If we told you that Telica Volcano has the potential to be one of the top tourist destinations within Nicaragua, would you doubt us?
If we told you that we were building a tourist centre, training tour guides and marking out trails, would you think we had lost sight of our charitable aims?
If we told you that tourists hold the solution to raising those living on Telica out of extreme poverty and to conserving the protected area, would you call us mad?
This year we are embarking on one of our most ambitious projects to date. Through increasing tourism to Telica, the 74 families of Agua Fría will have the opportunity to increase their income well above the $1.25 per person per day that the World Bank recognizes as the threshold for absolute poverty. With current incomes estimated at just under $1 per person per day, even modest increases in tourism could drastically change these communities’ livelihoods.
Currently 200 to 300 tourists visit Telica every month. Unfortunately, the volcano is simply seen as inaccessible for a wide demographic, including almost all Nicaraguan nationals. Those who do arrive use tour operators in León, bypass the local communities, and head straight to the crater. In doing so, they miss out on the cultural and environmental richness of the protected area, and deprive the communities of any economic benefit.
Last month Nuevas Esperanzas held a meeting with the community of Agua Fría to present the project in its entirety. As well as the goals, the team outlined the first phases. A tourism centre, cabins and a café need to be built, model farms need to be set up, trails need to be mapped out and much more. Most farmers in the area say they want alternatives to beans and corn but cannot afford to take the risk on trying something new. Therefore, despite some reservations, most were intrigued and pleased to hear that the project would benefit them all.
The project will make this isolated part of Nicaragua significantly more accessible. It will equip a new cooperative with the skills and tools needed to look after tourists and offer guided tours up to the crater, and around their communities and forest. These people are doubtless the best placed to give an insight into the area that they know and love.
Nuevas Esperanzas has long worked to reduce the vulnerability of communities perched high on the slopes of the Telica Volcano. This project marks a new stage in the development. Having helped to make their livelihoods more viable and stable, our aim is now to make them significantly more profitable too. Community members providing tourist services are the clearest and most direct beneficiaries. They have already formed a cooperative and visited Volcano Mombacho to see for themselves how a successful ecotourism project works. But they are not the only ones who will benefit.
We believe that this project could change the lives of all those living in the protected area. The model farms we are setting up will promote sustainable agriculture amongst the whole community. Extensionists – on-site agricultural trainers – will teach the community new techniques to produce a wide variety of new fruits and vegetables. Recognizing that production is only one part of the process, the model farms will then offer further training in commercialization. This will put participants in a much stronger position to market their new crops. Beekeeping will also be a key feature of the model farm, offering yet another source of income. Finally, many of those living within the area will be compensated for tourist trails passing through their land.
But the benefit is not just financial. Some think that authenticity is sacrificed when an area becomes ‘touristy’. But in clearly linking environmental conservation with economic benefits, this project will actually help to preserve the traditional natural beauty of the Telica-Rota Protected Area. With trees needed to grow fruit, for bees to make honey, and to persuade tourists to pay entry, we expect illegal logging and burning to be brought to an end.
There is no reason for the Telica-Rota Protected Area not to become a model of how to harmonize conservation and poverty reduction.
We are grateful to the European Union for their funding for this project.