Building Bridges in Nicaragua and the Americas

 

Last week I spent some time at the Inanitah Community, on the beautiful island of Ometepe, teaching a small plaster workshop. Besides being an incredibly restful time in astounding beauty and getting a really good dose of organic fruits and vegetables, there was an excellent exchange of plaster and earthen floor sampling. While I was “teaching”, I learned some more local traditional uses of various materials. First, they have a lot of volcanic soils on the island with two volcanos, so making something a pretty color is a bit challenging. The sand there is gray and black. Paul did source some reddish soil from a neighbor about an hour walk away. He referred to this as the ‘’non local’’ stuff. Also, the lime in the country seems to be questionable in freshness, chemical composition and processing technique. So most people aren’t very excited about it. It tends to be chalky and weak but we did add some Pitahaya,  a cactus that we soaked in water until it became slimy (or liso) and it appeared to improve the strength and chalkiness of the lime plaster significantlyPaul also mentioned a tree bark as an additive as well but didn’t know the name of the tree.When I returned to Sabana Grande I mentioned the cactus and the tree bark to the two men , Don Lisandro and Hilario, who do a lot of the concrete foundation work around here. Well, they got very excited and animated and of course starting talking muy rapido until I raised my hands to make it clear nothing was getting in. They laughed and started over, telling me about la cascara del Guasimo, the bark of a tree that grows in abundance right here on Solar Mountain! So yesterday we harvested and soaked some Pitahaya and some Guasimo and I learned that the seed is sweet and is common refresco that they drink here. The seed is  called tigüilote. They also coppice the tree and the new growth is good food for the chickens, burros and smaller animals. Tomorrow I will make plaster samples with both additives for comparison. Don Lisandro also taught me how to make a lime paint with the Guasimo and I am excited to try that for exterior plaster protection. He also has worked with lime plasters at El Centro Solar on their adobe buildings so I will stick close to him as we finish our plasters on el aulo, the learning center we are building. And the soil here is very nice to work with as well. It is strong and muy pegajoso, which is music to our ears. Yep, it’s very sticky stuff and makes a very strong plaster. Can’t wait to add the manure and slimy plant stuff and see what we get!
Meeting some of the movers and shakers in Nicaragua
From what I have seen in two short months is that there is a mixed result with the international efforts and building in Nicaragua. i certainly haven’t been hear long enough to have any real depth of understanding but I try to talk to a lot of people. I’m happy to see there is a strong desire on the part of some very dedicated Nicaraguan architects and builders to re emerge traditional techniques and encourage sustainable, healthy and affordable building for Nicaraguans. They are working to nip that “concrete is better” belief in the bud and support a return to earthen architecture mentality. Many of us are aware of the class issue and mentality that exists in the world in places where living in “dirt” houses is a sign of poverty even when these clearly, when well built (like any material and modality needs to be) surpass concrete in function, environmental impact and even beauty. Some of the international efforts are less dedicated to this understanding and continue to bring in volunteer teams to build with concrete. These are often young people paying to have a cultural “gap year” experience in a service project and to have an opportunity to practice their Spanish. And of course there are many builders here who are building with concrete within the country as well. I guess it is easier for me to be frustrated with knowing these international groups have the money and resources to be more educated and act more responsibly, but are in it as a business, want houses to go up quickly and in my view, have misguided visions.

I recently attended a seminar in Granada; CONSTRUCCION SOCIAL Y RECURSOS NATURALES, that was sponsored by an organization from France that has a long term project and relationship with an organization in Granada, La Casa de la Mujer. It’s a women’s enrichment center that provides everything from daycare to building houses for women and families in need. The seminar sponsor group , CRAterre, has a focus of earthen architecture and is working on education and resources for the women’s organization regarding their choice of building material. The group from CRAterre consisted primarily of artists and architects who are doing a post college learning, but not quite PhD program. The day long seminar was with architects, engineers, builders and local women in the social justice movement. They were primarily Nicaraguan and French and they  shared their concerns, hopes and ideas about the political, social, cultural and environmental ramifications of how buildings are constructed in this country. I listened to presenters stories for hours, while practicing my Spanish and helping others practice their English! And there were several presentations about adobe, bamboo, rhino block, and tequezal. Of course I missed much because it is still difficult to process that much Spanish and when people are passionate they speak quickly! But the visual presentations and having context were a fantastic help and I managed to clarify a lot by cornering people at breaks and meal time. I spent the evening with an architect from CRAterre and his French team, drinking wine, talking and learning a lot more about the concerns and possibilities here in Nicaragua. It is helpful to hear that much of the world was paying close attention to the plight of the Sandinista movement and became empathetic and supportive of their cause. Some people who came here in the 70’s and 80’s to witness the movement fell in love with the spirit of the people here and stayed to help. This has created the building of some more sustainable connections and those types of connections tend to happen more slowly and thoughtfully.

Here are a few photos in Granada, from the balcony of the hostel I was at for the weekend. It was delightfully quiet and restful in the back garden and so lively with the Granadan street scene out front.

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Since I got back to Sabana Grande a couple of days ago, the Grupo Fenix team of Nancy, Susan, Erika and myself have been spending hours and hours discussing bamboo vs. wood. We try to look at the social, economic, and environmental issues involved in each material, weighing out all the pros and cons that we can think to raise within the debate.With wood, there is a severe crisis in this country. For several decades it wasn’t managed at all and the serious deforestation leaves little wood to harvest. A few years ago a moratorium was put on wood harvesting and it was extremely difficult to even buy wood for construction. Now it is easier and supposedly the harvesting regulations encourage responsible actions, but it’s a poor country and with it comes lots of corruption, so we just don’t know how responsibly harvested. Still, wood is relatively inexpensive to buy so it is most likely what the locals can afford from pocket. And we love wood and we know wood.Bamboo on the other hand, is not yet here in abundance and is just beginning to be grown and harvested in Nicaragua. Yet it is a highly renewable material, thriving on proper harvest strategies, and as I understand, in 5 years an acre of land could be producing enough bamboo annually for a dozen homes! This could be a huge boon to the agricultural community here on Solar Mountain. They have the land and they need to create more income opportunity. And damn, could they use a leg up in financial security. And I am not even talking about what an American would consider financial security. Here most people are trying to have food on the table and clothes on their backs. But in the short run bamboo costs 2-3 times what the wood would cost, which is significant cost to the people in this region. The cost seems to come from the necessary curing and drying process. So we have proposed to the bamboo farmer that he deliver the bamboo and give us a 2 day workshop in reforestation, harvesting and curing techniques, and building and joint techniques. This way we can feel that we are making a solid investment in a more responsible building material that would actually reach and truly benefit the community of Sabana Grande in time. There are some funds still for Solar Mountain for the reforestation efforts here and can be invested in a bamboo effort. We are incredibly excited about this possibility! It was hard to justify spending the money on bamboo within a community where individuals can’t afford it. We would have ended up being those gringos that brought in the pretty and expensive bamboo.  But taking some days to continue to weigh out the economic, environment and social ramifications, we were able to come to this place.

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I have recently become a US delegate for WASI – The Women of the Americas Sustainability Initiative– which was designed and put into motion by the incredible team at Kleiwerks International. It’s a beautiful and very exciting project!  Presently I am working with the Central American WASI coordinator, Lucy Dale, while I am here in Nicaragua and can provide that support. We are teaming up to find appropriate women’s organizations who could participate in the coming year. It is really exciting to visit these groups, meet these women and share excitement about bringing empowering building projects here! The need is so great and there are many incredible women here to organize the work! I’m sensing it can be a sensitive balance to achieve here, as this is a country where many of the women strong in organizational skills were once soldiers fighting in the Sandinista movement. Outsiders haven’t always been their best allies. They haven’t been exposed to some of the tools of empowerment and communication that , say, most gringas in similar roles may have been. They are strong women and it’s not from self esteem seminars, effective communication courses and personal growth workshops, but from fighting a war and fighting injustice and fighting for food on the table, possibly even enduring torture and many other things that are simply unimaginable to most of us. But they strongly want the needs of their people met and are likely savvy about good allies! And I’m pleased to say that we have some exciting leads and scheduled meetings with some women who are very excited about WASI!  Of course, this new addition of work is very exciting to me and adding great dimension to my rapid and steep learning curve here.I will be posting about those projects as they take shape.

The children are really great Spanish teachers! They love talking to gringos! 

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