Who Owns the Lake?

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Traditional Nicaraguan fishermen

This well-known axiom gives us some insight into different ways of thinking about development work.

Many times our initial response to the problem “this person lacks food” is a simple one “let’s give him a fish”. However, eventually we realize that if we give him a fish he will only “eat for a day”. So, instead of identifying the problem as a lack of physical resources (food, housing, infrastructure, etc.) we move a little deeper in our thinking, “I will teach this man to fish”, and hopefully, with his new skills, he will “eat for a lifetime”.

However during a classroom discussion, my sociology of international development professor added a new line to the saying that challenges the axiom and the theories of development that undergird it:

“BUT… eventually we may need to ask ourselves, ‘Who owns the lake?’”

This last phrase challenges us to rethink and re-identify the roots of the problem.  Is it possible that the problem doesn’t lie in a person’s lack of physical resources or in their skills to make a living and feed their families? Is it possible that the problem lies elsewhere, perhaps in the way society is structured; maybe the man has his net and his boat ready to go but the lake is “private property”?

Never did I imagine that one day this theoretical discussion in a university classroom would become a literal one that I would experience in real life.

That’s a picture of me near the beginning of my three-year MCC term, posing as I jump off a 10-meter high dock  into the pristine waters of the volcanic crater lake Laguna de Apoyo at the hotel and restaurant “La Abuela”. Our MCC team had a “fun day” at the restaurant and spent the morning and afternoon lounging in the sun, doing crazy stunts off the dock, and landing in the deep, cool water. “La Abuela” is a place I’ve returned to many times since and is a popular tourist spot. When you can have a delicious lunch and spend day relaxing on the banks of a beautiful lake for under $10, how could anyone resist?

Fast-forward a few months. In my work with my MCC partner, the Anabaptist Peace and Justice Commission, we were invited by a rural Mennonite church to do a workshop on Conflict Tranformation and reflect with church members on why violence has become something seen as “normal” by many Nicaraguans.

We started out the workshop brainstorming all the ways we saw violence manifest in the local community. As church members shouted out their ideas I was surprised when several people mentioned “privatization of natural resources” and “limiting access to public land” as violence. In most workshops overt violence, like spousal abuse or gang violence, are the first things mentioned, while structural violence, like denying someone access to resources they need to live, is often not identified as violence.

I was curious about their responses and inquired as to what people meant by “privatization of natural resources.” The church members began to tell the story of the lake. The community where the church is located, along with many other small pueblos, surrounds the Laguna de Apoyo. For generations these communities have survived off of the lake, depending on its fish as an important source of food for their families. However, with a rise in tourism to Nicaragua and the ideal position of the lake between two popular tourist cities, the land along the edges of the lake is quickly being sold to private investors who are building beautiful lakeside hotels and restaurants.

View of the La Abuela lake-front cabanas and dock.

Much to my shock they continued to describe the latest concern over lake access, which involved an establishment called “La Abuela”. Many years  ago this eco-hotel had obtained permission from the local residents to use a public access road as an entrance to the hotel, but now La Abuela was claming the road as her own and not allowing locals to pass through, severely limiting their access to the lake.

Needless to say I did not mention our recent MCC outing to “La Abuela” and was glad that no members of this rural church were my friends on Facebook.

Local citizens protest outside of Hotel La Abuela. This picture and other information come from this El Nuevo Diario article

As the workshop ended we did a new brainstorm, this time to think of ways of responding to the violence we see all around us. Several church members were excited about organizing with other local churches to speak to their elected officials about the lake access problem while others were reluctant for the church to take such an active role in “political” activities.

While in the end the church decided not to officially take up the cause, this event was representative to me of the many challenges that NGOs and governments face in their development work.

It is common for NGOs to focus on income generation projects, equipping people with new skills and techniques to help them make a better living for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, NGOs may never ask the question, “But, who owns the lake?” and therefore ignore one of the root causes of poverty, which historically in Latin America has been grossly unequal land distribution and more recently limitations to access to natural resources because of privitization.

In the same way,governments have turned to tourism as a source of revenue for the county but have neglected the fact that this new income often stays in the hands of the few and has other unitended consequences such as denying local fishermen access to the lake they depend on to survive.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. BUT… eventually we may need to ask ourselves, ‘Who owns the lake?’”

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4 Comments on “Who Owns the Lake?”

  1. Alan & Beth Says:

    Noooooooooo!!!! I really don’t want this to be true about one of my favorite places in Nicaragua, which I have forever immortalized as a beautiful painting on my kitchen wall! Also, I can’t believe I missed this–it looks like this was happening in November 2010 (about the same time we had our fun day there). Do you know if there has been any more resolution since then?

    It is a good reminder to me to keep working for justice even when it is inconvenient for me personally.

    Thanks for a good, thoughtful post, as always!
    -Beth

    • theclanks Says:

      Hey Beth,

      Yea I was really bummed too, and I need to do some follow-up to see what ever happened with the situation. It has been almost two years and I have not heard any more news about it and haven’t gotten back with the church either.

      I will let you know what I find out.


  2. […] is a shortened version of Adam’s original blog post. You can read the full post here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in […]

  3. Christa Says:

    Definitely with Beth on that one!


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