Litter is giving Nicaragua a trashy image

A colleague and I were walking out of a meeting yesterday morning and talking about the problems that garbage and litter cause for Granada’s tourism image. As we walked through Central Park, we noticed how exceptionally dumpy it looked, with trash thrown everywhere, converting each tree planter into a mini landfill of plastic bags, Styrofoam cups and other rubbish.

Disgusted with the filthy scene before us, we hastened across the park to the Mayor’s Office to find out who we could talk to address the disgusting atmosphere right under their noses. With the help of a cleaning woman, who conspiratorially unlocked the office door of the secretary of the mayor and let us in, we got a face-to-face audience with a high-ranking municipal employee. Unfortunately, it was no help.

We told the city’s secretary that we were there because we are concerned about all the garbage strewn about town. We told her it’s not only an atheistic eyesore, but it’s also a public-health issue. She told us that she was aware of the problem and that other people were also complaining about it. But then she passed the buck and said we should go to the other mayor’s office building behind the old hospital and complain there.

Like everyone else, we had a million things to do yesterday during our lunch break, not including going to the other mayor’s office to complain about a problem that officials apparently already know about but aren’t doing anything to resolve. We decided it would be a waste of time to go talk to another “public servant.”

Enjoying the sights (and smells) of Granada’s Central Park (photo/ Xiomara Díaz)

But as we left the Mayor’s Office and started to tread through the garbage in the Central Park again, it became too much to bear. We stopped and began to take photos of the scene. We talked to a nearby vendor to inquire how long the garbage problem had been piling up. He said it had been several days and that the problem was always the same. The mayor’s office just doesn’t seem to care or can’t seem to fix the problem, he said. We agreed with his political analysis, but said that we, as citizens of Granada, have the obligation to not litter and now allow others to throw their garbage on the street. After all, it is to our own benefit to not live in such squalor.

I told the vendor, “When you see someone throwing garbage on the ground in front of you, you have to tell them that is wrong. Be a part of the solution!” He told me that if he tells anyone not to litter, they could beat him up. Plus, he said, he doesn’t care if people litter in Granada because he’s from out of town.

To see how indifferent people are about the garbage issue is irritating and sad. At that moment, I was reminded once again that the problems of our country are related to lack of education. It is pointless to put garbage cans on the street if we don’t first educate people about putting their garbage into the garbage cans. Yes, the situation here is that serious and that basic!

Surveying the sad landscape of garbage and indifference in the park, my friend and I felt trapped; we felt we couldn’t walk away without doing something about the problem that no one else seemed concerned about. So we called a friend of ours who has a hotel nearby and told him about the situation. In five minutes, he sent five workers from his hotel to the park with shovels and brooms and garbage bags. Together, we all got to the neglected task of cleaning up the mounds of mess.

Most people who work in the park peddling one thing or another—those very people who spend their days shuffling around in garbage—looked at us with expressions of mild surprise. One of them approached us and asked, “Why are you picking up garbage if that’s the municipality’s job?” Others added the mess, by throwing garbage on the ground as we cleaned around their feet.

But others, upon hearing us insist that cleanliness is the responsibility of all, generously pitched in to help. So we know that of the dozens of people in the park yesterday, a few of them started to realize the importance of not littering, and that is probably the biggest accomplishment of the afternoon.

Though trash is a recurring problem in Nicaragua, this particular trash heap was caused by striking garbage workers who haven’t been paid by the Mayor’s Office. This is an issue that has also been recurring in Granada for the past decade. These are city workers who depend on their salaries to feed their families, and many of them have not been paid by the city in more than six weeks, which is disgraceful.

The trash problem may be the most visible in the Central Park, but garbage is everywhere throughout all the streets and arroyos of the historic city—and just in time for high season! Just imagine how pretty our city must look to those who have traveled here from faraway countries to see our colonial jewel but can’t manage to take any pictures without trash heaps appearing in background, or tripping over garbage as they try to walk around the city.

How can we continue to market and promote Nicaragua as a sustainable tourism destination when we can’t even get our main tourism destinations to function on a basic level? We can’t claim to be a “developing country” if we can’t maintain minimum hygiene standards. The garbage problem is shameful and pathetic, and all corresponding government offices—the mayor’s office, the health ministry and the tourism board—should all be held responsible for the ineffective response to the problem.

We need to rethink our growth as a country and change tack to ensure that our development is truly sustainable.

Xiomara Díaz is a co-owner of Garden Café and a member of CANATUR Granada

  • nicacook

    very good article and I think the comments about education are spot on. I remember, decades ago, as a teenager in school in Canada, being taught about littering and what a profound change it had on me…we also spent a day with garbage bags, wearing rubber gloves and picking us garbage. We then took the bags to city hall and left them in front of the entrance. Worked on we the students and the people inside city hall.
    The municipal workers should be paid.

  • Sybil Tschopp

    I could not agree more, I find the general garbage situation and the ignorance and carelessness of the people quite unbearable. And I think the solution is to educate the children not to litter in the first place. They in turn will educate their parents.

  • Darrell Bushnell

    This is one of those topics that we discuss much but the long-term solution escapes us. It wasn’t that long ago we had a similar problem in the states and for all of the discussion about education the real solution was large fines which would be difficult here.

    The schools here do teach the hazards about littering and dumping things in the apoyos and lake. We will always remember when our neighbor children were making large posters for their class about littering and when they were finished they threw the poster scraps in the street.

    We have many projects where NGOs and local businesses organize teams of kids to clean up the lake area, their neighborhoods and the apoyos. Then later, the same kids throw litter out the bus windows or just drop their plastic bottle upon finishing their drink. The message just doesn’t sink in that if people would stop littering then they would not need to clean up later or have someone else clean up later. The Rotary Club did an excellent job of installing many trash receptacles but the garbage people do not empty them so someone must bag the trash periodically which does not happen. Trash pickup is C$25 a month so the cost is not great even for a poor family.

    Note that you do not see the trash problem as much in other cities and towns. Look at Catarina where they keep the streets relatively clean compared to Granada.

    Several businesses have proposed that we have a business or organization adopt a street or block and have their employees periodically clean the area. We could even have signs that state they will be responsible for that area. This would work at least for the better neighborhoods and tourist areas. Perhaps that would start employees berating their neighbors and associates for littering since it creates more work for them. Unfortunately this solution teaches people that others will clean up for them.

    So yes, we need to continue teaching this in the schools but perhaps each school also needs to clean up their areas to see the consequences of littering. Granada also needs to go after the major players, the businesses and horse carts that dump in the arroyos. Also, the police should at least admonish people when they see them littering.

    So…. the children are being educated about this important civic duty but it has not improved the situation.

  • Abu Sharif

    The Salinas school in Nueva Guinea, RAAS, a dirty place, was cleaned by the kids for 2 days just to win the prize “Cleanest School in Town”. After that: back to normal. Nagarote wins each year the MARENA contest of cleanest municipality of Nicaragua. They clean their streets in the very early morning. Don’t look in the afternoon or night!

  • Abu Sharif

    Many Nicaraguans told that when crossing the border to the US they stop littering immediately, but back home they start over.

    But: when in Germany fees went up for getting your litter removed by the municipality, thousands deposited their household litter in plastic bags at the bus stations, in parks and everywhere; I followed a car in the morning and suddenly they threw their plastic bags out of the window, fat bags loaded with – loaded – pampers …

  • Sarah Kaye

    Xiomara, thanks for the reminder. Many of you may recall the very successful “crying indian” ad that ran in the US, which I clearly recall as the most unsettling and memorable message on the topic from my youth. I have often wondered if Nicaragua couldn’t produce a similar ad with thier own heritage front and center, to run on the television stations here. Perhaps someone out there has the connections in media and production to organize such a project. As much as everyone is watching television all the time, it would be a great way to reach the populace, young and old.

  • nicafred

    I have been ranting about this national disgrace for years. It is only when folks connect clean surroundings with their health and economic betterment is the problem addressed. La Concha, San Juan del Sur, Catarina and Antiqua Guatemala come to mind-
    A smart chicken doesn’t crap in her own nest.

  • Peter

    This is actually a global issue, Awareness is the beginning of change, and beeing environmentally conscious is a growing trend.
    But this is only part of the solution, the real and final solution is when garbage becomes a rescource, only when we sort waste into its various categories, plastic, paper, glass, metal and organic will we have the means of tackling this problem.
    Collecting consolidated garbage and placing it in landfills is just a cosmetic solution, and a costly one too.
    Experience here in Norway has shown that sorting and efficient recycling can actually be quite profitable, provide employment and an all-over win-win situation. It takes a while to get it going, but it’s worth the effort

  • mnelson

    El Rosario in Carazo has attracted world-wide attention with its recycling program … and the little city south of Jinotepe (one of the dirtiest) is remarkably clean. Granada needs to send someone over to El Rosario to discover how they have accomplished this.

    • flaco delgado

      I lived in El Rosario for 2 years. They actually IMPORT trash from neighboring pueblos because they don’t generate enough stuff to meet their capacity to recycle!

  • I heart dispatch

    Xiomara, you rock!

  • Aaron

    I couldn’t agree more! The garbage is disgusting and an eyesore! Education, fines for littering and an economic incentive for recycling….

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  • jack daniels

    Educate the children and adults. Pass a law making littering illegal and enforce it. If you cannot afford the fine, pay it off with comunity service cleaning up the garbage.

  • Smithlinn

    Hurrah! We recently moved to Catarina from the NYC area. I served as Mayor and advisor to the Solid Waste Commission in my town and county. This subject is dear to my heart. I agree with the person who said recognition is the first step to solution. I am thrilled to see so much reaction to this article and this subject. This is such a complex subject it is difficult to know where to begin. I have always believed in the “carrot” not the “stick” approach. If the “carrot” doesn’t work, then go to the “stick”. There were many good ideas in this article, including education, award incentives and best and most expensive of all (initially) is turning waste into energy. I am ready to put my energy where my mouth is. I would suggest some kind of concerned citizens commission to study, advise and begin an organized solution be formed… or is this just a stupid Gringo idea?

  • Jim Lynch

    Something confusing was mentioned above. If a monthly fee of 25 cords is collected from property owners, supposedly to pay the trash collectors, why have they not been paid in six weeks? Have people stopped paying the fee? Is it not enough? Did it disappear?

    However, the overall problem truly exists because of the lack of understanding by generations of citizens who have lived with rubbish all around them for what must seem like forever. It’s as accepted here as the animal dung in the streets or the harmless bomb blasts that seem to be a daily occurance.

    This appears to be much more than a ‘Granada’ problem, rather a ‘Nicaragua’ problem, even perhaps, as stated above, a world-wide problem. And with any ‘problem’, an opportunity exists. Companies such as the mammoth U.S. enterprise “WASTE MANAGEMENT” are in business for this very purpose. They solve the problem and employ hundreds in the process. If this concept cannot be developed locally, perhaps it can be contracted to an outside source that can deliver on a national level.

    Xiomi’s reference to the effects that rubbish will have on tourism is very valid. No one wants to visit a vacation destination covered in litter. And that is precisely what the visitor to Granada will see today.

  • Gordana

    Jim Lynch brings up the point I was going to ask which is where is the 25 cords per property owner going to? Why hasn’t the city been able to pay the workers? Where does the garbage go, by the way? Is there a landfill?

    Peter mentions the ideal solution which is make garbage recycling become a resource.

    Where do we start? MNelson mentions El Rosario and have someone go see their methods.

    Smithlinn, I’ll help anyway I can. I’ll be arriving in Granada in 3 weeks time.

    Good article Xiomara.

  • Karen in Los Angeles, Ometepe

    As bad or worse than the garbage lying on the streets uncollected, is the practice of burning garbage in yards & on the street. Burning plastic is a source of many carcinogens, and also unpleasant in the extreme. At least there is garbage pick-up (usually) in Grenada… elsewhere it is swept up and burnt day after day. The solution has got to be to make plastic & plastics recycling a valuable commodity that nobody would consider throwing away or burning.

    Does anyone have a web reference for the program at El Rosario?

  • Victor Nelson

    Living in a gated community… we thought we would be immune from garbage abuse… wroing… We found that new home construction sites became garbage dumps… workers would just toss anything from the usual plastic bags to food containers and bottles … even construction waste like cement bags…. SO…. we have in place a charge levied on the general contractor for each construction project of $1000 which is returned providing there are no costs bornn by the association owners to clean up their mess… Seems to work in our case… Education is definately needed but also some tactics… usually when it hits your pocket book, the learning curve seems to move much faster.

  • Mark Oshinskie

    Demasiada basura! Demasiados fuegos.

  • Raffles

    While Granada faces many challenges the Mayor’s office should recognize that Tourism is the major industry and waste in the streets and parks is totally unacceptable.

    Like many frequent visitors to Nicaragua I brag about Granada (and never fail to mention the Garden Cafe and Lily’s Coffee as they are World Class hospitality sites). The wandering dogs and few panhandlers can be overlooked as ‘local color’ but trash and litter just a total ‘turn off’.

    The vendors in the Central Park, including the horse drawn carriages and Hotels, Eating establishments are the first one’s to benefit from a litter free park. Maybe a Central Park Association for those who benefit most from Tourist dollars coming into that area? It’s not just ‘tourists’ making use of the Central Park since most Grenadians stroll thru there and spend money there too.

    You know if somebody put up a few locked boxes for visitors to drop coins in for the sole purpose of keeping up the Central Park I bet you’d be surprised how much money could be collected. (sort of like parking meters for visitors). I for one wouldn’t mind in the least contributing since my wife and I enjoy strolling and shopping/eating in this area.

  • Jack Daniels

    I sometimes see “recyclers” sifting through the garbage for plastic and metal. It is a cultural issue just like it was in the EEUU up until a couple of generations ago. Those generations didn’t give second thought to throwing trash on the ground or out of car windows. They just didn’t see it as wrong. To capitalize, as kids, we used to pick up soda bottles while walking to the store and redeeming the deposit on them to buy candy, etc. I am going to start telling the vendors and merchants in and around Parc Centro that I will not patronize their businesses unless they help clean up this mess….it is in their best interest to keep the country looking clean for self-pride as well as tourism. I believe they could provide incentives to some of the typical beggars to help clean up. But if the city does not provide pick up of the collected trash, then perhaps the local businesses will allow it in their dumpsters.

  • NicaMarketer

    Does anyone know where the recycle in Nicaragua? I have a couple of years worth of plastic saved up. This is…a huge problem. I hope someone knows where we can recycle…even if I have to travel.

    • Maria

      RENISA, they come to the municipal dump a couple of times a week to collect materials.

  • Megan Burke

    Thank you Xiomara. This article really struck home for me. For close to 6 years living in Granada I have taken every opportunity to comment to people when I see them throw trash on the ground. Once I was walking with a well-educated, fairly young Nicaraguan lawyer when I did this. I was surprised- he was so embarrassed not by the litter throwing but by me saying something to the litter bug that he crossed to the other side of the street to not be seen with me.
    That experience only strengthened my resolve. Until people are embarrassed to litter, the problem will continue.

  • carol rea

    Several years ago I wrote a series of four letters that I intended to send to the editors of the local Nicaraguan papers. In my letters I posed questions to Nicaraguans: why did they not love this beautiful country and why they preferred living in a garbage dump because that was what they were creating? Why did Nicaraguans show respect for their elderly but didn’t for their venerable country that had a long history too? Why did Nicaraguans show they did not love their children and grandchildren by throwing down their garbage to breed diseases? And my final letter tried to put it all into a global perspective and suggested that if the Nicaraguans were content to make a garbage dump out of their country maybe they could make money by inviting other countries to bring their garbage here too. My aim was to try to shame people into seeing the garbage and appeal to their pride of country. I was persuaded not to send in the letters by friends who felt they were too critical. Maybe it’s time for them now.

  • Terry

    We have been working with the CPC in our neighborhood. We had a clean up day, we hired a clown to give health education and she worked with the kids all day, we purchased rice sacks so they can be used again and the city provided a special trash pickup, we worked in 3 neighborhoods. We then had a BBQ for the kids, we served the food on banana leaves. We have another meeting with the CPC to go over lessons learned and we are going to continue, we need press on it next time. If anyone wants to help me with this I would really appreciate it. PURE and Casa San Francisco funded this effort. It is a start.

  • Daddy-yo

    “An atheistic eyesore” Strangely inappropriate wording. Woody Allen-esk.

    Who are the litterbugs? Regular poor folk who haven’t been to DisneyWorld. They were never introduced to Mr.Clean on TV. OK they’re citizens, but they don’t ‘own’ any of downtown. Foreigners do. (Nicas who lived abroad are equally foreign to native Nicas too poor to leave.) Most people here keep what’s theirs pretty clean. Churches are clean and open to all.

    The ‘solution’ is self-evident: adjust the net-worth of all citizens & visitors to be equal. This will require a new constitutional action plan to be instituted by Nicaragua’s supreme authority.

  • car

    the problem is not with the government and lack of trash collection. it is with the uneducated, disrespectful, ignorant masses, who don’t think once, let alone twice, about dumping whatever, wherever, whenever.

  • geoffrey

    I’m presently in Granada and am not only amazed by the trashy Parque Central but am deeply troubled by another, related problem. The lobby of my lodgings are swept by a delightful breeze in the very early hours of the morning. I enjoy parking myself there at 6:00 in the a.m. while I drink a yerba mate. It’s all so pleasant until the lady across the street does a civic “solid” by sweeping into a nice neat pile all the trash in her yard thrown there by passersby. She then proceeds to BURN it including all the plastic containers & bags.The lobby is down wind and immediately fils with a revolting toxic coctail that even makes its way into the guest rooms. I’m sure the lady thinks that she is doing a responsible job of tidying up but gawd how putrid. If the city can’t find its way clear to pay the salaries of those who clean the park then I’d imagine my complaint would not even be a blip on the radar screen. A shame.