BALGUE, Ometepe Island – On the northeast face of Maderas Volcano, several long and bumpy kilometers after the brick road ends, a community of foreigners and nationals dedicated to sustainable development is slowly and methodically converting this area into Nicaragua’s – and perhaps Central America’s – first genuine eco-destination.
What effectively started 20 years ago as an attempt by a Nicaraguan cooperative to transition to an organic coffee farm has since sprouted into a full-bloom eco-movement on the skirts of the volcano. Today, the area between Balgüe and El Corozal has become a loosely knit community of dozens of landowners, tourism businesses and non-governmental organizations all working on different permaculture and sustainable development projects.
From homesteaders and hippies to farmers and hoteliers, this remote stretch of island is becoming a unique example of harmonious development between peoples of different cultures and the environment.
And the communities’ collective zeal for sustainability and permaculture appears to be contagious.
“The island is a magical place in a way that science can’t explain,” says U.S. expat Chris Shanks, co-director of the Bone Fide, a non-profit organization working on food security issues on Ometepe. “I am not a very spiritual person, but I am spiritual enough to recognize the specialness of this place. And I think a lot of locals and expats who live here recognized that a long time ago. I think it promotes more harmony here.”
Shanks, who teaches a university field course in permaculture to students from the University of Vermont, says he thinks people who live on an island like Ometepe, where land boundaries are visible from a slight elevation, seem to have clearer understanding of nature’s finite resources and the importance of sustainable practices.
He says that some of the sustainable farming practices are about rescuing forgotten techniques, such as cover-cropping, crop rotation and running animals through fields after crops are harvested to fertilize the land. But in many other cases, it’s about introducing new practices that are more harmonious with the earth, while designing new farming systems that produce larger yields of food.
Part of permaculture – a sustainable land-use design that creates a symbiotic relationship between human settlements and the environment – is about introducing new techniques and complex living systems, Shanks said.
For the past decade, Shanks and Bone Fide co-founder Michael Judd, have been working with the local communities to encourage farmers to move away from monoculture plots by introducing new species of plants and food-bearing trees as a way to ensure food security.
“We are creating synergies on the farm mostly between tree crops,” Shanks explained. “The idea is for the average farmer to see systems that incorporate different crops that have economic and food-security value so that if one or two crops go bad, you’ll still have three of four others to work with.”
He said the idea is not to convince farmers to abandon their traditional practices, rather to introduce them to agro-forestry techniques to create a more diverse ecosystem, known as a “dynamic balance.”
“The more complex a living system is, the more stable it is,” Shanks said.
Though he admits Nicaraguan farmers are not always immediately open to new farming techniques, he says the Bone Fide project has made progress over the past decade.
Nicaraguan farmers who have started to implement organic and sustainable practices, such as the “Carlos Díaz Cajina” cooperative that owns and manages the Finca Magdalena coffee farm, say they are thankful for the outside help.
Cooperative president José Santos López says his farm switched to organic practices in 1990 thanks to a push by two internationalists from the U.S. and Canada, who visited their farm and promised to pay a premium price for organically produced coffee. He said that process of converting the farm from conventional techniques to organic production helped the cooperative survive both the economic crisis of the 1990s and the political crisis that confronted many land-holding collectives after the Sandinista revolution ended in 1990.
“I think this has been one of the greatest factors in our survival because it has helped create awareness about what we want to do,” López said. “There was a member of the cooperative directorate who wanted to terminate the cooperative in the mid 90s, when we were in the most difficult part of the transition towards becoming an organic farm. But the decision to become an organic farm gave us a greater mission, and the roots of that effort were already deep enough for the rest of the directorate to resist dissolving the cooperative and struggle forward to make it work. And thank god it’s still working, and those efforts are now bearing fruits.”
In addition to producing organic coffee, Finca Magdalena is also producing organic fruits and vegetables. And the farm’s hacienda has become a rustic tourism lodge for nature-loving backpackers interested in visiting a functioning organic farm.
Finca Magdalena’s success, López says, has also convinced many other non-affiliated local farmers in the area to start producing organic products. He estimates that 40 percent of local farmers have now switched to an organic model.
The more conventional holdouts, he said, are also now starting to realize the benefits of organic production as they see more foreigners coming to the area and adopting a similar model.
“If foreigners come and do the same thing here, it makes our position stronger because the other Nicaraguans see that what we are doing is not crazy,” Santos told The Nica Times. “Many Nicaraguans have to see something be done by foreigners to realize it works, otherwise they think it’s crazy. Nicaraguans always think that people from the outside know more.”
However, Shanks and others who are involved in the sustainability movement say much of what they are trying to do is help farmers unlearn unsustainable practices that were brought in from the outside, and relearn sustainable practices that have been forgotten here over the generations.
At the same time, Shanks said, Bone Fide also hopes to work with local farmers to incorporate science and new technologies in their traditional practices.
“We are not neo-luddites. We are interweaving traditional knowledge with modern science to make a hybrid system where the whole is greater than the parts,” Shanks said.
Perhaps the most advanced and complete permaculture model on the island is Totoco Ecolodge, which opened in 2009, 1.5 kilometers up the volcano slope from the town of Balgüe.
With seed financing from an investor group in Holland, Totoco is comprised of an ecolodge, an organic farm and a foundation that works on health, education and microcredit projects in the community.
The lodge itself, which is already gaining international fame as the most progressive ecolodge in Central America, is proof that luxury and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.
However, according to co-owner Martijn Priester, sustainability isn’t necessarily easy, even in a remote corner of the world where it seems there are few alternatives to
“When we did our research, we found that projects and people who have ambitions to be sustainable can still get easily sidetracked. Just starting a business here is hard enough and you can end up spending all your money and energy on just trying to stay afloat, rather than on community and environmental issues,” Priester said.
That’s why Totoco was so careful to not cut any corners in the start-up phase, and employ only sustainable practices rather than try to retrofit later.
Priester says the three key issues to creating a truly sustainable lodge based on a permaculture model are energy, water and waste-management.
Totoco is entirely off the grid, powered exclusively by solar panels. Hot water in the showers of the four cabinas is provided by a composting water-heater system.
All the gray-water runoff from showers, sinks and the kitchen runs through an elaborate triple grease-trap biofilter system that uses volcanic rocks, plants and a series of ponds to clean the water of excess grease, gunk and nutrients so that it can then be used to irrigate the thousands of ornamental plants, which bloom year-round on the hotel’s rolling grounds.
All the toilets at Totoco are dry composting toilets. And even the small swimming pool is set up with an elaborate solar-and-gravity powered water filtration and aeration system so that chorine and other chemicals are not needed to keep the water clean.
Though the foundation and farm are set up with a different management and financial structure than the lodge (to prevent the failure of one from affecting the others), there is also a symbiotic relationship between all three structures, whereby the farm produces food for the lodge and the lodge produces volunteers for the farm and foundation, which produces good community relations that help the lodge and farm.
“Permaculture makes an interlinking system, everything has multiple functions,” Priester said.
As a combined whole, Totoco hopes to create a complete model that is economically sustainable too.
“One can’t ignore economic sustainably,” Priester said. “It’s very easy to get people’s attention with environmental and social sustainability, but it’s not going to be very realistic or practical unless it makes money – that’s the world we live in and if it doesn’t make any money, it’s not going to be sustainable, no matter how many panels you have and how cute your composting toilet is.”
“Sustainability is hard work because we’ve gotten into habits that are so utterly unsustainable,” he added.
Isolation, however, has helped the cause a bit.
“There is a clear link to being off the beaten path and being sustainable or self-sufficient,” Priester acknowledges.
In part, the isolation of this community, where the roads look like dry river beds, has sheltered Maderas from other types of tourism and development that are already encroaching on the other side of the island.
And that has given Maderas a chance to establish the type of sustainable tourism and development that it wants for itself, before the roads are put in and folks other than adventurous backpackers start exploring the island’s “green” volcano.
“It is inevitable that there will be more a diverse tourism offering here on Ometepe once the road comes and the market grows,” Priester says.
The hope, he said, is that by the time the island airport infrastructure is in place – perhaps by next year – the Maderas side of the island will already have a branding as an eco-destination, making it difficult for other types of projects to nose their way in.
“This island is already a biosphere and a nature reserve, and so we hope that all of us being here and working on sustainable projects in some way means there is a higher chance that future investors will be attracted to doing something in ecotourism,” Priester said. “We want this side of this volcano to become known as an ecotourism hotspot.”
For more information about Totoco, visit totoco.com.ni.
For more information on Bone Fide, visit www.projectbonefide.com