San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Art Can Help Motivate Environmental Change

Through art we heal and communicate as in no other form of language. And to believe in the power of art is to see the work of the community of Calle Nueva, Granada, which responded powerfully to a mural painted in their neighborhood by Masaya artist Jairo Sandino.

Jairo has an interesting legacy of art both here and in Lancaster, England (one of Granada’s sister cities), where he taught mural art to English schoolchildren in 2002 as part of an artist-exchange program.

After a chance meeting with Jairo in Granada’s Central Park, I asked him to assist me in fulfilling my dream of teaching environmental awareness through art, so people can understand the consequences of dumping trash in Granada’s troubled arroyos.

Jairo understood my vision immediately and, with the help of Granada’s environmental director Julio Cano, we set to work identifying bridges where dumping is a major problem. We found an old 1920s bridge over the arroyo at Calle Nueva, which is lined on one side with what was an unsightly wall.

The wall, which was erected to deter dumping, was covered in graffiti, and hasn’t protected the creek from contamination. Residents of Calle Nueva recall that only a decade ago they used to catch sardines in the in the creek for food. But more recently, the creek has become choked with plastic, metal scraps, paper and other unidentifiable yuck.

The water itself runs alternately milky gray to black and appears thick with oil waste and chemical hazards.

When we arrived at the site with plans in hand, neighbors pleaded with us to not cover the wall with more political billboards and propaganda. When we assured them that wasn’t our intention and explained our plans, the residents expressed genuine delight in the project.

Jairo’s mural itself is a blended scene that includes a science lesson, a jovial family, nature and political statement – all wrapped up in one. It dances in place and spreads optimism and education to all who view it.

Members of the community offered to pose so their portraits could be included in the mural. Each day as Jairo came to paint, the people in the community came out to watch a blighted landmark bridge become a positive community focal point.

Upon completion of the mural – which promotes recycling, teaches the hazards of dumping detergent and household waste, and promotes organic eating, gardening and holistic thinking – the neighbors wanted more. They chose to initiate a project to remove the waste from their stream and bring back a habitat suitable for their children’s backyard.

With protective gloves and 112 huge garbage bags, citizens hauled, raked, pulled and hoisted tons of trash from their creek and reclaimed the waterway as their own. What followed next was a love chapter. We hired a cattle truck and traveled to San Juan de Oriente where we purchased over 100 plants recreate a riparian habitat.

Unfortunately, the water in the creek is so foul that we could not even irrigate our new plants and trees with it. So neighbors use municipal water supply paid for with their own money to help the plants take root.

As waste continued to find its way to the stream, the neighbors established a “watch program” throughout the night to deter dumping. The city responded with two handsome trash containers at the bridge side.

The project to reclaim the creek and care for natural resources helped bring a sense of pride back to the community, creating a sense of common purpose between neighbors. I hope their work and diligence can be an example to all communities of Granada’s barrios, and her six creeks and feeder tributaries.

In Calle Nueva, we have seen that it takes just one bit of art and the magic of imagination to transform not only a creek but an entire community’s vision of the future – a future that can be replicated with similar efforts in other neighborhoods.


While travelling through Central America four years ago, Leslie Warren, an economist and environmental administrator of from the Sierra Nevada foothills in the U.S., found herself in the land of magic that is Nicaragua. She felt a connection here that led her to pursue environmental education through art. Leslie has created murals in Matagalpa and Jicaro, and supports arroyo cleanup and mural art in Granada.

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