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The Materials Economy — Alan Wright of SosteNica

“The materials economy” – that’s the name economists give to our system of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal.  We all participate in this linear economy most of the time.

But on our last day together in Nagarote, the Cornell/SosteNica collaborative exemplified a different idea.  On that day we brought to fruition a simple example of a better way of doing things.

A few days earlier, our “landscape team” had identified a valuable resource on the farm of Mario and Francisca Perez going to waste – their dirty bath water.  Mario had positioned his shower stall on the edge of a small hill, and for 10 years had let the family’s soapy shower water pour out a hole and down the hill.

Our agriculture experts said “Let’s capture that sudsy water and use it for some purpose.”  They designed a “banana circle” complete with ornamentals, ground cover, nitrogen fixation, compost, and of course, those sweet potassium rich bananas and plantains that are so good for us, and tolerant of phosphates in soap.

On our last working day together, we all gathered at Mario’s farm.  Some labored on to complete their composting toilet (yet another example of capturing and repurposing a wasted resource) while the rest of us turned to the banana circle.  Imagine a giant bagel, with a deep hole in the center, filled with compostable organic matter.  All around the hole is the bagel of excavated earth, enriched with composted chicken and cow manure – enough to raise the acid pH of the soil from a near toxic 5 to a perfectly neutral 7.

A four-inch pipe in a trench now delivers the shower water to the circle, directing the water to every plant in the bagel.  It took several days to dig this project, and at dusk that final day, when Nicaragua’s broiling tropical sun had almost set, we jumped in and planted the plantains and many of their companion plants.

It was a fitting conclusion to our two weeks in Nicaragua.  Together with Mario’s family and our supportive Nicaraguan staff, we converted a waste product into a vital, life giving resource.  In the process, we increased one small portion of the earth’s ability to support the community of life.  Helping to heal life on the planet…. one banana circle at a time!  It was a good two weeks.

Housing Crisis in Nicaragua — Alan Wright of SosteNica

Nicaragua has a housing problem.  Too many of its citizens live in homes that are overcrowded and in disrepair.  To make matters worse, the Nicaraguan population grows faster than the housing stock, which means that, every year, the housing crisis gets worse. As the economy grows, which it did last year, by an impressive 4+%, there is more money in circulation for the purchase of new construction.  Unfortunately, the majority of that growth does not go to favor low-income families.

In 2012, the Sandinista government built 4,800 units of social housing for families in extreme poverty. According to Judith Silva, president of the Institute of Urban and Rural Housing (INVUR) an additional 4,000 houses with affordable price tags were constructed by non-governmental organizations or by for profit companies. This housing is provided to families who cannot obtain bank mortgages.

Kai, director of SNN, has noticed that whenever affordable housing is discussed here in Nicaragua, the conversation begins with the price tag, followed by the square footage.   If the description goes into detail, it would next mention layout.

For example, 220 “affordable homes” were completed in Rivas recently. One of the Rivas programs benefitted public employees whose salaries are limited by International Monetary Fund conditions. Municipal workers and employees at the ministries of Health and Education were offered 42 of the houses. The homes cost $12,000, measured 452 square feet, had two bedrooms, a living-dining area, and a bathroom as well as front and back yards.

Never mentioned are the building materials used to construct the houses, the kinds of technologies integrated into the structures that will serve the occupants, nor any details of the landscaping or the community layout. Why is this?

Is it because one assumes that the homes should be built using a single criterion – lowest cost – without consideration of comfort, beauty, sustainability or cultural continuity?  Is it thought that landscaping is nothing more than a cosmetic add-on, to be determined by the occupant in the future?  Is it assumed that the acceptable technologies are universal – municipal water with a flush toilet, electric hook up to the grid, perhaps with a bottled gas stove?

If so, our project’s construction has been designed, and is being built, to challenge these notions.