A Conservation Tourism Assessment in Nicaragua: GPS Trail Mapping and Howler Monkey Census

Brick house just before the Papaya Grove and across the street from a rain forest patch

House across the road from a rainforest patch (and home to a group of wild mantled howler monkeys) in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua Photo: AR Kirwin

This post is about an assessment of the local conservation tourism opportunities in Playa Gigante, Nicaragua that I did in the summer of 2013.  Playa Gigante is a small fishing village and, recently an international surf destination, on the Pacific Coast of southern Nicaragua a couple of hours north of the Costa Rican border. This report includes a summary of the social and economic changes that are creating both hardships and opportunities in the town, and the various ecological data on the local howler monkey groups and their food trees and scenic trails that I was able to collect during the assessment.  My complete field report about this project is posted on the blog for the Kirwin International Relief Foundation (KIRFaidblog.org)– a non-profit disaster relief and education organization that I co-founded with my husband in 2005. Our non-profit has been supporting the humanitarian and environmental conservation efforts of two other non-profit organizations who are making a big difference in the town: Project Waves of Optimism and Sweet Water Fund. This was my second visit to Playa Gigante after helping out the local women’s softball team Las Estrellas through Sweet Water Fund and vising the construction of the new Gigante Community Health Center, made possible by local community volunteers and fund raising effort lead by the inspiring group of young surfers at Project Waves of Optimism. Continue reading

6 Fun Projects Kids Can Do To Help Stop Climate Change

What can kids do to help stop global warming? How can busy parents respond to the climate change crises while juggling work and taking care of their kids? These are real concerns. And, global warming is a serious problem that has been proven by science to be caused by humans by the burning of fossil fuels and massive deforestation in the past 200 years. This is a big problem with serious consequences that are hurting animals and people today all over the world through loss of wildlife habit and human food production. However, I think that anyone can do their part to help stop global warming–even if they are only five years old. The photo (above) of a polar bear resting on a piece of melting iceberg is by Norwegian wildlife photographer Arne Navaera.*

We have been coordinating environmental youth community service projects personally and through our non-profit KIRF using the Roots & Shoots service learning model since our kids were in pre-school**. Each project we have done with kids has been a learning experience and has made a difference. I like doing youth service projects is that kids, and young people in general, seem to be more open to change and making a difference.

Since our first youth service project in 2004 (we participated in the Coastal Cleanup that fall) our kids have gotten older but the qualities of their favorite projects have not changed.

Each successful project has these qualities:

(1) It is fun
(2) It is social (it usually involves doing something with friends or other family members)
(3) It costs almost nothing
(4) It is easy to do

Below are a few fun activities with the above qualities that almost any kid can do to help stop global warming and climate change:

(1) Ride a bicycle at least once a week. Riding bikes together is a fun and playful activity in itself. And, if a parent works close to home, riding to work or school with their kids can make a morning commute a fun activity. I remember how happy my kids and I were after riding with my 3 year old daughter riding a Trail-a-bike hitched to my old Diamondback mountain bike and my son speeding along on his own bicycle when I used to ride to work and their pre-school/daycare. Another option is riding bikes together as a family on the weekends instead of driving someplace to have fun. Simply by riding a bicycle instead of having their parents drive, kids can reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. (Ages 3+–using a Trail-bike or bike seat for the young ones) The photo above is from the Adam’s Trail-a-bike web site.

(2) Turn the lights off. Nearly all of the electricity in our town’s local utility company comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. If kids use less electricity from non-renewable energy powered sources then they are helping to stop global warming. This can be re-enforced by having your child do a run around to “check the lights” before leaving the house and turning the lights off after he or she leaves a room that is empty. (Ages 5+) The photo of the energy efficient light bulb on right is from Google images.

(3) Use reusable non-plastic bags when shopping and in bag lunches. What are plastic bags made out of? Petroleum products. We try not to use disposable plastic bags. For school lunches, the kids can use reusable lunch containers in their lunch box or reusable lunch bag. Schools and camps can re-enforce this choice by giving out “No Bag” lunch awards such as is done at our kids’ California Junior Lifeguard (JGs) summer camp programs. (Ages 5+, 9+ for JGs ) The photo on right of aluminum food storage containers is from Reusablebags.com.

(4) Make a reusable shopping bag out of an old t-shirt. This is really fun creative project using a kid’s t-shirt that they may have outgrown. As a resusable shopping bag the t-shirt can have a new life as bag for groceries, soccer clothes, beach stuff, taekwando clothes, almost anything. Using reusable shopping bags conserves paper and plastic which are produced using fossil fuels. (Ages 10+) The photo below is of three reusable bags I made out of our son’s old t-shirts. Photo by Angela Rockett Kirwin (me).

Time: 30-45 minutes per bag.
Supplies: old t-shirt, thread, sewing machine, scissors, pins.
Directions: Turn the t-shirt inside out. Pin the bottom open end together and sew it. Cut the sleaves off and cut the neck seam off and hem the arm holes and the neck hole. turn in inside-in and voila! You got a reusable shopping bag with handles and maybe cool graphics, too.

(5) Make a reusable gift bag out of an old piece of clothing. I got this idea from the reusable gift bags sold in Patagonia’s retail stores that are made of remnant cloth. Instead of throwing away the fabric scraps Patagonia reused them to make gift bags and added matching ribbon to serve as a tie. (Ages 8+) The photo below is a reusuable gift bag used as a swim suit+goggles bag that was made from one pant leg of a pair of old Patagonia boardshorts, Mens XL. It was made by a nine year old and is modeled by her cat. Photo is courtesy of Jeanne Tanner and was taken by her daughter.

Time: 30-45 minutes per bag
Supplies: thread, sewing machine, pins, scissors, ribbon and old pants, t-shirts, skirts…anything that you can get a large rectangular panel of cloth out of.
Directions: measure out how big a bag you need and then double the width and add 2 inches. (For example, for a small gift bag about 8″x10″ requires a fabric about 10″x 20″.) Fold, pin and then seam the top edge of the bag, wide side, sewing. Fold the fabric in half, inside in, top seams facing in, and sew the bottom part together. Stop, rotate the fabric 90 degrees and sew the side until you get 3/4 to the top. Stop. Take a piece of ribbon (for 10″ tie strings, cut off 20″ of ribbon), fold it in half and tuck it on the side seam’s path with the fold part sticking out (and the long strings inside your inside-in bag. Then continue with finishing the side seam and sewing in the ribbon. Turn your new bag reusable gift bag inside-in and you are done.

(6) Conserve paper. In addition to eschewing wrapping gifts in store-bought wrapping paper that ends up in the trash, kids can conserve all kinds of paper and recycle used paper. Kids can use GOOS (Good On One Side) plain white paper that is re-used from the printer for art projects. Another way for them to use less paper is have them use both sides of a piece of paper and type reports single-spaced for home work projects if it is appropriate for the assignment and okay with the teacher. Conserving paper helps stop global warming in two ways: (1) Less paper used means less trees destroyed and this is a good thing because trees are the best at absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere* and (2) manufacturing and transporting paper requires burning fossil fuels which contribute to global warming. (Age 9+) The photo above shows a Maasai school girl watering her tree seedling that is guarded from goats with acacia thorns. She planted this tree for her Roots & Shoots reforestation project at her school in the Lake Eyasi region of NW Tanzania. Photo by Angela Rockett Kirwin (me).

Our young children have done all these activities with little assistance from adults, so I know that they are doable and fun.

I believe that our generation and the generations before ours created global warming and it is our generation and the generations after ours that can un-create it. I feel bad that our kids will inherit the mess that we are leaving them. It will take time but we owe it to our kids to teach them to learn from our mistakes that have caused climate change in the first place. Each person, even a five year old, can make a real difference. As environmental activist, humanitarian and primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall has said, “…every individual matters, every individual has a role to play and every individual makes a difference.”

Or in other words, “Be the change you want to see,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

🙂 A

* Read how wild polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct due to global warming: “On Thin Ice” by Daniel Glick, National Wildlife Federation.

** Find out about more age-appropriate community service projects for kids that help animals, the environment and the human community at rootsandshoots.org.

*** Learn about how all plants consume carbon dioxide but trees are best and what you can do at environment.about.com . You can read more about how forests mitigate global warming and a status update on the old growth redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest in the article “The Super Trees” in National Geographic Magazine, October 2009.

Heritage seeds as a sustainable solution to water scarcity, food scarcity & global warming

TanzaniaAs a sustainability response to climate change and increased desertification, one strategy that you don’t hear about a lot is farming using heritage seeds. Heritage food plants are plants native to an area that propagate naturally (as apposed to sterile hybrids or patented genetically modified seeds). Heritage seeds are culturally and biologically native to many arid and drought-afflicted regions such as the American Southwest, northern India and East Africa. As such, they are more likely to be adopted (or re-adopted) and grown successfully by these rural communities as a food source. And, as a native food they can be considered a validation of a local native cultural heritage and identity as well as a practical and drought-resistant agricultural product. The photo above is of Angela Kirwin, KIRF Co-Founder, at a soil remediation project in Arusha, Tanzania. Local farmers are trying to re-claim farm land ruined by soil erosion by planting indigenous trees and food plant varieties.

The effects of global warming have caused widespread droughts, malnutrition and starvation. An estimated 25,000 people (adults and children) die every day from hunger and related causes according to the United Nations Food Programme (2009).

As radio journalist Sam Eaton reported in his segment titled “Sowing seeds that will take the heat” from the “Sustainability Desk” for Marketplace on National Public Radio, “…as a warming climate threatens mainstream agriculture, these unique genes in these little known seeds could turn out to be crucial for feeding the planet. (Eaton 2009).”

Unfortunately, heritage or non-hybrid seeds are becoming rare: in 1981 there were anestimated 5,000 non-hybrid or heritage seed varieties, by 1998 the number has gone down to about 600 according to environmental activist Barbara Kingsolver, co-author of the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Kingsolver 2007:52).This is compared to an estimated 80,000 plant species that have been eaten in human history according to Indian crop ecologist and heritage food conservationist Vandana Shiva (Kingsolver 2007:49).

Today, due to industrial monoculture farming, three-quarters of all human food comes from just eight species. And, of those eight species, most come from only three plants: “genetically modified corn, soy, and canola” according to Kingsolver (Kingsolver 2007:49). Furthermore, 98 percent of seed sales worldwide are handled by only six very huge and very politically influential companies: Monsanto, Syngenta, Mitsubishi and Dow (Kingsolver 2007:50).These food plants are produced for traits more suitable for large scale agricultural production and distribution: increased yield, longer shelf life, and uniformity of size. Unfortunately many are not produced with survival traits that can adapt to climate change such as drought resistance. What is even more troubling is that many of these hybrid plants are sterile so (1) they can’t adapt to changes in climate and evolve more successful strains and (2) these plants increase the costs of farming for economically disadvantaged communities who depend on these seeds for food and income.

Ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan is one of many scientists, botanists, and backyard gardeners who are committed to saving indigenous plant food varieties by collecting and sharing their heritage seeds. They do this for many reasons: in response to global climate change, to preserve native traditions and foods, for more nutritious plant food varieties, and for potential pharmaceutical discoveries. From a business point of view, heritage seeds seem to answer the market’s current demand for organic, flavorful and exotic and heritage (also known as “heirloom”) varieties of plant foods. And, consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for them, too.

Gary Nabhan has been writing about the correlation between chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes and the consumption of non-traditional processed and fast foods by Native Americans in the Southwest for over thirty years (Nahban 2004: backcover). He published some of his findings about the correlations between health, adaptation and diet in the book Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity. As Nabhan explains, “…each ethnic cuisine reflects the evolutionary history of a particular human population as it responded to the availability of edible plants and animals through local foraging and through trade, and to the prevailing frequencies of diseases, droughts, and plagues within each population’s homeland (Nabhan 2004:1)”

Nabhan is the co-founder of the Renewing American’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance, a program of Slow Food USA, and is the Director of Center of Sustainable Environment at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona (SlowFoodUSA). He is working with other scientists such as the Suzanne Nelson for Native Seeds/SEARCH to distribute seeds of native Southwest crops such as maize and beans to local Native American farmers in the hot Southwest deserts (Eaton 2009).

Another scientist who studies the correlation between diet and indigenous diets is medical doctor Daphne Miller. She writes extensively about the Tarahuma Native Americans (“Running Indians”) who live in the Copper Canyon network of Northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains in her book The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World…. They subsist on native foods they have cultivated for centuries. Among the Tarahuma communities who abide by their traditional culture, subsistence and eat their traditional foods, there are virtually no instances of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. These same chronic diseases plague neighboring Native American communities in northern Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico who have adopted a Western diet of processed and fast food. For the details, recipes and sources of heritage foods check out Miller’s book.

So as long as the costs and yields of heritage seeds are similar as those of hybrid and GMO seeds, they seem like a good option for local small farmers and for increasing our food supply’s resilience to the changing climate.  According to journalist Sam Eaton, these heritage seeds are thriving in the desert heat while the conventional hybrid varieties are not. Sometimes progress is looking backward and re-claiming traditional ways in order to adapt and survive change. Native seeds are once again producing good food in their native land.


Easton, Sam
2009“Sowing seeds that will take the heat”, Marketplace
, National Public Radio. http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/08/25/pm-seed-savers/, accessed August 27, 2009.

Kingsolver, Barbara with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
2007 Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,
New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 370.

Miller, Daphne
2008 The Jungle Effect: the healthiest diets from around the world–why they work and how to make them work for you,
New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 370.

Nabhan, Gary Paul
2004 Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity,
Washington, DC: Island Press, pp. 232.

Native Seeds/SEARCH
Southwestern Endangered Aridland Resource Clearing House. http://www.nativeseeds.org/ accessed September 2, 2009.

Seed Savers Exchange
2009 A
non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. http://www.seedsavers.org/ accessed September 2, 2009.

Slow Food USA
Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/raft/ accessed August 27, 2009.

United Nations World Food Programme
2009Hunger Stats. http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats accessed September 1, 2009.