Traveling through Central America I’ve noticed the same environmental problems keep repeating everywhere: deforestation, inadequate waste management and water pollution. I’ve also found that in each country there are people and NGOs dedicated to fighting these problems. One such organization I recently learned more about is Sonati, a Nicaraguan non-profit that promotes environmental protection through education and community outreach. Sonati wants to empower community members to become voices for positive environmental change, and the organization is hoping to reach this goal through conservation, education and recycling projects.
Sonati’s programs are mainly funded through its non-profit hostels and tours in Leon, and Esteli and the organization is nearly self-sustaining. This makes Sonati a part of Nicaragua’s growing responsible tourism scene, and the tours offered include volcano hikes and the backpacker favorite of volcano boarding. One of the more unique tours is the Recycling Park Tour that focuses on waste and pollution in Leon, a tour that is also given to locals for environmental education. This tour is not very popular among tourists, but it is the tour I took, hoping to learn more about Nicaragua’s environmental problems and how Sonati is trying to solve them.
The challenge of environmental protection in Nicaragua
An increasing number of Nicaraguans are suffering from environmental problems caused by deforestation, water pollution and soil erosion. It can be difficult to find clean drinking water at the end of the dry season, high temperatures and acid rain are destroying crops, and deforestation is causing mud slides and floods. Environmental laws are not enough, and even in nature reserves the environment is being destroyed at alarming rates. Sonati was founded in 2009 to raise awareness about these issues.
Sonati’s Recycling Park Tour took me to southwest Leon and the environmental problem we focused on was water pollution. Our first stop was on a bridge crossing the alarmingly polluted 17 km long Rio Chiquito river. 4.5 km of the river passes through the city of Leon, and this is where most of the pollution happens. There is essentially no control with people and industries dumping whatever they want in the river. Cleaning efforts have proven useless since people are not collaborating.
Part of the reason the river is so polluted is because inadequate access to sanitation and sewage treatment is a big problem in Nicaragua. However, we also visited a nearby water treatment plant where I could see the situation is not as hopeless as it could be. Here the sewage is cleaned 70% by sedimentation and natural cleansing pools before being released into the river. This helps significantly, but the problem is that not all the water is controlled, and for example a nearby pork farm dumps its water straight into the river. It is clear that more awareness, stricter rules and, most importantly, better options to dumping in the river are needed.
Raising awareness at Sonati Recycling Park
Inadequate waste management and lack of recycling are another big problem in Nicaragua. One of Sonati’s interventions is its recycling parks. These recycling parks are community parks and playgrounds that are built mainly with reused waste. During the tour we visited Sonati’s first recycling park in Leon. This park was built in 2015 together with local school children, and reused tires were the main construction material. The park is lined with murals carrying environmental messages and of course waste bins. The recycling park also has a cultural center with a clinic, police station, small preschool and a community garden.
The site of the recycling park used to be a trash yard and it is clear that the park still suffers from this past. Even after two years, littering is still a major problem at the park, and every one or two months Sonati organizes a cleaning event with the local children. The recycling park shows how creativity can be used to turn waste into a resource, but not all waste can be reused and the underlying problem – lack of proper waste management – remains.
Education for environmental stewardship
The recycling park is only a small part of Sonati’s work. Another important part of the organizations work is trying to protect forests from deforestation and pollution. One way Sonati is trying to do this is through a network of rural communities that are guardians of the forest and the environment. These communities benefit financially through ecotourism and learn that destroying the environment is not the only way to make money. Sonati also has a forest garden and turtle nurseries.
But probably the most important aspect of Sonati’s work is the effort to raise awareness and change people’s habits. Sonati’s environmental program educates people about why environmental problems exist, why people are responsible for them, and what people need to change in their lives in order to fight the problems.
The focus is on the children since it is easier to change habits like littering at a young age. School groups take the Recycling Park Tour, teachers from Sonati visit classrooms, and Sonati organizes excursions to volcanoes, zoos and botanical gardens. Sonati even hosts an annual Forest Festival that is filled with activities like competitions, excursions to nature reserves and a grand parade. These activities give the children opportunities to get in touch with nature, hopefully sparking a desire to protect the environment. Change is slow but happening, with the younger generation bringing new hope for Nicaragua’s environment and people.