Residents of five small communities in southeast Nicaragua are betting that the forests, wetlands, and wildlife in their backyards could become one of the country’s popular tourist attractions. Since they have limited economic opportunities, income from tourism could help their families, as well as their natural resources, flourish.
But how does a farmer become an innkeeper? The Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (BICU), a consortium of six local organizations, is stepping in with training courses, part of a new project called “Ecotourism Development in Mahogany’s Municipal Wetlands Ecological Park.” While it does not yet have official legal status, this 108-square mile park was proposed by officials in the nearby towns of Bluefields and Rama to protect internationally important wetlands, which serve as stopovers and feeding grounds for migratory waterfowl, and as nurseries for fish species like the Central American rainbow bass, known as guapote (Cichlasoma dovii), and tarpon (Megalops atlanticus). The proposed park also forms part of three ecologically important reserves: Southeast Biosphere Reserve, the Punta Gorda Natural Reserve, and the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.
Marcos González, director of BICU’s Biodiversity and Environmental Studies Institute, says that the maze of forested and aquatic protected areas suffer from indiscriminate hunting, slash-and-burn farming, and overfishing. “The idea is to develop ecotourism as a conservation tool in the zone,” he explains. “It is inevitable that the need to conserve will clash with the need to make a living, so we want to give an option to communities to obtain financial benefits while continuing to conserve.”
About 250 families live near the park, in the communities of Boca Mahogany, Belén, Paraíso, Magnolia, and Sisi, where they grow barely enough crops to support themselves, and have limited access to potable water. With no roads in the area, they must navigate the Escondido River and its tributaries by boat.
Staff of the ecotourism project, which began in March 2004, plan to first focus on 20 local farms, helping families improve their production and reforestation activities. The project also includes an environmental education component aimed at both visitors and local communities. Since tourism may have an impact on the park’s wildlife, rivers, and streams, project staff will also survey and monitor the park’s fauna population and water quality.
Another objective, González notes, is to create interpretive trails so that visitors and local people can learn about the forest’s medicinal plants, rare orchids, and principal hardwood trees. There are also plans to build a visitor’s center, to be managed by park guards.
To ensure that local communities directly benefit from tourism, González says the project will train residents in how to host visitors, provide guest rooms in their homes, and give tours of the nearby forests, rivers, and wetlands. Visitors could also elect to pitch in and help with farm work and daily chores. Kayaking and sportfishing are other options.
The project’s budget also includes funds to buy equipment and provide support for the Community Park Guards of Mahogany, currently an all-volunteer group working with very basic gear. The three-year project is supported by the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, a joint initiative of Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank.
Alejandro Álvarez, coordinator of Conservation International’s Costa Rica-Nicaragua region, emphasizes that the project is not promoting large-scale ecotourism development, but it does hope to take advantage of the natural resources found in a biologically important area in order to generate social well-being.
According to Álvarez, while small-scale farmers have been greatly affected by free market agreements and cannot make a profit with their crops and livestock, ecotourism is profitable and has huge potential in Nicaragua.
González agrees, acknowledging that although visitation in the area is currently quite low, Mahagony Park’s natural attractions and its strategic location between the two main cities of Bluefields and Rama are promising. In addition, the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute is interested in promoting the region and has included it in its national tourism plan.
Álvarez adds, “The area has a lot of tourism potential if you know how to exploit it correctly and give it the attention it needs. In about 10 years it could be one of the largest tourism attractions in the country, as long as there is political will to invest in the region.”
— Katiana Murillo
Barrio San Pedro
Región Autónoma Atlántico Sur, Nicaragua
tel +505/822-1116, ext. 40
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index: