In the heart of Villa El Carmen, Nicaragua, Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro serves as a safe haven for the different types of wildlife in Central America. The region boasts beautiful beaches, a huge surfing industry, and a myriad of tropical birds and sea animals. Yet few people have heard of Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro. VSB students are trying to change that.
Over fall break, a group of five VSB undergraduates, two MBA students and two faculty members participated in a break trip to Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro to inaugurate a program that would combine service with experiential learning. Dr. Klingler, Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship and the Director of the ICE Center, organized the trip through his Global Social Entrepreneurship class and Business Without Borders. Inspired by the service projects that engineering and nursing students perform in Nicaragua, such as Water for Waslala and the Telehealth project, the new VSB trip seeks to maintain a long commitment to economic and environmental sustainability in the troubled region.
“We can apply our business background to help these people improve their lives,” said Dr. Klingler.
Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro opened a few years ago in Villa El Carmen as a wildlife reserve and destination for ecotourism. Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro contains the reserve itself and a sea turtle sanctuary, and the site is highly involved in community outreach and sustainability efforts. The site is also near a lodge, where guests can stay and experience the nature of Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro firsthand.
“The lodge was our base,” said Dr. Klingler. “It’s very close to Villa El Carmen, which has lots of little tiny villages.”
Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro has received immense political support from the local government, especially in regard to its sea turtle sanctuary. The turtle beach rescues three species of turtles, including the endangered leatherback turtles, which crawl onto the beach at various times throughout the year. The turtles are of national importance because local Nicaraguans poach and sell the eggs and rapidly decrease the turtle population.
“There is tension between those who want to save turtles and those who depend on turtles for their livelihood,” said Dr. Klingler.
As the students learned, you do not have to be far out of the capital city to see the poverty that infects the entire nation. The vast majority of people in Nicaragua are very poor, and many are living in remote villages without electricity or clean water. In particular, the lack of infrastructure of Nicaragua is detrimental to further growth and development.
Eric Treffeisen, an accounting major who became involved in the break trip through Dr. Klingler’s Global Social Entrepreneurship class, said, “Even though we are working with only one county, the lack of high-grade infrastructure makes it seem as if the towns are far away from each other. Our travels involved having an SUV stuck in a river.”
“From our perspective as a business development team, infrastructure is a huge hurdle,” agreed Dr. Klingler. “At one point, we had to ford a stream. The site is so far from any paved road.”
After navigating the region, the students and faculty visited a co-op to gain a better understanding of local businesses. The students and faculty witnessed firsthand the simple process of a local Nicaraguan chocolate-making business, with its small room and hot coals, and quickly realized the limitations faced by the business owners. In particular, the students realized that local businesses really need better marketing and distribution techniques, as well as a fixed schedule, tracking system and differentiation of products.
“Some of the best opportunities for business students to work would be with helping to put together an implementation plan, timelines, and seed money for local businesses,” said Dr. Klingler. “We could do some things that would help them understand business practices. If you can’t keep track of anything, how do you know if anything’s changed?”
Throughout the week, the students visited different areas that the Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro was hoping to develop, as well as other ecotourism sites that were more fully developed. Another region outside of Villa El Carmen had 10-15 years of experience in developing its own reserve, and the site included a government home and artists’ village in addition to the wildlife and nature. This site proved that Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro could also become a beautiful destination for the ecotourism industry.
“We saw how someone had cobbled together a destination,” said Dr. Klingler. “When we got to Villa El Carmen, it seemed so remote.”
Fortunately, the Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro site is in the third round of a proposal for an EU grant to provide extra funding for the sea turtle sanctuary and wildlife reserve. In recent years, the EU has invested a lot with Central America, and the grant would lead to significant economic development in the whole region.
“If they perform well with the EU grant, others will come,” said Dr. Klingler.
“The grant would help a university engage as it’s supposed to because the site won’t be looking to the university just for money,” said Caroline Turpin, an MIS major who became involved in the trip through Business without Borders.
“The natural assets make it possible that the place really could be a tourism site. They have beautiful birds and wildlife, but they have a long way to go,” said Dr. Klingler.
Although the trip was only offered to VSB students over fall break, in the future, the trip will be open to students who have the skills that are needed for the site. These skills may include business knowledge, infrastructure development, or fluency in language.
Specifically, Dr. Klingler suggested that students in the College of Arts and Sciences may become involved to help Nicaraguans to develop their English skills.
“For the Nicaraguans, very few people speak English, which is important for attracting tourists,” Dr. Klingler said.
“I was the de facto translator,” Eric Treffeisen laughed. “I speak Spanish, but I don’t have that much experience translating, so it was a little difficult.”
When asked how this service break trip experience differed from others, Caroline Turpin said, “This was a lot more of a learning experience. A lot of the other trips go through Campus Ministry and have a set agenda. This is a lot more student-oriented. You also don’t get to use business background in other trips.”
Unlike many service break trips, which have a specific goal to achieve by the end of the week, the Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro trip is about building and continuing a relationship that will have long-term effects both for Villanova students and Nicaraguans.
“A mental obstacle to this trip is that the end reason isn’t as clear,” said Eric Treffeisen.
“We are developing a long-term relationship with people and institution there so we can help them develop their area,” said Dr. Klingler. “We hope to get the project infused in other classes so the faculty can provide some needed continuity. We can do this for as long as there are courses and VSB students to connect and pick up the torch to keep it going.”
Although this was the first year VSB engaged in the trip, Dr. Klingler plans to have trips to Nicaragua during fall break, spring break, and possibly over Christmas break. As the program expands, there may also be opportunities for longer internships or co-ops in the region, modeled after other programs in the Philippines, in which VSB students give entrepreneurial workshops to local businesses.
“You take skills you’re learning and apply them in a live lab,” said Dr. Klingler. “Students are doing what they are being professionally trained to do.”
Eric Treffeisen, a graduating senior, said, “It’s up to people who come after us to keep the relationship going and see that the economic development continues. It doesn’t happen in one year or two years. It will take a very long time.”
“We are not going to be the catalyst that makes it happen,” said Dr. Klingler. “We can simply help, and get students a transformative experience. And that’s really what this university is about.”
If you are interested in learning more about Reserva Silvestre Quelantaro, please contact Dr. James Klingler at firstname.lastname@example.org, Eric Treffeisen at email@example.com, or Caroline Turpin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Janine Perri ’15