Isla de Ometepe: “A machete and a water bottle was all anybody here needed to live a good life. But with climate change, it’s not so easy – you can’t rely on the seasons,” says Alvaro Molino. “The rains are not predictable any more, so people don’t know when to plant. Entire harvests are lost regularly because the rains don’t come, or they come too early and ruin crops.”
The price of red beans is now higher than chicken, in Nicaragua. Here, on Ometepe Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, people don’t starve because there is plenty of high-protein fish in the lake. But despite having wonderfully fertile volcanic soil and an abundance of water, the villagers (95% of whom are farmers) are poor, often lose their harvests and plant just one crop per year. There is no irrigation; when it doesn’t rain, the crops get no water.
“The island could be supplying produce across the country,” Alvaro says, “but whatever you want here, whether it’s beans or rice or a teacher or mechanic, you have to go to the mainland.”
The problem, Alvaro believes, comes down to education. People here are poorly equipped to deal with changes in the climate because they know no alternatives to the way that they’ve been doing things for centuries. Education would give them the resources to learn about improved farming practices and alternative ways of supporting themselves, such as working in tourism.
Nicaragua spends just $160 on elementary education per child per year, and $60 on secondary education per child per year – the only Latin American country to spend less on secondary than primary education. It spends half as much as its poor neighbours, Honduras and El Salvador, and a mere fraction of what Costa Rica and Panama spend. The results are clear to see. Crossing over from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, irrigation is not the only thing that stops: it is suddenly difficult to find English speakers, to wash your hands with soap and find sanitary toilets – all markers of education.
On this part of the island, a population of 10,000, there are many families in which no members can read or write; just 9 boys and 3 girls graduated (2%) from high school in this village in the past 3 years – most leave school by age 12. Even if these children were to make it to university (none have), the ‘good’ university, San Marcos, near Granada, which is US-accredited, requires most of its entrants to undertake ‘remedial’ courses to bring their poor high-school acquired education up to entry standard. The additional cost of these classes often rules out even middle class students from attending.
Unlike most Nicaraguans, Ometepe Islanders have a golden opportunity to prosper: tourism. The island is little developed, owing to decades of war and civil unrest, which put off all but the most determined backpackers from visiting. With improved security, hotels are springing up, and Alvaro wants to make sure that the locals get a share of the lucrative pie.
“The problem is, most hotels want to see a fast return on their investment. They pay out thousands of dollars on infrastructure, but have nothing left for the long-term ‘human infrastructure’. It means that when it comes to employing staff, they import everyone from receptionists to guides from Costa Rica, the US or Europe. However ‘eco’ or ‘community-minded’ they say they are, the result is the same: exclusion of the locals by a group of richer outsiders.”
Alvaro, who is Nicaraguan-born but educated in the US, is doing things differently. He employs only local villagers at his guesthouse, which he began creating 10 years ago, out of an old farmhouse on the island. “Our service standards are not as good as the Swiss or German or Italian-run places on the island, but that’s not my primary concern,” he admits. “I am trying to create a situation where local people can be the first choice for hoteliers, where they can compete with foreigners for jobs here on their island.”
In Alvaro’s hotel – where, incidentally, we’ve not noticed any poverty of service – a dozen 8-10-year-olds are reciting their times-tables in English for a couple of blonde, enthusiastic volunteers from the US. After arithmetic practice, the children are taught vocabulary, including, I overhear, the difference between the words ‘job’ and ‘career’ – something that few people in the developing world get to learn in practice.
The kids get to use 6 donated laptops to learn and surf the net, paying for their internet time by filling 1.5 litre discarded water bottles with collected litter.
These intensive English classes are just one of Alvaro’s projects to fill the enormous gap in government-provided education. All employees at the hotel must, according to their contracts, send their children to school – people have been dismissed from service for this failure. Promising students, including members of hotel staff, such as 16-year-old receptionist Horacio, are sent for once-weekly or, in some cases, full-time, English tuition at San Marcos.
“Without English, the kids are nearly unemployable in hotels,” Alvaro explains. “They can’t go on to study other skills, because many training places require language skills, which only the dual nationality US-Nicaraguan richer kids have.”
And he’s set his sights further. Alvaro’s dream is to send the best local kids to distinguished prep schools in the US. His first success, 13-year-old Alberto Lanuza, has just been accepted on a scholarship to Lawrenceville Prep School in Princeton, New Jersey. The boy will begin classes later this year. “He’s exchanging the rice fields for the best future, and bringing back hope and learning to Ometepe.”
Buoyed by this success, Alvaro is now trying to establish a ‘prep school for prep schools’ to train up more kids so that they can apply for scholarships by age 13.
Later, I get Horacio to show me the vegetable gardens that were destroyed by metre-high floods a few months ago. We pass a 75-year-old tree, “knocked down like a toothpick” in the storms, and Horacio quizzes me about my job. “Is it hard? Did you have to go to university?” he asks. “And how much did that cost?”
His bright eyes twinkle intelligently and I feel a surge of despair: Horacio, Alvaro told me, could have been one of his US scholarship boys, but his parents were against his staying at school. He was only allowed to go to Saturday English classes if he worked full-time at the hotel. “Without parental support, there’s no point in trying,” is Alvaro’s rule.