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Sustainability through Community by Katie Speicher, Environmental Resource Management major, Soil Science and International Agriculture minors

Posted: January 26, 2016

My worldview has also evolved a lot due to my time abroad, and I hope it continues to grow and evolve as I continue to experience new things.
With my first homestay family in La Concepcion, Nicaragua

With my first homestay family in La Concepcion, Nicaragua

As I sat on the plane waiting to depart for Nicaragua a sudden wave of panic crossed over me when I realized that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had chosen an independent program called CELL (Center for Ecological Living and Learning), created for American students to study in Nicaragua and Costa Rica through experiential learning and service projects. I knew I would be joining five other students and two professors as we traveled to five different locations across Nicaragua and Costa Rica to learn about the local organizations that were working in sustainability and community building, but other than that broad description I had no clue what I would be doing over the next three months.

Our first location was La Mariposa language school where we would be learning Spanish for our first two weeks. Learning Spanish was one of my reasons for choosing to study abroad in Central America since I think speaking another language is an important skill to have. This was also where we were placed with our first homestay family. Our Nicaraguan teachers at the language school did a great job encouraging us to speak in Spanish; however, an even better teacher for me was my 11 year old host sister who was always very happy to play with me despite my broken Spanish. While at the language school we were also taught about the various ways they help the community. All of the earnings of the school are put back into the community through various projects, such as employing teachers, having physical therapists for special needs children, running three libraries for local school children, and proviing access to clean water for rural farmers. All of these projects initiated from local community owners approaching Paulette Goudge, the language school owner, for help. Paulette, originally from the UK, has been living in Nicaragua for about 30 years and has integrated herself into the community. Through this example we learned that when working in international development one must look at the whole system at play and not just an individual issue in order to truly meet the need of a community. I think this is really important to remember for a westerner like myself. I am taught solutions that work for Pennsylvania problems, which are not always appropriate in other regions.

Our second stay was at a rural community in northern Nicaragua called Sabana Grande. At this location we worked with a women’s organization called Mujeres Solares. The women build solar cookers, which they sell to people within their community and in nearby communities. Since they are in a region that gets a lot of sun, this is a practical thing to sell. It is also much better for personal and environmental health to use a solar cooker rather than a traditional wood burning stove. Learning from these women was very inspiring. They admitted that at first they were intimidated by leadership roles and shied away from public speaking and giving instructions. However, they overcame these barriers and have become empowered from their success. They also taught us about appropriate technology and recognizing what will and will not work, which is important to consider while working on community development.

Our third location was a coffee farm/restaurant called Selva Negra, located in a Nicaraguan cloud forest. This farm was extremely sustainable by having a closed loop system. All of the coffee is shade grown, meaning it grows underneath larger canopy trees. This provides habitat for wildlife and also nourishes the soil. Instead of harsh pesticides, they create their own pesticides from natural ingredients. The farm processes all of the coffee on site as well. They put the acidic berry water into a biodigester and use vermiculture to compost all of the coffee berries. The compost is then used for their vegetable production for the restaurant. The vegetable scraps are used to feed their pigs in pork production. They also have pastured beef and dairy cattle and chickens, all of which provide food for the restaurant and eat things grown on site. Their sustainable practices are not only limited to food. For energy they have a small hydroelectric turbine and they recycle as much graywater as possible. Additionally, they pay their workers competitive wages and provide them with healthcare and education for their children. This farm is proof that it is possible to have a sustainable and profitable business while still maintaining integrity for their employees. Since I am especially interested in sustainable agriculture I enjoyed learning about how to manage a larger crop production operation while still using sustainable practices. The concept of working within nature rather than against nature can be applied to any farm anywhere in the world.

Our fourth place was a lodge in a Bri Bri village called Kekoldi in the rainforest of Costa Rica. Here I was able to experience wildlife like I never had before. Every day we would look off of the porch and say hello to the sloth that we considered our friend. We would also see a variety of birds every day- keel-billed toucans, chestnut mandibled toucans, collared aracaris, montezuma oropendulas, and many species of hummingbirds. We witnessed spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and white face capuchins swinging through the forest. We encountered poison dart frogs, eyelash pit vipers, and bullet ants on our hikes. And the lodge was also a raptor migration monitoring center, so we were able to see thousands of hawks and vultures soaring on the air currents. Additionally, our guide Sebastian, a Bri Bri man, was extremely knowledgeable about the forest, which plants cured what ailments, the roles of insects and birds as pollinators, and so on. He had such a reverence for the forest since it was his home and his university, and he spoke passionately about protecting nature all around the world. He taught us useful life lessons such as how to identify the anti-malaria plant and how to be good stewards of the earth.

During our time in Kekoldi we also took a long weekend trip to another nearby location. The place we went was called Yorkin, another Bri Bri community that is only accessible by boat from the Yorkin river. This community was struggling to earn an income. They rely on their cacao and banana crops for income, however in recent years they have been feeling the effects of climate change shortening their rainy season, which reduces their crop productivity. This really brought to my attention how unjust it is that small, poor communities are paying the price for climate change even though their carbon footprint is insignificantly small. This real life example taught me how linked social justice and environmental justice are.

Our final destination was a small community named Altamira. This community is nestled in the Pacific slopes on the edge of La Amistad International Park.  It was a community of small farmers, all of whom grew coffee as one of their crops. In order to be able to sell coffee, though, a farmer needs to produce a large quantity of it and none of these farmers produced a lot of coffee. Because of this they formed an association called ASOPROLA to bring together all of their coffee yields and have a marketable product. This community was tight knit and full of kind and generous people. We stayed in homestays here, and in my two weeks I was really able to bond with my host parents and I felt like a welcome part of the family. The community produced a lot of its own food, and families would sell their food crops to other families who did not produce those crops. They had created their own sustainable society in some of the most beautiful countryside I had ever seen. This is where it really hit me how valuable a strong community is when aiming for sustainability, which was a nice wrap up to our semester which was themed “sustainability through community.”

During this semester I was able to reflect back on my home communities, both at Penn State and my hometown, and see how they were similar and different from the communities I experienced in Central America. My worldview has also evolved a lot due to my time abroad, and I hope it continues to grow and evolve as I continue to experience new things. I’ve learned how to communicate constructively, view problems as a system, and which qualities a good leader possesses. I am so grateful to have the privilege to travel. This trip was an incredible experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.