“One dollar. One tire.”
Dario Rodriguez shakes his head as he points out the repair shop on the side of the road, where used tires are being sold for a profit. In rural Nicaragua, this isn’t an uncommon sight. People here re-use tires for everything: making furniture, stairs, sculptures, you name it.
Dario likes re-using tires, too, but he wants nothing to do with the $1 price tag.
We turn off a bustling main street onto a dirt road framed by dense greenery and drive for another half hour. As Dario’s pickup truck bumps along, it feels more like we’re on a roller coaster than on a road. Eventually we arrive in El Trapiche, a rural community that has partnered with WE Villages since 2012. Dario, a WE Villages senior project manager for the past three years, is well-known in the area and greets local residents as we arrive.
The 34-year-old’s face lights up as we walk into the schoolyard at El Trapiche’s primary school, a sprawling complex of tin roofed buildings painted in bright white and blue—Nicaragua’s national colours. Dario leads the way, heading to a large garden at one side of the schoolyard: the birthplace of his passion project with WE.
“It all started with the idea of using a tire to grow crops,” Dario explains. He points out rows of what at first glance look like unremarkable planters, but upon closer inspection, are actually tires—cut, painted, flipped and filled with soil to hold tomatoes, carrots, squash, potatoes, cucumbers and onions.
The El Trapiche school garden was one of Dario’s first projects at WE back in 2014. The area available to start the garden was on uneven ground, with eroding soil. Not ideal. But with a background in agriculture, Dario was up for the challenge. In his previous role working for the Nicaraguan government, he learned ways to re-purpose materials for practical use. In El Trapiche, Dario spotted the opportunity to solve three challenges at once; making planters out of tires would reduce waste, avoid soil erosion, and grow a bigger diversity of crops to supplement El Trapiche’s school lunch program.
“The government gives food like rice, beans and cereal—but what we do in the garden is a complement to that, to give the kids more nutrition,” says Dario. Today, his project has expanded to San Diego, Los Campos and Aguas Agrias, three other WE Villages partner communities in the area. His innovation is changing the school landscapes and the school lunch programs, providing more than 400 students across Nicaragua with a healthy meal every day.
But of course, before Dario could even think about starting the gardens, he needed to find tires to use—and it wasn’t as easy as one might think.
Dario went hunting for tires at vehicle repair shops, where used tires commonly pile up, often collecting water that attracts mosquitos. These tires aren’t worth much, Dario says, but that doesn’t stop people wanting payment for them. Still, he was determined to incur little to no cost to get the tires—because every dollar saved is one that goes back into WE Villages community projects. “The first time I went to look for tires, I talked to a shop owner, and I said, ‘I’m taking these tires to a community that has really low resources,’” says Dario. “These tires that you have here that are dirty and full of water, the community will use them to grow food.”
Through persistent persuasion, Dario convinced the shop owner to give him those first tires for his cause. He did the same at a few other local shops—now his go-to pick up locations. These days, Dario says the shop owners only have to see his truck arriving before they say: “The tires are yours!”
Dario’s established a 10-kilometre pick up route. He’s also gained some helpers in the form of local residents and school parents, who accompany him every time he heads out—each one bought into how tires are transforming the school communities.
They know the power of the gardens: the promise of a healthy lunch every day means parents are more likely to enroll their kids in school, and in turn, kids are fueled with the energy to keep up with their studies. The students play a big role in keeping the gardens running, and in the process, they gain skills that will someday help them tend gardens and farms of their own.
Aside from the garden in El Trapiche, projects here include the school buildings themselves, a pump to provide clean water, community health programs and a women’s artisan circle.
Today, there are nearly 1,000 tires in El Trapiche alone. Along with the garden, they act as barrier walls to keep out water, and as staircases in the school playground (which, judging from Dario’s excitement as he shows it to me, has to be one of his favourite projects).
“Before, there was no access to the playground,” Dario says, pointing out the sloping hill behind the school that pops with a colourful staircase made from painted tires. “These stairs make it safer for the kids to play.” To illustrate his point, he demonstrates, climbing up the steps. I join him, and together, we take in the view of the school complex surrounding us.
“To me, this is about developing communities and changing perspectives,” Dario reflects. “When people see these tires, now they see something that’s more than just trash.”
Megan Harris is a writer with WE, always inspired by her constant wanderlust (and a sizeable postcard collection). When she's not travelling or writing, she loves volunteering in the community.