Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

06 April, 2014

La Mariposa: A Synergism of Business & Development (TSP Case Study)

As a traveler in Central America, you have choices. You can buy an all inclusive package, ("todo incluido" as my host mom would say), keep both feet firmly planted between the grounds of your cushy resort and pathway to the beach, and return home with a sunburn, hangover, and an extra ten pounds around your midsection. Or you can venture outside your comfort zone, immerse yourself in a new culture, meet locals, and return home with a refreshing new perspective and the consolation that you have, (in some way), made a positive impact on the land you visited. As enticing as the former option may have sounded two months ago, I can now honestly say that I would much rather do the latter: be a shaper, instead of a mere observer. This is the true definition of ecotourism, a word that is so overused, its true meaning has become ambiguous. Ecotourism is not a stationary act; its implementation is set within an interdependent world of diversity and differences and their respective social and cultural systems. In Nicaragua, my peers and I were fortunate enough to experience and observe a functioning ecotourism establishment and meet the owner of the project.

Nestled within the tropical lush tropical hills just south of Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, is the small village La Concha, site of the “La Mariposa” sites, both hotel and study center. La Mariposa is an idyllic conglomeration of rustic cabinas and colorful hammocks while the study center is a larger, less structured site that accommodates groups; both are the brainchildren of British native, Paulette Goudges. Upon our arrival, Paulette graciously invited us to her office for a pre-lunch presentation. Vivacious and insightful, Paulette discussed her rather novel approach to sustainable development in rural community, a compelling talk only further garnished by her frequent quips of witty British humor.
Though Paulette is now an appreciated and in many ways, esteemed, member of the community, she has come a long way. Paulette first came to Nicaragua in the 1980’s during the Contra Wars to volunteer in an orphanage. Upon her arrival and witnessing how destitute the rural Nicaraguans were living, her proposed short trip turned into a three year stay. Realizing how important language acquisition was to her immersion in Nicaraguan culture, Paulette learned Spanish and adopted a two year-old orphan who she brought back with her to the United Kingdom upon her departure from Nicaragua. However, reintegrating herself back into Western culture was not easy. The time that Paulette had spent in Nicaragua left a lasting impression on her, would later send her on a meandering path that would cross continents and oceans. The years that she had spent in Nicaragua had left her enamored with a culture and people that were more resourceful, persevering and genuine than those she knew in her homeland.

After making several return trips to Nicaragua, Paulette finally decided to make an investment in her future and those of local Nicaraguans. Paulette cashed in her pension and sold her home in the UK and used those funds to finance the development of La Mariposa. This is not a place for tourists seeking the thrill of nightclubs, bars, and bright lights, but for tourists looking to gain a greater understanding of a different way of life; in this sense the hotel welcomes visitors of all-ages and backgrounds who want a true cultural and social immersion experience instead of a superficial packaged tour, with average stay ranging anywhere from one week to a couple of months. Paulette believes in complete transparency and giving the guests an authentic depiction and understanding of Nicaragua, through an impartial crash-course approach to Nicaraguan culture, politics, and history, even when it may not be favorable. Many people that come to a country with such a convoluted history such as Nicaragua have misconceptions, and are quick to write the country off as being "impoverished," or "politically unstable." However, it is important to understand that each country has its own complex social structure and unique history and seeing the hardships, attitudes, and customs firsthand, ("the good, the bad, and the ugly") can inspire the guests to make a difference. Guests have the option of staying with a local Nicaraguan family instead of at the hotel. Regardless of where the guests are staying, the one standard among all guests is that they must take Spanish classes during the day, and despite nationality, age and occupational differences, during mealtimes, guests are eager to utilize their newly learned Spanish making for a socially vibrant atmosphere among workers and guests. For recreation, guests have a wide variety of option: hammock weaving, the construction of traditional handicrafts, guided walks, cooking lessons, horseback rides, hikes, solar-power lessons.

Both candid and personable, Paulette firmly believes that in order to positively influence those around you, you must lead by example. As she says, “You cannot just tell other people to act in eco-friendly ways. You must set an example.” Both the hotel and the study center strive to be carbon-neutral. The study center is made entirely from thatch, volcanic rock, and used tires. Hot water is derived from solar panels, and a large percentage of the fruits and vegetables served are grown and picked from the on-site organic garden. Gray water, derived from showers, is stored and used to water the plants. There is a wormery and compost on-site used to enrich the soil. In addition, the habitation of rescue animals on site allows guests have the pleasure of getting a glimpse into some of the amazing wildlife that Nicaragua has to offer, including: monkeys, a toucan, rabbits, and reptiles.

From my interactions with those in the Managua area, I quickly learned that La Mariposa is a famous
attraction in the area. On site at La Mariposa, eating lunch outside with a friendly mix of people trying to communicate in Spanish, swinging in a hammock, it is easy to forget you are at a hotel. However, since the establishment of La Mariposa, Paulette's aim has been to aid the community in transcending its poverty. Without a doubt, Paulette has succeeded. The hotel, which currently employs over sixty-five people, is the biggest non-public employer in the area and Paulette prides herself on the fact that employees of La Mariposa make more than local wage levels. Paulette believes that in creating sustainable community in rural community it is important to create dignified employment instead of donating money to the local government, where those funds, (if given to the community at all), would be done so in the form of handouts. Local employment is only one of the ways that Paulette promotes sustainable ecotourism development. What impressed me most about La Mariposa, was Paulette’s ability to integrate social and community projects within her larger business framework. Paulette keeps none of the profits from the hotel to herself. Proceeds derived from guests are fed directly back into the community, through employing local people, funding existing local community service projects establishing new programs. The frequency to which Paulette is able to help directly relies on the success of the hotel. In this sense, hotel management and hospitality is the foundation of all else. The busier the hotel is, the more money Paulette will have to give current workers more hours, employ more workers, and to fund current and future projects.

Paulette believes that the biggest reason that most foreign aid projects fail is that they are derived from a Western blueprint. So many times, Central America's Northern neighbors think they know what the local people want and need, disregard their input and undervalue their knowledge. Paulette believes that it is important to not trivialize the knowledge of the local people and marginalize their needs and wants She said that in her experience funding community projects, those that lasted were the ones that people have asked for. Paulette believes that it is important to communicate with those in the areas that you are trying to help and really listen. Listen to the needs and concerns.
People from the community feel comfortable approaching the establishment and asking for funding. During lunch, we ate delicious glazed donuts that were the courtesy of local women who received money from La Mariposa some time ago to establish a building where they could put their cooking equipment and bake.
During my stay, I got to see and partake in one of their community projects. I visited Ruben Dario Primary School, which serves more than two hundred students from La Concha's barrios. La Mariposa and its guests have contributed funds to complete the construction of the library and have filled the shelves with books and the open space with chairs and tables. I was able to look at the Rincon de Leer (Reading Corner), where I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the children were able to read.

Shortly after the establishment of the eco-hotel, Paulette decided to build an eco-study center within close proximity to the hotel that would serve as a place where larger groups could stay and experience the culture and nature of the locale without disrupting the more established schedule of the eco-hotel. This is where my peers and I stayed.

The establishment of the La Mariposa hotel and study center have been an incredible blessing to the La Concha people. Paulette hopes that in her older years she will be able to see Nicaraguan people completely running La Mariposa. The passing over of her creation to the Nicaraguan people would be a gift of dual satisfaction. Paulette would be giving something back to the Nicaraguan people that have accepted her, embraced her vision, and given so much joy to her life; in the same token, having Nicaraguan people run a successful establishment would set a precedent for the future Nicaraguan entrepreneurship.

The time that I spent at La Mariposa was one of the most impactful during my participation in the program. My first few weeks in Costa Rica, hearing English was music to my ears and I would get practically giddy knowing that there were fellow Americans in my midst. However, towards the end of the program, I stopped trying to seek out fellow Americans. After all, if I wanted to only interact with English-speakers I may as well have stayed in the States. If I really wanted to make the most of my experience, I needed to put myself out of the boundaries of my contentment. Hearing Paulette's story and talking to her some of her interns, (who origins stem from around the world), showed me the importance of taking healthy risks, risks that allow you to grow, and gain experience as well as the perspective that comes with it. Instead of traveling to "help," it is more impactful to travel to "learn." Seeing the magnitude of need in Nicaragua made me realize that individual choices and hands are not enough to solve these economic, environmental, and social problems, and that the catalyst for real change is tied within a much larger political framework. We are only small part of a much larger system.  And while the Earth may be incredibly vast, we are forever tied to every piece of land we have ever walked upon. Gaining a better understanding of how different people live and why they are in the situations broaden one's perspective and inspire one to support different projects and social causes. Finally, I realized the importance that human connection plays within the larger discourse of sustainability. While we may travel due to curiosity, or a desire to see and experience new things, it is the few moments that we share with people (whether a transient smile, brief conversation, or deeper relationship) that capture our hearts, change our perspectives, and makes us want to stay. The few days that I spent in Nicaragua, living with less and giving back more, were some of the most meaningful moments of my life and those memories will be forever embedded within my heart and mind.

AUTHOR: Heather Haj

Culturally Appropriate Ecotourism in Costa Rica (TSP Paper)

Ecotourism: Responsible travel spurred out of curiosity; fosters environmental and
cultural understanding while maintaining and striving to enhance the integrity of the
biological, sociocultural elements of the locale.
- Heather Haj, 2014

A Matter of Purpose and Place: Culturally Appropriating Ecotourism
Central America has endured arduous centuries of warding off their Northern neighbors. In 1856, William Walker and his filibusters embarked on an imperialistic attempt to enslave Central America. Not long after, banana plantations owned by the United States, (most notably the United Fruit Company), established roots in Central America, ushering in the banana republic phenomenon that dictated Costa Rican policies, culture and economic practices. However, today Costa Rica is viewed as the jewel, or “Switzerland of Central America.” Everyday, thousands of foreigners eager to snorkel the waters, surf the beaches and get a glimpse of Costa Rican wildlife, are shuttled into and out of the country via the Juan SantaMaria airport in San Jose. Many are oblivious to the statue of Juan Santamaria that is erected in front; it is ironic that the man that was widely known for ousting foreign invaders less than two centuries ago, now welcomes hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists yearly. Tourism has been embraced by Costa Rica, a country that has worked diligently to promote this segment of its economy. While the government has positively responded by enhancing preservation efforts within national parks systems and improving infrastructure, increasing tourism has led to many obscure changes within the country. While it may seem innocuous to many, tourism has affected the social and cultural thread of the nation. Recently, tourism has replaced bananas as the country’s most significant source of income; leaving the country with little choice but to cater to tourists and their demands.
Mass, Nature, and Ecotourism: Competing Paradigms
It is first best to be able to examine the differences between different types of tourism. Mass tourism is the most common form of tourism. A typical European or island vacation would fall under mass tourism. Sightseeing, being caravanned around in a van, all-inclusive resorts, hotels, and tour guides are all typical of mass tourism. Mass tourism, while increasing government revenue, has few redeeming qualities for the destination region, their people, and the natural resource base. If a traveler books a reservation with a U.S. travel agent, flies on a U.S. carrier, stays in a foreign owned hotel, eats in nonlocal establishments, the bulk of these dollars do not circulate locally, and thus do not promote local development.
Ecotourism is inspired by the natural history of the area, including indigenous cultures, and possesses the following characteristics: traveling to a natural destination, minimizing impact, building environmental awareness, providing direct financial benefits for conservation, providing financial benefits and empowerment for local people, respecting local culture, and supporting human rights and democratic movements. Ecotourism incorporates appreciation for nature, participation in field projects or activities, and sensitivity to culture. Contribution is paramount to ecotourism. Contribution of the ecotourist involves physical labor or providing financial means aimed at benefitting the conservation of the field site or region. This was exemplified during our visit to La Mariposa, an eco-hotel that we visited which strongly encourages guests to work on one of their community projects during their stay.
Nature tourism should also not be confused with ecotourism, as the scope of nature tourism is too broad and does not specifically address the objectives of the ecotourist. Nature tourism is composed of travelers who simply travel for the purpose of enjoying undeveloped natural areas and wildlife. An ecotourist is not merely an observer, but a shaper. The experience of the ecotourist is shaped by the impact they have on the community. At the rudimentary level, an ecotourist travels for the intrinsic nature of experience, not business or hedonistic pleasure. Ecotourism directly contributes to the maintenance of species and habitats by providing revenue to the local community. This revenue is sufficient enough for local people to value and protect their wildlife heritage, even if only as a source of income. Ecotourists are more willing to endure hardships to secure experiences, whether it be the “do-it-yourself” ecotourist who is willing to stay in a variety of accommodations, fairly mobile, and remains a relative amount of anonymity during their stay or the research-driven ecotourist who is staying in the same region for an extensive period of time.
The Scope of Tourism in Costa Rica
In any locale, tourism can best be analyzed by dissecting the opportunities and constraints present within spatial boundaries. Opportunities include rich, diverse natural environments (coastlines, mountains, rainforests), stable governments that support tourism development, and cultural amenities that appeal to a broad range of tourists. The absence of one or more of these factors can pose constraints for successful tourism; diversification of tourist activities result in regional and spatial differentiation of tourism. For this reason, Tamarindo, a popular beach town, attracts far more tourists than a rural town on the outskirts of the country.
Costa Rica has well publicized idyllic landscapes. In addition, the country is known for being rife with beaches instead of violence. Safety, image and political conditions are an overriding factor when tourists are seeking a vacation destination. Safety significantly correlates with per capita gross domestic product and economic stability. In contrast, Costa Rica has a penchant for pacifism; the country has had one hundred years of democracy and fifty years without an organized military have helped to foster a stable political and social climate that is appealing to tourists. With 230 separate protected areas and an extensive national park system created in 1969, Costa Rica is well positioned to continue building its ecotourism industry.

The Tourist Gaze: Tourism and Cultural Change in Costa Rica
Tourism is a unique and central element in contemporary Costa Rican society, and when examining tourism, it is important to not just focus on tourists alone but to attend to the larger context, the intersection of tourists and locals, and the spaces these two groups overlap. There is no doubt that the promotion of tourism in Costa Rica has led to several desirable outcomes. Most notably, the expansion of ecotourism has created ample opportunities for income generation and employment. In addition, tourism supplies incentives to protect the local environment and cultures, provided these incentives are strong enough to ward off the urge to exploit these resources for short-term gains. Due to this, natural resource conservation of both state-protected areas and private lands are on the rise. However, it is crucial to understand how tourism not only induces cultural change, but also cultural maintenance and cultural consumption. John Urry, a British sociologist and professor at Lancaster University examines the concept of tourism from a sociological perspective and conducted empirical research on the convoluted relationship between the tourist and the “toured,” which Urry calls, “The Tourist Gaze.” It is important to remember that, prior to their arrival, tourists have been informed by the media and other influences on what to expect in their destination. In Costa Rica for example, this may be drinking agua de pipa, as you are blanketed with palm trees above you, and staring into crystal blue waters. This “tourist gaze” sets expectations for what the tourist wants to see, and locals will play up to these preconceived notions. In many cases we focus on the influence that the tourist may have on the rather “hapless” citizens. However, while the tourist gaze and subsequent behavioral practices affect local culture, it is important to remember that “toured” people do not stand by passively. Just as toured people are affected by tourism, they also influence it, try to shape it to their benefit and influence the way that tourists behave. It is economically beneficial to accommodate to tourists, and locals will try to “play up” to these preconceived notions. Over time, the performance of what tourists expect becomes regular to the locals, who have adjusted to living in a tourist milieu. This is notable in the beach towns in Costa Rica. Whether you are on the Pacific side or the Atlantic side, they all seem to have adopted the stereotypical “surf shack” look.

Future Objectives
We cannot attend to matters economic or cultural in Costa Rica without seeing how they are linked to issues in the United States and elsewhere. This holds true for tourism; ecotourism is not stationary, but set within an interdependent world of diversity and differences which vary between time and space; any type of tourism impacts the environment, society, and cultural systems. It is important that when discussing ecotourism, we are doing so holistically, within the larger discourse, encompassing issues such as: environmental and habitat protection and sustainable development. Additionally, tourism has historically been viewed as an “isolated alternative,” to other economic sectors, while the focus of tourism typically primarily remains on the service itself and the customers. When evaluating tourism, such as ecotourism, it is imperative that we do not dissociate it from other economic activities; it should instead be seen as a complementary activity. It is also worth addressing the inherent paradox of ecotourism: at what point is it too much? In the case of Costa Rica, how can we ensure that the continued success of ecotourism does not result in irreparable environmental and socio-cultural damage over time? These are both questions that I have deeply pondered during my time in the program.

Author: Heather Haj

05 April, 2014

La Catarata Ecolodge: The Role of Ecolodges Within Ecotourism

Entrance to La Catarata
As students with a shared interest in environmental sustainability, it was a great experience to stay at La Catarata Ecolodge during our time in La Fortuna. Ecolodges are an ideal way for an environmentally conscious traveler to comfortably travel; ecolodges encourage responsible travel through various on-site conservation practices and by supporting local communities. In addition to promoting sustainable living and development within their site, ecolodges also promote sustainable development within the communities they reside economically, culturally, and environmentally. La Catarata has a prime location within La Fortuna, a reasonable distance away from the bustle of the main road, and set underneath the spectacular backdrop of the appreciable Arenal Volcano. The ambiance of La Catarata is rather unassuming, with an intimate rustic, tranquil, family-style feel, very reminiscent of what I can imagine were the simpler days in the countryside of Costa Rica. The “family feel,” of La Catarata is not just an impression, but a reality. As it turns out, the owner of La Catarata is the daughter of Cristina, who actually operates a medicinal farm, (that we also visited), only a few minutes away. Without a doubt, La Catarata is not for the tourist looking for the contrived trimmings of a grander, luxury eco-resort, but for someone wanting a rougher, more untouched experience of what is Costa Rica in its purity.

Entryway to a room at La Catarata. Labor and
construction materials were locally sourced.
For over ten years, the owners of La Catarata have been committed to the nearby community, knowing that no true conservation can be done without taking the local community into consideration; the key element in providing sustainable development is through utilizing the resources found within the local community. Using local resources promotes self-reliance not only through bolstering the local economy, but by also eliminating the need for external outputs. Ecolodges believe in buying local and hiring local; they promote community development through providing local jobs, buying local food, promoting local Tico-owned tours, and purchasing local materials for use in on-site construction. Hiring staff from the local or outlying communities not only improves the wellbeing of the community and environment, but also gives the establishment a more authentic feel. In addition, providing locals with the opportunity to make an income through working in their establishment is beneficial to local residents that may otherwise feel the need to resort to environmentally damaging activities to earn a living. The staff at La Catarata are all local residents and are paid more than the local minimum wage. In addition, the ingredients used in the food served at La Catarata, which is typical Costa Rican fare, all comes from local farms and markets.

The owner of La Fortuna discussing the
history and goals of La Fortuna to us in
her restaurant. Behind her is a wall of brochures
advertising local tours.
Ecolodges promote guest exploration of the natural area in order to promote a greater appreciation of the land and the biodiversity that it houses. Being located within the rich and fertile volcanic soil of the Arenal Volcano, as well as lush jungles of La Fortuna, gives La Catarata the privilege of being a wildlife corridor for the vast array of species endemic within the region. This gives guests the unique experience and opportunity to explore an abundance of local Costa Rican biodiversity. Forming direct or indirect relations with local ecolodges promotes both establishments and is helpful to guests that may have little to no knowledge of the local region; creates an alternative income stream for many that start up or work for an eco-tour establishment. In addition, La Catarata helps advertises and schedules booking for guests that want to explore some of the local attractions. The most sought after recreational pursuits for tourists are the hanging bridges tour, taking a boat safari on the River Penas Blancas, kayaking down Arenal Lake, and of course, getting a closer view of the Arenal Volcano. La Catarata has a few animals that they have rescued habituated on-site, though in rather small corridors. And of course, for the more adventurous tourist, independent exploration is also an option!

Bins for the recycling of "paper"
and "plastic," placed in the restaurant.
Ecolodges strive to have as little environmental impact as possible, both in the building and in the operating of the lodge. The design of the ecolodge is very important; the design should flow, not compete, with natural surroundings in order to not disturb the local species. We saw that instead of building a fence to surround La Catarata, they planted native trees that accomplished the same purpose, did not disrupt the local habitat, and served as a resting area for birds. In terms of site construction, usage of wood should be avoided as much as possible. In addition, various environmental practices are followed onsite. In terms of energy, many lodges try to take advantage of long-term cost savings and environmental benefits that alternative energy sources provide. La Catarata has a solar cooker that is used to heat food. There is also a water heater tank installed on top of one the lodges. In addition, ecolodges promote the proper handling and disposal of solid waste. Although very minimal amounts of paper and plastic are used on site, waste is recycled and there are large, attractive bins placed in convenient locations around the site so that guests can partake in this initiative.

La Catarata's vision statement.
As an environmental science student, I believe in the transforming power of education, as a lack of encouraging and providing education on conservation and sustainability can cause sustainable tourism within Costa Rica to falter in future generations.  Even the most rudimentary environmental education can convert an ordinary citizen into a global citizen, one with the desire to lead a more environmentally conscious and passionate lifestyle. Without a doubt, environmental education, whether formal or informal, basic or thorough, provides individuals with the knowledge and desire to make decisions that improve lives and encourage respect for the natural world along with its resources. Along with on-site conservation, providing environmental education to children is another important aspect of La Catarata’s commitment to sustainability. Over the years, La Catarata has supported environmental education in local elementary schools. However, La Catarata promotes environmental education within their establishment as well. They are very open with the tourists about the different ways that they try to operate sustainably, which can perhaps inspire guests to make more environmentally conscious decisions within their own lives. The placement of the solar cooker within the cabinas, as well as the attractive composting and garbage bins sparks curiousity amongst La Catarata guests who ask about their purpose.
La Catarata's mission statement to offer
personalized service to people of all

As a whole, ecotourism is one of the most dynamic segments of the international travel industry. Ecotourism not only conserves the environment but it also improves the well-being of the local people. Ecolodges reflect some of the main principles of ecotourism as they generate a variety of social and economic impacts within the communities that they reside. La Catarata displayed many of the aspects of a functioning ecolodge by: using environmentally-friendly energy, water, and waste systems, purchasing food from local farmers, offering a natural setting that respects that habitats that it is residing within, and offering opportunities for open interaction within owners, guests, and the local area. From the moment I arrived I was impressed. Modest cabinas resided within indigenous foliage. The building materials derived from local and recyclable components. Upon entering my room I was gently reminded to use water responsibly. Overall, La Catarata, like similar ecolodges in its wake, strives to ensure that every guest is left with a delightful memory of the charming atmosphere of the lodge as well as warm hospitality and seamless service. Ecolodges prove that you do not have to sacrifice your standards of environmental consciousness while traveling, which is increasingly more important as the rate of tourism is steadily rising. Being a more responsible traveler can help ensure that Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity is preserved in perpetuity.

AUTHOR: Heather Haj