How your travel can benefit Nicaraguan social organisations

After two years living and travelling in Nicaragua I have seen that just by staying at certain hotels you support the education of needy children. And by eating in some restaurants you can provide jobs for adults with special needs. A number of tourist ventures in Nicaragua are now ‘social-enterprises’ which dedicate their profits to charities, or programmes that benefit the local community. But many of these ventures are not well publicized, and some towns seem to be missing out. I wonder if we could make a ‘portal’ or site where Nicaraguan social enterprises can easily be found?

You kayaking trip can benefit children’s education on Ometepe island

I work for a ‘‘Sister City’ programme  that regularly brings delegations of visitors to Nicaragua. There are many organisations who bring groups of visitors to this wonderful country, from  ‘Global Glimpse’ to brigades of deaf teachers, or Church Mission groups. Not forgetting  normal groups of tourists enjoying what the country has to offer. If each of these groups stayed in hotels which are Social Enterprises then we could bring large amounts of new income towards school and social programmes. I try to take my groups to one of these Five Favourite Places, but I also try to spend our hotel and restaurant budget in Social-enterprises.

A Social Enterprise is a company, like a hotel or a café or shop, which channels its profits to a non-profit or Non-Government Organisation (NGO). Across Nicaragua Social Enterprises are now raising large amounts of funding for poor communities and local charities. Let me give some examples…

I stayed at Hacienda Merida on Ometepe which was a great place to relax and  watch the sunset views. But the best thing was knowing that the profits go towards building a primary school for the local community. The hostal income allows them to build a new classroom each year. (the classrooms are built partly out of recycled bottles which is also beneficial). The owner, Alvaro Molina, began years ago with a dream. Now this self-supporting project has allowed the building of four well-equipped classrooms and dozens of children receiving a bilngual education. All paid for by the profits from happy travellers.

The lovely primary school supported by Hacienda Merida

Esteli is the town in Nicaragua that is best served by Social Enterprise hotels. Casa Vinculos is a lovely hotel that directly supports Fundacion Vinculos, which promotes Early Childhood Education. When I take delegations to Esteli we take over all nine rooms in Casa Vinculos and enjoy their good food and crafts shop whilst knowing that our funds benefit local children. Esteli also has the more upmarket Hotel Los Arcos, which supports a health centre, plus SONATI, and Hostal Luna which cater for the backpacker market and support environmental work and a mobile library.

Granada has Hotel Con Corazon  which supports education programmes. Hotel Con Coraon is interesting because its publicity positively emphasizes the social benefits supported and its name reflects this. Unfortunately since it is always booked up well in advance I have never stayed there, and so far I have not heard of a second similar hotel in the town. Since Granada is the heartland of tourism in Nicaragua, with over 100 hotels, I believe there is plenty of scope for more hotels that could be added to Hotel Con Corazon and take up more of this market segment.

NGOs and non-profits aim to encourage a love of reading for pleasure. Nicaraguan schools and homes have a major shortage of books

By contrast, in terms of social-profit hotels, Leon and Managua are disappointing. In Leon the SONATI hostal does good work with the backpacker crowd, raising awareness on environmental work. But in terms of a hotel, for better off clients, I don’t know of a single hotel in Leon or Las Peñitas or Poneloya that dedicates all its profits to social programmes.  Of course there are some hotels that will give a donation now and then to a charity. But I am talking about hotels that exist to raise funds for the social good. If you exist, then let the world know. I bring groups to Leon 4 times a year and would love to place visitors in a hotel on the model of Casa Vinculos or Casa con Corazon.

In Managua there are hundreds of hotels. Like Leon, if one exists like the examples above, then you don’t advertise widely enough. Hotel Europeo does support a foundation but it is not clear from the website what % of the profits goes to the charitable work. I would also love to know if a hotel with social benefit exists in San Juan del Sur or other towns.

Cafes and restaurants can also be Social Enterprises, such as the wonderful Cafe de Las Sonrisas in Granada, which employs deaf staff

The tourism sector can support more Social Enterprises – not only hotels but also restaurants, language schools and other services. Esteli has Café Luz which raises funds for the mobile library.  Granada has the wonderful Café de la Sonrisa  where deaf young people work. Also of course there are shops and crafts. In Granada there is a Hammock workshop next door to Café de la Sonrisa which provides  employment opportunities for differently-able young people. In Leon or Managua, is there anything similar?

To learn Spanish you can visit the Mariposa Language School. To climb  a volcano from Leon then go with  Quetzaltrekkers which raises funds through providing tours and guides. Quetaltrekkers provide funding for a range of Leon NGOs such as  Las Tias and NECAT, to pay the salaries of teachers and social workers in deprived areas of town.

If you want to climb a volcano, go with Quetsaltrekkers, who devote their profits to support NGOs such in Leon

So these tourist-orientated ventures are providing a great service. But they could be better known and there could be more of them. How could tourist-orientated social enterprises in Nicaragua be better publicized? I would love to find a one-stop shop where you could easily find information for every town in the country. How could this be set up?

My dream is to be able to always stay in social enterprise hotels when I bring groups here.  To spend most of our budget with services like Quetaltrekkers and mainly eat in cafes or restaurants like Café de las Sonrisas. Do you think that will be possible? And how could it be set up?

 

Photos by Steve Lewis. Follow Steve on instagram at @owstonlewis

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Community Tourism in Nicaragua – Get Off the Beaten Track & Do Good!

 

As the sun came up I lay in bed listening to the howler monkeys in the forest…after a delicious ‘tipica’ breakfast with our host family we had a great walk through the coffee fields up to the rain-forest in the hill-tops. We saw sloths, oriole birds, wonderful butterflies and Nicaragua’s national bird, the guardabaranco. Community tourism in San Ramon allows farmers to diversify their farm-income and encourages all the community to preserve the environment. It’s a win-win for tourists and the local community together’.

Stay in local houses amidst the lovely nature of La Reyna, San Ramon

Although Nicaragua is still the second poorest country in Latin America, tourism is booming, with around 5% annual growth in recent years, supported by Nicaragua’s excellent record of peace and safety, and a growing economy. According to the World Tourism Council 2017 report tourism contributed $720 million in direct revenue to the country, amounting to around 5.3% of GDP in 2016. Tourism makes up nearly 4% of total employment, or 100,000 people. So things are looking good.

But there are flies in the tourism ointment. Land on the pacific coast is now selling for inflated prices and being snapped up by foreign buyers. Tourism is concentrated in two or three small areas of the country. Granada and San Juan del Sur are over-touristed, and are losing some of their Nicaraguan culture.  Much of the tourism industry is owned by large companies, and eventually by non-Nicaraguan private sector.

There is a way for tourists here to get off the beaten track, and see the real Nicaragua, by visiting rural villages and cooperatives that run community tourism initiatives. Community Tourism and Eco-tourism are ways to experience rural life, stay with local people and help preserve the environment. According to Martha Honey, author of Who Owns Paradise?, ‘ecotourism is travel to fragile and often protected environments, that strive to be low-impact and small-scale. It helps educate the traveller, provides funds for local conservations, directly benefits the economic development of local communities and fosters respect for different cultures’.

 

Community and locally owned tourism contributes more to a country than large scale package tours or high-end hotel chains. Globally the tourism sector that contributes least to local economies is the cruise-liner sector. It is estimated that if you buy a cruise-holiday, 90% of your total spending stays in the country of origin. Whereas back-packers, and low-impact travellers in Central America spend 80% of their total spend in the region.

When you are travelling in Nicaragua try to get away from the Southern ‘tourist-triangle’ (Granada –Ometepe-San Juan del Sur) and visit some of the small towns and rural nature areas. Travel on your own or, if you are in the USA or UK, sign up with a small group trip run by one of the  Sister-cities such as Gettysburg-Leon  or one of the Nicaragua solidarity groups. Here are five great ecotourism recommendations that we have enjoyed in the last 18 months:

1/ Stay with a rural family, Miraflor nature reserve, outside Esteli.

Beautiful countryside, nice hiking, and lovely waterfalls. Google UCA Miraflor Tourism to arrange to stay with a local family, and to go horse-riding or bird watching. Prices are very reasonable, at around $20 per day with meals included. By travelling on public transport you help to keep your environmental footprint low. Tourists who show their love for nature encourage local communities to preserve the forests.

2 / Volunteer in exchange for reduced lodging rates.

In Rancho Esperanza, on Jiquilillo beach in Chinandega, you can stay for a couple of months or longer and really contribute to the life of the local community. (It’s beautiful too). Volunteers work in a Kids Club with children. If you can’t stay that long you are still encouraged to support the local community by taking ‘tours’ such as line fishing, kayaking, or learn to climb a coconut tree.

3/ Somoto Canyon

The author, floating gently through Somoto Canyon

Somoto canyon is a must-do in Nicaragua, an adrenalin rush that will provide you with some of your best memories. Somoto is in Northern Nicaragua, so helps to get tourists to explore much-less visited part of the country. You can stay the night near the canyon, and make sure you use local guides with a good reputation. We have always taken groups with Henry Soriano, of Somoto Canyon Tours,  who are highly recommended for a friendly service with a good commitment to safety.

4/ Support Cooperatives

Around the country look out for the system of ‘co-manejo’ where local communities have joint control of natural resources with MARENA the ministry for the environment. In Las Peñitas, a beautiful fishing community outside Leon a cooperative of 12 local people  offer tours of Isla Juan Venado and the mangrove swamps. Between July and December they protect the eggs of endangered turtles, and at any time of the year you can stay the night in rustic cabinas on a very isolated beach.

In Las Peñitas and Jiquilillo community groups protest the endangered baby turtles

5/ Fair trade coffee villages

There is a wide range of options on offer, well-marketted throughout the North. Ask in any hotel around Esteli, Matagalpa, Jinotega and the Segovias.

In San Ramon a series of small villages and struggling cooperatives eke out a living from coffee production. After tough times under the right-wing government in the 1990s the co-ops have been supported to improve their incomes by CECOCAFEN  an umbrella body. The co-ops have now improved their shade-grown coffee, are moving to organic status, and have started homestays and visitor programmes. Support the fair-trade coffee villages and stay in a beautiful mountain community, enjoy fresh-roast home-grown coffee, and also visit gold-mines, viewpoints, cloud-forest, all the time surrounded by monkeys, sloths and butterflies.

For more information on all these areas the Moon Guide book is an excellent source of information. In this blog post they also recommend five rural cooperatives that get consistently high reviews  http://moon.com/2015/06/enjoy-sustainable-tourism-in-nicaragua/. Check them out and soon you’ll have your own list of favourites to share.

 

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Which are your favourite recommendations for low-impact tourism in Nicaragua or other countries you want to share? Please use the comments box below to share your recommendations.

Deaf in North and South

For the second of my blogs about deaf children in Nicaragua, I interviewed two North American deaf activists who came here recently to visit deaf programmes. Even thirty years after the Sandinista revolution, there is a still some solidarity with Nicaragua from the USA and Europe. Brigades visit the country to see the reality here. Kath and I helped organise a brigade of interpreters for the deaf, who visited the Special School in Estelí for a week. It was a great chance to see the lives of deaf people in Nicaragua through the eyes of people in the deaf world in the USA.

Learning Nicaraguan Sign Language with local instructor Heydi

The brigade came from Oregon Western University, and was supported by the deaf education charity Manos Unidas. I interviewed Professor Patrick Graham, the coordinator of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing programme, and Erin Maue, a student in the interpreting programme who aims to work as a teacher of the deaf. Both are deaf and use American Sign Language as their preferred method of communication.

 

 

I asked about their impressions of the deaf community in Nicaragua from this brief visit. ‘It’s very different to anything I’m used to’, said Erin. ‘There is a huge lack of resources here, the students deserve a lot better. Most of the children are really language-deprived – it’s a shock to see 15 year olds so far behind’.

An activity in the Special School run by the brigade from Oregon

The Special School, where the brigade worked for a week, (painting murals and making educational materials), is a school for children with all types of disabilities – deaf, blind, cerebral palsy, autistic spectrum, and other behavioural problems. Patrick remarked ‘I get the idea of inclusion, but so much time is lost to teaching. We saw that some of the deaf children can read or can recognise colours, but there are so many interruptions. And there are so few materials. Deaf children depend a lot on visuals, on touch, movement, even smell. Chairs and desks are less important than resources are, to play with, and learn from. I don’t get the impression the teachers take the kids out to explore the world around them. There could be much better training of the teachers’.

We talked about priorities. This is partly because Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America. But it’s also a perennial discussion topic for the deaf community in any country. Signing, or hearing aids? Deaf culture or integration? These are polemical questions in the North and also discussed here in the South. ‘The top priority for me would be teach deaf people here to sign’, said Patrick. The health service in Nicaragua is free, but doesn’t provide hearing aids. ‘Even if you have aids, the batteries can run out, or the aids can break – but you always have your hands’.

Erin painting with one of the school students

‘Children should have both opportunities’ agreed Erin, ‘to be taught to sign, but also to have hearing aids’. But for deaf schools there are many more costs and demands. There will be problems of sound-proofing and more equipment. Patrick said ‘I’d love to come back and be able to build a school with sound-proofing, with aids and signs, and an outside area where the children could learn…and where the deaf community can see role models… successful deaf people …. It’s all connected.’

The other crying-need is an early identification programme for the deaf. Hearing babies are learning language from the day they are born. The first four years of life are the most crucial for learning a language. But in Nicaragua most children don’t start school until age 5 or 6. Depending where you live, there is either no system for identifying deaf children, or the system is extremely weak and haphazard. Yet if you can identify a child with hearing loss when they are young, it’s possible to provide language (either through signing or with hearing aids, or both). ‘Early intervention is the bread and butter of deaf education … the early years are much more important than age five to 18’. But sadly it barely exists here.

Patrick & Kath building rapport with Shoskey through sign language

‘We saw one young child in the school who was identified at age three and is now being helped’, said Patrick. ‘That’s fantastic, early ID is working for him. He is learning to sign, he wants to come to school because that’s the only place where he can communicate… He could be a leader of the deaf-community in the future. But only if his mum brings him to school and encourages him’.

I finished by asking what impressions they would take back to their lives in the USA. Erin said she would use her phone less, try to be more patient with people, and walk more. ‘I realised that if the school is a mile away, then you can just walk there…. It’s not the end of the world.’

Patrick emphasised the disparity in wealth and resources: ‘Maybe in the North we have too many materials…. we could be more inventive? The teachers here do so much with so little. There are no educational toys in the school – if the teacher buys one she has to buy it out of her own salary. In Oregon University we just built a new state-of-the-art building and apparently it has 11,000 feet of cables. Here they can’t even afford to photocopy worksheets. All they can do is write on the board, and the children copy it down, whether they understand it or not. When the board is full the teacher rubs it out so she can continue.

The Oregon brigade met American ambassador Laura Dogu (back row in blue top) who is supportive of deaf education in Nicaragua

‘But it’s not only about resources’, said Patrick, ‘it’s about identity. At the moment in Nicaragua adults are ashamed to have a disabled child. Many hide them away. We need more role models like some of the deaf adults we met here, to go knocking on doors and bring the deaf children to school. The state shouldn’t look at deaf people as disabled, but as a cultural minority with their own language. Deaf children need to learn their identity first as being deaf, and then as being Nicaraguan. Proud deaf people here are the ones who can take the community forward’.

 

A good news story: Improved health in El Salvador

img_3049Let’s start 2017 with some good news. I will introduce you to my friend Graciela. Graciela’s story shows us that life is getting better in most developing countries, that foreign aid works, and that most people in most poor countries are healthier now than they used to be. They are taking control of their lives.

From 1991 to 1994 I lived in a village in rural El Salvador with my wife Kath. Avelares was one of the villages we visited often, trying to support a primary health service in a very poor area. It’s a small community high in the hills, and in 1991 was in territory controlled by FMLN guerrillas. Local people were trying to provide a very rudimentary health and education system with young volunteers from each community. In Avelares back then, Graciela was the volunteer providing primary health services. She had just a few weeks of training and some medicines and bandages provided by the Catholic diocese and an excellent NGO named Concern America.

In November 2016 Kath and I visited the villages again and were thrilled to meet Graciela, who remarkably is still the provider of health care in Avelares and three surrounding villages. Twenty five years on she is looking a little older now – but then again so are we! She still lives in the same house and works in the same one room clinic made from mud bricks. But what has changed significantly are the health statistics. Graciela told us with great pride that no child has died in her community in the last eleven years. We were astonished.

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Graciela in her health post

In the 1990’s in El Salvador the Under Five Infant Mortality Rate was 60 deaths per 1000 live births. Today it has fallen to 16. But in rural areas deaths of children were much more common. Kath and I probably saw one child death every couple of months, when we were living and working there. There was little antenatal care, very poor nutrition, and no access to hospital, due to the war and the very poor road to the lowland areas. All babies were born at home, with no electricity, with only a local midwife to help. At a rough estimate I’d say one child in ten died before the age of five in the area around Avelares. And maternal mortality rates in the 1990’s were also very high.

adan-with-his-deceased-twins

Our neighbour Adan in 1993, holds his deceased newborn twins before their funeral. They were born a month premature. Reina,the mother, gave birth at home with no professional health attendance.

Last month Graciela explained to us with pride the improvements made now by the ministry of health. ‘All children are born in hospital now’ she explained. ‘It is my job to deliver antenatal advice, and take weight and health measurements. But two weeks before the birth date the mother-to-be is taken down to the town in the lowlands, to wait in the ‘Casa Materna’, the maternity home. I learnt to my amazement that in the last dozen years only one child had been born in the village. ‘That time I couldn’t get transport in time’ she explained.

Having once been supported by the Church and NGOs, Graciela is now employed by the Ministry of Health under their Primary Health Care system. This has been a very positive move by the state, to retain the rural experience of the community health workers (CHWs). In some provinces ex-CHWs make up the majority of the paid primary health workforce. One of Graciela’s old colleagues, Dagoberto Menjivar is now a senior doctor and administrator. Yet he started as a CHW with fifteen days training on the ‘Curso basico’. A real success story.

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The room on the left-hand side is the Avelares health post. On the right-hand side is a community centre

Graciela told us that the Ministry is very demanding. She has to visit every house in her communities on a regular timetable and carry out a series of controls and vaccinations in every house. ‘Once the mother has returned to the village after giving birth, I have to visit the house every day for the first week, then once a week for a month, then once a fortnight etc. If a child were to die in my area, I would be taken before a tribunal and can be held responsible. If a child dies of a preventable early-years illness I could go to jail…”

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All babies now are born in hospital. Graciela arranges an ambulance for them two weeks ahead of their due-date.

It is not only infant and maternal deaths that have diminished rapidly in the last 25 years. In El Salvador and nearly all Latin American countries there has been steady progress in life expectancy and other health statistics. With more certainty over the health of their children, families have been taking more control over their fertility. When we lived in the region most parents had 6, 8 or even more children. We knew one neighbour who told us sadly that she had given birth to 18 children “but only five are alive today”. In 1990 nationally only half of women used family planning and in our rural area the percentage was miniscule. Today in El Salvador nearly 75% of women of a relevant age are using contraception. Graciela explains the benefits of up to six methods and can administer most of them herself.

In 1990, in our zone, I estimate local women had on average six births. Nationally in El Salvador women had an average of 3.8 births. Today the figure has fallen to just under two. This bodes well for future health of the family. Child and maternal health services under the state system are free – which encourages take-up, especially from rural areas. Donor countries in the 1990’s and 2000’s which supported El Salvador can feel proud of this progress.

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Graciela outside her health post. She provides all routine vaccinations as well as family planning and all preventative child and maternal health services.

There are still many problems in El Salvador, such as ongoing violence from youth gangs, and these problems get covered in the global media. But the country is a democracy (and the current president is a former guerrilla leader from the FMLN). Countries like the UK, and donors such as the EU and the World Bank supported Salvador to recover from the civil war and build capacity in the health service. Now El Salvador has a working and effective primary health care service, staffed by local people like Graciela and Dagoberto, who know their communities. To me that is a pleasure to hear. Behind the headlines, the health of poor people in Latin America is steadily getting better.

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The hills above Avelares. Graciela walks from village to village up these slopes. Throughout Latin America Community Health Workers provide the health service in remote rural areas.

Brigadistas & volunteers – the same but different?

How much is there in common between young volunteers who come to Nicaragua today, and the anti-war work brigades who came here in the 1980’s? I have just read two fascinating accounts of the 1980s coffee brigades, one from the USA and one from the UK.

Warehouse destroyed by contra near Somoto 1984

Warehouse near Somoto, destroyed by U.S.backed ‘contra’rebels, 1984. 

Brigadista, Harvest and War in Nicaragua is a moving book written in 1986 by Jeff Jones. Jeff interviewed dozens of American citizens who came to Nicaragua in the early 1980’s, when the Sandinista revolution was young and optimistic, and US president Ronald Reagan was funding the contras to destroy the revolution in its infancy.

While the counter-revolution burnt down health posts and attacked rural farms, brigades of U.S. volunteers came on work brigades to pick cotton or coffee, to accompany the revolution, and then return to their country to lobby against an invasion of the country. Jeff Jones estimates that around 650 U.S. volunteers came to work here in 1984, including some who were veterans of the anti-war struggle, and others newly politicised by the gross injustice of the war against the Sandinistas.

Brigadista Harvest & War book cover

From the UK a shorter but more scholarly work was recently published by David Lewis. Brigadista: An Analysis of British and US volunteers during the contra war in Nicaragua. http://nicaraguasc.org.uk/news/article/182/sandinistas-and-solidarity:-the-contribution-of-1980s-brigadistas

Based at Leeds University, David interviewed British ex-brigadistas. The paper is able to assess the long term impact of those visits on the lives of the volunteers. Most said the experience in Nicaragua had affected their lives hugely, the way they would vote, the way they would shop, their lifelong involvement in community activities and campaigns. Many later supported Anti-Apartheid Movement or other similar struggles, or campaigns in their home towns or the Labour Party.

I can associate strongly with these 2 accounts, since I picked coffee for three months in 1984/85 with an international brigade. When my sister and I returned to the UK in 1985 we helped organise the first British brigades with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC). Over the following decades the NSC organised dozens of brigades, study tours, and trade union exchanges, and to their credit they are still active today.

Lucinda picking coffee armed

Armed coffee-pickers guarded the international brigades. 1984

Today many developing countries receive huge numbers of young people looking to volunteer on dozens of different schemes and brigades. Very many of these are short-term, private sector, ‘voluntourism’ schemes, that contribute little, if anything to the host country. Nicaragua also receives dozens of religious missions a year, mainly from US evangelical churches, intent more on evangelizing the poor than in helping them climb out of poverty.

In Nicaragua we also receive about 500 young English volunteers a year from a UK-government funded scheme (International Citizen Service). This is a much more formal scheme than the private volunteerism projects. Conditions are quite tough, some stay for up to ten weeks in rural communities with little electricity or running water. While some of the projects could be better designed, many of the volunteers contribute a lot and go home changed in many ways.

The big difference between the 1980’s and today is that in the 1980’s nearly all the brigadistas had a political analysis. People knew why they were coming to Nicaragua specifically, because they admired the achievements of the Sandinistas, and opposed U.S. intervention. One young American – Benjamin Linder paid with his life, murdered by the contra, and his grave is still well-tended today.

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Grave of Benjamin Linder, Matagalpa, 2016

Today I believe that most young people want to volunteer, often anywhere, often as part of gap-year, and don’t mind very much where they go or what they do.  Volunteers today are rarely ‘in solidarity’, and some have a very poor knowledge of the country they have come to visit. To be fair, in the 1980s we were very clear that we were in solidarity with the Sandinistas, achieving great strides forward on behalf of the poor. Today few people would see themselves in solidarity with the FSLN.

If we are optimistic, we can hope that the young people who visit Nicaragua and Costa Rica will go back to the UK at least with a greater environmental awareness, and hopefully with a desire to support the UK’s commendable programme of international aid. But it is difficult to see the current wave of volunteers around the world going back home with a heightened political consciousness.  Is there more that could be done in the countries that send volunteers, to move these young people into lifelong activists for social justice?