Huddled under a young palm, a group of Latin American surfers talks quietly. The surfers are engrossed in discussion, oblivious to the flag-waving going on down the beach at the ISA contest. Security guards in blue uniforms with AK-47s casually slung on their backs keep a watchful eye. It's a meeting between the founding fathers of Granito de Arena, an ultra-grassroots environmental organization fronted by surfers from Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and other Central and South American countries.
At a house not more than 20 yards off the sand at Playa Colorado, Nicaragua, they're trying to solve two problems: First, what to do about all the plastic refuse that's washing up on their shores, and second, how to get their respective countries' youth more involved in both surfing and marine ecology. That's their stated goal and purpose for banding together. They admit that they're just getting their feet under them, but their intentions are clear.
"It's going to take some time, and we're just figuring out how it all is going to work, but we're dedicated and focused," says Otto Flores afterward. Formerly one of Puerto Rico's most able pros, today Flores has a Patagonia logo emblazoned on his board, which more or less serves as a license to act. "As surfers we're on the front lines of this plastic pollution, and as the sport's growing in popularity in Central and South America we need to be conscious about it.
"You have to meet Andres Fernandez," he says, indicating that he's the mastermind behind the operation.
It's not the first time Fernandez's name has come up. Months prior, XGames.com Surfing contributor Jon Steele returned from a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, where they'd met. "You go to the Galapagos and there's plastic bottles on beaches; it's not right. It's supposed to be one of the most pristine marine ecosystems in the world," said Steele. "And Andres and these guys have started a group called Granito de Arena to try and do something about it."
On the other side of the spacious Nicaraguan yard sits ISA president Fernando Aguerre. He's clad all in white, with Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and a palm-frond hat perched on his head. Reporters and dignitaries buzz about. Aguerre strikes a funny amalgamation of Tony Montana and Duke Kahanamoku when compared to the tribe of rootsy eco-warriors wearing nothing but boardshorts and a layer of salt, sunscreen and sand.
But, dripping with Argentinean pride, Aguerre is proud of what Central and South America have become in surfing. "There are literally thousands of miles of coastline; the people understand how valuable a resource the ocean is, and surfing's playing a part in that," explains Aguerre, who owned Argentina's first surf shop before he and his brother started the sandal company Reef in the U.S. in the '80s.
"The governments are getting more involved and supporting surfing. It has obvious tourism benefits, but they've also realized it's a great alternative to kids carrying machine guns and dealing drugs and talking about rebellion. And so they're supporting it. It's a healthy, inexpensive pastime. And these countries' economies are improving, which means the surf industry is starting to take hold and it's becoming a very big market," continues Aguerre. "But what are we doing for the resource? What are we doing to protect the ocean and ensure that it will be healthy for years to come?"
He pauses, taking a rare breath of air, then nods toward the Granito de Arena guys under the palm tree. "That's where what they're doing comes in. They're going to play a very important role in all of this."
The Granito de Arena surfers include Fernandez, originally from Ecuador, Flores from Puerto Rico, Martín Passeri from Argentina, Magnum Martínez from Venezuela and Gary Saavedra from Panama, who holds the Guinness world record for the longest ride on a surfboard at 41.3 miles. Thus far they've been running workshops in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela. A basic workshop consists of brainstorming about what to do about the problem of plastic bottles and learning creative ways to reuse the bottles (planters and stools are but a couple of ideas they've devised), and then there's a healthy amount of time dedicated to surfing.
"The kids have to care about what they're doing," says Flores. "If we can get them surfing and stoked, then that goes a long way. Once something affects you directly, you're much more likely to take action."
The Granito boys haven't been at it for more than a year, but already they're garnering attention and gaining the support of some very influential people.
"I learned about the Granito de Arena project during a trip to Panama a couple of months ago," says 2011 ASP women's world champion Carissa Moore, who visited the area in October 2012. "I immediately fell in love with the concept and offered to help, and here I am."
Moore got her hands dirty, at one point collecting more than 1,000 plastic bottles in less than one hour in the fishing village of San Carlos in the Panama Bay area. Sadly, she noted, "That's the same amount of bottles we throw away in the United States every second. But I'm confident that by teaching these kids how to surf they will have a new appreciation and understanding of the sea and will help take care of it."
I missed Fernandez that day in Nicaragua. It took awhile, but we finally crossed paths, albeit digitally. "Anything from us, you let me know," he noted when we were emailing about this story.
As time has gone by and Fernandez's project has come into more clarion focus, it's easy to see it taking off. With a garbage patch the size of Texas floating out there in the Pacific, plastic bottles and the ocean's health are only going to become bigger issues that everybody is going to have to help solve. Translated, "Granito de Arena" means "grain of sand," and, as the name would imply, Fernandez, Flores and their friends are making a difference one kid at a time.