Sister Islands

Islanders from the North and the South build friendships
that transcend cultural and economic differences

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 34
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

How can we bridge the gulf between the world views and standards of living in the South and the North? The experience of citizen diplomacy gives some clues: when ordinary people in the US and the USSR met face to face, the illusion that they were enemies quickly fell away.

Crossing the North-South divide and meeting people in their own communities can also change the way we view the world. This has been the experience of members of the Bainbridge Island-Ometepe Sister Islands Association, who have worked, traded, and expanded their understanding about themselves and their world through their ongoing relationship.

David Mitchell, president of the association, shared his experience with us. You can contact the association at PO Box 4484, Rolling Bay, WA 98061.

In June of 1988 I stood in a rustic community center in the town of Altagracia, on the Island of Ometepe. I was listening to my friend Kim Esterberg talking to five, six, and seven-year-old children. We had just promised their parents we would help them build a preschool.

"People come here because this is a beautiful island, but then they go away," Kim told the kids. "We want you to know that we will be coming back, again and again. I’m looking forward to the time when I can visit your children." It is this spirit that has nurtured the sisterhood between Ometepe, in Lake Nicaragua, and my community on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle.

For me, this spirit is at the heart of a relationship that began with my first visit to the island. During that visit, I stayed in a large barn, which had been the main building on a large farm before the revolution in 1979 that overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza. The farm now belongs to a cooperative made up of about 35 families, most of whom had worked this land for absentee owners all their lives. After the revolution, they bought the farm at great financial risk to themselves and began to build a new life for their children.

Our host, Denis Lopez Castillo, told us about having fought in the revolution and about the challenges of administering the farm. We asked lots of questions, and teased Denis that although he was younger than we were, he was teaching us as a father would teach his children.

In that setting, I came to terms with something I hadn’t been aware of about myself: I had thought of these people as beneath notice. Through traveling to this beautiful island and having face-to-face contact with its people, I discovered the heavy dose of Hispanic racism I had collected while growing up. It was a terrible thing to have to see, but a valuable gift gently given.

As that first trip taught me, the Sister Islands program is about building bridges between people. I think the depth of our connections makes our sisterhood program special.

Many communities have sister relationships. Usually, politicians visit each other and trade delegations and business people visit now and again.

But the people from Bainbridge Island who travel to Ometepe – more than 100 since 1986 – represent a broad cross section of our community. And we don’t stay in hotels or inns. We stay with families; we get to know them and make friends, and build a stake for ourselves in the community.

We tend the relationship, and we understand that the projects we do are secondary to the friendships we build. It’s a process of building connections that will last a long time.


One of these connections was made possible by the climatic conditions that make Ometepe a perfect place to grow coffee, and the Seattle area a perfect place to sell it.

In 1991, the year after the United States lifted its embargo on Nicaraguan imports, we sold on Bainbridge Island 2,200 pounds of organically grown coffee from the same farm on Ometepe I had visited in 1988. Within a year that total grew tenfold. Café Oro de Ometepe costs $8 a pound at the island grocery and at other outlets, but people like it and are charmed by the fact that we’re not just asking for money but offering something in exchange. They seem quite willing to pay a small premium.

Besides coffee, the cooperative, one of 26 agricultural co-ops on Ometepe, grows plantain, rice, honey and sugar cane, and raises cattle on its 1,000-acre farm. What the members don’t sell or barter on the island or elsewhere they use for their own subsistence.

For the cooperative’s coffee, we pay 50 percent above the usual price for coffee, or about 40-45 cents a pound extra. (The market price isn’t even enough to pay their expenses.)

With our share of the coffee profits, we’ve been able to pay for a new water system in a little village called San Pedro. We spent $17,500 to buy the materials and pay a consultant to design the project and do the community organization work. The people of the village volunteered an incredible amount of work – digging trenches in volcanic rock and soil, hauling cement and sand up to the dam, laying a mile’s worth of pipe, and building a storage tank.

Now, the village’s 65-odd families are free of the daily hardships associated with hauling buckets of contaminated water up a steep, rocky trail from the lake.

It’s a wonderful example of a tiny-scale project in which people worked together despite ideological differences that had divided the community. It’s paying off for them – both personally and in terms of the whole community.

This kind of development is more effective than the usual foreign aid approach, in which loans and grants often reinforce structures that promote inequality and increase alienation.

Other connections, although less palpable, are no less important or beneficial.

For example, it’s easy to say of our Nicaraguan friends, "They’re extremely poor and we’re well off, and that’s the difference between us." But it isn’t that simple. Materially they lack a lot and suffer for it in many ways. But they tend to live very rich family lives. The sense of community on Ometepe is something many of us want very much for our own families and communities.

The relationship also has given us a way to begin to share our resources with people who far too often have given up their resources – not necessarily willingly and certainly without fair compensation. For those of us who have gone there, Ometepe has been a beautiful and gentle reminder that much of the world lives in great need of the kinds of resources we take for granted.

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