Living for the Sea

by matt colucci

The first major canal in the modern world, the Suez Canal, opened on Nov. 17, 1869. It connected the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and it took over 15 years to successfully map out and construct. This sparked other ideas to improve trade and shipping routes, ultimately leading to the construction of the Panama Canal. The second, and larger of the two canals, opened on Aug. 15, 1914 after nearly 10 years of construction. Now, over 100 years later, there are serious plans for a new canal to be constructed across Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the Americas, in order to create passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

It’s important to acknowledge the economic status of Nicaragua because President Daniel Ortega is concerned with the country’s lagging economic conditions and employment rate. The proposal from Chinese industrialist Wang Jing was originally estimated to be completely built in a surprisingly low five years, and cost $40 billion for the entire project.

The proposed canal would be 90 feet deep and 1,706 feet across at it’s widest point. It would likely carry from the wetlands on the Atlantic side, starting just north of the Cerro Silva Natural Reserve. It would then travel through the center of Lake Nicaragua (Lake Cocibolca), and would leak out out into the Pacific Ocean through San Juan del Sur.

The impetus behind the new canal is the need to accommodate large cargo ships that are too big to travel through the Panama Canal, or even dock at any ports in the United States. The U.S., of course, happens to be China’s largest and most lucrative trade partner.

This canal would without doubt boost Nicaragua’s economy, and provide a great number of people with jobs. From the eyes of an economist, the plan can only be positive for Nicaraguan people and their economy.

It would be great if the story ended here, but that is not the case. The fact is that this proposal, no matter how great it might be for the economy, is terrible for the environment.

Simply put, Nicaragua is a beautiful country; I think it might be impossible to tire of looking at the mountains, lakes, and wildlife. It’s a great experience for tourists and visitors to the country, but the environment is more than just an experience; it is crucial to the lives of many Nicaraguans.

Click on photos to see gallery.

Jorge A. Huete Pérez, president of the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences, is one of the biggest opponents of the canal. In a paper published on on Feb. 19, 2014, Pérez highlighted the main issues the canal would cause, and the level of damage its creation would inflict on the country.

“In our view, this canal could create an environmental disaster in Nicaragua and beyond. The excavation of hundreds of kilometres from coast to coast, traversing Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region, will destroy around 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands.”

That’s the equivalent of over 1,500 square miles, and that is land with rich soil that Nicaragua cannot afford to lose. There are sections of coral and mangroves which carry massive amounts of marine life that are valuable to both science and the local

Also according to Pérez, certain animals’ environments are in severe danger if this canal actually gets built. Animals such as the spider monkey, jaguar, and harpy eagle live in forests and wetlands that would have to be completely cleared out in order for the canal to exist. This means that it would cost additional money to create artificial habitats for a great number of animals, which would further disrupt the natural flow of the Nicaraguan ecosystem.

The city of Léon, located near the Pacific coast, is about 60 miles northwest of capital city Managua. It will not be directly disrupted by canal construction, but there is a small group of people there that work with the environment every day, and one man in particular has traveled a unique path to help in any way he can.

Santos Contreras, 38 years old, has one daughter and one grandson. He has been a fisherman ever since he was little because it has been the best way to help out his family. He has lived his entire life in Poneloya, a beach community on the western coast of Nicaragua. He also works at a hotel restaurant on the beach, but he is much more to Nicaragua than a father, fisherman, or hotel employee.

Santos Contreras has lived his entire life in Poneloya, a beach community on the western coast of Nicaragua. He also works at a hotel restaurant on the beach, but he is much more to Nicaragua than a father, fisherman, or hotel employee.

All you need is one look at Contreras to know that he belongs in the midst of nature. His skin has been darkened from all the time he has spent underneath the hot, Nicaraguan sun. His outfit, even, gave him away. When we met him, he was dressed like a construction worker. He wore an old hat with a curved brim to keep the sun out of his eyes. He had on a beat up t-shirt and baggy, heavy duty cargo pants to carry whatever items and tools he might require throughout the day. It was an outfit that any father I know would be proud to wear if they were working around the house on a Sunday.

Click on photos to see gallery.

You could even feel the thousands of hours Contreras has spent working outdoors as he grips your hand with his; a firm, but coarse handshake. He isn’t overly muscular, but has the strength of an elite athlete. He didn’t build his body in a metal gym, with dumbbells and bench presses. He developed his strength naturally through his unique work experience as a farmer, fisherman and construction worker.

Standing just shy of 6 feet, with a slim build, I didn’t know what to expect from him. He doesn’t show much emotion. Whether he’s talking, walking or sitting down, it’s difficult to get a read on him. So once he started talking, I was surprised as anyone to see how much passion he has for his country, and how willing he is to go above and beyond for the people. After 10 minutes of conversation, it was clear that he has Nicaragua’s best interests at heart.

Over the course of his life, he has learned how to take care of the entire ecosystem. Contreras explained that they started taking care of the forests and mangroves with a group of about 20 people. They looked at what was damaging the area and tended to those needs first. One of these problems is a growing, yet concerning problem known as blast fishing.

Fish are one of the primary sources of food for the locals, but it’s also a source of income. The ocean hasn’t been supplying Contreras with enough fish, and one of the main reasons why is blast fishing. So Contreras and his friends took it upon themselves to re-establish a safe and healthy environment for the fish and their habitat.

One day we drove away from the beach and toward the mangroves. When the car stopped there were a few buildings around us,
but other than that we couldn’t tell where we were; it looked like
a small, fishing village.

“The ocean is only giving us crabs, and that’s not enough,” Contreras said. “We need more, so we’re trying to become more sustainable.”

They visited another fishing community, made up entirely of women, who showed Contreras the ‘cakes’ that they make for fish. They more or less recycle the parts of the fish that people would usually throw out. For the most part, they use internal organs, heads, and the innards in the feed. Whatever they collect gets dried out, pulverized and mixed in with sugarcane molasses. They form them into small cakes and once they come out of the oven, they can be used as fish feed. Making this feed allows them to feed their supply of fish while they wait for them to lay more eggs, which in turn creates the self-sustaining environment Contreras desires.

Another of the local species that is imperative to the beaches and mangroves are sea turtles. When it’s time, they generally leave their eggs on the beach and wait for them to hatch. But in Poneloya, people would steal the eggs and sell them as an easy way to make money.

Contreras knew that if sea turtles weren’t able to properly and naturally reproduce, it would start a chain reaction of changes to the local environment, which would be difficult for fishermen and other locals to overcome. He knew he had to do something; if he didn’t, there was no telling what would happen to the animals.

To read more about how Contreras works with sea turtles, click HERE.

I saw more emotion from Contreras when he spoke about his work with sea turtles than any other moment. They might be the favorite portion of his work, but his love for the environment and his knowledge of it extends far past the shoreline and carries deep into the trees.

One day we drove away from the beach and toward the mangroves. When the car stopped there were a few buildings around us, but other than that we couldn’t tell where we were; it looked like a small, fishing village. We walked down a narrow path, in between some of the structures. On the edge of the buildings was a fence, with a handful of roosters, turkeys and chickens clucking around us, bobbing their heads up and down. We walked past the fence and the birds, and a few minutes later I began to see why Contreras is so passionate about the Nicaraguan environment.

It felt like we were walking into a postcard. There was a long stretch of palm trees with a gentle bed of sand and grass lying between the rows of trees. The long, green leaves overlapped beautifully on top of one another, creating a canopy to walk under. It was almost like you were walking down nature’s version of the red carpet, and it funneled out into a clearing that houses the largest of Contreras’ two ranchos.

Click on photos to see gallery.

The rancho is another project of Contreras’. It’s on the outskirts of the mangrove he works on, and eventually he wants to open it up as a place where people can visit and stay. He says that he could offer tours through the mangrove, and once they reached the other side, they would be right next to his sea turtle preserve, where they can watch them work with the turtles and see the entire project in action.

The rancho doesn’t look like much, but Contreras is very proud of it because it is a byproduct of the hard work he has put in over the years.

He told us that a few years ago, he and his friends got $29,000 from the government after helping rescue some boaters near their beach. They decided to put all of that money toward their projects and work. They bought everything from fishing materials, to two-way radios, to GPS navigators. They also bought palma, which is what they used to build the roof of their ranchos.

They worked to build the bathroom, and get running water in the rancho. But without electricity, their rancho wouldn’t be able to take off. Another friend of theirs donated 450 metres of wire cables to help bring electricity to the rancho, and a local businessman donated many of the other items they needed.

They have been able to get the help they require because of all the work they’ve done over the years to make León a better place to live. They developed a solid reputation, which is why a lot of the people mentioned above, from the fishing village to the businessman have supported them.

“So the people who have supported us, they’ve seen that we have grown and have been advancing with the project,” Contreras said. “We’re very lucky because every place we go, they help us, they open the door.”

This project, and this knowledge, is all coming from a man who has learned everything on his own. Despite dropping out of school in second grade, he taught himself a great number of things about the environment. From teaching himself how to swim, to maintaining and planting mangrove trees, and learning everything there is to know about sea turtles and how to take care of their eggs, he is a self-made working man.

Yet despite his accomplishments and the progress he’s made, he remains humble. Staying humble allows him to see the bigger picture, and his modest but friendly personality is one of the main factors that has inspired others to join his cause.

The help that Contreras has been getting from the outside is a positive sign for the future. He is slowly getting the word out about what it is that he does, and how he does it. The next step for him is to create a website. Right now he can only make brochures and fliers to pass out to people in markets, and he’s hoping that the website will help create awareness and generate support.

Support is what Contreras needs and wants above everything else, because without it, his end goals cannot be achieved.

After Contreras describes his vision for several hours, everything else falls away: the poverty, the lack of education, the environment challenges, the possibility of a canal barging through the Nicaraguan landscape. 

Contreras represents a balance of the needs of the country. The voice in his left ear supports anything that will help create jobs and stimulate the economy, but the voice in his right ear is telling him the environment remains the most important thing for them, and he needs to do whatever he can to take care of it and help it thrive.

“Our vision is to keep going and teaching the children from the schools,” Contreras said. “And to show them, to teach them, how to take care of the eggs of the turtles, and also how to take care of the forest. And teach them that if we lose the forest, we lose everything.”