Guias Unidos directors Kate and Jeff Zylland are environmental educators and National Park rangers in the United States, with extensive travel and volunteer experience in Latin America. Much of that experience has been in Nicaragua, a country that is poor in economic terms, but rich in cultural and natural beauty. It is being discovered by tourists more and more each year.
Although it is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (by GDP, second only to Haiti), Nicaragua is seeing great change and growth in several economic areas. Tourism is increasing as international travelers discover that it is no longer the war zone we heard about as recently as the 1980s. In addition, a huge new project is underway to create the Nicaraguan Canal, a larger alternative to the Panama Canal. It is to run through Lake Nicaragua, right past the new tourism hotspot of Ometepe Island. If done right, the communities on Ometepe Island could benefit financially from the project; if done wrong, they could be devastated.
Ometepe Island has approximately 30,000 residents, and until recently, the economy was nearly entirely based in agriculture. Residents hold great pride in their natural resources, their culture, and their communities. The introduction of tourism to the island has brought a small airport to the island, paved roads, and made tour guides of people who would typically have been farmers. However, the resources for training in natural sciences, history, archaeology, guiding practices, and safety are slim. Although primary, secondary, and higher education are free, most families cannot afford any form of higher education due to the time and travel expenses. With only a handful of bookstores in the entire country, and with almost a complete lack of country-relevant nonfiction books on conservation and natural history topics, even self-education can be hard to achieve in Nicaragua. Many modern ecotourism resources and outdoor gear items are not available and must be purchased internationally. With no national postal system in Nicaragua, needed items cannot simply be ordered by internet; they must be acquired through networking with international organizations.
In 2012, the Zyllands visited Ometepe and met a tour guide who was starting a cooperative of local guides. The guides of "Cooperativa Guias Turistico de Ometepe" have managed to organize and educate themselves to form a very competent conservation organization, despite the economic challenges they face. They would like to create a curriculum for training so there could be a standard they could live up to and advertise. The Zyllands organized two workshops with the cooperative, with great interest and participation from all involved. Although training and resources are hard to come by, enthusiasm among the guides is strong.
Since that first meeting in 2012, the Zyllands and the Ometepe guides have kept in touch. This summer, from June to September 2016, the Zyllands will live on the island and try several pilot projects to see if their assistance would be helpful long term. 2016 plans are to:
- identify, acquire, and transport resources such as guide books, binoculars, and hiking equipment that are not available in Nicaragua
- survey guides, tourists, and local tourism professionals on possible educational opportunities
- visit successful local and regional projects and organizations doing related work for ideas and networking
- develop and deliver pilot classes for Ometepe guides on topics such as English language, visitor services, interpretive techniques, ecology, geology, anthropology, and first aid
- develop and deliver pilot environmental education classes to local schools
- create printable guides to local flora and fauna for distribution
- create customized first aid manual and assist in creating and distributing first aid kits for guides
- explore national and international partnerships with universities, governmental agencies, and local research stations.
Summer 2016's work will define the direction of future Guias Unidos projects, but ideas include:
- establishing a guide school for local guides and community educators, with a special focus on educating women and children
- creating a guide certification curriculum
- continue surveys to follow changes in the tourism and conservation sectors
- partner with national and international universities and organizations to share resources and expertise
- creating opportunities for cultural and knowledge exchange by hosting international volunteers with skills to share in tourism and conservation, and hosting a language exchange
- establishing a central, permanent venue for guide training and resource storage, and for hosting guests
- create opportunities for international conservation experience for Ometepe locals
- establishing new ecological reserves, conserving areas of ecological importance, ecological connectivity, and safe and sustainable visitor accessibility
- expand project model to other communities and countries across the USA and Latin America
The Zyllands are seasonally employed in the United States, meaning they work up to six months in any one job before moving to another park or education center. This gives them the flexibility to keep this project going, alternating seasons of work in the US so they can continue to fund their living expenses, with seasons of work in Nicaragua to continue mission of Guias Unidos. Financial help from donors will be used for equipment, resources, and printing that will directly help the tour guides and communities of Ometepe.
UPDATE! We are very happy to announce that we have reached our $1500 goal for equipment for the guides of Ometepe! Thank you to all of you who helped make this happen! We are gladly accepting further donations, and plan on using them to help us visit projects around Ometepe and the region. We would like to see successful tourism schools and learn how National Parks are run in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and connect with Nicaraguan and US officials in Managua. Your help can make this happen!