Butterflies were everywhere, in hundreds of colors. This time I could see them from up close: they were big, much bigger than those I had seen before, and flied around smoothly as if I were not there. The animals owned this place, living as wildly as any animal could ever dream to.
As soon as I arrived in Totoco Farm, in Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, I noticed something very special about it. Totoco Farm follows a permaculture model. The design of everything—from the buildings to the farmlands—looked as if Mother Nature had given prior consent to establish it there. This became clear soon after I had arrived at the farm. On my first morning, I woke up and felt something bizarre caressing my feet. I soon realized a hairy carablanca monkey was sitting on my legs. By the time I left the country, my perception about living in nature had changed. I can now see how it is possible to live together with nature without harming it. It feels good and safe. Permaculture seemed to offer the only path to such harmony.
Totoco Farm is one of many such farms on the island. In the last few years, similar permaculture initiatives have emerged, attracting environmentally conscious tourists in search of unique ecosystems.
Ometepe has important ancient cultures and traditions kept alive by its current population—it is thanks to those communities that visitors can still enjoy immersion in traditional culture. I saw remarkable collaboration among the people that live in the island. Throughout the years, they have built a strong trust networks that have made them more resilient to natural disasters. These relationships have also helped to preserve the ecosystem through hard economic times.
During my stay there last July, I had the chance to meet a couple of families. From the eldest to the youngest members there was a shared pride and love for their land and traditions. This was very promising to hear, and could be a sign that generational succession is possible here—a great potential advantage for the preservation of the traditions. Among the people I met, Alfredo, a young teen born and raised on the island, told me that he is willing to take over the land of his family and continue with the agriculture business. His sister, Victoria, would instead like to become the first veterinarian in the village. Alfredo and Victoria are certainly the best-suited people to look over the fauna and flora of the island.
As an international development consultant, I believe the only way we can positively influence them is by granting access to the education and finance they will need to successfully run their businesses. But we should not intervene further, because only they have the social knowledge that will let them adapt their new knowledge to the reality of the people in their island.
Ometepe has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2010. The island has lots of potential to become a successful ecotourism destination. Agriculture will be the most important factor in this change since it employs most of the population. It also poses the most substantial threats to the preservation of the land as it is.
The current system is characterized by monoculture crops highly dependent on chemical fertilizers and a lack of access to final markets. In a time where we are being told to shut others out, fight over resources, and consume as much as we can, agriculture instead is calling us to support diversity, create more mutually beneficial systems, support pollinators and wildlife, and take solace within beauty and simplicity. A handful of farmers have been working on permaculture intiatives in the last few years and if expanded the practice could make a big difference for the islands’ ecosystem and community resilience.
Organic, sustainably grown foods are often directly traded, more fairly priced, and healthier. We cannot forget that what farmers grow is what their families eat. By promoting more sustainable organic agriculture we would be directly granting access to healthier food for island families. However, the path won’t be easy. There is a need to respond to the growing demand for organic food by connecting the farmers to organic farmer’s markets and organic restaurants both in the country and overseas. Education in organic farming, restaurant, and hotel management will be needed. Financial gain for smallholder producers will be crucial if we want to see the change happening.
But above all we need to ensure that the change comes from inside the community and is led by its people, who are the only one that can continue to preserve the culture and traditions of the island. My hope is that not too far in the future local tourism businesses will be run by the people from Ometepe, leading the change towards greater sustainability, permanent agriculture, and preserving the unique beauty of this place.