From The Ground Up

With the purchase of the land for the Eco-Farm nearly complete, we’ve been really diving deep into planning! A few weeks back, we had a one-day workshop to flesh out our plans for the Eco-Farm. Our friends at CECI (Canada’s Center for International Studies and Cooperation) share Mama Hope’s commitment to community-led development, so they kindly adjusted the curriculum so all the parent stakeholders could participate instead of just the project coordinators.     The parents worked together to create “problem trees”–concept maps that showed how the issues affecting our society are interconnected:  corrupt government, poor schooling, malnutrition,Machismo, low income or lack of formal employment, drug and alcohol abuse. Then, we took a second look at our trees and made a new version: “solution trees”–how aspects of the Eco-Farm project will benefit each of the previously defined problem areas. I liked how this exercise scrapped top-down theory in favor of a bottom-up look at daily life and this project’s real potential for change. Listening to the moms explain the complex situation here reinforced (once again) that they are in the best position to design solutions. I was particularly impressed by Genoveva’s take on how sexism and racism keep indigenous women trapped in poverty. She explained that some men don’t allow their wives to leave their “duties” at the house, much less go out and start a business or contribute otherwise to the family’s livelihood. On top of that, he may spend the little money they have on alcohol, and further abuse her into obedience when drunk. The other moms in our group confirmed that yes, this is more common than one would like to admit. GENOVEVA BELIEVES THAT THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF CAPACITY-BUILDING WORKSHOPS AND THE ECO-FARM PROJECT LIES IN THEIR POTENTIAL TO BRING WOMEN TOGETHER AND RAISE THEIR SELF-ESTEEM. AFTER THAT, SHE SAID, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.   For months now we’ve been talking about organic vegetables and fertilizers and beekeeping and goats milk; the moms are well-versed in the costs and benefits of each aspect. But the Eco-Farm is going to be the first project of its kind in Panajachel–and it can be hard to imagine something so new or foreign. A couple weeks ago I visited Atitlan Organics, a farm, hotel, and education center across Lake Atitlan in a town called Tzununá. It was unlike any place I had ever visited before and I knew that we would have to come back so the moms could see it. Luckily, with your support, we were able to take a trip this past weekend! After speaking so thoroughly about the project in the abstract, Ingrid and I agreed that seeing a well-established project in real life would be invaluable to the moms. Even more than providing an understanding of how to design the most useful chicken coop, for example, it gave us the chance to see proof that with passion, determination, and teamwork, you really can manifest your dreams. Atitlan Organics founder, Shad absolutely blowing my mind with ecology factoids The farm at Atitlan Organics is an impressive permaculture project nestled up in the hills above Tzununá overlooking the lake. Founder Shad left his traditional success behind in the states in search of a different way of life more closely connected to the land. Now, six years later, the farm has just turned a profit and there are exciting plans in the works to transform the entity into a full cooperative model, where Shad and his wife would own a share of the farm equal to that of each of the three Guatemalan families who they work with. The member families already share in the harvest of the farm (they take home eggs, chicken, milk/yoghurt, fruit and greens weekly), but with this arrangement they would also share the farm’s profits and make decisions democratically. Shad explains that this distribution is very in line with the one of the fundamental ideas of permaculture which is everyone having a Fair Share. We’re so excited to be connected with such a wealth of knowledge that also shares our deep respect for the environment. As Nicolas, one of the member-owners and our tour guide, explained, to have a beautiful farm that spills waste downhill to the lake or dries up the local riverbed is to entirely miss the point. While the dominant idea right now is that human beings are bad for the environment,permaculture suggests that there is a way for humans to live harmoniously with nature or even improve upon it:  that we can take care of the land and in exchange, reap the benefits of many “useful” species. Permaculture is a diverse, expansive field and this blog post is not going to do it justice but I’d like to give you somewhat of an idea of what that term means. I already mentioned two basic permaculture principles–living in harmony with the land and everyone getting a fair share of what it produces. From what I can tell, that translates into very deliberate design and decision-making that takes into account long term effects and sustainability. Farms built on these principles end up looking less like farms and more like overgrown gardens or partially-cultivated forests. Permaculturists trust that when cared for, the earth will provide in abundance. Systems integrate parts that support and better each other, much like how natural ecosystems function. Observing and mirroring these natural systems is an antecedent and ongoing process. Like in nature, permaculture systems use resources efficiently (often reusing them) and have little to no waste at all. They are diverse and integrated — which is why they look more overgrown or jungle-like. This is better for the land and more sustainable in the long term. Nicolas teaches Marina and the group about how this area integrates summer squash, lemon grass, and pigs “WITH PERMACULTURE DESIGN, WE CREATE THE POTENTIAL FOR A POWERFUL BENEFICIAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE EARTH. WE CAN BECOME STEWARDS FOR OUR WORLD WHILST STILL MAINTAINING AN OPENNESS AND HUMILITY TO ACCEPT NATURE AS PERHAPS OUR MOST POWERFUL AND WISEST OF TEACHERS. WHAT A CULTURE WE COULD BUILD IF THESE TWO PERSPECTIVES WERE THE BEDROCK OF OUR CIVILIZATION!” –Maddy Harland’s What is Permaculture   Check out some more of our visit to the farm in the photos below: Nicolas shows us around the chicken house — since they use dry mulch and wood shavings there’s no smell! The chickens clean and fertilize the mulch with their droppings and then it can be sold or used in the garden. Norma picking some fruit-snacks. AMARANTH: a quinoa-like grain with gorgeous fuchsia flowers. Jesse and Kevin always know how to make me laugh We <3’d the fresh goat’s milk… …and yummy herbs   0 0 0 0 0 0 Thanks for reading! Make a contribution to our Eco-Farm today at — For a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED! Maximize your impact by giving before I leave Guatemala on October 5. Thank you!!

Living in A World of Color

Each time I return to Guatemala I fall more in love with the warm people, the intricate culture, the staggering landscapes, and the vivid colors. When each person you pass on the street greets you with “buenas dias!” it’s hard not to feel instantly connected to the vibrant life that engulfs you. I’ve now spent two weeks living in Panajachel in the cozy, beautiful home of Ingrid, Carlos, their daughter Adriana, doña Alma (who tends the magnificent garden), Tina (a Japanese volunteer), a constant flow of visitors, extended family members, and a partially blind/deaf dog. After some torrential rain the first week, we are now passing into summer and I’m told I have some beautiful sunsets over lake Atitlán to look forward to. (From left to right: Luis, Linda and Joselyn making musical instruments, Celebrating Marsela’s birthday at Arbol del Niño- Marsela is the most amazing cook) The holistic education center, El Árbol del Niño, has 14 regular students, and is slowly adding a second class. Spending each day with them and getting to know their distinct personalities has been such a blast! They are now learning yoga and meditation every morning (taught by me), Capoeira, breakdancing, English, art, music, math, gardening, and soon cooking. They are learning about health, being served a nutritious snack and lunch everyday, brushing their teeth, and getting plenty of exercise. (This is usually an after school program, but now that the students are on summer break they come to the center mon-fri from 8:30am-4pm) Not only is the center focusing on these students, but also starting to teach and empower their families and community. Some projects in the works include: A vegetable garden at the center as well as small portable gardens in each family’s home (many of these children are not accustomed to eating fruit and vegetables). Learning how to cook and bake. Soon they will be selling their products to local businesses. This will help them learn about money and savings. Each student will open a bank account. Building a community park and large scale vegetable garden that will one day sustain the foundation so that they will not need to relay purely on donations and funding. This piece of land will help the community by permaculture education, providing organic produce to families, hosting nature walks and bird watching tours in the forest (this project will be funded by the money I am raising). I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be involved in these projects, to work with these children, and to see how much they learn each day! Only 62% of Guatemalan children make it to 6th grade (UNICEF), and although public school is considered “free,“ there are always hidden costs and many families can’t afford even small things such as books and writing utensils. Many children as young as 5 years old must work to put themselves through school, or work to help feed their family. With overcrowded classrooms, absent teachers, and chronic mismanagement, what is needed is not just more education, but a different kind of education. Children must be allowed creative expression, practical work, an appreciation for others, a feeling of responsibility to the world, and a life long love of learning so they don’t burn out and drop out of school. Children should believe that they can be leaders and that they can break the cycle of poverty in their communities. Much love! (Ingrid, Marvin, Giselda, Adeline (a French tourist) and I with the students, photo taken by Michelle, their teacher) Please help support this sustainable garden and park project by visiting my fundraising page and sharing my blog!