'What ecotourism should be'
An organic coffee farm and ecotourism lodge founded by a Unitarian Universalist couple is a model for just and
By David Zucchino
Fall 2011 8.15.11
The dirt track bends hard to the left over a drainage ditch in the rural village
of Yucul in the central highlands of Nicaragua. The rutted road continues up a lush mountainside, past banana
plants heavy with fruit and tree canopies inhabited by howler monkeys and sloths, to an outpost high in the rain
forest. Carved out of the mountain 4,000 feet up, the setting offers spectacular views of the Dariense mountain
range and the green valley far below.
Photo by David Zucchino: Lonna Harkrader (left), one of the founders of Finca Esperanza Verde, an organic coffee
farm and ecolodge in Nicaragua, leads visitors on a bird-watching hike.
This is Finca Esperanza Verde, a unique experiment in ecotourism and local
empowerment. Part organic coffee farm and part tourist lodge, the finca—Spanish for farm—has been spearheaded by a
Unitarian Universalist couple with dreams of helping local Nicaraguans find profitable and sustainable ways to
share their culture with visiting tourists.
The tourism project was conceived by Lonna and Richard Harkrader, members of Eno
River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina. It grew out of a sister community project the
Harkraders helped lead in 1993 that linked churches in Durham with the Nicaraguan town of San Ramón, eleven miles
down a twisting mountain road from the finca. When three other North Carolina cities joined the Durham–San Ramón
partnership, they became Sister Communities of San Ramón, Nicaragua (SCSRN). The nonprofit plows income from
ecotourism and organic-certified shade grown coffee back into the local economy. The chief attractions are stunning
scenery, hiking trails, exotic birds, and butterflies—but also the skills and cultural riches of Nicaraguans
The Harkraders and board members of Sister Communities bought an abandoned
forty-acre coffee farm on the mountainside in 1997. Using local materials and workers, the Harkraders and
volunteers added a lodge and sleeping cabins for twenty-six visitors, paid for in part by donations from Rotary
clubs in North Carolina and other contributors. They have since expanded the site into a 265-acre nature preserve
with a very light ecological footprint.
Richard, an architect and solar builder, designed a micro hydro generator powered
by a mountain spring that also provides natural drinking water to guests’ cabins. The hydro system and photovoltaic
panels on the lodge roof power thefinca.
Finca Esperanza Verde—Green Hope Farm—employs thirty local residents who are
provided steady jobs with attractive benefits, an anomaly in rural Nicaragua. They get health insurance, retirement
benefits, and a month’s bonus at Christmas. Unlike many tourism workers in Central America and the Caribbean, they
are employed year-round, not just seasonally.
The staff members teach visiting tourists about Nicaraguan culture, arts, food,
history, nature, and wildlife. The finca’s focus on learning from the locals is what distinguishes it from other
tourist operations, and from most other ecotourism ventures. Sister Communities, whose members have visited the
finca and San Ramón to build friendships with Nicaraguans, calls the trips “cultural immersion
Visitors hike virgin trails and relax over sumptuous finca meals. At the same
time, they are also shown Nicaragua by Nicaraguans. When I visited in February with twelve other Americans,
including several members of the Eno River fellowship, we were immersed in Nicaraguan culture. Like most visitors,
we split our time between the finca and homestays with San Ramón residents.
In town, there were cooking and jewelry-making demonstrations, dancing, folk
music, drinks of local rum and beer, a craft fair, and a children’s dance troupe. At the finca, we took bumpy rides
in the back of pickup trucks to a coffee farm and a picnic beside a mountain stream. We took nature hikes, went
bird-watching, and explored a butterfly reserve.
“Not your typical Mai Tai vacation,” said Jennifer Albright, a Durham resident who
was presented with a surprise cake by a finca cook one evening to celebrate her sixty-first birthday.
Another cook, Reina Medrano, showed us Americans how to make tortillas as we took
turns cranking a grinder handle and shaping tortillas. Nature guide Humberto Antonio Picado led visitors on
mountain hikes, pointing out ancient ferns, reciting the Latin names of butterflies, and detailing the nesting
habits of local birds. He also spotted howler monkeys and sloths that visitors didn’t notice on their own. He knows
all about the finca’s orchids and tree frogs, too.
In San Ramón, Jesenia Diaz Aviles, a local artisan, showed us how to make raw
paper for handmade cards and notebooks. Freddie Rivas, a local jewelry maker, gave a class on creating jewelry from
local seeds. And Javier Martínez, a coffee farmer who has learned to grow certified organic coffee, led us through
a “coffee cupping,” sampling four local brews.
The Nicaraguans are paid for their time. Among them was Doña Marina Escorcia
Pineda, a longtime San Ramón resident who taught an hour-long session on local history. Paid, too, were five local
musicians who trudged up the dirt road from Yucul village to play Nicaraguan folk songs around a bonfire one night.
One musician persuaded several American visitors to dance around the fire.
María Soledad Avila Escorcia, who has hosted finca tourists in her tidy bungalow
in San Ramón the past twelve years, said townspeople are eager to share day-to-day life with visitors.
“The way Richard and Lonna have set things up, visitors are able to see the way
people in San Ramón really live. They’re not just tourists—they’re houseguests,” she said.
Through the finca and ecotourism, the Harkraders and Sister Communities have
transformed the local community. Before the finca was built, nearby San Ramón had no hotels, no craft sales, no
cafés, and virtually no tourism. Many local roads were unpaved, and its water and sewer systems were a
“The word tourist wasn’t in their vocabulary,” Lonna recalled. “It was a totally
new concept. Everybody asked: ‘Why would anyone come to San Ramón?’”
Today, San Ramón is visited by tourists from the United States,
Canada, Latin America, and Europe. It has two boutique hotels, a backpacker hostel, several guesthouses, two
bar-cum-cafés, a local tourist guide club, and regular crafts sales. The improvements were created and are
maintained by local residents, with donations from Sister Communities and others.
The nonprofit has donated money for local communities to build six
schools, and other donors provide $500 a year to a dozen rural schools. It has helped fund a maternity center, a
home for the elderly, and a guide club run by local teens.
Richard designed the town baseball stadium. Sister Communities, along
with Rotary International and Southwest Durham Rotary, donated money to renovate and expand the town’s water
“If you build something beautiful, they will come,” Lonna said as she
watched local children perform a dance recital inside the tidy little library.
Unlike Westerners who direct most other aid projects, Sister
Communities doesn’t dictate who or what receives funds. It doesn’t build projects itself. The nonprofit asks local
residents to identify their most pressing needs, then gives grants to groups and communities to run programs and
build schools—and leaves it to residents to provide sweat equity.
“It builds a sense of ownership,” Richard said. The goal, he said, is
to eliminate the paternalism that dominates many well-intentioned aid projects.
The Harkraders are hardy do-it-yourself types. On their first visit
to Nicaragua in 1990, they drove from North Carolina with their two daughters, then 10 and 14. They stayed in
Central America for eleven months, donated their car, and flew back home.
In 1997, while building the coffee farm and finca, the Harkraders and
volunteers hauled in most provisions in their checked luggage—dishes, towels, linens, and the solar panels for the
lodge roof. Early on, visitors and volunteers carried the finca’s green coffee beans home in their suitcases. “We
were inventing it as we went along,” Richard said.
Today, Counter Culture Coffee in Durham imports the finca’s coffee
beans, roasts them, and provides coffee at cost to Sister Communities. The coffee is sold at Unitarian Universalist
congregations, raising up to $23,000 a year. Income from coffee, ecotours, and other tourism covers the cost of
operations at the finca—and also funds community development projects.
The finca hires local pickers to harvest coffee beans. It also pumps
money into the local economy by buying chickens, eggs, milk, beer, and other products from local vendors. The staff
makes juices, jams, marmalades, salads, and other foods from fruits and vegetables grown organically on the
Two years ago, Lonna said, the finca and ecotourism brought $180,000
into the local economy, not counting purchases of food, crafts, and gifts by visiting tourists.
“This is what ecotourism should be. I fell in love with this place
the first time I saw it,” said Alex van der Zee Arias, 34, who was hired in February to manage the finca. Van der
Zee has managed hotels in Europe and South America and helped run his family’s coffee farm about twenty minutes
from San Ramón. But he decided to work at Finca Esperanza Verde because it’s unlike any other tourism project he
has ever encountered.
“After working in mass tourism and big hotels, I’ve found the perfect
ecotourism model here,” he said.
The finca’s tourism intern is Ian Smith-Overman, 25, a recent college
graduate who visited the finca as a child with his Unitarian Universalist family. He’s a fluent Spanish speaker
with a passion for Central and South American culture and history.
“What makes this place special is its openness, its shared commitment
to the environment—just the whole concept of the human family,” Smith-Overman said.
Praise for the finca’s approach doesn’t just come from people
affiliated with it. The Small Enterprise Education and Promotion (SEEP) Network, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit,
said of the ecolodge after an assessment visit in 2008: “Finca Esperanza Verde has received international
recognition as a model for poverty alleviation through sustainable tourism . . . through an economic model that is
The finca won a $20,000 Sustainable Tourism Award for Conservation
from Smithsonianmagazine. It was named best ecolodge by the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism and was selected as the
model project exemplifying poverty alleviation through sustainable tourism by the World Tourism Organization, a
United Nations agency. The Guardiannewspaper in London ranked it number one for green tourism in
Picado, 34, the finca’s nature guide, said he knew little about local
plants and wildlife—and even less about ways to protect the environment—when the finca hired him as a coffee worker
ten years ago. By learning from visiting biologists and ornithologists, he has emerged as a leading local expert on
the forest’s ecology.
He’s also a butterfly expert, thanks to years spent studying the
creatures at the finca’s butterfly house, home to a dozen varieties. The finca has sold butterfly pupae to the
Museum of Life and Science in Durham—along with some of the leafcutter ants that entertain guests with the
intricate trails they build to transport bits of leaves.
“I’m proud to share my knowledge with our visitors,” Picado said.
“They seem to appreciate it, which makes me feel like I’ve been successful in life.”
The Harkraders, too, have built an impressive base of local
knowledge. Lonna knows the name of every local villager, it seems. Richard, who stomps the finca grounds with a
bird guide stuffed in his pocket, can declaim on the distinctions between the orange-bellied trogon and the
collared trogon, two of the finca’s 250 bird species.
For the Harkraders, the finca has provided an opportunity to apply
their UU values. They are reflected in the commitment to the interdependent web of life, the embrace of the
inherent worth and dignity of Nicaraguans, and faith in the collective spirit.
“We are all people of the world—we are all one family,” Lonna said
one evening after asking staff members to introduce themselves and talk about their lives. “I often think how lucky
I am in my life to be part of something that has had such a big impact—that’s brought the culture of Nicaragua
right into the lives of visitors,” she said.
Around the campfire one night, an elderly guitarist, Don Carmelo,
prefaced his band’s performance by thanking the Harkraders for “the shared human family” they had brought together
at the finca.
The finca is now so successful that the Harkraders encouraged the
Sister Communities board to put it up for sale in May. The project “is a large business now and difficult for
volunteers to manage,” Lonna said. It will operate as usual through May 2012, she said, with several ecotourism
trips booked and space available for other visitors.
No matter who takes over, Lonna said, Sister Communities will
continue to provide visitors with what she called “a dynamic cultural immersion experience,” including visits to
the same social justice projects in the area.
The Rev. Deborah Cayer, lead minister at the Eno River fellowship,
said she was struck by the Harkraders’ unique, inclusive vision when she first heard about the finca. “It was a
very different model—an empowerment model and a partnership model,” she said. “It’s a friendship model, seeing
people not as ‘those poor people,’ but valuing them and understanding how to open a door for a brother or
As part of the group that visited the finca in February, Cayer
listened as Lonna argued with several local parents who kept their children out of school, saying they were needed
to help out at home. Lonna told them, passionately, that every child has a fundamental human right to an
education—and the parents listened.
“It was an argument between neighbors, a passionate discussion
between equals,” Cayer said. “They’re all in it together. That’s community. Being able to see their inherent worth
and dignity, and to respect it—that’s a beautiful thing.”