North Carolinians and Nicaraguans have created a tourist destination where visitors don't just see a new community, but are invited to join it, as well. At Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm) Ecolodge and Nature Reserve in San Ramn, Nicaragua, visitors learn how to harvest shade-grown coffee from local farmers and make tortillas from local cooks. Others join local guides on hikes through the mountainous region to see howler monkeys or exotic birds. The innovative ecotourism project, started by Durham-San Ramn Sister Communities and Nicaraguan partners in 1998, recently won $20,000 in a worldwide competition, the Sustainable Tourism Awards. The competition is run by Smithsonian Magazine and Travelers Conservation Foundation and celebrates ecotourism, which unlike other tourism ventures, works to improve the local environment, create an appreciation for local culture and include the local community in the economic benefits.
Lonna Harkrader, a Durham resident who co-founded Durham-San Ramn Sister Communities in 1993 with her husband, Richard, said this model best fit the needs of the impoverished, rural community.
"Our concern was there was no economic development, only small-scale, little shops that sold fruit and little necessities," Harkrader said. "There just didn't seem like any way to break out of the desperate poverty."
In order to address the needs of San Ramn, the organization first established a sister community between Durham and the Nicaraguan town of 30,000. With the help of Durham religious congregations and other local participants, the organization's first project raised $12,000 to distribute pencils and paper to local schoolchildren who were unable to enroll in school without the basic supplies. Over time, the organization's projects have gained support in both communities and have grown in complexity.
In 1994, the Southwest Durham Rotary Club began paying the $15,000 annual salary of a teacher in the community's high school. The salary allowed the high school to offer the fifth year needed for graduation. As a result, San Ramn graduated its first class 10 years ago. That model encouraged other Durham-San Ramn Sister Community members to raise money to pay the salaries of a public librarian and a physical therapist for a handicapped children center.
The largest venture in the organization's network of projects is Finca Esparanza Verde.
"The ecolodge model of how to involve the community in the process of welcoming tourists into the area is very different from a typical lodge owned by people who want to make money and who pay workers poor salaries," Harkrader said. "We wanted people to be paid well and have a feeling of ownership."
Tourists can access the lodge in two ways. Travelers in Nicaragua can book reservations in the lodge like a typical hotel, or can arrange weeklong group trips through the organization. This year, eight groups from North Carolina, including students from East Chapel Hill High School and scientists for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, will spend a week in San Ramn. The groups will spend half of their trip as guests at local families' homes and the other half as visitors at the lodge.
Money earned from these visits is channeled back into the community. Some went to a group of parents to build a school with the help of local labor. Other funds have been used to build a water system for the urbanized area. The project supplied town residents with clean drinking water for the first time. In addition, Durham-San Ramn Sister Communities plans to use the money won in the Sustainable Tourism Awards to support ongoing reforestation projects.
"People go into communities and cut down trees and plant corn and beans," Harkrader explained. "The hilly topsoil runs off and the land becomes unusable."
With the money from the award, the organization plans to pay off the loan on a 100-acre farm the organization bought as part of a reforestation project. The damaged land will house new buildings, revived coffee crops and reforested areas.
Harkrader hopes the success of the ecolodge, which was also recognized as the Best Ecolodge in 2004 by the Nicaragua Institute of Tourism, will be a model for other communities in Nicaragua.
"I never though it would get this far," Harkrader said. "It's gone completely past my imagining."