Sustainable Living in Chagüitillo, by Paul Cook

CookP 1 small.JPGCookP 2 small.JPGWithin walking distance of the center of Chagüitillo, Nicaragua, is a beautiful ravine with a trickling stream, a plethora of wildlife, and intriguing petroglyphs. Unfortunately, the ravine is also extremely contaminated. Both local residents and residents from a nearby town bath and launder their clothes in the natural wells formed by the stream. Cows from the local farms not only drink the contaminated water, but the subsequent feces they leave behind make the ravine un-usable. Because of the contamination, the Pre-Columbian museum is unable to lead tours through the ravine, not only limiting the museum’s financial resources, but also depriving any visitors from viewing the petroglyphs.

CookP 3 small.JPGI worked closely with the Asociación para el Desarrollo de Chagüitillo (ADCH), or the Association for the Development of Chagüitillo, and with the Chagüitillo community to preserve the petroglyphs and the water from the stream by helping to construct a water trough at the entrance to the ravine which simultaneously prevents the cows from entering the ravine and provides them with clean water. A control box was also constructed to facilitate the distribution of water and allow for future expansion of the project. A local resident who provided generous support to the project, Natasha Robinson, described its impact on her: “I thought I could just pay for this project to be done. I thought I could be home right now drinking coffee, I didn’t think I would have to be out here working in the quebrada. But here I am working and loving it.”

When I arrived in Nicaragua and met my host family, I tried helping prepare dinner my first night there. After insisting for several minutes, they let me take plates to the table. That was it. The next night I asked again and they insisted that I sit down and start eating. I am not sure about other families, but all work and chores were dealt with in a similar manner. I would ask to help or say that they didn’t need to do something for me and they would insist and do it anyway. I never got used to people washing and ironing my clothes for me. Perhaps out of a great desire to make sure their guest was happy or they were genuinely full of kindness; whatever their motivation, my host family made certain they were doing all they could to make my stay with them comfortable.

CookP 4 small.JPGNonetheless, what I found surprising about my stay in Nicaragua was how quickly I became integrated into their daily culture. In just a few days I was living and working as most Nicaraguans in that rural part of the country did. Waking early, visiting farms, working on projects and returning for lunch with the family became the routine and life hardly varied from this. The afternoons were spent working on my second project and the evenings were filled with studying, watching novellas, or working with my host father on one of our many side projects. My thoughts and wishes quickly became intertwined with the dreams and wishes of my family. Most of my projects had an agriculture focus and so much of Nicaraguan agriculture depends on the fickle weather. I found myself waking with excitement each morning with the hope of overnight rain and a quite gloom when I realized we had gone another day without it. I began hoping for a black bean harvest full of primary class beans. In September, I remember hearing with great dismay that the rain is now actually ruining the crops because the black beans could not properly dry out. Talking with individuals from the area I learned the significance of growing seasons, the grave dependence on rain water, and the dire consequences of underemployment / unemployment.

I also worked with ADCH’s small organic farm. Growing fruits and vegetables to make and sell jellies and spreads, the farm of ADCH employs 10-25 people. The farm also supports the community through donating 15% of proceeds to the local preschool, supporting university studies, and promoting ecotourism. However, all of the crops withered and the community supporting activities ended when the neighboring farm supplying ADCH with irrigation water was sold and its new owners refused to continue selling its water. The farm’s manager wants to develop a model farm which will be used to demonstrate and educate the economic and environmental benefits of solar power, low-volume irrigation systems, and organic farming to other local producers. As a second project, I began investigating the resources and support needed to install a proper well, powered with solar panels, on the farm’s property. An efficient irrigation system for the farm was developed by the engineers at Durman Esquibel and the bureaucratic process to perforate the well has begun; the project still needs financial support before it can continue with the construction of its well and irrigation system though.

CookP 5 small.JPGVicente, the farm’s manager, thinks everything is possible if enough brain power is applied. He has a vision of a future Nicaragua that most would describe as implausible, but he convinced me over a few sessions of cigarettes and coffee that he could change the world if he had the support. Believing deeply in the power of communal cooperation, Vicente convincingly speaks of socialism in a personalized, but global way. With personal action on a micro level, he explains, we can change everything.

CookP 6.JPGToward the end of my internship, I reflect on my stay in Nicaragua. Working with so many wonderful people really was the most rewarding part of my experience in Nicaragua. As part of the organic farm project I traveled all over the country meeting people who had information on farming, wells, and solar panels. I visited rural communities where people had no city supplied running water, but used a solar powered pump to distribute drinking water. Grant work is still ongoing for our solar powered pump, but the farm lacks any funding for the equipment. Unfortunately, the recent flooding has just now diverted international aid away from any non-critical farming projects. The work in the ravine went well after a rough start. I organized several local soccer teams to help with the project and this provided great buy-in and support from the community. A water trough and watering system were built for the cows and plans to build a washing area are still in the works. The projects would not have been as successful without the great help from dozens of wonderful people. I am honored to have worked in such a truly great country.