When my husband and I headed to Jicaro, a thoughtfully designed eco-lodge on a tiny island in Lake Nicaragua, I was anticipating volcano hikes, kayaking in a remote corner of the largest lake in central America, and stellar food. What I saw and experienced was leadership in action. While Nicaragua’s tourist business is relatively nascent, Jicaro’s approach to crafting a community-based business is anything but. Having looked southward at the more mature tourist industry of Costa Rica, Nicaragua is mindfully finding their way. In what has all too often proven to be an industry driven by greed—exploiting locals and chipping away at natural resources-- Jicaro is a living act of leadership. Why do I say that? The work of leadership is built on the best from the past, involves both uncertainty and risk, pushes people to experiment and learn, and mobilizes the many. Brainchild of London business woman Karen Emanuel, Jicaro was built in partnership with Cayuga, a collective of small sustainable resorts that began with a single eco-lodge in Costa Rica in 1999, just as the tourism industry there was taking off. Co-founded by Andrea Bonilla and Hans Pfister—classmates at Cornell’s Hotel School—Cayuga helps owners like Karen, who have the right idea in terms sustainability and community partnerships, to translate those convictions into reality.
We need leadership in places where the map ends. When Hans and Andrea studied at Cornell, sustainability wasn’t part of the curriculum. Rather it was Hans’s childhood experiences that became the roots of his own business ethos. Growing up in Southern Germany, he recalls “nature was dear to me” as it provided the backdrop for the hiking and skiing he loved. Too, Hans came of age during the Green Movement, impacting him to “try to live a conscious life.” When he and Andrea created the seeds for the movement that Cayuga embodies, they were pioneers through and through. Without a map to follow, they have found their way “Just by doing it. Little by little. It’s not a revolution.” For the past decade, they have been pushing their alma mater to pay attention to sustainability. But for quite some time they have been lone wolfs, a curious anomaly in the eyes of colleagues driven by a more traditional business model. Hans laughs, “We don’t have competitors. And there’s a reason for that. It’s hard.” At last, five years ago, Andrea and Hans were included in the Dean of Cornell’s distinguished lecture series, where they have found a platform for spreading the word about this mindful approach to doing business in partnership with the planet and the people on your corner of it. Jicaro is Cayuga’s most recent member of the family. Built using trees felled by Hurricane Felix, the nine casitas housing Jicaro’s guests invite the outside in and are at the heart of a tourism committed to sustainability. On arrival, guests to the island are educated that staff are honing their English and learning the hospitality business. The request: grace and patience, key when communities intersect and partner in service to a larger, orienting purpose. In this case, that larger purpose is aspirational: elevating those living in poverty, building community sanitation systems, creating a food stream for a remote island in an archipelago of 364 other isletas; upskilling locals stepping into an emergent industry. Making material a commitment to the surrounding community, “Locals built the lodge, and Jicaro now partners with islanders to raise poultry, grow produce, compost organic waste, and even harvest cooking gas from pig manure” (nationalgeographiclodges.com). As with all Cayuga properties, the front of the house is simply a doorway into the back of the house: the very machine for change and impact. Island guests are invited on the sustainability tour, where they witness the behind the scenes work to meet rigorous, self-imposed environmental goals, including getting off the grid in coming years. While they have on the island the makings of an eco paradise, they have often struggled to spread those same practices across the lake. Karen illuminates the challenges of changing, for example, the custom of locals burning their trash. While they have employed various approaches to educating the community, they have found two elements are key when trying to impact change on a legacy practice: leveraging voices from within and catalyzing intergenerational education. Hans explains, “If you want to generate interest and enthusiasm for conservation, you can only do that when you involve the local community. As you change their lives, they become committed to conservation.” Staff at the hotel—having learned and lived sustainable practices on Jicaro—educate the locals, and have found that these ideas are easier to hear when they come from within. And when kids are educated at school about how to live in more eco-friendly ways, they become powerful ambassadors at home.
What works here, may not work there. Hans illustrates as well the need to devise solutions aligned to the surrounding culture, and to innovate as you go. Vital to Cayuga is environmental impact, and with Jicaro that impact is profound given theirs is a small island surrounded by private lands. Hans recounts pushing to make progress on conservation goals, only to find this wasn’t top of mind for locals. What had worked in Costa Rica—reforestation on the Osla peninsula via planting acres of trees—was getting nowhere in Nicaragua. Hans explains, “When we tried to work with government agencies, we ran into huge boundaries. They just weren’t interested.” And no wonder: locals had spent back-breaking hours cutting down trees to make way for cattle and crops. The notion of planting trees to maintain water levels was far beyond the fray for those in the community. So Jicaro had to experiment with a different approach, one aligned to the values of those on adjacent lands. Starting with “useful” trees—fruit trees rather than, say, cedars—allowed the community to enjoy the more tangible benefits of fresh produce and juice. Next, they planted trees around farmer’s fields to minimize erosion, an intervention both aligned to the more immediate needs of those in the community and a pace closer to Jicaro’s larger ambitions. What’s ahead? They recently found land on the peninsula near the island where they plan to repopulate the forest to help improve the water shed. Simply transplanting a strategy that worked in another place provide futile. Only when they connected to a deep community need—for food and income, for the safeguarding of farm land—were they able to bring others into a larger, farther afield aspiration. Change is incremental in time; monumental over time. This same commitment to sustainability crystallizes when guests head over to a neighboring island to bear witness to the impact Jicaro has had on Padre Nello, a local elementary school serving nearly 90 students who boat to class each morning. Once relying on untreated lake water for their needs, the school now has clean running water, toilets, solar panels, and a collection of garden patches. Guests on Jicaro are invited to bring school supplies to share with students during their visits. One of the school buildings even has overhead lighting to encourage adults to take evening literacy classes.
But the monumental changes now evident were incremental in time. First they fixed the student’s chairs and desks. Next they cleaned up the property and began recycling. After that, they focused on clean water and installing solar panels. Those incremental shifts continue, as they have organized an onsite health care center, providing nursing care and counseling to a population previously without access to such resources. Over time, they would like to see the kids harvest the garden and sell back the produce to Jicaro and others in the lake community. Plans are in the works to fund a school boat—think school bus on the water—so students have reliable daily transportation. And further on the horizon: Jicaro’s General Manager Howard Coulson envisions hiring graduates to work for Jicaro or one of the other Cayuga properties. It’s succession planning 101. And it’s slow, step-by-step, long-line work. Leadership is a fancy term for being willing to learn. And fail. And learn again from those failures. Each of these gestures aligned to those daunting, ambitious larger purposes requires learning across cultures and strategic experimentation, and only those rooted in the best of Nicaraguan culture are poised to survive and create lasting impact. In a community with roots in farming and fishing, what would it take to value book learning, to make time after a long day of manual labor to come to the island school for classes? Jicaro is both asking and making progress on that question, as the learning goes both ways. Again and again, Karen underscores her own lessons in humility: “Early on I was quite fussy about the staff learning to properly lay and clear the table. It’s the English in me. And then I realized: when you eat your rice and beans out of a plastic bowl, no one understands why this matters. It makes no sense to them, in their own lives.” What she describes is a value clash, to be expected when those from different cultural traditions attempt to work together. To make progress demands introspection, and a willingness to understand what matters to others. And why.
She recalls as well countless lessons in patience: “It was very hard to switch from London time—when I would expect things to be done yesterday—to Nicaraguan time. I learned things move slowly. It takes a long time to realize projects in Nicaragua, and I would have to be patient. As a foreigner coming into another land, you have to respect the people and the country and not come in as the big white man.” This project has consistently shuttled Karen outside her own comfort zone: “It’s something I’ve never done before. I’ve never been in the hotel industry. My Spanish is appalling.” And yet: “It seemed logical to me. I built somewhere I would want to go and believed others would, too. I built it on my heart and gut. It’s all about the staff. If you treat people well, you can work and learn together.” Karen captures succinctly the guiding sentiment at the heart of the Cayuga model: “giving back helps you move forward.” Leadership demands risk—and doing things that are scary and uncertain. Literacy rates in Nicaragua hover at about 80%, markedly lower in more rural areas. Poverty is widespread and adolescent pregnancy rates curtail educational completion. Statistically, the challenges are clear and present. While appealing to tourists to visit Costa Rica is something of a cake walk these days, Nicaragua is a tougher sell. For most, the civil wars of decades ago are all they know about this small, rural Central American country. In short: Nicaragua elicits fear in many would-be visitors. Why take a leap? Why did Karen, who was experiencing great success running a thriving business in the UK? Why did Howard, who was on the cusp of his own retirement? Why did Andrea & Hans, who had realized their aspirations within the proven field of Costa Rica? For the employees on Jicaro and their families and the students at Padre Nello, the willingness of individuals to face those risks and move forward despite them has been in service to literally life-changing rewards. The nine men who comprise Jicaro’s maintenance team went from being subsistence fishermen to learning how to read and write, how to draft a budget, how to run the inner workings of one of the world’s most inspiring eco lodges. Their jobs on Jicaro provide them with a steady supply of food and secure housing, health insurance and a future rich with possibilities. And for their families: the stability to commit to schooling for their kids, who no longer need to join dad fishing or share his boat to get to school. Beyond these nine men are the many men and women who began with Cayuga as junior staff—as receptionists and construction workers—and are now General Managers at their properties. If the work of leadership is about mobilizing the many to make progress on a shared challenge, Jicaro has done just that. There are no quick fixes to country-level poverty, to defaults that consume energy and natural resources at a steady clip, to elevating literacy levels. And yet: Jicaro has learned from others, built strong partnerships, and demonstrated a lived commitment to building their bottom line through building community. Rather than simply building another resort, Jicaro is partnering with and learning alongside a community to model the way for a tourism industry in its infancy. Jicaro makes the case that when you approach a challenge from a mindset not of scarcity but of abundance, the ripples that flow outward are tangible and sustaining.