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The After-Graduation Series: Eco-Adventures in Guatemala–Part One

Over the course of five days, I traveled from one side of Guatemala to the other. Granted, the country is about the side of Tennessee, but unlike Highway 40, there are no straight and easy ways to get from here to there. On a Monday, I was visiting an organic, sustainable farm in San Martin, Jilotepeque. On Tuesday, I was in the car for four hours driving to the El Salvador border to meet the lovely and gracious mother of my girlfriend’s mother’s co-worker, Josefina (Yes, the connection is confusing for me too). Her family took us on a lancha (boat) outing on Lake Guija, which is surrounded by volcanoes and shared by both Guatemala and El Salvador. We returned to Antigua on Wednesday, only to leave again for Lake Atitlan the next day. On Thursday, I was at Casa del Mundo (House of the World), an eco-oriented hotel chiseled into the mountainside and overlooking the lake.

I’d like to share with you first my experience on that Monday in San Martin, Jilotepeque. As a group of three adventure-seeking individuals, my friends and I set off from Antigua at around 6:30am—very early for me. We picked up a crucial member of our team in the seedy truckers town of Chimaltenango, and then headed on for another hour to reach the main square of San Martin. There, we ate breakfast—an egg, bean, and fresh cheese plate for a mere Q13 (about USD $1.75), picked up another person and headed on to El Mirador, a Guatemalan owned-and-operated organic, sustainable farm.

Don Manuel with his daughter and grandson in front of rainwater fed tilapia pond

We may have lost an oil pan on the way to the farm, but it was a worthwhile journey. After we were greeted by Don (or Senor) Manuel’s son Nazario and a herd of healthy cows, we were welcomed with a mid-morning snack and a bit of history. Don Manuel, the founder of the farm, has had this land since 1972. He was a student in a program that helped to buy farmable land for 67 families of the San Martin community. After a thirty-year hiatus from Guatemala–due to the long and violent civil war–Don Manuel returned with his family in 2003 to live as a model to his community and country.

Following Don Manuel around his farm, I was impressed by how well thought out each part of his farm was. There’s a biodigester that changes their cow’s manure into energy to cook their family’s meals. There are rainwater catchment systems, gorgeous compost piles and rollicking red-wigglers, and a rainwater pond that holds a decent amount of tilapia. Perhaps most impressively (and I understand, not everyone’s cup of tea) was the fact that every family member living on the farm had a function to keep the farm running (ex: The teenage boys had to help feed the cows in order to use the truck to drive to school). The base of this farm is Don Manuel’s family’s commitment to being a part of each and every activity.

Don Manuel and his wife on at El Mirador, an organic, sustainable farm in Guatemala

This farm is also unique because Guatemala is by and large a land of mono-cultured corn, beans, and rice. It’s extremely rare to find a farmer that both owns his land and thinks strategically about the sustainable placement of plants and animals. As I understand it, the family makes most of their money selling the traditional Guatemalan fresh cheese at their local market. The rest of the animals, vegetables, fruits are enough to make the family self-sufficient. I left El Mirador feeling inspired to continue the (very beginning) process of starting a self-sufficient farm myself.

Laura Stephenson is a recent environmental science graduate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, focusing in environmental and community health. She is currently studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala. Laura writes the “After” Life of an Environmental Studies Student series, telling stories of the activities and endeavors of environmental science and studies students after graduation.

Posted on: August 11, 2011, 9:00 am Category: The "After" Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: ,

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