Catalina Ruiz

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2002
This description of Catalina Ruiz's work was prepared when Catalina Ruiz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .


Catalina Ruiz creates tourism programs in resource-rich Nicaraguan communities to generate revenue and facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between impoverished people and the outside world.

The New Idea

Catalina has designed a program that engages poor Nicaraguan communities in long-term economic development through socially responsible tourism. While ecotourism has become visible in other ecologically rich countries, like neighboring Costa Rica, Nicaragua currently lacks the outside investment necessary to mobilize resources for community improvement. Catalina's Learning in the Community initiative addresses the need both to expose impoverished people to positive, external influences and to increase the developed world's awareness of the most underserved populations' socioeconomic potential. Over the course of a five-day trip, tour groups stay with local families, visit a nature reserve, meet with local leaders, and attend workshops in which they explore different ways to form more permanent relationships with their host communities. The organization's vision transcends ecotourism, providing local people with the business skills needed to build and market tourism enterprises, while engaging visitors in a unique, but otherwise ignored social and natural environment.

The Problem

Bordered by ocean on its eastern and western sides, Nicaragua is a country with great natural beauty and resources and a tumultuous sociopolitical history. As a result of tremendous internal strife over the past 30 years, Nicaragua's economy has never fully recovered or experienced the booms that other Central American countries have. While the basic basket of goods for a family of six costs $177 per month, government workers earn on average $41 a month, teachers $62, doctors in public hospitals $100, and agricultural workers $45. Sixty to 65 percent of adults are unemployed, with rates going as high as 85 percent on the Atlantic Coast where Catalina's project has its focus. More than half of all Nicaraguans survive on less than one dollar a day.

At present, Nicaragua has more than 80 natural parks, wildlife reserves, and jungles, all currently threatened by timber industry growth. Its neighbor, El Salvador, has lost over 90 percent of its native forests to farming and human use. In the face of these challenges, the local community immediately embraces any project that protects the inhabitants and neighbors of forests. The Nicaraguan Ministry of Tourism concludes that the market for nontraditional tourism is growing, but that few, if any, ecotourism programs currently exist in Nicaragua.

This situation is in no way unique to Nicaragua. Throughout Central America, and in much of South America, local communities, governments, and private interests are struggling to generate sustainable sources of income, despite increasing interest in and patronage of projects that raise environmental consciousness. In general, Latin American ecotourism projects involve private land and an observational rather than participatory approach to the environment. Moreover, ecotourism projects are often led by expatriates and discourage direct contact with the local community.

The Strategy

Unlike most alternative tourism enterprises, Catalina's project focuses on the relationship of the human community to the surrounding environment. She selects potentially viable tourism spots located near animal reserves, natural parks, or forests. Catalina organizes a local management committee of 7 to 10 community leaders to organize an ecotourism program for the entire village. The committee receives all tour payments, which are channeled through Catalina's office in Managua, and decides how to distribute this income to the community members that participate as tour guides and host families. Catalina currently handles most of the tour logistics and administration, including marketing, recruitment, and airport pickups, but she is training the local committees to manage all aspects of the community-focused program.

Every participating community member takes part in program training. The forest engineer on staff or university volunteers conduct courses in sociotourism, ecotourism, and environmental education. Training includes sessions on native trees and plant life, cooking and hospitality, and sustainable use of natural resources. The management committee receives additional administrative training. As the project grows and more communities need training, Catalina has a corps of qualified experts willing to give these courses voluntarily or at a nominal fee. The same experts also provide the on-site workshops to tour groups.

Catalina has secured support from the relevant government agencies. The Ministry of Natural Resources, which administrates the nature reserve currently used for her tours, granted her permission to use its land and enthusiastically endorses her work. In fact, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Tourism refer every single inquiry on ecotourism and socioeconomic research to Catalina. She also regularly participates in INTURISMO meetings and seminars, which serve as a platform to expand the project broadly in Nicaragua and beyond.

Recent federal legal changes also promise to facilitate the project's growth. All five communities that Catalina has selected for sociotouristic expansion are located in Ministry of Tourism Special Development and Tourism Planning Zones. Catalina projects that over the next five years, her group will be able to work within a minimum of 20 zones in the Pacific and Atlantic regions of Nicaragua. In accordance with the new Tourism Incentives Law, Learning in Community will receive benefits that allow Catalina to reduce operating costs and put a greater percentage of profits into community work. This law provides income tax exemptions for people or organizations that invest in previously approved public interest projects that aid in the promotion or development of tourist activities. Part of Catalina's strategy is to solicit inclusion in the Register of Tourism Investment, thereby encouraging such investment in her project. While initial funding comes from foundations, associations, and other organizations, Catalina expects that it will be self-sufficient within the next five years, thanks to profits received from tour group visits. She expects to use profits to cover both the costs of operation and the training and environmental education provided in the communities.

Catalina estimates that the project will receive a minimum of 25 tour groups annually. Through her extensive international contacts, Catalina has already identified an initial target market of church and university groups, many of which have already expressed interest in participating. In her previous job Catalina created a program of brotherhoods between Nicaraguan communities and churches and universities from the United States and Europe. These groups have been sending tours to her original site for several years. The Organization of Mennonite Churches has already asked her for several thousand brochures to advertise her new programs in the United States through its church network, and other affiliated members have offered marketing assistance in their home countries.

Currently, Learning in Community is working in close coordination with other groups like the Antonio Valdivieso Center and the Network for Women against Violence. Several international church organizations have placed missionaries in her first pilot community to assist with the tourism project. Catalina also actively uses the Internet to promote her products more broadly and has developed bilingual marketing brochures. As she taps her original client market and Learning in Community becomes better known, Catalina expects her market base to expand significantly. Several embassies' staffs in Managua have requested tours, and a German organization has invited Learning in Community to participate in a Green Route tourism project being promoted across Europe.

The Person

Catalina comes from a single-parent family. At 15, she lost interest in education, dropped out of school, and married. A year later, she had the first of her three children. She began to work for one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Nicaragua, but was assigned the most basic administrative work because of her lack of education and experience. Despite her new job and full-time family responsibilities, Catalina enthusiastically enrolled in night school at the age of 20. She earned her high-school and college degrees and earned promotions at work. Even after a serious car accident that threatened the loss of her leg and required years of therapy, Catalina continued her work, education, and family duties, even leading groups into the jungles while on crutches.

Catalina continued to work for the same organization for 20 years, participating in a variety of projects and learning about many different topics in development. In the early 1990s, she was named Director of the External Relations Department. Although this position previously entailed very little responsibility, Catalina created a television program that featured a different project each week, established an independent publishing department to produce the annual report in-house, set up an immigration services division, and, most notably, developed a brotherhood program to partner Nicaraguan churches with foreign institutions. Catalina developed a private telecommunications system that allowed the brotherhood churches to maintain contact without depending on state services. Notably, when the state phone lines went down, the national army actually asked to use her system.

Five years ago, Catalina, drawing on her experience and an observed need to improve environmental preservation efforts, launched an ecotourism project within her department. In December 1999, the organization closed her department. Catalina seized the opportunity to focus all her attention on the tourism project and greatly expand its reach–all the while contributing to the social, economic, and environmental good of the country. She distinguished her project from other ecotourism initiatives by spreading its income, rather than privatizing or monopolizing natural resources in the hands of one owner. Shortly after shifting her attention to the tourism endeavor, Catalina developed a mission to improve the social status of local community members by facilitating ties with visitors from the developed world. This innovation not only sets Catalina apart as a leading social entrepreneur, but also trains underserved people to profit from collective enterprise.