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January 17, 2012 / Mark Largent

Guest Post from a Current STEPPS Student

Adventures of an Undergrad

Pearl Lagoon Basin

Caribbean Coast, Nicaragua

May 31st– July 15th, 2011


Joan Campau



This summer, I traveled for three days to reach a place that is actually worlds away from my home and my past experiences. With generous funding from the Honors College at Michigan State University, I was invited to participate for a summer as the social-science undergraduate in a multi-year National Science Foundation Grant investigating Coupled Human and Natural Systems on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. Working under the direction of Dan Kramer from James Madison College and the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, I examined the use of inter-firm credit among small business owners.



My introduction to the project was arranged by another faculty member in early December, who suggested during one of our advising sessions that I make an appointment to speak with Dr. Kramer regarding his various international projects. I left Dr. Kramer’s office later that month with a preliminary invitation to join his multi-disciplinary team for the season. Coffee meetings with former undergraduate students who had worked in the region improved my understanding of how to arrange the home-stays, the nature of the Creole-English language barrier, and what sorts of cultural shifts to anticipate. Literary research provided the outline of political contestations that influenced the manner in which various sub-populations related to one another. But it would have been impossible to understand what life on the Coast was really like until I arrived.


I was extraordinarily lucky to have a host of guides during my first couple of weeks in Nicaragua. I shared a flight down with Dr. Kramer, some of the other MSU researchers working on the project (including his counterpart from Lyman Briggs, Dr. Jerry Urquhart), and a new graduate student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. They were making a tour of the communities around the Pearl Lagoon Basin to present the results from the earlier stages of the grant. Dr. Urquhart would describe various animal species and their prevalence near each community as captured on the game cameras installed by his graduate student. The people of the communities, in turn, would respond with a description of how their fathers and grandfathers had been able to hunt or simply observe more or less of each type than they and their sons could expect to. These changes impacted their lives and livelihoods: meat from the bush is now supplemented with other protein sources, including the fish which they also depend on for monetary income. Dr. Kramer presented the results of his surveys, which captured the sentiments of people living in each place regarding their relative autonomy, their access and ability to protect natural resources, their sources of monetary income, and other economic, social and political data. It was during those meetings that the nature of the grant funding our project, the ‘Coupling of Human and Natural Systems,’ became absolutely clear to me for the first time. Neither the biological nor the sociological research paints a complete picture on its own: the lives and livelihoods of these people are so intertwined with the land and water that one cannot be fully explained without reference to the other. The project grant under which we are working doesn’t, in and of itself, ‘couple’ human and natural systems; the systems are already inextricably linked, and this project seeks to understand the multitude of relationships between them.


Drs. Kramer and Urquhart, accompanied by the research team from MSU as well as our partners at the local university of Uraccan, made these presentations in communities around the Lagoon Basin. Setting up camp in two main hostels at either end of the Lagoon, we went to visit the Creole, Garifuna, Miskitu, and Mestizo people in Monkey Point, Pearl Lagoon, Kakabila, Brown Bank, San Vicente, Orinocco, Awas, and Raitipura—all people and communities I would visit again throughout the summer to conduct my own surveys.

The MSU team returned home after two weeks, and I began to arrange for my own accommodations. Often at the last minute, and very rarely with anything more than a 24 hour ‘reservation’, I was fortunate to spend most of my summer in home stays with different families around the Lagoon Basin. All of these people were overwhelming in their generosity; everyone welcomed the girl with the big yellow backpack into their customs and traditions without pause, and some of my favorite experiences stemmed from participating in the daily goings-on of life in these incredibly poor households. From hauling pineapples strung together on a vine harness across single-log bridges through dense tropical forests to dancing in the glow of moonlight to rhythms generated by thumbs and palms on rawhide drums, being invited to live less as a guest and more as a member of the extended family was what gave me the greatest appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of these resilient people and a deep respect for their traditions.   


The Work

The informal conversations I had with my host families armed me also with a greater understanding of the context in which business was transacted around the Pearl Lagoon Basin. Throughout the spring, Dr. Kramer and I had been formulating a tentative outline of the sort of research I might conduct. Wanting to understand the changes resulting from increased globalization, especially as amplified by the new road connecting these formerly very isolated peoples to the international markets of Managua, we had come up with a list of products whose presence in the small shops might be indicative of impending social or environmental shifts.


Over the first few weeks or so, I realized that a more interesting question might be found in a different, but related, vein. Shop owners in the largest community of Pearl Lagoon represented almost every ethnic group: Creole, Garifuna, Miskitu and Mestizo. Interestingly, the ethnic group with which they identified seemed to influence what they sold. Specifically, the Spanish-speaking Mestizo shop owners carried plastic house-wares, clothing, and imported foods (mostly brought down the road from Managua). By contrast, the native shop owners, who identified as Creole, Garifuna, or Miskitu, generally limited themselves to local produce and a smaller selection of imported goods (such as shaving razors or Maggi bouillon cubes). To investigate this further, I altered my survey instrument to better capture the manner in which ethnicity influenced goods sold.

About a week later, I transferred to the mainly Miskitu community of Kakabila, catching a ride with a fisherman on his way home from depositing the nightly catch with a wholesaler in Pearl Lagoon. Unlike the seemingly unlimited one-room shanties with goods for sale in Pearl Lagoon, Kakabila only contained five ‘shops’, as identified by my host family and corroborated by their neighbors. After interviewing each of the shop owners, and reviewing the results, it occurred to me that an even more nuanced pattern might exist. Most (indeed, nearly all) of the people in Kakabila are of Native American descent, and all of those who are not Miskitu have some specific reason for living there, often marriage. Of the five shop owners that I interviewed, three were not Miskitu, and these three accounted for a majority of the foreigners in the community. It was at that point that I wondered whether ethnicity relative to the majority in the community had a bearing on the business practices of these shop owners. It was also at that point that I began to pay close attention to the way these business people interacted with their customers, who were also their neighbors and usually family. About twice daily, I accompanied the children with whom I was staying on their treks over to the small shops for meal preparation ingredients. They were never sent with money, only a list of necessary supplies. Wondering what sort of system existed to organize these transactions, I spent some time re-interviewing the shop owners and their customers.


As it turns out, almost all of the shop owners on the coast offer some form of credit to their clients. They determine the credit worthiness of an individual using various social networks and past experiences, and adjust credit availability accordingly. Some shop owners suggested that they had a fixed upper limit and loan period, and others indicated that these factors would vary based on their familiarity with the client. On the opposite end of the process, many of these shop owners also utilized some form of credit themselves, either for start-up costs or for regular procurement of goods from wholesalers. Interestingly, none of the people I interviewed used traditional lending institutions, such as banks, citing racial discrimination and exorbitantly high interest rates. Instead, they relied on loans from their wholesalers in the larger cities, personal savings, or temporary financial assistance from family members. Combining this with my earlier thoughts about ethnic variability, I added this component to my survey instrument.


Statistically analyzing the data upon my return to the United States, I was preliminarily disappointed. It turns out that neither ethnicity of the shop owner, the community in which the shop is located, the ethnicity of the shop owner relative to the majority in the community, or the size of the shop has any statistical relationship to a shop owner’s use of credit as determined using a Pearson’s Chi Square test. Nevertheless, the extensive data I was able to gather through my broad survey instrument leaves open the possibility that other statistically meaningful correlations do exist between other variables. Furthermore, the anecdotal evidence provided by numerous conversations with my host families, neighbors, and interviewees over the summer indicates that the particular linguistic and cultural traditions associated with each ethnic group do have a bearing on the ways in which individuals socially and professionally interact with one another. Asking the question in a slightly different way may yield more fruitful results in the future, and I plan to return to the data with fresh eyes to glean a better understanding of how to statistically demonstrate what I found to be anecdotally true. 

Off Duty

When not directly working on my own project, I was fortunate to be included in the research conducted by the Lyman Briggs undergraduate also in Nicaragua for the summer, grateful for the opportunity to assist the MSU Fisheries and Wildlife graduate student with her work on the Lagoon fisheries, and happy to accompany an anthropology student from the University of California on some of his forays. Each of these experiences helped to develop my perspective of life on the Coast as it relates to the use of credit, but they were also interesting in and of their own right. The two nights spent at a biological reserve and hiking into the tropical jungle to monitor frog populations were enlightening in the sense that I began to understand the diversity of species that various groups were working together to protect. Sampling water turbidity was a much-needed respite from the somewhat monotonous interview structure, and the night I spent in a hammock on a boat with the fisheries graduate student guarding her nets provided a stunning view of the stars above the gentle rocking of the waves. Most relevant to my own work, I was also lucky to travel with the anthropology graduate student to some of the cooperatives that had been organized around various objectives, such as rural education and the promotion of local produce. Each of these broadened my understanding of the interaction between human and natural systems, and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to participate in these and other off-duty experiences throughout the summer.      


Bringing it Back     

The nearly two months I spent in Nicaragua fundamentally altered my perspective of the world and significantly informed both my personal and professional ambitions. Living with people who are too poor to afford shoes for their children running through a tropical forest, yet who consistently shared everything they had with a total stranger, rejuvenated my faith in the human condition. More than that, however, it also opened my eyes to an incredible unmet need for basic health care, education, and environmental justice. Using the resources that have been available to me as a student Michigan State University, I intend to build on this experience, and ultimately pursue a career in environmental law, hopefully with an emphasis on sustainable international development. I cannot overstate the value I place on the summer I spent in Nicaragua, and I am exceedingly grateful to the people in the United States and on the Caribbean Coast who made possible such fantastic adventures for an undergrad.        


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