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An American educator becomes an "environmental  expert" in Nicaragua, and introduces a successful recycling project.

by Susan D’Aloia

In 2005, I embarked on a ten month project as an educator in Nicaragua, a Central American country surrounded by both the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, famous for its stunning volcanoes, and struggling with enormous international debt.  I sought to work in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, because it had begun fading out government funding of its public schools at the discretion of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), (Baez 2003). This seemed a tragic irony for a country that twenty years earlier was “unanimously chosen for first prize by a panel of judges designated by UNESCO,” for its ten month campaign that virtually eradicated illiteracy (Hirshon 1983).

Dos Pueblos, a New York based sister-city organization that partially funded my work, operates on the notion of solidarity between conscientious Americans who historically opposed US funding of the Contras during the eighties, and the current people of Nicaragua struggling to survive in the twenty first century. Salomon Ibarra Mayorga Primary and Secondary school, located in Tipitapa, had become a pit stop on their yearly delegation trail. My assignment at the school was to determine a “need” and create a responding project.

 How would I get to know the needs of 3000 students and ninety teachers? I repeatedly thought about this during the first week of my volunteer experience outside Managua, the country’s capital. Children and teenagers buzzed with energy as the teachers continued to lead classes with determination despite being fiercely underpaid. The school could not afford the monthly water and electric bills, let alone an allowance for educational materials for teachers and students. A trip to some local stores revealed how markers, paper and pens cost more in Nicaragua than the United States. With teacher salaries ranging between sixty to hundred dollars a month, it was no wonder that buying school supplies remained yet another impossibility.

 Overwhelmed by the frenzy of uniformed students yelling gringa! gringa!  I negotiated my way through Nicaraguan Spanish as I stood aghast at the piles of garbage within the school setting. Plastic bottles, empty sandwich bags sticky with drink residue, broken glass, paper plates and empty straws lay along side fresh fallen fruit that children ate. Stray animals loitered in the waste. Neighbors threw their garbage over the wall that enclosed the school, the bags often landing in the trees. Primary school children ran through it as they played tag. Teachers and other staff fastidiously swept, lit the garbage into piles, creating toxic fumes. Daily, the burning of plastic created a stench that emanated from the all sections of the vast courtyard. But this method of elimination never rid the bulk of the trash that only seemed to grow.

While never considering myself an environmentalist or conservationist before, I began acting as one.  My education in this capacity consisted of me being a citizen of the United States who lived in a city that provided plenty of trash cans and garbage pick up. My knowledge of recycling consisted solely of the informative handouts and magnets the New York Department of Sanitation sent to every household.  And yet somehow, with my American status, I quickly became viewed as an environmental expert by suggesting that inhaling burning plastic probably wasn’t optimal for the nervous system or the staff and students ability to focus.

A Country with Vast Natural Resources

Americans have long ventured to Nicaragua with lofty aspirations, William Walker, the most infamous.  In the mid 19th century, American white supremacist Walker landed in Nicaragua with the intention of turning it into a “slave state loyal to the southern United States”.  Within three years he declared himself president and shortly after was assassinated by unified Nicaraguans (Bergman 2003). However, US financial interests remained a striking presence in the form of investment in the developing coffee plantations and steady military presence throughout the second half of the 19th and all of the 20th Century (Bergman 2003).

William Walker’s efforts and the subsequent US involvement also demonstrate the escalating world changes that conservationist Aldo Leopold articulated in his classic A Sand County Almanac. Leopold recognized that the wilderness would be “exhausted” in “habitable” places in the world as “modern transport and industrialization” would create a “world-wide hybridization of cultures” (1949). These impending changes eventually found form in the excess of disposable products that flooded Nicaragua in the nineties. Without an accompanying waste management campaign, the onslaught of consumption had literally caused a gorgeous country to become littered with junk.

Ivonne Mayorga, the dedicated director of the school, worried about the school’s growing sanitation problem. Over lunch, a meeting picked up steam when a teacher suggested we create teams of students to help clean it up. Primary school teacher, Rosaura Tinoca and I “piloted” a solution in her classroom. Following prompts to imagine their school with a clean courtyard and identify obstacles, students diligently drew their responses in pictures classifying different types of garbage.  When the children revealed that they did not know that yellow and blue made green or the concept of primary and secondary colors, [1]it seemed natural that art could hook a small fraction of the student population into garbage conscientiousness. Using a small portion of my 500 dollar budget I bought art supplies and held workshops. Many children had never used crayons or colored pencils in their lives.  After demonstrating color wheel theory, students created badges with labels- collector of paper, collector of plastic, collector of food- as well as their artistic designs. This creative component proved crucial to draw in more young people to the idea of picking and sorting garbage.

The project and its results

Mondays at seven am remained important since that was the one day the school received garbage service via a compact truck, donated by the Japanese.  Organizing the newly purchased garbage bins in one spot was critical or they weren’t emptied.  At 8:30 am, I met with 5-10 teenage students in their final year of high school. We divvied up recollection responsibilities and prepared our daily presentations. Prior to recess, we visited classrooms in the primary school, demonstrating to children the characteristics of organic garbage, for example, how a leaf differed from a plastic bag and what happened when non-organic garbage burned.

We guided students as they read the ecological comics which contained drawings by teenage students and colored by younger ones. The older students reviewed the rules of recollection right before formally picking up the garbage during recess. Wearing plastic sandwich bags as gloves, a flurry of energetic children put on the colorful student-created laminated job description tags and ran to collect garbage.[2] A delegated person tallied the count of every piece of garbage picked up. The students took their roles seriously by performing with focus and purpose. After cleaning both schools for about twenty minutes, we collected roughly about 1500 pieces of garbage. The team lugged the bags to a central location. Afterwards we gathered and did a special hand ritual- a circle of cascading high fives before the older students reinforced the importance of hygiene and then helped the little ones scrub their hands.

Post clean up, when the older students debriefed the session, I got to know them better. Besides expressing pride for their cleaner school, many students shared their “dream” that Nicaragua would develop more tourism that would actually benefit the Nicaraguan people, as opposed to solely wealthy foreigners. And while some teens revealed mild hope that the industry will eventually provide a sweep of career options, most became fatalistic when they reflected on their goals in light of the virtually non-existent job market. The most available employment remained sweatshop work at the nearby Zona Franca, the largest free trade zone in Central America, located just three miles from the school. The owners and investors of the sweatshops in the Zona Franca disregarded the environment as heaps of industrial garbage piled up in the wooded areas adjacent to the factories.  This sight was visible for anyone to see who took the bus into Managua, as I did many times.

A running joke with students started with, “where are you going to college?”

“The Zona Franca,” was the reply.

They knew that despite seeing the power of their efforts in a project and passing their final exams, they had few options besides working for companies that did not respect the quality of their lives nor considered the possibilities of their future or that of the physical environment of their country. [3]

Still, a small but significant core group of students remained committed, while a transitory, evolving larger group of students sporadically participated in the classification project, as the piles of trash diminished. Yet, the teachers and administration generally watched as opposed to participate.

In my attempt to further understand this resistance, I discovered that many staff members had expected me to arrive with computers. Evidently, another American who had visited the school on a week long delegation with Dos Pueblos had “promised” them a computer lab. It made sense that an intercultural conversation, one I knew nothing about, ignited a passion to experience the benefits of globalization. The piece of globalization they desired, however, was not a gringa modeling how to be responsible for their waste, the results of modernization. They wanted technology that would provide more opportunities.  Arriving empty-handed, I represented another foreigner from the North that disappointed.

Solidarity between even “conscientious” foreigners from rich countries and people from developing nations falls within dubious terrain due to the division of wealth and access precisely categorized by Gustovo Esteva and Madhu Sur Prakash.  These theorists term a One-Third World, as including the middle and upper classes that enjoy mainstream economic and social privileges in industrialized countries of the “north”, and the upper class of poorer countries of the “south”.  Conversely, the Two-Thirds World consists of the majority of the planet that survive without means to the “good life” or economic advantages enjoyed by the One-Third World. 

 Guidance that would help me negotiate this imbalance had constituted my private reason for being in Nicaragua. I desired mentorship regarding my own inevitable role in this global power dynamic as I perhaps selfishly sought work with deeper meaning far away from where I voted and paid taxes. Indeed, at the school I had plenty of mentors to learn from as I found opportunities to hear about their lives. The dozens of teachers older than me had served their country to their fullest capacity during the revolution and in the subsequent war. They spent their youth deep in the mountains. They taught the illiterate peasants that grew their food how to read. They picked coffee; they took up arms. Now in their forties and fifties they fought for wages and picked jocotes from the land surrounding the school- as I scrambled around their domain chasing garbage. Their resistance to classifying garbage could be translated as a different stop sign. Stop. Look at my life- all of it. Their lives illuminated the lesson. I had developed an environmental ethic for a ten month stint in Nicaragua. They too had banked everything on an ethic- for nation, for autonomy, for choices. Fatigue eventually found its place for daring to believe in such ethics.

And yet thanks to the zeal of the school’s youth, for many months the garbage project functioned as a well-greased machine. When the mayor's office learned of it they acknowledged that all of Tipitapa (and Nicaragua) needed to comprehend the notion of recycling. Recognizing community momentum, Rosaura, the teacher whose classroom had been where it all began, shared her desire to create a garden at the school. Informally, the mayor’s office agreed to donate plants. A month after I left Tipitapa, she sent me an email from a cybercafe. With gratuitous gratitude, she shared how an ecological group had dug a hole eight feet deep to recycle organic garbage into fertilizer. Apparently the mayor’s office kept their word. Rosaura had received fifty plants to start the garden she had imagined. [4]


[1] And yet conversations with teachers and folks in the community, who came of age during the revolution, revealed that an older generation knew this information. The revolution had focused on art. Colorful murals still demonstrate this priority-most especially in the city of Esteli.

[2] This eagerness demonstrates the youth’s need to participate in something larger than them and to act, to move, to become more deeply involved.

[3] Conservation law plays but a superficial component in the free trade agreement CAFTA where intellectual property rights take precedence.

[4] Works Cited

Baez, Eduardo (2003) Nicaraguan Schools go Autonomous Envio, Number 264
Bergman, Joshua, and Wood Randy (2003)
Nicaragua. Avalon Travel Publishing. California 

Esteva, Gustavo, and Madhu Suri Prakash (1998) Grassroots Post-modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures. London: Zed 

Hirshon, Sheryl (1983) And Also Teach them to Read. Lawrence Hill & Co., Connecticut

Lancaster, N. Roger (1992) Life is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power    in Nicaragua, University of California Press, California

Leopold, Aldo (1949) The Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There, Oxford  University Press, Oxford, New York


Susan D’Aloia is a performer and educator whose essays and fiction have been published in the Global City Review and The Reading Room/2. Recently she finished making her first short film, Up for Grabs. Currently she’s pursuing her PhD at Florida Atlantic University. Please visit her blog at sistercityneworleans.blogspot.com.