By Liz Johndrow
This is an overview of the natural building work I am doing in rural Nicaragua, primarily with women and young people. This article shares the conditions, existing infrastructures and materials available, and some of the successes. Nothing has proven to be a failure, though the path has taken some turns! I will follow up with a series of articles deepening the exploration of each of these points.
I am preparing for my fourth building/teaching season in Nicaragua, working in rural communities. Spending most of my time in the northern region near the Honduran border. I am inspired by both the simple earthen adobe style houses and the warmth and generosity of the people I have met. In my time volunteering, and then being asked back as an instructor, I have worked with some great grassroots organizations doing important work, including Grupo Fenix of Sabana Grande and AMCC of Condega. Both of these groups champion for women’s advancement in non-traditional roles and practices that support both human potential and environmental awareness. They welcome building techniques that care for the environment and empower women and young people to create, participate and improve their homes. You can learn more about them at the links at the end of the article.
My focus over the last few years, under the guidance of these organizations who have already identified the needs the communities, has been hands-on earthen building training for women and youth, while offering the exposure and opportunity to men in the engineering, building, and architectural fields as well. I often joke about welcoming the men as long as they are willing to be overwhelmed by the number of women. I believe it’s good for the men in a machisimo culture to be exposed to women finding their power, seeing them work outside the box of tortilla making and water hauling. The men also have some great wisdom of techniques from the past and memories of their fathers and grandfathers employing natural materials.
Here, as is seen throughout the world, earthen structures can be given a bad name in the face of modern building practices. In my opinion, the logical choice for building the world round is using local, plentiful, raw materials with sensible and improved techniques to adjust to the challenges of modern impact. A logical choice for a gringa (me in this case) visiting a place such as Nicaragua is to celebrate traditional wisdom and bring in some useful, modern adaptations. This article is an overview of my personal service and experience as a women’s rights activist and natural builder to the growing of an organization, Nicaragua Pueblo Project, with a mission guided to help secure resiliency in these vulnerable communities.
I am committed to growing the opportunity for women and young people to help them continue to strengthen their experience of improving the quality of their lives, while choosing to live within the present limitations of their environment. We overdeveloped country dwellers often have the blind and dangerous luxury of living beyond our means and our appropriate ecological footprint, and often inserted buffers to serious climate change impact without even realizing it. These communities don’t have such “luxuries.”
To paint a socio-political snapshot here are a few statistics that impact the rural communities of Nicaragua, particularly in the north. Three out of four teenage girls are pregnant or already have children. One out of three girls don’t complete primary education. In recent history, heavy clear-cutting of forests to raise cattle for US beef export has led to serious land erosion and loss of topsoil. This in turn led to blights, droughts, crop failures and malnutrition. Land mines left behind from the CIA led war in the 80’s devastated many families in these rural farming communities. These communities are 100% underemployed and most are living a subsistence lifestyle under $1 per day. There is an identified housing deficit of nearly 1,000,000 homes in a country of 6,000,000 people and the number of the housing deficit rises 30,000 per year (Habitat for Humanity – www.habitatnicaragua.org)
Obviously housing is critical and necessary. In these regions homes are over crowded with several generations packed into a small abode. Traditionally floors are dirt and adobe walls aren’t plastered. In many communities families haul their water and many don’t yet have electricity. It can often be a breeding ground for disease carrying insects as the homes are often difficult to clean. Cement is appealing and encouraged for home improvement but many can’t afford such luxuries. And adobe homes in fact have better thermal cooling capacity and are naturally more comfortable than the modern cement block home, encouraged for it’s standardization and safety record in seismic regions. But statistics and time have shown that concrete buildings are often poorly built in these underdeveloped regions, which can create a deadly scenario during seismic activity.
The materials most readily available in this heavily deforested region is a beautiful varied red clay soil, river sand, stone from the mountains and riverbeds, small amounts of immature timber, rice straw, hydrated lime, cactus and bark additives, horse and cow manures, and grasses. There are also deposits of beautiful colored clays. I will share more about the local techniques and materials another time!
Many of my efforts have been to pass on skills and information, celebrate traditional adobe and other vernacular building styles that bring comfort and deservedly should bring pride, offer opportunity for often sorely missing creative expression, and create opportunity for necessary home improvements.
Over 50 women and young people have received training in workshops over the last three years. We have created three community centers and begun a model adobe home.
An initiative was born this past season in Sabana Grande to improve old adobe structures with earthen plaster and simultaneously create a canvas for community storytelling through mud art.
This past season, with Grupo Fenix, we began our first home improvement exchange with some families in the community to help each other achieve necessary home improvements of oil stabilized earthen floors and wall plasters, with a result to eliminate nooks and crannies for disease carrying insects to inhabit. They are also beautiful, offer a deep sense of pride, and are easily maintained by the homeowners who participate in the process of their homes and others, using locally sourced materials.
The community centers are now a source of community pride and offer educational and even economic opportunity.
Some participants have gained the confidence in these natural building workshops to move on to other community initiatives and do things they hadn’t previously thought possible.
This coming season I will lead three workshops in three communities with different women’s cooperatives. And Nicaragua Pueblo Project plans to support a team of volunteers to come and participate in the home improvements. We will build composting latrines, raised beds for strengthening the bee population, and continue to teach about improved adobe techniques and natural plasters.
Now that I’ve painted a picture of the impact of this region on my life and what Nicaragua Pueblo project has and hopes to continue accomplishing, I will share some specific techniques and processes in future articles. Stay tuned for more in depth look at improved adobe building techniques.
To learn more about my work and Nicaragua Pueblo project:
and to learn more about the local groups in Nicaragua:
Liz has always enjoyed spaces that bring her in touch with the natural surroundings. As a builder, she was thrilled to discover she could bring that contact deeper into structures through the choice of building materials. Since that discovery, she has been exploring the world of cob, strawbale, adobe, earthbag, earthen plasters and floor systems, and timber framing. The simplicity of these systems and materials allow for people of all ages and abilities to participate in the creation. The past few years have taken her further into the role of teacher, facilitator, instructor and co-conspirator. She is increasingly passionate about helping others learn these skills so they in turn can share their vision of beautiful, sustainable, and socially just structures. Her more recent work has been in Nicaragua with the women and youth in the northern pueblos and with Red Feather Development Group in the Hopi Reservation in AZ. These projects have been the most challenging and rewarding work for her thus far. She is founder of the natural building firm Earthen Endeavors and of the organization Nicaragua Pueblo Project.