Nicaragua is fast becoming a top tourist destination in Central America, and thanks to the country’s large swatches of untouched nature, ecotourism is also growing. One of Nicaragua’s most popular ecotourism destinations is Miraflor Natural Reserve in northern Nicaragua, 30 km from the town of Esteli. Miraflor is not your average nature reserve, however, as it is also home to some 50 farming communities that grow crops and raise animals right in the reserve.
Activities like development of the reserve, tourism and social projects are managed by UCA Miraflor, a cooperative union of farmers. Coffee is the main crop and source of revenue, and organic farming techniques help protect the environment. Tourists visiting Miraflor also have a chance to experience rural Nicaraguan family life by staying in homestays on the farms, which gives the farmers an alternative source of revenue. At Miraflor farmers, the nature and tourists have learned to live together for mutual benefit.
Birth of organic agriculture and environmental protection at Miraflor
The environment and the communities at Miraflor haven’t always been as thriving as they are today. All the land in today’s nature reserve used to be owned by just three wealthy landowners, while much poorer farmers cultivated the land. Coffee was the main produce, deforestation was rampant, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides were the norm.
In the 1970s and 1980s, during Nicaragua’s civil war, the wealthy landowners left the country. The farmers had no choice but to stay behind and continue cultivating and living off the land. Guerrillas found the mountains and forests the perfect hiding spot, and as a result farmers suffered a lot during the war. When the war ended, the farmers were finally given justice when the new government gave them titles to the lands they had been living on.
One big change after the war was the shift to organic agriculture. It started out with just a few families, but slowly less and less chemicals were used in every community. People could see for themselves how much healthier their neighbour’s soil was after they had switched to organic agriculture, and this convinced more people to make the change. Over the years, organic agriculture at Miraflor has become more efficient with different ecological farming techniques and a variety or crops for improved food security.
Organic agriculture, together with a halt in deforestation, gave the environment a chance to recover. In order to further protect the environment and the farming communities, Miraflor was declared a protected area in 1999. Spanning 200 square kilometers and three climate zones at different altitudes, Miraflor Natural Reserve today is extremely biodiverse with a variety of plants and wildlife, including more than 300 species of birds and 200 species of orchids.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t environmental issues left to solve. Inadequate waste management is one problem, although the situation has improved considerably in recent years. Some farmers also continue using agricultural chemicals which pollutes the environment for everyone. For Miraflor to thrive, it is important to find solutions to these problems so that people can keep living together with the environment, not against it.
Collective farming for shared benefits and resilience
Miraflor’s status as a protected area protects not just the environment but also the people living there. Companies, developers or the government have little possibility to influence the development of Miraflor. Instead, the power is with the communities. Miraflor consists of approximately 50 communities – all united under UCA Miraflor – and the way these communities function varies greatly. Some communities work in farmer’s cooperatives, which divides workloads and benefits more equally.
One of the most organized communities is Sonsolite, where the community members have formed three coffee cooperatives, one of which is exclusively women. My guide Augusto is a member of one of these cooperatives, and he is also an agricultural engineer which helps the whole community. The cooperative has organic and Fair Trade certification which makes it easier to find buyers and sell the coffee at a better price – something that is much harder to do when working individually. If one farmer is caught using agricultural chemicals, the whole cooperative loses its certification, which creates a communal pressure to stay organic.
Working in a cooperative also creates resilience to problems. In 2012 Augusto’s cooperative lost 90% of the coffee harvest due to a sickness. With no coffee there was also no money, and some people wanted to stop the coffee production all together. But little by little, through a community effort, the cooperative replanted its coffee and this year is the first year they can harvest coffee again. Because of this incidence, the community also diversified its farming to reduce dependence on coffee, planting crops like banana, papaya and orange trees that have nutritional value even if there is little or no economic gain.
Responsible tourism at Miraflor Natural Reserve
Because of its diversity and unique character, it is no wonder that more and more tourists are also discovering Miraflor. But you won’t find any hotels or restaurants in Miraflor. Instead visitors stay in homestays on the farms, which gives them a chance to interact with the local families and to experience Nicaraguan family life. The accomodation is very simple and rustic, but that is part of the charm and authenticity. Local guides can take visitors hiking or horseback riding to view points and waterfalls. Or if you want to relax, there’s always hammocks, fresh air and coffee straight from the farm. Volunteering is also possible.
But what does the community benefit from tourism? Tourism brings money to the communities and diversifies the economy so people rely less on just the harvest. Tourism can also motivate the continuation of organic agriculture as many tourists prefer organic produce. The locals are also friendly and hospitable and interested in sharing their country and culture while learning more about other countries.
Living conditions have also improved thanks to tourism. Like many rural areas in Nicaragua, the residents of Miraflor have suffered from inadequate access to water, electricity and sanitation. As part of its social programs, UCA Miraflor has installed solar panels for light, built improved stoves and given families financial help to build rooms needed for tourist while also to improve their own housing conditions. With the money made from tourism the families have been able to further improve housing conditions and invest in more rooms. My hosts at Finca La Perla, for example, have been hosting tourists for 15 years, and during this time the farm has expanded from one small guest room to be able to host groups of up to 16 people.
Working as a tour guide is another source of revenue, particularly valuable for the youth. My youngest guide Jeyson was only 18, but he had already been working as a guide for two years. When Jeyson is not working as a guide, he helps his dad on their coffee farm. Thanks to tourism, the youth have more reason to stay on the farm instead of working in the city or tobacco factories. This ensures that the communities at Miraflor continue to thrive for years to come.