Luca Marsaglia talks about the ocean like it’s an old friend.
A former youth sailing champion, he knows the sea better than most: its moods, its dangers and its rewards.
“The ocean has given me so much in my life,” he says. “It took me away from a lot of things that may not have been so good and always set me in the right direction.”
Five years ago, Marsaglia made the difficult decision to leave his Olympic sailing dreams behind and enroll in university. On May 31, he will graduate from the natural resources conservation program in UBC’s faculty of forestry.
“I’ve been on the water since I was three years old,” he explains. “Whether I’m sailing, fishing underwater or surfing, I’ve seen up close how the fauna, chemistry of the water and pollution levels have changed. I wanted to give back.”
While on a forestry co-op semester in a coastal fishing village in Nicaragua — where the health of the ocean is vital to the ecosystems and local communities that depend on it — Marsaglia found the opportunity he had been waiting for.
In 2017, he and two friends founded a sustainable development movement called Casa Congo, aimed at bridging the gap between economic development and environmental conservation in disadvantaged communities.
It was his chance to save his old friend.
The Young Man and the Sea
Marsaglia grew up in Rome, where he was introduced to sailing at the age of five by his father.
He is modest about his accomplishments and it takes some coaxing to reveal the medal count: he and his sailing partner were part of the Italian national team for three years and won bronze at the youth world championships in 2008 and were crowned European champions in 2011.
After a life spent on boats of varying shapes and sizes, it’s no small irony that Marsaglia would feel so drawn to El Astillero, Nicaragua, a town whose name translates to “the shipyard” in Spanish, and Chacocente, its neighbouring wildlife refuge.
“Chacocente is a very pristine and unique place from an ecological viewpoint,” says Marsaglia, who first visited the place during a second-year forestry co-op. “It’s home to one of the last remaining fragments of tropical dry forest in the world and one of only nine beaches where mass nestings of olive ridley sea turtles occur.”
He felt an immediate affinity with the wild beauty of Chacocente and the warmth of the people who inhabited Astillero.
“When I got there at the end of the summer, Luca was speaking Spanish and had become friends with everyone in the village,” recalls Sol Lewites, a Nicaraguan civil engineering student in the faculty of applied science and co-founder of Casa Congo.
It was Lewites who had invited Marsaglia to Nicaragua after becoming friends on their second day at UBC.
The pair also saw the human pressures on the area: the poaching and killing of sea turtles, illegal harvesting of timber and iguana eggs, cattle overgrazing and pollution.
“We started talking about how we could implement a project that takes care of the environment and benefits the local people,” Lewites says. “And that’s how Casa Congo was born.”
It was the start of a sea change.
Rather than a top-down program of international development, Marsaglia and Lewites envisioned Casa Congo as a knowledge and skills-sharing platform.
It’s built around four pillars: ecology, ocean advocacy, built environments and placemaking, with each department supporting conservation, community-building and sustainability initiatives that generate revenue for the local economy.
The programs range from environmental and outdoor education programs for local students, technical workshops in sustainable bamboo construction, community art projects, beach cleanups and free surf lessons for local children to foster a lifelong love of the ocean and sense of stewardship of the natural environment.
Marsaglia directs the ecology and ocean advocacy programs, helping to run a sea turtle nursery and facilitating international research within the wildlife refuge by providing ministry and landowner contacts and local research assistants.
“In our first year we didn’t have a site so we were living in town in a bit of a shack,” Marsaglia admits with a smile.
Local community members trained through Casa Congo are building a school of conservation to house its programs. The pavilion, made of locally- sourced bamboo, also has dormitories for volunteers and tourists, with revenue generated reinvested into the various programs.
Casa Congo is also very much a UBC community project. Lucas Worsdell, a geography alum, runs the agroecology program; faculty of arts and UBC Surf Club alum Adam Tory heads up the surfing and wellbeing program; while Francesca Ward from forestry leads community engagement.
“Casa Congo wouldn’t have been possible without this huge place for knowledge sharing… and just dreaming,” Marsaglia says. “The best part about UBC has been the people I’ve met.”
“Casa Congo totally changed my life and I see it going in different directions,” he adds. “I’d like to start a project like Casa Congo in an urban environment like Rome, with the objective of creating systems that can be examples for sustainable development anywhere in the world.”
Wherever Marsaglia ends up, it won’t be far from the sea.
Luca Marsaglia is in Nicaragua and is available for interviews via Skype from Friday, May 25 onwards. His graduation date is May 31, 2018.
For more information: graduation.ubc.ca/welcome
Sol Lewites is in Vancouver and is available for interviews from Friday, May 25 onwards.