Teaching new skills with age old materials, Nicaragua Pueblo Project is the latest venture from earth builder Liz Johndrow. Founder of Earthen Endeavors Natural Building, Liz has been building and teaching a mix of styles such as straw bale, cob, adobe, wattle and daub, earthen plasters and timber framing, for several years. Liz finds the good earth, mud, brings a simplicity and intimacy to the process of home building.
Taking her passion and knowledge further, Liz has been involved with the women and youth of Nicaragua over the last three years, passing on her skills and knowledge in a bid to create socially just structures.
Nicaragua is one of the world's more natural disaster-prone countries. The largest country in Central America (and one of the poorest in the western hemisphere), the U.S. backed Contra war followed a savage family run dictatorship, backed by maleficent U.S. government policy. That changed with the broadly popular Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) who overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979. Composed of a diverse collection of parties and ideologies that included Marxists, Nationalists and Catholic groups, the Sandinista's enacted land reform turned around literacy rates with huge country wide campaigns.
Building safe, affordable and natural homes is the mission of the Nicaragua Pueblo Project. And using earth, local resources and natural building techniques is the spirit that motivates them. When it comes to house building in Nicaragua the belief 'concrete is better' is the norm. As Liz explained, "There is the use of concrete as a smooth and easier to clean surface compared to the commonly seen dirt floors and more crumbly adobe walls, as well as the fallacy that concrete is across the board more seismically sound."
The embodied energy of concrete is massive. According to the Environmental Literacy Council, cement, the key ingredient in concrete, is the most abundant manufactured material in the world. Manufacturing cement is intense. It depends on burning cheap coal to heat kilns to more than 1,500oC releasing carbon dioxide into the air from the burning coal as well as the chemical reaction of the cement production.
Liz explained that in one village when she asked which building in town was the hottest, it was the health centre - a huge concrete edifice. With regards to temperate control, simply made concrete structures are useless. And concrete structures are notoriously unsound due to poor construction practices in seismic areas, of which Nicaragua is one.
Where earth houses are seen as a sign of poverty, how can earthen architecture be re-inspired and made to look good? As Liz says of earthen houses: "When well built (like any material and modality needs to be) earth surpasses concrete in function, environmental impact and even beauty."
Liz explains that when it comes to women building homes, there is a unique set of challenges to be faced:
"In the more rural regions, the machismo culture that often causes women to fall into the traditional role of raising children is often a full time role. Collecting wood for cooking, hauling water to their homes, washing clothes by hand, cleaning house and yard, and cooking. The lack of incentive to stay in school and lack of economic resource to move beyond primary school, and high unemployment rates, women often have children in their teens. There is little to build their esteem or supportive situations providing incentive to do something less conventional."
Liz's work with Nicaraguan based groups and now Nicaragua Pueblo Project is geared toward raising awareness for women and empowering opportunities. The immediacy and naturally forgiving qualities of mud and cob is a natural medium for helping build community structures and homes.
"Magdelena is a strong young woman who has taken advantage of every hands-on learning opportunity available to her. Through various scholarships she studied at the carpentry school, led the adobe brick making for the youth centre and discovered her deep artistic abilities through mud art, took a permaculture course and came up with the beautiful name 'El Tesoro del Sol' (The Treasure of the Sun) for the youth centre."
"Silvia showed up at a natural building workshop timid and hard to understand. As the weeks passed I learned of her house and the flooding and later of the rats eating their corn crop. My great assistants, Karen and Eva gave her lots of encouragement to try and practice and not judge her skills and knowledge too early on. Over the weeks she truly blossomed and her confidence and skill grew."
Sharing knowledge to help improve the quality of lives, Liz believes in human potential and the idea that anyone can build. Natural building, I believe, helps us all reconnect with our right - and instinct - to self-shelter. Observing natural processes building from the ground on up is an exercise is spiritual nourishment and practical satisfaction.
Nicaragua Pueblo Project is currently campaigning to fund more work with rural women and youth to build their own futures. Please support them at www.indiegogo.com/projects/nicaragua-pueblo-project
Phil Moore is one half of Permaculture People. They spent two years travelling the Americas and are now continuing in the UK. They blog at www.permaculturepeopleuk.tumblr.com, tweet as @permapeople and can be found at www.facebook.com/permaculturepeople
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