Living In Sabana Grande, Nicaragua

I have been in Sabana Grande for 4 weeks now and am starting to settle into a new language, culture and pace of life. The first weeks were a flurry of language immersion, meetings and presentations (in Spanish!) relating to natural building possibilities here, adjusting to living with a large family and having little privacy and quiet any time of the day or night, and sigh, missing vegetables. But it’s been sooo rich in many ways and the people are very friendly, patient and kind. The women are shy but they are getting used to our presence and very excited to learn and share what they know. This first post since my arrival is more of a background of the region and what they have been up against environmentally and economically in the last few decades.
Totogalpa is one of the poorest areas of Nicaragua located in the northern mountainous region. It was also one of the most active and dangerous regions during the Sandinista-Contra conflict, due to its close proximity to Honduras and the forested mountain terrain, which provided cover for armed forces. Over the last several decades, it has been heavily deforested due to the introduction of unsustainable agriculture practices that consisted of burning hillsides of trees to graze cattle. The mountains have been further deforested due to the continued use of intensive wood burning cooking practices. Eighty percent of the area is deforested. This has led to serious land erosion and severe water shortage. The land is no longer able to absorb rain water and the low water table has caused rivers to dry out. And the water now runs down the hillsides, washing away the remaining trees and topsoil and this has caused dangerous landslides in the region. Hurricane Mitch was the worst and the effects intensified the poverty and malnutrition in the region of Totogalpa. Other resulting scenarios are decreased biodiversity and a loss of crops through plagues. The whole bioregion has been pretty seriously compromised.
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I am currently living in Sabana Grande, which is a community of Totgalpa. Both would be missed in the blink of an eye. Sabana Grande is known for its renewable energy initiatives and vision towards sustainable practices. Not everyone here participates in this vision but there is a group, Las Mujeres Solares, which has a significant presence. Their focus is building and selling solar cookers, teaching renewable energy and opening the Solar Restaurant for the volunteers and people passing through on the PanAm Highway 1.  Another group has formed with more of an agricultural and reforesting focus, Promoter Solares Agro Ecologicá. Their stewardship is La Montaña Solar (Solar Mountain) and this is where my main building work will be focused.Ninety percent of the cooking here is done over fires and cooking beans in particular uses large amounts of wood.  One of the the current projects at Solar Mountain was created by a university in Sweden, Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship, designing an initiative to reduce deforestation and poverty and to increase water supply. One of the first strategies implemented was using solar cookers, building more efficient wood burning cookers and creating a community kitchen where people can buy tortillas and beans with local currency, with the intent to cut the wood use in the community by 50%.The next step is to improve the watershed. The Solar Mountain group is planting trees on the ravaged hillsides and building dykes to slow down the water flow. They have planted 14,000 trees and have funding and a goal of planting a total of 25,000. We walked part of mountain to see the serious erosion from the landslides of Hurricane Mitch and to see some of the reforestation the group is doing. After seeing some pictures of the hillside from a few years back, it is even more apparent to me that this group has a lot to be proud of. They have already done so much to reclaim this mountainside. They are planting different native species of hardwoods that they started from seed. We are talking about thousands of trees started from making organic soil, sprouting seeds, creating a nursery, fighting off leafcutter ants and other predators for several months, carrying the saplings up the mountain, planting, keeping other growth from swallowing up and choking out the saplings, and hand watering through the dry season. They have also planted coffee, mangos, papayas and avocados. They are needing to rebuild the severe loss of topsoil and are learning all the ways to reuse waste to create nutrient rich soil.A portion of the pay system for the people working on these initiatives is in Soles or Solar dollars. They can use these coupons at La Cocina, a community kitchen, to buy the cooked beans and tortillas and keep that money in the neighborhood. The goal of La Cocina is to help decrease the wood inhalation problem in most kitchens throughout the village, cut down on wood use and free up some time for the women and the community to do other things.Nothing here has reached full resolution by any means. We are talking about a change that affects deeply set ways of living. There is pride for the women around their cooking.  Many feel (and many of us know this as well) that food tastes better cooked over a slow fire and smoke adds flavor.  As far as La Cocina, if there is no guarantee of sales of the beans and tortillas, it is hard to get this part of the initiative going, as there isn’t the money to invest if it is a gamble. And the solar cookers just don’t work in the rainy season.

In the forest it is hard to know if the newly planted trees will actually survive drought conditions these first years even though they have been diligently hand watering and weeding around the trees. It is nearly impossible to keep locals from continuing to cut firewood on the mountain.  There is really no way to regulate overuse an area such as this, with with dozens of trails in every direction.  So the incentive for change is still not on the radar  for those still in more of a survival mode, which is many. There are no easy answers and everything takes a very long time. Initiatives start and falter and take longer than we would like. That being said, I can only imagine some of what I’m seeing here is exponentially improved upon what was here even 5 years ago and the people involved int the initiatives are hardworking. There is no sign of starvation as there has been several times in the past decade. There is the presence or left evidence of the UN, Unicef and other influences from Sweden, Germany, Canada and the US.  There is often an ‘other’ agenda for some of the countries goodwill efforts, but I am to understand that, for the most part,  intentions are good and most initiatives seem like they can actually create some self reliance. Some of the international groups don’t seem to understand how little is able to happen in the rainy season and they create unreasonable timelines for the initiatives to take place. During the rainy season (which should be ending in a couple of weeks!) roads close, most activities cease to happen, and the children often don’t even go to school because they lack boots or raincoats. But overall, it feels like a vital community that is working its way towards more sustainable and vitalizing practices.

I will have future posts about natural building and the building traditions that endure here (even with the strong influences of the cement industry), more about the landmine victim initiative and renewable energy in Sabana Grande, the local women’s building school and carpentry shop, and maybe the elections (tomorrow!). These will come soon (or later depending on internet) and please, pass the word on the natural building workshop that will be happening here in January. See upcoming events page. It will be an amazing opportunity to work alongside the local women and some of the wonderful men in the community as well. We also have some scholarship money available and have been hearing from some other Nicaraguans who couldn’t afford such an opportunity before and are excited to join us.
Hasta proximo tiempo…. Liz

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