Lee walks confidently but leisurely through the same streets he has traversed for 49 years. He’s lived in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, his entire life and proudly points out each of the neighborhood’s new additions. Streetlights mounted in the trees, humble concrete bridges that go unnoticed if you aren’t looking for them, speed bumps bringing cars to a crawl – he loves to talk about how these inconspicuous improvements are making his community safer.
While they may seem like small changes, each of these projects is part of an effort to fight the effects of drug trafficking in Nicaragua through Project Concern International (PCI)’s POSsibilities (Peace, Opportunity, Security) Project.
With funding from the U.S. Department of State, POSsibilities is working to educate people in vulnerable areas of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast about citizen security issues and to empower communities, making the region a less viable option for drug trafficking.
“When I was a kid, it was safe,” said Lee. “You could walk anywhere at night… We didn’t have anyone to attack you or do anything to harm you. But now, with time, everything built up and the drug problem began.”
Nicaragua’s expansive Caribbean coastline and border with Honduras contribute to the country’s struggle with the drug trade, but concerned citizens are fighting to take back their communities.
A key strategy of the POSsibilities project is the formation of community security committees. These groups identify security issues in their communities, prioritize solutions, and work with local business leaders and other stakeholders to get the resources they need to complete the project. PCI, with the assistance of its local NGO partners, helps committees manage the projects and even provides small grants to bring their ideas to life.
Lee, who is a member of a community security committee, is particularly passionate about the streetlight initiative because he has seen the ways it has already deterred drug use and violence in his neighborhood.
“When you have enough lights they keep away,” he said.
The drug use and associated crime that thrived in the pitch-black area has been replaced with couples walking hand-in-hand after dark and children taking advantage of the extra time to play soccer under the lights’ safe glow.
These types of projects have provided an opportunity to engage local business owners in the safety of their communities. While there’s been a steadily increasing focus on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Nicaragua over the last decade, it has mostly been concentrated in larger companies based in the nation’s capital and wider initiatives in rural areas haven’t yet taken root. Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region, where POSsibilities operates, has almost no CSR efforts, partially as a result of an uninformed, uncoordinated private sector and historic feelings of distrust toward private companies operating in the region. POSsibilities trains owners of small and medium-sized businesses on how CSR can help both their community and their business’ profitability. After being trained, 66 committed business owners worked with PCI to develop CSR plans and have contributed to security projects in 14 communities.
Automotive parts store owner, Apolinar, takes great pride in his role in the streetlight project and is committed to continuing his support of the community.
“We realized how we could help our community,” said Apolinar. “Before we didn’t know how we could do it. I thought that to help it had to be something big but now I know it isn’t so. I learned that with little things, one can help.”
A total of 37 security projects have been implemented to date, with approximately one-third of the funding coming from local public/private sector and community support. Other security projects implemented include drug and violence prevention campaigns; rehabilitating rural roads for improved security access; and assisting schools in creating spaces for at-risk youth to learn.
One of the schools benefitting from the security projects will soon be offering a new grade level for at-risk teens, thanks to a new classroom being built. The new grade, which hasn’t been able to be offered at the school due to space constraints, will reintegrate the at-risk youth into the school system.
Young people play a particularly important role in achieving the program’s goal of a more secure region. More than 400 youth promoters have been trained through POSsibilities workshops on issues such as drugs and violence prevention; sexual and reproductive health; youth leadership; self-esteem and identity; and human rights. These promoters then go out and train their peers on the topics to educate them on living better, safer lives. Nearly 10,000 youth have been reached throughout the life of the project.
“Our priority is the kids and the youth,” said Debby, a staff member with one of PCI’s local partner NGOs. “If you give them the right education, you will have change. And we’ve seen our work.”
Mike, a 20-year-old from Puerto Cabezas, has been an active participant in transforming his community. Mike had a violent streak and was abusive in his relationships, but after attending workshops on topics like leadership, conflict resolution, and human rights, his eyes were opened to a new way of living life.
“It was like when someone has a scarf tied around their head and can’t see,” said Mike. “But when you take off the scarf you begin to see things, and you begin to understand.”
Mike not only became a youth promoter but also was one of 68 students selected to participate in a local university diploma program on youth leadership and citizen security.
“When we talk about civil securities, you think it is something that has to be done through the authorities,” said Dixie, a university employee who is in charge of the academic partnership with PCI. “I think building this type of capacity in the young people is helping us take down the level of crime, the level of different problems that really show in the communities.”
The youth have been heavily involved in the entire process. They have been a part of mapping the risks prevalent in different parts of the community and devising solutions to these issues. Students in the diploma program were tasked with creating proposals to tackle a problem in their communities, and some are actively pursing them.
“I have been getting some calls from some of the students already and they’re talking about things they’re already trying to do in their village,” said Dixie. “They said that they are in direct coordination with the leadership of the community.”
Building leadership is a central theme in POSsibilities’ approach. The project is also working on creating leaders to tackle citizen security issues by forming Women Empowered (WE) groups, enhancing civic education curriculum in primary schools, developing the knowledge of local leaders, and training Nicaraguan journalists to be at the forefront of reporting on security-related topics.
By teaching citizens about the issues they are facing and how they can organize to take them on, POSsibilities is laying the foundation for empowered communities to thwart threats to their safety like drug trafficking.
“We all live in the same area like we are one family,” said Lee. “We should try to do everything in benefit of the neighborhood, not only my family – the whole neighborhood.”
The POSsibilities Project is implemented in partnership with Centro de Derechos Humanos, Ciudadanos y Autonómicos (CEDECHA), Acción Médica Cristiana (AMC), Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicarguense (URACCAN), and Bluefields Indian and Carribbean University (BICU). The project is funded by the U.S. Department of State.
Story by Ashley Williams, Digital Media Officer, PCI; Photos by Summer Williams. Story originally published on Medium.