Professional surfer Kyle Thiermann thinks surfing is about more than just chasing great waves and drinking unfamiliar beers in exotic locations.
The 23-year-old California native says surfers, as pioneering tourists, have the power and obligation to affect positive change in the communities they visit—especially in vulnerable and underdeveloped countries.
That’s why Thiermann started “Surfing for Change,” a series of short YouTube videos that he shoots on surf trips to highlight current issues effecting surf communities and discuss ways young surfers can get involved to help. The surfing series, which is produced in cooperation with Thiermann’s professional surfing sponsors, is an attempt to show that activism and surfing go together like board and wax.
“Surfing as a sport is growing at a rapid rate and there is great potential to organize surfers to work for systemic change through their daily decisions,” Thiermann told The Nicaragua Dispatch after releasing his sixth movie in the Surfing for Change series, focusing on rural development in Nicaragua. “Activism has a very serious connotation; the image of the angry hippie doing stuff that is not fun. So we are showing that activism is fun.”
By making serious issues of environmentalism and social justice seem engaging for young people, the activist movement will become more sustainable, Thiermann says.
Thiermann’s latest video on Nicaragua, which has already been viewed more than 10,000 times on YouTube and will soon be shown on Satellite TV to millions of viewers, focuses on the relationship between surfers and development on Nicaragua’s south-central Pacific coast.
The 13-minute video looks at how—in the words of Thiermann—“tourism can be a double-edge sword” in poor communities. On one hand, he says, surf tourism can “bring huge amounts of development,” but on the other hand, “You see the natural beauty get trashed and the integrity of culture get compromised.”
Thiermann points to Costa Rica’s Playa Jacó as an example of how sideways things can get when developers get their grips on rural communities.
Nicaragua, however, is still in a position to do things differently. And some surfers are already working to prevent the Jacóification of Nicaragua’s popular surf spots. In Thiermann’s video on Nicaragua, he highlights efforts by a group of young expat surfers in Playa Gigante who are working on a community-driven development model that uses surfing as a “vehicle to raise awareness and funding” for community projects.
The community development initiative, called “Project WOO” (for Wave of Optimism), is an outreach program that works with the villagers to assess their own needs. Project WOO bought a bus to get kids to school in Tola, 20 kilometers away, and works with people on communal gardening projects, arts and crafts for children, and other cultural exchanges with surf tourists.
The idea, surf activist Courtney Hall tells Thiermann on the video, is to help Playa Gigante turn into an economically viable community with “local buy-in that can serve as a global model for a surf town.”
Thiermann thinks giving the local community an early say in their development is important, considering how fast change happens once the waves are discovered. Playa Gigante, he says, is already “transitioning from a fishing economy to a tourist economy right before your eyes.”
Thiermann then goes to visit San Juan del Sur, a community he says “that Gigante could turn into.” The video shows a less-than-flattering image of San Juan del Sur, focusing on the drugs and garbage.
On whole, Thiermann’s Nicaragua video is more optimistic than foreboding. It also does a good job highlighting positive development without waxing sanctimoniously. The point of Surfing for Change, Thiermann says, is to get the conversation started.
“We definitely don’t have all the answers, but this is a good tool to get people talking,” says Thiermann, who shot the Nicaragua video with his father, a documentarian. “We have to think about the future. How do the local communities want their town to be in 15-20 years?”
Nicaragua enters ‘puberty’
Nicaragua, Thiermann says, is “absolutely starting to get a name for itself” in the world of surfing.
“I would say that most people who I talk to now who are going on their summer trips, like Nicaragua is mentioned as one of the options,” Thiermann says. “I think it’s in that really critical time when people still view it as like somewhat unexplored and not super crowded, but it’s not, like, you are saying you are going to somewhere in like West Africa that like no one has ever heard of.”
Nicaragua, he says, is in “that really attractive time period” that most surfers love—“it’s sort of comfortable, but not fully overdeveloped and blown out.”
“Nicaragua is going through puberty right now,” Thiermann says. The country’s tourism industry is growing up fast, he says, and now it’s just a matter of “What kind of adult is it going to turn into?”
Surfers, he says, have a big role to play in Nicaragua’s coming of age by helping the country to grow into a healthy and responsible adult that takes care of itself and its surroundings.
View Thiermann’s Nicaragua video here.