UniversitÁrea Protegida (UÁP) is completing its second year supporting Nicaraguan university students doing ecological and social research in rural communities throughout the country. Many lessons have been learned since the UÁP concept was created three years ago by a group of young idealists sitting in a coconut grove in the community of Padre Ramos. We celebrate our successes, and reflect on our difficulties, in search of long-term solutions to the environmental challenges facing rural communities in Nicaragua.
Environmental conservation in Nicaragua has a short history compared to the movement in most “developed” countries. Nicaragua’s first three protected areas were created in 1979, after the Sandinista revolution ousted the Somoza dictatorship. By 1984, 34 reserves had been created, and currently, 18 percent of Nicaragua’s land is under some sort of environmental protection status – on paper, at least.
Work in Nicaragua’s protected areas is key to the expansion of the movement. Environmental consciousness is contagious, and UÁP’s hope is that the people living within Nicaraguan natural reserves will begin to see that the health of their air, water, plants, and animals depends on communities outside the reserves.
As globalization tightens its grasp on Earth’s natural resources, it becomes more evident that the international environmental conservation movement must be intimately linked to the social justice movement for either to succeed. The story of Eddy Maradiaga is a quintessential example of how this link can benefit rural communities and natural resources in areas of extreme poverty.
Maradiaga was born and raised in Padre Ramos, a fishing village in northwestern Nicaragua, two hours by bus from the nearest city of Chinandega. His father is a fisherman; thus, by the rules of rural life, so is he. He grew up taking dangerous trips by small boat in the open ocean to fish for snapper, tuna, sea bass, shark, stingray, turtles, and any other animal that could feed his family. He completed sixth grade in 1994, and his studies ended there because his value to his family as a fisherman was greater than as a student. In this respect, his situation was much the same as that of most boys in Padre Ramos.
The concepts of environmental conservation, ecological research, and endangered species didn’t exist for Maradiaga until 1999, when he turned 18. That’s when his community was designated part of a natural reserve and groups of biologists and ecologists started showing up to investigate plants and animals in the area. This sparked Maradiaga’s interest in the preservation of his surroundings.
He decided to go back to school, and paid for his own studies in Chinandega with his modest earnings as a fisherman. He finished high school in 2004, but didn’t want to stop there. In 2005, with the support of UÁP, Maradiaga became the first person from his community to begin university studies. He is now finishing his first year studying sustainable tourism. He considers himself a social advocate and an environmentalist, a rarity in a community where the majority of people work long hours in dangerous conditions and barely sustain their modest livelihoods. Maradiaga still works as a fisherman to help support his family, but he’s teaching his fellow fishermen to use more environmentally sustainable methods, and to participate in his community’s turtle conservation efforts.
When UÁP intern Leo Maxam arrived from UC Santa Cruz to work with UÁP, he and Maradiaga collaborated on a socioeconomic study of the fishing industry in Padre Ramos. The concept came from Maradiaga, who recognizes that the current unbalanced economic system forces rural fishermen to over-exploit natural resources to make ends meet while international fish exporters get richer. As a leader in his community, Maradiaga is working with Maxam to organize the fishermen for social justice, which they are confident will lead to future environmental benefits.
Maradiaga has also been working with a youth group from his community, covering a variety of social and environmental topics in weekly meetings. With social work students supported by UÁP, he created a curriculum of classes and activities for the group, and helps them with their high school studies. He has also organized the group to work and benefit from a model farm project in the community along with UÁP’s agro-ecology thesis students. His goal is to complete his university degree, and, more importantly, to motivate the youth of his community. He says that if those youth continue on their current path, in 10 years Padre Ramos will be a community full of college graduates – a community taking action to improve its quality of life and the health of the natural resources on which residents’ lives depend.
In November, Maradiaga participated in a UÁP meeting with La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (UNAN) Leon, to renew work agreements and coordinate work with professors. He met with the directors of the various departments with which UÁP is working, UNAN’s vice dean, UÁP’s technical team, and representatives of UÁP-supported student groups from the last two years. “Four years ago, I was a fisherman with a grade-school level education,” Maradiaga said with a smile. “Today I am in a meeting with the vice dean of the university, deciding the future of the UÁP program.”
supports future leaders like Maradiaga, who in turn share their
experiences and knowledge with youth from their communities.
Environmental conservation is getting more support in Padre Ramos,
because people like Maradiaga are passionate about spreading
consciousness. He is at the top of his class at the university and will
influence his community’s future decisions regarding sustainability. He
inspires those around him, and he inspires UÁP to continue offering him
and his youth group the support they need to make a difference.
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