A Letter Turned Blog

Below is a letter I wrote to a friend late one night. I realized while writing it that it was more of a general description of what I’m involved in, and decided to blog it.

Dear Rob,

It’s 1230 AM, I just finished writing a grant application that’s due later today (well, I guess today is an odd concept due to time zone differences). Anyway, I’m up on coffee, which I never drink, and have been in a writing ‘zone’. Sadly, the coffee came from the antithesis of what our organization supports (we support small-scale decentralized sustainable agricultural systems, for example). The only internet café open past 10:00PM in this city, is located inside a McDonalds. Perhaps some sort of analogy or metaphor can be made regarding this irony, maybe something like a poorly translated Chinese saying like, ‘from cow dung comes flowers’…ok, maybe that’s a stretch. Anyway, the grant application for the Conservation, Food, and Health Foundation is complete. I hope they think what we’re doing is what they want to support. I’ve never been more convinced that what I’m doing really is the solution to many development challenges. It sounds arrogant, I realize, but of all that I’ve read and seen, I can’t imagine a better way to support sustainable development. I know you have a critical mind, so I fully welcome your thoughts on any potential faults of our model. Often, it seems, that people fully immersed in what they are doing lose the forest through the trees, so they say. Perhaps that is what is happening here…

Today, our little team came back from a site visit about 2 hours from Xela (our base). We were introduced to a remarkable community. An old coffee growing plantation (a finca) was recently ‘taken’ by the local community. The boss, or patron as they say, didn’t pay his workers for 18 months after apparent poor business planning complicated by an international drop in coffee prices. The workers non-violently occupied the land, and in a complicated negotiation with the
financier of the bankrupt patrón and a land preservation group, the community was able to obtain legal right to the lands (and a significant debt to the financier). The wages, it appears, will likely never be paid due to the corrupt nature of the judicial system. The community has decided to take several measures to become self-sufficient. It is diversifying its products (offering organica macadamia, organic coffee, purified water, and is now experimenting with biodiesel). It has recently opened a hotel (in the patrón’s former house) which we stayed in, and gives tours of its operations and surrounding natural splendor (the land is in a mountainous tropical region, with waterfalls on the property, and amazing views of an active volcano). Also in the tour is a history of the forty families that suffered tremendously under the rule of a crooked and greedy boss.

But what were we doing there, aside from soaking up an intriguing history of a people who witnessed a 35-year civil war, occasional famine, and horrific working conditions? We were trying to figure out how our organization could fit in with the self-sufficiency mission of the community. We realized with Javier, the community leader, and Mike, a long-term Australian human rights lawyer/volunteer, that our technologies fit in exceedingly well at the Communidad Nueva Alianza.

First, as we knew ahead of time, the community had a defunct 10-15 kilowatt hydroelectric system (think of 100-150 lightbulbs of 100 watts each). With the help of international volunteers, the community successfully obtained a UN grant for 20,000 USD to repair the system. Quotes from Guatemalan companies exceed this funding. However, we think that our workshop will be able to do the job for significantly less, freeing up funding to modernize dangerous wiring within the community, and also pay for efficiency gains (energy efficient light bulbs, for example). So we’re coming up with a quote now (well, maybe tomorrow night…). What’s really cool is that a leading expert in renewable energy, a professor at a university in Xela, is our new friend, and is already involved and interested in the project and our organization. Pretty rad.

So, they community is also planning on having a 50-head pig operation. They’ve built the structure already, and the interior is almost complete. We’re planning on installing a biodigester there, free of charge because it’ll be the first biodigester our workshop will manufacture. Also in the works are solar hot water heaters for homes and the hotel, and bicycle operated macadamia husk-breakers, and hey, we’ll suggest them buying a bicycle powered blender to make smoothies for the tourists. High efficiency stoves also would have good use in the community, saving trees and lungs and time. In short, the community leaders are totally receptive to these technologies, not only because they’re good for the environment, but because they make economic sense. It’s in their best interest to use technologies that allow them to buy less fuel, spend less time looking for wood, while enhancing the ecological coolness of the place that attracts eco-tourists (one of largest and fastest growing industries in Guatemala).

So that was a pretty cool day. But really what I wanted to write about, as the clock ticks and the coffee wears off, is what I thought about on the bus ride home. The bus, like almost every bus in Guatemala, was an old yellow Blue Bird school bus, imported straight from the States. The only difference is that there are no air quality standards for the smoke belching beasts, and that they’re completely chromed out and painted with flames licking up the sides. Anyway, the drive back filled me with both hope and despair. Much of the mountains in the stretch between Communidad Nueva Alianza and Xela used for agriculture, causing deforestation and erosion. Occasionally, we’d pass a bit of lush rainforest still untouched. I like the rainforest. It’s sad to see bald mountaintops conquered by pasture, coffee, or corn. Yet, people need to eat. A good thing to mull over on a bus ride while mariachi competes with the drone of the diesel engine. Access to family planning could help, as families with 10 children are common. The more people, the more food is needed, the higher up in the mountains people go. Yet, technology and agricultural enhancement can also make for the ability to use less land and resources. However, consumption of these people is incredibly small, (there are few enormous SUV’s in use). Essentially, I realize as I’m typing this, that this is the I=PAT formula I learned about in one of my classes (impact = Population X Consumption X Technology). It’s difficult to imagine a picture of sustainable development. Along the drive, we saw several small-scale hydroelectric and geothermal systems already in use. Perhaps, as I discussed with Pete, these can be expanded with the help of a low cost company (the AIDG workshop). Perhaps, instead of burning wood for cooking, ample electric stoves powered with renewable energy, could reduce the haze over the communities. Perhaps, such electricity could power electric vehicles. Perhaps, the plastic bottles that are burned in the streets could be recycled into windmill blades with our plastic injection molding. Perhaps the diesel busses could run on biodiesel from locally grown vegetable oil crops. Perhaps animal and human waste currently polluting rivers and causing health hazards could produce methane for powering motors, or generators, or stoves, while creating nutrient rich composts that is an alternative to resource intensive and polluting chemical fertilizers. Hopefully, the organization necessary to install these technologies would support community development and equitable participation of all community members. Perhaps funds saved from the use of such technologies could be used towards expansion of education services, and access to health care, including reproductive health, education, and family planning. Perhaps with these technologies, people would be healthier. Trees would remain standing. And is not this the goal of sustainable development—to find a way of humans to live in healthy, equitable, communities while preserving the environment? These were the visions I had on that bus ride home. Indeed, they’re dreams. But I’m convinced that implementing just one of them could significantly improve the well being of the people and the planet, and by gosh, I’m going to work my tail off to bring these dreams to fruition. And speaking of dreams, the coffee is finally wearing off. And tomorrow, our workshop opens for the first time—it’ll be an interesting day!