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Transitions: My first few days in and around Antigua, Guatemala

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.

It’s been about a month from my last post on World Water Day. The reason for this is a transition–I’m no longer living in the town of Carrboro, NC, but have moved a few hours away (by plane) to Antigua, Guatemala. I’m here with my partner, Emily-Kate, who has a fellowship through Princeton in Latin America (PiLA) to work with a Guatemalan non-profit called FUNCEDESCRI (commonly referred to as FUNCE, you can read more about her placement in a previous post).

I’m here to learn Spanish because I believe it’s relevant for any career within the environment and health realm in the U.S. It also just so happens that Guatemala is one of the best places in the world to study Spanish. I’m also here to volunteer and learn skills–right now I’m looking into organic farming, traditional midwifery, and general community development work (which in Guatemala usually means installing water systems, building schools, as well as working on other basic community infrastructure).

We arrived in the middle of October, and have since begun to meet other foreigners (extranjeros in Spanish) and Guatemalans (Guatemaltecos) and have been able to learn a bit about the differences between how Guatemalans and Americans view environmental issues. The most obvious difference to me is the fact that Guatemalans are not arguing about the existence of climate change–instead, they’re citing it as an explanation for one of the the worst rainy seasons in 60 years. An article by Reuters AlertNet entitled “Climate change issues gaining momentum in Guatemala” cites the staggering statistics of this year’s rainy season: “These events have claimed 235 lives, uprooted 208,000 Guatemalans from their homes, destroyed nearly 15,000 homes and worsened existing food shortages.”

The article goes on to explain that according to the United Nations, Guatemala is one of the 10 countries judged most vulnerable to climate change. The question that I continue to ask myself is why the poorest people and countries have to deal with the problems that were mostly created (and then ignored) by Western nations ? And also, why can’t we as human beings acknowledge that there’s a problem before it smacks us in the face?

For another, more personal, example of the difference of how Guatemalans view the environment, take the organization Emily-Kate is working with. (For a more detailed account of the work FUNCEDESCRI is a part of, please read this post by blogger Antigone Wanders). The gist of what FUNCE does is to bring together people from around the country–people who are passionate about teaching other Guatemalans topics ranging from how to improve basic health and hygiene to how to install your own composting latrine to then use as an organic fertilizer for your crop. From what Emily-Kate’s learned so far, FUNCE’s information comes from various sources–from experience, to the internet, as well as contact with other Guatemalan NGOs. This might seem obvious, but I think it’s important to say–FUNCE’s employees are generally not people who’ve had the opportunity to receive a traditional Western university education. Instead, they’re using what’s available to them–their own age-old knowledge of sustainable agriculture, the internet, and the help of volunteers like Emily-Kate who’ve had the opportunity to learn these topics in university. To me, this is a prime example of the best of globalization (ex: indigenous peoples learning and then hosting conferences on food sovereignty) combating the worst of globalization (ex: the loss of millenia-old knowledge of how to grow crops without fertilizers).

We stumbled upon another (lighter) example of how Guatemalan’s view the environment (medio ambiente) on All-Saints Day. Some new friends invited us on a journey to Santiago, Sacatepequez, to watch the annual flying of the kites (barriletes) on November 1st. After walking nearly an hour in a crowd of hundreds of people, we arrived at a cemetery where people were flying (and crashing) their kites. Coming from a culture that usually doesn’t party in a cemetery, it took me a few minutes to get used to climbing up on top of a grave to get a better view of both the crowd and the 30-feet kites. Once we climbed up on top, I was able to see this view:

A kite that says (from left to right): "No to Global Warming, No contamination, and No nuclear contamination"

Then I climbed down from my tomb to get a closer view of the enormous kites at the front:

"Our education depends on the earth"

And finally, I took a picture of the whole cemetery from the front of the “kite stage”:

This is a view of the entire cemetery in Santiago, Sacatapequez, Guatemala

Later that week, Emily-Kate and I visited a local macadamia farm, which has donated over 350,000 macadamia trees to farmers in Guatemala. We also learned about the prospect of a job for me–volunteering on an organic farm. I’m visiting the farm on Friday, and can’t wait to update you on organic farming in Guatemala.

Posted on: November 30, 2010, 9:00 am Category: The "After" Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , ,

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