Resilience and Sustainability in Nicaragua

In the aftermath of the war against the Contras, northern Nicaragua bore the scars of that conflict on both the land and the people. Mines still littered the border with Honduras and many veterans who had lost limbs to those mines were unable to work in the fields of the region. But it is a region bathed in sunlight.  And so was born an initiative supported by the National Engineering University of Nicaragua (UNI) to provide wounded veterans with the training to fabricate and sell solar voltaic panels. The veterans would have jobs and people in the region who had no access to power would have electricity for their children to study after dark (among other uses). Building on this program, UNI’s Grupo Fenix, took advantage of learning opportunities to install solar pumps, solar drip irrigation systems, micro-hydroelectric systems, PV battery charging centers, and hundreds of photovoltaic systems in rural communities. They have also built solar dryers, solar water heating systems, biogas digesters, dozens of solar ovens, hundreds of photovoltaic panels and a hand full of miniature solar cars.

In recent years their work in the community of Sabana Grande has expanded to include a partnership with Las Mujeres Solares, a women’s cooperative, to build a solar restaurant and an agro ecological demonstration farm. Grupo Fenix’s collaborations now also include several North American colleges and universities (including CornellUniversity) in an initiative Grupo Fenix calls EduTourism. The Edutourism model Grupo Fenix focuses on technical and cultural exchanges between university professors and students, engineering, agronomical, and veterinary professionals, and female-led rural Nicaraguan groups. These exchanges have resulted in Nicaraguan groups that are over 75% female engaging in a range of economic activities that both directly benefit local communities and embody the best practices of sustainable development.

The Mujeres Solares, specifically, have focused their efforts on changing traditional cooking practices to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Through the collaborative process of the Edutourism model the Solar Women developed a simple, functional solar oven made from locally sourced materials. The Edutourism model emphasizes a family-like creative environment sustained by continual communication. This dynamic led to the Solar Women winning a United Nations sponsored SEED Initiative Prize in 2008, allowing them to become a legally recognized cooperative and win a grant from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to build a solar-powered restaurant. The restaurant was constructed largely by the women themselves and is made of the traditional adobe of the region. It makes use of solar cookers and high-efficiency wood-burning stoves and is supplemented by a biogas system running on human and cow manure. The restaurant has been fully functional and open to the public since 2011.

In order to reduce the consumption of firewood, the women have constructed over 200 solar cookers, seven solar dryers, and 110 improved wood-burning and charcoal stoves (the latter co-developed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and have developed methods to make charcoal out of agro-waste. The women have become genuine agents of change in their own community and beyond, and now engage in regular exchanges with people from around the world to share their knowledge and learn from outside experts.

From October 20-24, Susan Kinne, the leader of Grupo Fenix, and Reyna Lopez, the President of Las Mujeres Solares, will be visiting the Ithaca area. Their presentations will include seminars at Cornell University from 12:00-1:00PM and Ithaca College from 4:00-5:00 PM on Monday, October 20 and a downtown event from 6:00-7:30 on Wednesday, October 22 co-sponsored by ¡Cultura! and the IthacaCollege Latin American Studies Program. For details on these events and other aspects of their visit, please contact Michael Smith at IthacaCollege, mismith@ithaca.edu or call him at (607)274-1290.

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