Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

31 March, 2011

La Mariposa Eco-Hotel

La Mariposa: The Beginning
The vision of La Mariposa began with one woman's motivation to help pay off the debt that the "affluent world" in reality owes the "developing world". Due to the inherent inequalities that exist within the structure of the global market, many people live in environmentally and economically degraded communities. Paulette Goudge, after having worked in the UK as a social worker for over 20 years, decided to sell her house and use her life pension in order to help the impoverished community of San Juan de La Concepcion in Nicaragua become a more stable and sustainable town. About 25 years ago Paulette first came to Nicaragua, where she witnessed the "Counter-Revolution" between the Daniel Ortega-backed Sandinistas and the United States C. I. A. supported Contras. During this time she initiated relationships with local community members while learning Spanish, and also adopted her now 25 year old daughter, Guillermina. Upon returning to Nicaragua about 5 years ago, she and critical members within the community of San Juan de La Concepcion began building this eco-hotel based upon the integration of Spanish and cultural learning classes with spreading environmental awareness to both the community as well as travelers passing through. This extremely inspirational lady puts all of the income the eco-hotel receives towards supporting the local people and economy by providing resources and community projects. These include the development of organic farms, the construction of a retaining wall, latrines, a small library at the Panama primary school, after school programs, reforestation projects, youth sports projects, wildlife and animal rescue, and other local employment opportunities. La Mariposa is a great example of how the integration of both critical environmental and social factors truly embody what it means to be sustainable.

Solar Energy
Amazingly most, if not all, of the energy used at La Mariposa is off the grid system!! The eco-hotel has 9 solar panels on the roof that uses the energy from the sun's rays to supply power to the building's refrigerator, internet, televisions, lights, and fans.  The 9 panels consist of photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert sunlight into an electric current. These photovoltaic cells have both a positive and negative slice of silicon (a semiconductor material) placed under a thin slice of glass, which form an electrical field created by the interaction of atoms from both sides. As photons of sunlight hit these panels, the electrons get "knocked off" causing a movement of electrons from one slice of silicon to another. However, this movement is one-way, from the positive layer to the negative layer, and so electrons become trapped in the negative layer. A small circuit of wires on the silicon catches these negative electrons, uses them to power the electrical appliances within the building, and then leads back to the positive layer of silicon, which completes the electric current and continues the cycle. The type of current produced is called direct current (D.C.) and before it may be used to power the eco-hotel, it is converted to alternating current (A.C.) by an electronic inverter. The solar panels are connected to batteries which store D.C. energy, convert it into A.C. through an inverter, and then distribute it throughout the building. Batteries like these are essential when sunlight is not available. Solar power is one of many alternative forms of energy that exist in our world day. Others include wind, hydro-electric, and geothermal, that also make a huge impact in the reduction of fossil fuel use and are key components of the current shifting vision of future energy use. Solar power at La Mariposa is just one illustration of the many environmentally sustainable practices exhibited at the site.

Organic Farms
La Mariposa has 3 producing and thriving organic farms.  One is on site behind the eco-hotel, another in the municipality of La Concha, and the last is located in the nearby neighborhood of Santiago. All together, they produce most of the food prepared and served at the eco-hotel.  This includes tomatoes, peppers, arugula, broccoli, squash, zucchini, pumpkin, melon, lettuce, citris plants, coffee, green beans, bananas, and more. The organic farm on the grounds at La Mariposa exemplifies the importance and benefits of natural symbioses between different types of vegetation and forms of wildlife. For example, the coffee plants are grown among fruit trees and local trees of the area like the Madero, Saba, Acheyote and Guanacaste trees. This assimilation of various plants and trees avoids the spread of disease and allows for a rich and diverse system of wildlife. These trees also offer shade to the coffee trees, attract many different bird species which contribute to the community by eating harmful insects that damage the plants, and branch and leaf litter that falls to the ground becomes decaying matter that helps retain moisture and restore soil nutrients. The interactive relationship between the eco-hotel and the farm demonstrates the very practical and mutual benefits obtained through sustainable practices. The pruning of coffee plants and other bigger trees offers firewood and construction materials to the eco-hotel and the used shower water provides water to the plants on the farm. By growing most of their own food, the eco-hotel supports the local economy and needs not depend on any international food companies that end up forcing smaller farmers out of the market who cannot compete against their low prices. This total organic process at La Mariposa allows workers and guests to enjoy natural delicious foods without the dangerous chemicals often applied to crops on commercial farms operated by global food companies.

The soil on the organic farms are made from a number of process that incorporate critical nutrients and create an ideal growing environment for the plants. La Mariposa makes use of all of their food scraps by either feeding them to the animals that live at the Eco-hotel or by integrating them into the worm compost for decomposition and soil production. La Mariposa buys fertilizer in large quantities from various local and organic soil providers which they use in combination with their own soil. Because of the volcanic geography of San Juan de La Concepcion, the soil is is extremely fertile and rich in phosphorus and nitrogen. The worm compost bins serve to break down organic waste and turn it into very nutrient- and vitamin-abundant soil. There is also a high concentration of bacteria, ranging from millions to billions of different types in a single handful, that are extremely beneficial for the plants. Parts of banana trunks that have been chopped up are layered on top of the worm compost to keep the soil moist and to add additional nutrients. This compost is then mixed with water and distributed over the plants as well as integrated into the soil. The fertilizer, volcanic soil, and compost/water mix is thus used in the cultivation of new plants and offers an extremely advantageous and healthy environment for them to grow. Many of these practices exhibited at La Mariposa were put in place and are maintained by the extremely experienced and knowledgeable gardeners and farmers that are employed from the community.

The chatter of toucans, parrots, parakeets, cicadas, frogs, monkeys and dogs are only a fraction of the variety of wildlife sounds you may hear as you arrive at La Mariposa. The number and variety of the animals not only creates an emotionally and synthetically pleasing ambiance of tropical life very present at La Mariposa but also plays an important role in the practice of sustainability for the eco-hotel. For example, the animals eat much of the food waste that can not be incorporated into the worm compost. Rice husk is used for the chickens because it produces a warm bedding for the birds to scratch, feed, and defecate in. Their feces are used as fertilizer and they are often released in the garden to eat many of the bugs, specifically the extremely destructive leaf cutter ants that are harmful to the plants and flowers. The chickens also produce eggs that are used in many meals served at the eco-hotel. The horses, cattle and oxen on the various organic farms offsite are used for transportation as well as milk and cheese production. La Mariposa also provides wildlife habitat in other ways, including the planting and preservation of a variety of flora for hummingbirds and butterflies. As mentioned earlier, the growth of natural large trees on the property attracts many bird species and provides a sanctuary for them in the midst of intense deforestation currently taking place in and around the country. These efforts to reestablish the natural vegetation have also created a habitat for iguanas, lizards, boas, squirrels, agoutis, and coatis. A frog pond on the grounds provides an ecosystem for some aquatic life, and since frogs eat insects, this also helps keep the mosquito population at a minimum. La Mariposa also rescues, rehabilitates, and then releases animals back into the wild when possible. The eco-hotel is currently home to four monkeys, seven dogs and five cats, all of which were taken in and nourished back to health. This too highlights the essence of sustainability as a holistic approach that incorporates social with environmental practices.

Author: Erica Wheeler-Dubin

La Mariposa: Spanish School, Community Projects & Activities

Spanish School
La Mariposa Escuela de Espanol has been operating since the beginning of the eco-hotel. During this time, they have established a great group of experienced, well-trained and professional teachers. All of them live in the local community. Bergman, the head of the school, uses a unique blend of language teaching skills, enthusiasm and humor to teach people of all levels and ages. Several of the teachers speak English, which helps people who have no previous Spanish skills. The teachers are happy to tailor classes around what each individual wants to learn about, whether it be exploring Nicaraguan recipe books, discussing current events, or strolling through La Mariposa’s beautiful grounds learning about medicinal plants. The teaching method that they have developed combines openness, humor and friendliness with professional Spanish language instruction. “The vast majority of Mariposa students leave the school not only much more fluent in Spanish but also having made good friends with their teachers here”, according to owner Paulette Goudge. Generally the classes are one on one; this approach is great for getting special attention and providing assistance with individual interests and learning styles. The teachers know that some students need serious grammar study but by mixing exciting conversational teaching with a range of activities, the results are much more successfully and enjoyable! Kids and adults are all invited to participate in classes. La Mariposa is much more than just a Spanish school though.  Yhey use their profits to support a number of projects within the community. This directly benefits the Spanish school because the students are able to get involved with the local community and every activity or outing provides an opportunity to practice speaking Spanish.

Community Projects
Paulette describes the community projects as being organic in nature, as they are not based on a set blueprint.  Rather, they grow and evolve according to the inputs of all people involved. Paulette and her interns undertake a large range of projects, using donations from students and visitors to assist with requests from the community. Though there innumerable such projects, I would like to describe the one that three of our group members volunteered at. The Santiago "Story Corner" after-school program began in 2007 by the international organization Save the Children, in conjunction with the private nonprofit organization Libros Para Niños (Books for Kids). A building was constructed for a small library in the barrio (neighborhood) of Santiago, which is part of La Concha. The "Story Corner" provides an after-school activity for children, and the building has become a social meeting place for the kids. In March of 2010, representatives from Save the Children told Paulette that they would be cutting funding and could no longer afford to pay the teacher. Paulette agreed to continue paying the teacher and Libros Para Niños agreed to continue sending books. The guests at La Mariposa also contribute to the success of this project by donating additional books, clothing, school supplies, and toys. Guest can volunteer to read with the kids, or just spend time with the kids. Three of the participants from our group; Tait, Jeanne and Joan; spent the afternoon reading with the kids. It took a little while for the kids to warm up to them but they eventually opened up enough to participate in an impromptu yoga class taught by Jeanne. This picture show them beginning in a circle and ending in a relaxing position on the ground. 

Reforestation Projects
Another community project of La Mariposa is focused on reforestation. Deforestation in Nicaragua is due to domestic and commercial wood consumption and is compounded by the fact that Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. La Mariposa strives to actively participate in reforestation projects and other actions that will directly benefit the environment. Paulette explained to us during a tour of the grounds that when a tree sapling appears in the garden, they don’t just pull it out; they let it grow because she knows that it will provide many benefits. Recently, Paulette initiated a program in the local secondary school educating the students on conservation and protection of the environment. Educating local youth helps shape the next generation of environmental stewards. La Mariposa also works closely with the Ministry of the Environment on reforestation projects whenever they can. On the Mariposa grounds a small plant nursery is maintained and saplings and ornamental plants are then donated to various projects and people in the community. These plants now grow in schools and public space in and around La Concha. For example, in November 2010 they undertook a project that involved planting about 20 large trees around the sports field in San Juan to provide shade. During our visit, Erica (another participant) and I helped Santos, one of the grounds-keepers, fill bags with soil that will eventually become the home to different plants that will be used to help with reforestation.

Employment Project
“La Mariposa Eco-Hotel and Spanish School is a project in and of itself . . .” Several jobs have been created to employee the local community. Their policy is to employ people exclusively from La Concha, and the only people they accept from outside the community are interns or volunteers who are not getting paid for their work. Close to 40 people and their families benefit from this project. Most are employees at the hotel (teachers, maintenance workers, kitchen staff, etc.) other people also benefit from the various projects, such as salaries paid to teachers in the local schools, community organizers, and farm workers. There are also locally made goods for sale at the eco-hotel. One aspect of the project that is really exciting is the homestay opportunity that La Mariposa offers. This program not only provides income to local families in exchange for taking guests into their homes, but also gives visitors a chance to become a part of a Nicaraguan family. La Mariposa’s primary goal is to provide wages that are above average. This employment project also has a ripple effect: Most of the income provided to individuals or families remains in the local community, and they also hire people who might otherwise have difficulties finding work. In fact, the work environment at La Mariposa seems more like a family household in which the workers support and help each other. Paulette explains her own philosophy behind the idea of employing locals: “First and foremost the Mariposa believes in trying to repay a tiny bit of the debt the "First World" owes to the "Third World" by using the income from students and visitors to employ people from the local community - there is no better way to empower someone than exchange a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”

La Mariposa offers a variety of activities that guests can enjoy during their stay, including afternoon activities and Saturday trips scheduled on a monthly cycle. Sunday horseback riding and guided garden tours are offered on La Mariposa grounds, and are more than willing to assist in whatever way they can with organizing travel plans to other destinations on request.    All of the activities are designed to provide enjoyable ways to practice speaking Spanish and learning more about Nicaragua. La Mariposa incorporates a unique mixture of discussions, local outings by foot or horseback, and visits places further away using their microbus or public transport. The eco-hotel is centrally located – less than an hour from the capital city of Managua, Laguna de Apoyo, the town of Masaya, Masaya volcano, San Juan del Oriente, and Catarina. Other nearby destinations are places such as Granada, León, Playa la Coquito, and Volcán Mombacho. Although we didn’t go explore any of these places with La Mariposa, our group did get to visit picturesque Granada, a quaint colonial town not to far away. Included are some pictures from our excursion. We all wish we had more time to spend in colorful Granada, as it is rich culturally and historically and full of exciting things to see and do.  For more in-depth information about La Mariposa and their projects, visit:

Author: Amanda Gates

21 March, 2011

Asociacion de Mujeres Agroindustriales de San Luis de Grecia, Alajuela (ASOMAG)

The Asociacion de Mujeres Agroindustriales de San Luis de Grecia, Alajuela (ASOMAG) is comprised of 6 dynamic women dedicated to the production and commercialization of high-quality natural beauty products. Using only freshly picked herbs from their organic farm, the women produce fragrant shampoos, soaps, gel, creams and balms. Among the most common plants grown are rosemary, chamomile, aloe vera, blackwood and indigo. Their office, laboratory and one-hectare plot are nestled on the stunning slopes of the Poas Volcano, in the small town of San Luis, about 15 minutes from the city of Grecia.

ASOMAG bears a long interesting history shaped by incredibly active housewives. In the early 90s, numerous coffee plantations in the high zones of Grecia were destroyed by acid rains produced by Volcano Poas and as a result suffered severe economic losses. In search of more viable income opportunities, citizens of the community, the majority of whom were the wives of farmers, began to organize. In 1992, the first 35 women and men came together and initiated a series of income generating projects ranging from crafting and selling pajamas and stuffed animals for children to handbags for women. Between 1992 and 1995, various projects emerged, but only one proved to be most promising: organic agriculture with a primary focus on medicinal plants. It was an idea that held great possibility as it combined the agricultural expertise of the region with the traditional knowledge of natural remedies applied by mothers and grandmothers. Furthermore, the inspiration behind “going organic” came from one of the founders of ASOMAG, who was adamantly against chemical-based production because her son had been diagnosed with leukemia.

Through immense dedication and self-motivation, ASOMAG was fully formed in 1997 by 13 women, many with either a K-6 or K-12 education. Their success can be largely attributed to the array of partnerships formed with local, national and international organizations. In 1994, several years prior to their official formation, this loosely organized group of women needed to first secure land in order to fulfill their vision of a medicinal plant business. They identified a farmer in the community by the name of Elicier with extra plots to spare. Due to the strong “macho” culture, the women approached his wife and encouraged her to convince her husband to loan them a parcel of his land. They succeeded, but lacked the skills and knowledge of organic production to begin cultivation. Through Elicier’s contacts in the Ministry of Agriculture, they were linked to Yasuhiro, a young Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) volunteer who worked tirelessly with the group for nearly 6 years, renewing his contract every 2 years, to make sure the women had the support and resources needed to become a sustainable organization. He thoroughly trained the group in organic agricultural techniques, laying the crucial groundwork necessary for production . Yasuhiro is deeply admired by the ASOMAG women. He is claimed to be the main engine that moved the project forward in its initial stages and gave them the credibility they needed to secure additional funding from outside sources. It is important to note that when the women first began cultivating medicinal plants on their “borrowed” farm, it was riddled with harmful chemicals. Elicier, like many farmers of his day, practiced intense chemical- based farming. Yasuhiro and the women tried their best to cleanse the soil, but the transition from chemical to organic takes approximately 3 years. Nevertheless, organic agriculture was pursued and many lessons were learned.

Between 1997 and 1998, the Instituto de Desarrollo Agrario (IDA), an agency that promotes the fair distribution of land, entered the picture, helping them secure the status of a true “Association” and also a new agricultural parcel. Prior to this point, women were by law prohibited from owning land without their husbands. For the first time, IDA had made it possible for women to become the sole owners of land. The hectare donated, however, was once again filled with chemicals and the group spent another number of years slowly making the transition to organic.

This period was also marked by rapid personal and professional growth through capacitation workshops and donations provided by a variety of institutions that gave the women the confidence and business skills to begin building a business. Workshops on gender, self-esteem and leadership were offered by the Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (INA), a national vocational training institute, and business management courses were delivered by FUNDECOOPERACION, a Holland-based organization that provides funding and technical assistance to sustainable development projects. Despite economic limitations, the women managed to pool their resources together to install a small nursery of ornamental and medicinal plants. The income generated from this particular project allowed them to invest in workshops on transforming their medicinal plants into products. Paid workshops on the production of all-natural products were made available by the University of Costa Rica. The same ingredients and recipes that were presented at these workshops are still reproduced to this day, but the concoctions have been perfected over time. As the women demonstrated their expertise and potential success in organic agriculture, medicinal plant production and the all-natural beauty product industry, FUNDECOOPERACION eventually donated funds for the construction of a laboratory and office, and covered the all the costs of their equipment.

Today, ASOMAG is a thriving female microenterprise with a “triple bottom line” business model that takes into consideration the people, profit and the environment. It claims to have the mission of not only selling high-quality products, but more importantly, educating the community about the important uses of medicinal plants and promoting the consumption of organic vegetables to protect the health of Costa Rican families as well as the environment. ASOMAG’s products are called “Yasu,” named in honor of the memorable JICA volunteer who “planted” and “nurtured” the seeds of their growth. Its 20-product line is sold to various “macrobioticas” (i.e. health food stores) in Costa Rica, mainly in Zarcero, Ingresia, Alajuela, San Jose, Heredia and San Carlos. The goods are also being made available by private businesses in Switzerland, Belgium and the United States. This past year, ASOMAG achieved organic certification of its farm and are slowly gaining organic certification for its products by the Ministry of Health. Product certification is costly, ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 per year to maintain its certification. Moreover, each product requires a one-time fee of $300 (cosmetic) to $500 (medicinal) to become certified. Despite these major costs, ASOMAG has managed to fund their entire operation including staff salaries solely through the sales of their products.

The women of ASOMAG have shown to the community and especially to themselves the power of perseverance and the far reaching effects of doing something positive for others. One of the members of the Association is a middle-aged mother of six who endured decades of physical and emotional abuse by her husband. After reaching unimaginable levels of financial and emotional independence, she broke the cycle of violence by leaving him and became committed to taking care of herself and her children on her own. Elecier, skeptical of organic farming in the beginning, witnessed first-hand the many “fruits” it yielded on the plot he loaned to the women and eventually decided to switch his entire farm to organic. Driving along the main road in San Luis towards ASOMAG headquarters, one can see a large sign in big, bold letters proudly promoting Elecier’s organic farm. The community also organizes weekly organic produce fairs. One wonders how much of this community tradition was influenced by the women of ASOMAG.

Achieving gender equity in the business industry is extremely challenging in the developing world. ASOMAG started with a group of 13 highly motivated women and gradually dwindled to the current 6 members. About half of the women lacked spousal support or became drained from having jumped so many hurdles that stood in their path. Nevertheless, the power of women in achieving sustainable development cannot be underestimated. ASOMAG has brilliantly demonstrated how ordinary women, particularly housewives, have creatively leveraged local, national and international resources to sustain and evolve their small communities.

Author: Joan Ngo

NOTE: A directed study comparative analysis paper with further details on this and similar sites is available here: Achieving Sustainable Development Through Women's Entrepreneurship: A Comparative Study of Social Microenterprises in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Colectivo Feminino Rescatando Nuestra Ecologia (COFERENE)

The Colectivo Feminino Rescatando Nuestra Ecologia (COFERENE) is a fascinating hybrid of a grassroots organization and microenterprise devoted to protecting the environment through comprehensive recycling programs and fostering community activism through information, communication and environmental education. Created by a group of housewives in San Juan, San Ramon in 1995, COFERENE is a predominately female-managed organization whose recycling initiative has become a model for the nation. The wide range of social and environmental activities combined with its multiple partnerships with the government, businesses and NGOs, transformed COFERENE from a small community-based organization to one of national notoriety with international support from organizations like the World Wildlife Fund.

Maria Isabel Ramirez Castro founded COFERENE fifteen years ago during a time when women’s groups and recycling programs did not exist. Her idea to recycle was sparked one day after cleaning up a mess left after a holiday celebration in the community. She began collecting newspapers amid scrutiny from her neighbors. All solid waste was perceived as garbage and such work was considered strange. Despite public disapproval, Maria managed to sell the idea of recycling to other housewives in the community who wanted to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others.

Not long after, 15 housewives convened and formed an organization in attempt to generate supplemental family income and break out of their traditional roles of homemakers. In the process, they also became a practical solution to the community’s environmental problem. In the initial stages of COFERENE, there was no facility and no funds. Members collected recyclables on foot and then slowly progressed to the use of a city truck borrowed from the municipality. Items were stored in their own homes. Eventually, they rented out a warehouse and their organization snowballed from there.

COFERENE collects, classifies and packs paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and cardboard goods from San Ramon and other nearby counties. The sorted goods are then sold to local businesses (such as a furniture production factory in Palmares), national companies (like Dos Pinos) and even transnational corporations (like Coca-Cola). There are buyers for all materials and COFERENE keeps track of what is bought, by whom, when, at what price and under what conditions. Any waste leftover is channeled to the city dump. The municipality donated landfill space for COFERENE to use.

Trash collection is completely free to the community. Due to resource constraints, the group has only one truck that works with a series of established routes. Currently they collect mainly from institutions such as small shops, businesses, hospitals and schools who save their recyclables until pick up day. One of the future goals of COFERENE is to cover households with the support of the municipality as it involves more trucks and manpower. Approximately 10-12 tons of solid waste is processed at the recycling center. Most of the waste is paper and cardboard. There are also “high and low seasons” for waste. During the holidays such as Christmas and Holy Week, more paper and cardboard is generated and all of it is recycled.

In addition to the recycling program, COFERENE conducts outreach to various sectors in the community. They deliver environmental workshops, presentations and talks to businesses and K-12 schools. Courses on waste production and management teach businesses the environmental impacts of making and disposing plastic and offer alternatives. In partnership with students from the University of Costa Rica, the organization developed an environmental education program based on the use of of theater, cartoons and age-appropriate materials. City-wide campaigns on the “Recollection of Solid Waste Recyclables” are organized throughout the year to raise awareness at all levels of society.

COFERENE depends on multiple partnerships: governmental, corporate and private and NGOs. The organizations that have been the most instrumental in the success of the organization are: the Instituto Humanista Para la Cooperacion de los Paises en Desarrollo (HIVOS) who provided funding and technical support, FUNDECOOPERACION who encouraged COFERENE to formally become a microenterprise, Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje who currently offers free workshops to COFERENE members and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) who has supplied the group with environmental educational materials.

Despite multi-level institutional support, COFERENE still faces serious obstacles to maintain their growth. The municipality can be unresponsive to their request for funds and support. Operational costs are high and worker wages are low. The constant lack of funds and risk of rejection of their projects are always on the horizon. This year, COFERENE managed to secure 3 months worth of salary for each worker from the Ministry of Work. It is an opportunity that can be solicited through paperwork every year, but not guaranteed.

The group has had its peaks and valleys. Like most organizations, there has been a dwindling in membership and currently there are 7 full-time staff working at the center. However, no matter how great the challenge, COFERENE has remarkably managed to grow and flourish. There appears to be a legacy of passionate, charismatic female leaders managing the organization. Maria Teresa Arguedas Delgado is currently the Vice President and while she wasn’t involved in the group in the beginning, she is extremely active in all areas of the organization. She not only works alongside her staff, sorting paper and other materials, but also conducts presentations at schools and business, manages the overall operations of the microenterprise and provides unlimited leadership and enthusiasm for the program to her staff and community.

An organization like COFERENE provides an excellent perspective on the many obstacles women have faced in launching sustainable development projects as well as the incredible gains that they have made amid such odds. Aguedas claims that the greatest achievements in the organization have been the national recognition as both a grassroots organization and microenterprise, and the transformation of women from ordinary housewives into social entrepreneurs. The women have learned not only how to make a positive impact, but also how to manage a sustainable business. Participating in workshops allows them to share their achievements with other like-minded women and also learn from the experience of others. They are constantly empowering and being empowered in this line of work.

Author: Joan Ngo

NOTE: A directed study comparative analysis paper with further details on this and similar sites is available here: Achieving Sustainable Development Through Women's Entrepreneurship: A Comparative Study of Social Microenterprises in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Catarata Eco-lodge

Catarata Eco-lodge first started as an organic agriculture project in 1992 with the help of the World Wildlife Fund and the Ministry of Agriculture. During this period, farmers were growing tired of their failed production on chemical-filled farms and the diseases emerging as a result of consuming the produce. Eleven families convened in an effort to pursue more sustainable initiatives and formed the” Pro-Environmental and Sustainable Development Association.” The organic agriculture project managed by this Association was designed FOR and BY the community and cultivated papaya, yucca and corn for commercial purposes. Over time, as ecotourism appeared in the area, the Association decided it would be more beneficial to focus on an Eco-lodge business instead. The families pooled together their resources and took out a loan from the National Costa Rican bank to construct the first rooms. Catarata is the first true Eco-lodge in La Fortuna, dedicated to conserving the environment and reducing its impact on the planet.

Catarata Eco-lodge began with only 4 rooms in 1995. There were no telephones, no roads, and not even furniture. The families of the Association as well as the community collected donations of furniture, sheets and silverware to start the operations of the Eco-lodge. They also worked diligently with the local government to build roads, establish phone lines and gain access clean water. In the early stages of its development, there were very few visitors. Not many tourists new about the Eco-lodge. Until one day, two German tourists stumbled upon their business and after their stay, submitted information about Catarata to Lonely Planet. The unexpected recommendation increased their number of visitors and encouraged them to expand further. Today, the Eco-lodge is comprised of 19 comfortable rooms with hot water, private bathrooms and ceiling fans. The water in two of their rooms are powered by solar energy. This is an attempt to save energy and further comply with CST standards to increase their rating. The rooms are surrounded by beautiful gardens, containing a wealth of tropical plant species and scenic landscapes. A large pool is located in the center of the property. There is a magnificent view of the Arenal Volcano and plenty of nearby attractions to explore such as natural thermal springs and spas, hiking trails, caves, a wildlife refuge, waterfalls and rivers.

In this picture Hannia Berrocal , the owner and manager of the Catarata Ecolodge, is giving us a presentation on the crossroads of Ecotourism, Community Development and Sustainable Development as represented by the Eco-lodge. In 2003, Hannia and her husband who were part of the Association from its inception bought the Eco-lodge and are currently the sole owners. The Association is still working in the community on various projects and the Eco-lodge supports their efforts. We are shown here sitting in the dining room of the lodge. There is ample dining space where typical Costa Rican cuisine is served daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Service is quick and the food is exceptionally good. Among their best dishes are the Casado (rice, beans, vegetables, plantains and your choice of meat), Sopa Negra (a black bean broth soap) and Pescado al Ajillo (grilled garlic fish). Restaurant hours are from 7 am to 8 pm. Breakfast is included in lodging. Meals are very affordable and typically range between $2 -$8 US dollars. Free unlimited Wi-Fi internet is also offered in this area. As a community-based Eco-lodge, dining space is frequently donated to local schools and community groups for special events.

As a certified sustainable business, Catarata strives to reduce their carbon footprint by growing their own fruits and vegetables for the restaurant. Throughout the year, pineapple, lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and other seasonal produce is cultivated and harvested. The Eco-lodge also owns a parabolic solar cooker, which is a reflective dish that concentrates sunlight until the food in the center is cooked. These solar cookers are known to be quite dangerous as the sun’s energy can be concentrated to an extreme point that cannot be immediately seen and surrounding flammable objects can catch on fire. Parabolic solar cookers are usually compared to the box cooker which is basically an insulated box with a reflecting glass or plastic lid allowing sunlight to enter through the top and slowly heating up the box. The one major drawback to the box solar cooker is that energy enters only through the top while escaping through the other sides, pulling heat away from the food. Catarata uses the parabolic solar cooker for educational purposes, demonstrating its functions to students from local elementary and secondary schools. Additionally, the Association received funds 3 years ago to secure a truck for a local women’s recycling project. Catarata has large receptacles stored in the dining area to collect plastic bottles and other containers for the women’s group.

The picture to the bottom left is of a Paca Agouti, a solitary nocturnal animal which can be found in Latin America from Mexico to Paraguay and considered to be the second- largest rodent species behind the Capybara . They have coarse brown to black fur on the upper body and white on the underbelly. They live in the rainforests near water and feed on plants and seeds of the forest understory. Paca Agoutis are claimed to be one of the most important herbivores in the rainforest and play an important role in forest dynamics as seed predators and dispersers. They are considered as agricultural pests and therefore killed by farmers. As a result, they are endangered throughout Costa Rica. In an effort to boost their population, the Eco-lodge started a Paca Agouti breeding program to reintroduce the mammals back to the natural environment. Currently, there are four at Catarata with two of them brought from Guanacaste.

Shown to the right is Catarata’s rating by the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST). As of September of 2010, the Ecolodge holds a #2 out of #5 rating. CST is a program of the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) and based on the degree to which they comply with a sustainable model of natural, cultural and social resource management. CST is regulated by the Costa Rican National Accreditation Commission and consists of 5 “levels” of sustainable tourism achievement. Certification is renewed every year and the evaluation process is very demanding. Four fundamental aspects are evaluated: (1) physical-biological parameters, (2) infrastructure and services (exclusive for lodging companies), (3) external client and (4) socio-economic environment. For each and every one of these items a list of specific questions is designed to help evaluate how thoroughly the firm complies with a series of standard s previously established. Each and every one of the questions refers to an element of sustainability with which the firm should comply in order to qualify in any one of the different stages or levels of fulfillment. It has implications for both the tourism operator and the tourist. For the tourism operator, it adds a new level of competitiveness distinguishing its product from others. It also encourages companies to use their resources more efficiently and promotes savings, which always has positive impacts on a business. For the tourist, it helps identify which businesses are pursuing sustainable initiatives. Catarata is continually upgrading their Eco-lodge and raising their sustainability standards by finding new ways to reduce their environmental impact such as installing more energy panels, growing more of their own food and supporting community projects like the women's recycling program. Their commitment to professional growth, preserving the environment and community development is what makes the lodge truly eco-friendly and a reflection of sustainable development.

Author: Joan Ngo

Bosque Eterno de los Ninos

The Children's Eternal Rainforest
Our group visited Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (The Children's Eternal Rainforest), managed by the Monteverde Conservation League. Bosque Eterno de los Ninos (BEN) borders Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal and is Costa Rica's largest private reserve, measuring 22,500 hectares. The reserve contains 6 of Costa Rica's 12 life zones, which means it contains a high degree of biodiversity in a variety of ecosystems. Bosque Eterno de los Ninos came into being through the Children's Rainforest Movement which involves children around the world raising money to support the private reserve. The movement started in Sweden in the late 1980's, and today children from 44 countries have helped support Bosque Eterno de los Ninos. The Monteverde Conservation League's mission is to, “conserve, preserve, and rehabilitate tropical ecosystems and their biodiversity.” They view Bosque Eterno de los Ninos as especially important because of its location, bordering a number of other reserves – Parque Arenal, Monteverde Reserve, and a UCR Reserve. For biodiversity to be best preserved, large swatches of forest, as opposed to disconnected fragments, must be protected. The Monteverde Conservation League would like to continue to buy property and expand Bosque Eterno de los Ninos per their mission of conservation and preservation.

Finca Stellar
We entered Bosque Eterno de los Ninos through Finca Stellar near the La Tigra area. Part of Finca Stellar is a native tree species nursery. Marcelino, who works for the Monteverde Conservation League, showed us around the nursery and explained its importance. He collects many of the seeds from the native species in Bosque Eterno de los Ninos and germinates them in a greenhouse. The plants begin their lives in trays filled with sand, which makes it difficult for weeds to grow and compete with them. When the seeds first germinate they get nutrients from their cotyledons so they do not need soil. Once they have sprouted and are getting larger, the small saplings are replanted in soil and moved outside under a netted tent (shown in picture). The Monteverde Conservation League believes that reforesting can be an effective method for rehabilitating an ecosystem, so Marcelino grows native species for this purpose. The group has planted over 1.6 million trees around the Children's Eternal Rainforest. The trees are planted on farms, as wind breaks, and in watersheds, to retain and cycle water. Through this program, the Monteverde Conservation League helps to reforest with native species and create a buffer zone around protected areas to better ensure the quality of the natural resources.



Economically Important Species
We came across a number of interesting, and often economically important, species of plants. One of the first we encountered was the Iriartea deltoidea palm tree, a member of the Arecaeceae family. This palm commonly grows in Central and South American forests, from Nicaragua to Bolivia. It first attracts attention because of its massive stilt root system (in photo) which can be a meter or more in diameter. These palms stretch for the canopy, reaching up to 30 meters tall with leaves approaching 4 meters. While all types of palms can be used to harvest palmito (heart of palm), this species is particularly well known in Costa Rica for producing a delicious palmito. It used to be the most popular species used for the food, but as demand rose faster growing and easier to harvest species replaced Iriartea deltoidea, resulting in less tasty palmitos. The species is also useful for building because of its hard wood and its fronds can be used to make roofs. Additionally, the palm produces a fruit which some humans consume. Overall, this is an extremely hearty plant which demonstrates the multi-utility found in many tropical forest plants. Another economically important tree we saw was the kerosene tree (Copaifera langsdorffii) which produces hydrocarbons in its wood and leaves that can be burned as biofuel. The oil can be collected by tapping the tree and has a history of medicinal uses besides its propensity for combustion.

We also encountered one of the tropics most significant defoliators, a colony of leaf cutter ants. These ants are found only in the tropics and form some of the largest and most complex societies in the animal kingdom. The ants cut leaves and bring them to their nests where the leaves are used as a substrate to cultivate a mutualistic fungi. In other words, these ants are essentially agriculturalists as they do not eat the cut leaves but instead eat small parts (hyphae) of the fungus which they grow on the leaves. They are the only organism, besides humans, known to practice such a sophisticated form of agriculture. The process of finding, cutting, and carrying the leaves and then preparing them and growing the fungus takes a number of morphologically different castes. The colonies grow quickly, containing millions of individuals in only a few years. With huge numbers, sprawling nests, and expansive fungus gardens the ants must collect so many leaves that they defoliate more forest than any of the large herbivorous mammals. These amazing insects are widely considered pests in the tropics because they can quickly defoliate crops or aesthetic plants. However, one need not use pesticide to deter them, instead their own waste from the large piles removed from their nests can be placed on or around plants to keep the ants away.

On our way back to Finca Stellar we crossed a beautiful stream in the forest. Besides its aesthetics, this stream demonstrates another reason that Bosque Eterno de los Ninos is so important. The Children's Eternal Rainforest is part of a number of watersheds and therefore responsible for significant water resources. Because the area is forested and managed with the goal of conservation, the water moving through this reserve can move through the natural water cycle. This means it is cleaned while also feeding the diversity of life found in the forest. This means healthier water for the humans living around Bosque Eterno de los Ninos. The protected water resources are also used by the surrounding communities for agriculture. The reserve means that the water is both cleaner and protected in the sense that development will not alter its path or reduce its flow. This may be most important for the hydroelectric plants which use water resources from the Children's Eternal Rainforest. According to the Monteverde Conservation League, 50 percent of Costa Rica's electricity originates in Bosque Eterno de los Ninos. This includes the water that goes through the Peñas Blancas Hydroelectric plant which we visited on our way to the La Fortuna area and Bosque Eterno de los Ninos.

Author: Tait Mandler

16 March, 2011

AcroYoga in the DoJo

AcroYoga blends the spiritual wisdom of yoga, the loving kindness of Thai massage, and the dynamic power of Acrobatics. These three ancient lineages form this practice that cultivates trust, connection and playfulness. There are 7 main elements that make up the practice: circle ceremony, asana, partner flow, Thai massage, therapeutic flying, inversions & spotting, and partner acrobatics. Our highest aim is to bring individuals into a state of union with themselves, with each other, and with the divine. From this place of mutual support the true self can be realized, celebrated and shared for the benefit of all.

Fortunately Lankester Gardens has a world class collection of nearly a thousand varieties displayed at eye level, and the huge number of plants means it's likely that hundreds will be blooming when you visit.

Author: Jeanne LaRoche