A Mobilized Community, Río Abajo
By Steve Gretzinger, Green Empowerment Board Member
It had been many years since I had last put on dusty boots to visit a remote, rural village in Central America. On Friday, February 21st I was blessed to have the chance to see Green Empowerment’s water project in Northern Nicaragua far from the beaches frequented by tourists or the urban chaos of Managua. Maria Elisa, Green Empowerment’s Program Coordinator for Nicaragua, graciously organized a trip taking advantage of my limited time to meet with both our local partner in the region (FEDICAMP) and the women and men from the village of Rio Abajo to show me the results of their efforts.
The news coming out of Nicaragua’s difficult political situation would make your typical U.S. citizen expect demoralized people unable to resolve problems. That was not what I found at all. Our first meeting at the office of FEDICAMP, a large association of “campesino” (small farmer) community groups dedicated to increasing economic opportunities, improving living conditions, and fostering equal opportunities for men and women showed just the opposite: a diverse team of committed professionals engaged in well-organized activities designed to effect real change. After learning the history of FEDICAMP in the bustling town of Esteli, we hopped in our vehicles and left the paved roads to travel up a dry gravel road to Rio Abajo.
Green Epowerment’s decision to partner with FEDICAMP and the people of Rio Abajo to build a safe water system that will deliver potable water to each and every one of the 129 families in this community was the right one. First and foremost, the people are committed. Women carried cement, rolls of metal fencing, and rocks up a steep hill to build a water tank. Men scraped through hardpan and rock with picks and shovels to make trenches for water pipes. Several neighbors provided land for the benefit of all to locate the various elements of the simple yet effective water system. And this in a place where land and labor are essentially the main or only assets that people have. For them to make such an effort shows how important the success of this project is to Rio Abajo residents.
Sure there are probably other communities where residents would bust a sweat to improve their lots, but few, if any, with such a dire need. Rio Abajo is tucked away from sight in a secluded valley that blocks the outside world from easy access. Until GE entered the picture, the women had no option other than to give their kids dangerous non-potable water and cross a river that in the rainy season rages to their waists and has resulted in drownings of several residents.
With no middle or high school in Río Abajo, many of the dynamic personalities we met with had no formal education beyond elementary school. In spite of that, they clearly and confidently explained with words and graphics, how the residents of Rio Abajo came together and obtained matching funds from virtually every community member. They achieved this in a region that in 2017 had an average minimum wage of roughly $174/month.
The sparkling smiles of village residents laughing in response to my exceedingly basic questions while trudging up the hill to see the water system, convinced me that GE knows how to get the job done right. GE not only has technical prowess but equally important, the soft skills needed to work with a wide range of people. MariaElisa and FEDICAMP have clearly developed an open rapport based on mutual respect that allowed folks to express themselves, share ideas, and work side-by-side to build a successful project.
As a trained forester, I could not avoid wondering how GE could help ensure that the ground, which supplies Río Abajo’s drinking water, stays healthy and continues to provide. Throughout much of rural Nicaragua residents cut firewood from heavily impacted forests or plots of native vegetation surrounding their communities. Rio Abajo is no exception and it does not take much technical knowledge to realize that at some point in the near future the hillsides around Rio Abajo would harbor much less wood and shade than today. Increased insolation due to reduced tree cover will ultimately lead to a lower water table and even the best water pump would be unable to guarantee H20.
An expression of this concern to Maria Elisa resulted in an exceptional addendum to our trip. We were able to meet with Taking Root, a creative and nimble nonprofit dedicated to helping farmers plant trees with funds generated by the sale of carbon credits. We spent a late afternoon with Taking Root’s country director, Elvin Castellon, and one of his extensionists, visiting reforestation projects that could be implemented in Rio Abajo. The adjacent photo shows how unproductive land that had long since lost its ability to generate revenues for its owner, was planted with local species with costs covered by North Americans and Europeans interested in reducing their carbon footprint.
The new idea hatched by conversations in the setting sun with Taking Root and Maria Elisa, prompted by the visit to Rio Abajo and Green Empowerment’s work there with FEDICAMP is to link our complementary skill sets. Green Empowerment and FEDICAMP have helped Rio Abajo apply the energy, unity and focus of its community members to resolve the immediate need for adequate drinking water. Moving forward, Green Empowerment is excited to explore the possibility of a new partnership with Taking Root and to potentially expand their work with Río Abajo to restore the local watershed and keep water flowing even in the face of climate change.
I found that despite a long, dusty day in Northern Nicaragua, this short trip to see GE’s work on-the-ground was uplifting and revealing. The perception I had about GE’s work prior to joining the Board last year was proven accurate. While I expected, and hoped, to see technically sound projects, I had not anticipated such deep relationships with our rural partners, such professional counterparties, nor such creative and enthusiastic resolution of problems.
Green Empowerment would like to thank Christadelphian Meal-A-Day of the Americas and the Vatheuer Family Foundation for funding our work in Río Abajo and many other communities in Latin America.