Boosting rural community tourism with cob houses

Everyone knows tourism is a business that makes money. A lot of today’s fastest growing tourist destinations are in developing countries, where the money from tourism can also help lift people out of poverty. But in reality this rarely happens, and most tourism benefits only a small minority, while the masses remain as poor as ever.

One way to solve this problem is through community tourism cooperatives that share the costs, the work and the benefits of tourism more equally. But even cooperatives need money to get started and this is a big obstacle, especially for poor communities in rural areas. A couple months ago I volunteered with a new tourism cooperative in Rio Chiquito, El Salvador that has found a creative solution to this problem: cob houses.

Cob house under construction
This is one of nine cob cabins that are under construction or planned by La Laguna Tourism Cooperative in Rio Chiquito, El Salvador.

Community development through cooperative tourism

Rio Chiquito is the gateway to Cerro El Pital, the highest peak of El Salvador. The cloud forests surrounding the mountain are perfect for outdoor activities like hiking. It is a popular destination for El Salvadorians who are especially drawn in by the cool mountain climate, but for now it is little visited by foreign tourists – even though Rio Chiquito is one of the safest places in a notoriously crime-ridden country.

View of Rio Chiquito from Cerro El Pital
The views of Rio Chiquito and the surrounding landscapes from Cerro El Pital are well worth the hike.

The small farming community in Rio Chiquito welcomes tourists with true El Salvadorian hospitality, but how much does the community really benefit from tourism? After all, it is the community that has kept the area beautiful by not cutting down the forests, and safe by not allowing gangs to enter, and so they should be the ones to benefit from the influx of tourists. But starting a tourism business requires money, and hence the hotels and restaurants in Rio Chiquito are owned by wealthy San Salvadorians who have the money to make the initial investment. And so the majority of the money brought by tourists from San Salvador goes right back to the capital, while the locals are left with badly paying jobs in these hotels and restaurants.

Forest around Rio Chiquito
Tourists to Rio Chiquito can thank the local community for not deforesting these beautiful pine forests – something that has happened in most parts of El Salvador.

This is what the seven families of the new La Laguna Tourism Cooperative hope to change. The cooperative will offer homestay accommodation and home-cooked meals on their family farms, and hence the families will benefit more directly from the tourists’ money. Working together as a cooperative makes it easier to market and manage the business, while rotation of tourists ensures that all families benefit equally. At the same time it gives the unemployed youths of the community a reason to stay, instead of leaving to the cities or United States to find work.

The families of the cooperative are all small farmers, including the family I stayed with. Staying in homestays with these families will give tourists a chance to experience life in rural El Salvador on a different level – something that could attract more foreign tourists to the community. My hosts practice organic, ecological agriculture which is also appealing to many tourists, and visitors would be given a chance to try local specialties like homemade organic peach wine. The cooperative also plans to offer activities like hiking, mountain biking and even astronomy. Other community members could be involved even if they don’t offer accommodation, for example there is one lady with a great view from her farm who could offer sunset dinners.

Farm in Rio Chiquito
La Laguna Tourism Cooperative wants to give tourists a chance to experience what life is like on a small farm in Rio Chiquito.

The role of cob houses

So where do cob houses fit in all of this, and what is cob anyway? Cob is a type of earth building technique that uses a mixture of earth and a fibrous organic material (typically straw, but in this case pine needles) that adds tensile strength. The earth should ideally consist of approximately three-fourths sand and one-fourth clay. Water is added to the mixture and mixing is generally done by feet, after which the finished mixture is rolled into clumps called cobs. The wall is then directly built up by hand-forming the cobs into a thick homogenous wall, and the edges are straightened with a machete.

Building a cob wall
Simple tools like sticks can help mold cob into a homogeneous wall, but the main tool is your hands.

Before my hosts moved to Rio Chiquito, cob was unknown in the village where traditional houses were built with adobe, or mud bricks. The mixture of earth, water and pine needles used for adobe bricks is similar to the one used for cob, but the end result is very different. Adobe walls have mortar joints between the bricks, and these joints are weak points, especially during earthquakes. In comparison, cob walls are homogeneous and also slightly thicker, which makes them stronger and more earthquake-resistant. Adobe houses also take longer to build since the bricks need to be made and dried first before the actual construction of the walls.

These weaknesses with adobe construction are one of the reasons people in Rio Chiquito now prefer to build with concrete blocks. The problem is that concrete block homes are much more expensive, and to cover the cost of a home the youth are practically expected to go work in the United States for several years. This is where cob comes in, as it is as affordable as adobe but has all the structural benefits mentioned above. And so, when my hosts moved to Rio Chiquito and started building a house with cob, the locals were immediately interested in this new technique and the possibilities it could bring. Pretty soon a few families started talking about a tourism cooperative that would offer accommodation in cob cabins.

Finished cob house
This cob house was built by my hosts in just two months and cost approximately 5000 US dollars.

My hosts are in the process of building three guest cabins for the tourism cooperative, with the other six families building one each. During my stay I also helped build one of these cabins and add finishing touches to another one. In this case, the earth right next to the cabin had a suitable mixture of clay and sand and could be used directly, which was very convenient and made the work more efficient.

Building a cob house lets you be creative. Because everything is formed by hand, it’s easy to make round shapes and decorations. Shelves can be inserted into the thick wall, and cob can also be used to create benches or other furniture. But as with all natural building, it is important to know how to protect the material from degradation, for example with adequate roof overhangs and lime wash.

Interior of cob house
Cob is a flexible material that makes it easy to build round shapes, insert shelves into walls and construct earthen furniture. This photo shows a half-finished bench built with earthbags and later covered with cob.

The decision to build cob cabins lowered the threshold for starting the new tourism cooperative by making it more affordable. The construction requires more labour than concrete block houses, but this is generally not a problem with self-built houses, and volunteers like me can reduce the need for labour. What’s more, the community’s money stays better within the community, when the need to buy industrial materials like concrete blocks is reduced. This project truly shows how important working with local materials is for the development of local communities.

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