will post that info. when I get it.

In the meantime my friend Juanita (who I talked about in my last post, on her work with organic gardens) is collecting funds to bring supplies to Miraflor—she’s already delivered milk and children’s clothes to La Pita and sent out a request for donations which I am linking to below.  I am also posting links to articles from the Nicaraguan newspapers because so far I have found little detail in the American press.  I will update this post as I learn more.


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Gardens of light

Polyculture planting

A couple weeks ago I jumped on the back of a motorcycle to check out some organic gardens outside of Estelí, in northern Nicaragua.  A friend and fellow former English teacher in Miraflor, Juanita (Jane in her native England) founded a hostel, café and tour guiding organization, Café Luz/Hospedaje Luna, which she calls a “nonprofit social initiative.”  This means the proceeds go back into the business and community instead of enriching the owners.  One of the many projects under its umbrella is the development of organic gardens to grow produce for the café, generate income for small farmers, and provide nutritious food for the farmers themselves.

I rode with Rogelio, who provides technical expertise to the farmers, as we wound our way out of town on rutted roads.  We first stopped at the house of Doña Martha, who toured us around with her toddler son in tow.  Her small parcel of land slopes down to the banks of the Río Estelí, where she draws water to irrigate in the dry season.  They’ve built raised beds from cinder blocks and stones, with soil enriched by vermicompost from a university project nearby.  While not all the space is planted now, the height of the rainy season, there were lush patches of basil, mint, oregano, and parsley, young shoots of beets and carrots, and sprouts of broccoli and cabbage pushing up through the dark soil.

Martha y su hijo

One section of her huerto, or vegetable plot, was planted in a polyculture, with a mix of veggies to shade the soil and take advantage of companion planting principles.  We chatted about the different herbs in her garden, including the oregano, which smells and tastes like Italian oregano but looks like a succulent–Martha likes to use it in soups.  She said she cooks with all the veggies she grows.  She’s been working with Café Luz since February 2011, along with the 10 other families participating in the project, who span seven communities within a couple hours of Estelí.

Nicaraguan oregano

Next we rode back up the hill, away from the river, to the huerto of Don Aristeo, the only single man involved in the project.  He lives with his mother in a house shaded by mature fruit trees he planted in the last three decades—when he arrived the land was completely deforested.  We walked a couple hundred feet behind the house to an open field planted in rows.  Green heads of cabbage and tall okra plants with silky pods dotted the field.  A long stretch of rich black soil was covered in tiny radish and broccoli sprouts while in another section bloomed unblemished heads of lettuce.  When I asked Aristeo how much he ate from his huerto he responded, “I’m learning more and more about cooking with vegetables, but my favorite is beets.”

Juanita, Aristeo, y Rogelio

Juanita has exciting plans to expand the project, including working with farmers to improve their efficiency and the quality of the produce, as well as increasing their income (currently they average 2000 córdobas per three months, or about $90, though that increases during the dry season months of Dec.-May).  She has more potential markets lined up, including a preschool in Managua and a restaurant, which will require a greater volume of produce.  As with all development projects here, success depends on creativity, flexibility and resourcefulness—in addition to proceeds from the hostel the project relies on volunteers and donations.  As to the veggies themselves, at Café Luz I ate a hearty salad featuring huerto-grown lettuce, beets, and carrots, and I can attest to their deliciousness!

Aristeo's lettuce!


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Carlos Fonseca

I decided to take a class at one of the Spanish schools in León to make another connection with the community.  I asked for a teacher who could talk to me about politics and current events, and met a man in his mid-twenties, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, with glasses and spiky dark hair.  He introduced himself as Carlos, and I asked for his last name for my notes.  “Fonseca,” he replied.  I looked at him, surprised, because I knew one of the founders (and martyrs) of the Sandinista revolution was Carlos Fonseca.  “Were you named in his honor?” I asked.  “No,” he smiled, “he’s my grandfather.”

Well, Carlos Fonseca (the original) is to Nicaragua perhaps what Martin Luther King is to the U.S.—a brilliant radical who synthesized  the critiques and methods of those who came before, and was killed before he could see the fruits of his labor.  (Though in terms of philosophy the comparison is not apt–Fonseca proposed the armed resistance against the Somoza dictatorship, and as a guerrillero was killed during a battle in the northern mountains.)

I was fascinated by this connection, and an opportunity to frame the current political situation in Nicaragua in light of the revolutionary history.  First we talked about the history of the Sandinista revolution. “Después del Triunfo,” Carlos would frequently say, “they launched a massive literacy campaign” or “they rewrote the Constitution.”  Even though I have consistently lived and volunteered in Sandinista communities in Estelí and Miraflor, I hadn’t heard this expression, “after the Triumph,” (and yes, it is capitalized) which has apparently been revived in the current political climate.  Carlos and I ended up talking for a couple hours about his grandfather, his father, and his own beliefs about Daniel Ortega, current president of Nicaragua and Sandinista “nobility” himself.

Shoeshiner next to city hall and a stencil promoting Ortega and Chavez--including in 2017!

The critics of Ortega are many, mostly from the right but also from the left, who accuse him of undermining Nicaragua’s democratic institutions by consolidating press outlets like television stations under the auspices of the state, of manipulating the judiciary, and most glaringly, of violating the constitution by running for a second term as president.  (The Nicaraguan constitution, dating from the end of the first Sandinista era, limits presidents to one 5-year term).  Many foreign governments have also lost faith in the Nicaraguan government, closing their embassies and discontinuing aid projects.  Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Holland and Austria pulled hundreds of millions of aid dollars from the country after documentation of fraud in the 2008 municipal elections.

Carlos supports the frente, the Sandinista party itself, yet I asked him how he could support Ortega, knowing that he had violated the constitution.  He repeated the party line, that Ortega’s “right” to run for office as an equal citizen under the law trumped term limits.  (Ortega argued, and won, this point in a court of hand-picked judges, after his argument was rejected by the National Assembly).  That’s the argument of philosophy, as it were.  Further, Carlos posed the argument of function: Daniel (as his supporters call him) needs more time to manifest the great changes he and the frente have promised.

Carlos also named some of the achievements of the Ortega government: free schooling through high school, funding and support for public universities, projects in building homes and in nutrition and rural electrification. (From my own observations in rural northern Nicaragua, Ortega’s government did succeed in bringing electricity to many people who’d been promised la luz for decades.)

Campaign banner for Aleman

Carlos offered his own critique of the right: they’re neoliberal, haven’t offered concrete solutions to the social and economic problems of Nicaragua, and are posting as their candidate ex-president Arnoldo Alemán, convicted of corruption and money laundering (yet who never served jail time as a result of a sketchy “pact” made with Ortega).

I pushed Carlos on the impact Ortega’s decisions were having on the frente and the country: was it worth it to lose so much foreign support, to have a less-than-free press, all so Ortega could be reelected?  Yet he was unwilling to concede that Ortega might be doing more harm than good.

I also studied with another teacher, a law student who was raised staunchly Sandinista, who was critical of Ortega, and lamented that there were simply no good choices in the presidential race.  Others have told me the same thing, and said they would either not vote or would vote for Daniel since he was the least reactionary.

It may be difficult, if not impossible, for Carlos to critique the people who have brought about so much change, and who, furthermore, are his actual family.  Yet I imagine young people, with fewer entanglements with the past, and more social connectivity, will be the ones to envision a path for Nicaragua that combines socialist ideals with media openness and self-expression.


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