From May 18th to June 30th I was in Guatemala learning about Sustainable Food Systems! From May 18th - May 29th, I was a part of a study abroad group. And from the 29th to June 30th I did the internship.
Red Agroforestal para el Desarrollo Sostenible (translates to “Agroforestry Network for Sustainable Development”) was founded by Henrry Ruiz Solsol and is located in San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala’s Sierra Madre mountain range. Atitlan the deepest lake in Central America and is surrounded by volcanoes and mountains. We arrived just in time for the rainy season. Rainy season means that from about 5pm to 8pm it would downpour, and occasionally would rain during the day as well, though most days were pleasant. The altitude keeps the temperature from getting too hot, despite being so close to the equator.
The mission of the organization is to “Build a network of cooperation among volunteers to strengthen knowledge and promote sustainable agricultural practices in rural territories through the use of Agroforestry systems”. Our goal as interns in San Marcos La Laguna, Sololá, and San Juan Sacatepéquez was to use the knowledge we’d gained with Henrry and with a Guatemalan forestry student, Kevin Recinos, to run workshops, install a community garden, reinvigorate a school garden, and four home gardens using Syntropic Agroforestry principles.
Syntropic Agroforestry is a technique that was developed by Ernst Götsch in Brazil. The basic theory of this style of agriculture is that it mimics what happens naturally in forests. There are four fundamental aspects to Syntropic Agroforestry - Biomass, Ecological Succession, Stratification, and Biodiversity. There is an assortment of benefits of this technique including a drop in the need to irrigate and drought resilience in the plants increases, increase of mycorrhizae, and soil fertility. However on the flip side it is a very complex system and not easily mechanized. We must balance ecology with economy. To learn more about Syntropic Agroforestry I highly recommend reading “Bringing the Tropics to New York” by Harry Greene. It was one of the best articles I read about this practice.
A large part of why I wanted to do this internship was that I would get a chance to see first hand what working with plants and people would be like. When I applied for the internship I knew that I wanted to work with Latino families and plants. I wasn’t sure what that kind of work could look like but now I see how much hard work is needed. Our first two weeks of our internship we were in San Marcos La Laguna. There we helped recharge a community garden as well as a school garden. We also placed four new gardens into the homes of families.
Working in these gardens was tough. It was very physically demanding. Especially in creating the new gardens. These garden spaces were up the side of a mountain range involving us carrying large amount of materials by hand and by wheelbarrow up steep inclines. It was pretty common for these trips to take an hour even though it was only about a half mile away from where we were based. I don’t say this to complain. I spent most of my time walking up these steep inclines thinking about the people who have to make this climb every day, multiple times a day. How difficult it must have been to build the road I was walking on and how hard it must have been to build the houses. One of my biggest takeaways from this experience is that I am extremely privileged.
Our first trip up the side of the mountain was to a home of a woman whose husband had passed away two years earlier. She was struggling but she had been taking the time to come down to the workshops Henrry had been running before we got there. She was one of the people who were really consistent and so when the time came, she was an obvious pick for where we would put in a garden. In our first visit with her we asked about the kinds of plants she was interested in and what her current food security issues were. She was really interested in plants that were going to help feed her family and in medicinal plants. Medicinal plants are used in many homes throughout Guatemala and it was really interesting to learn more about them. We came up with a plan for her steep yard and when we returned the next week we installed hanging planters that we made from recycled soda bottles and were able to clear out a spot at the bottom of the yard and place a 3x9ft garden. We planted at least three dozen kinds of plants. Around lunch time we were invited by the family to have some soup, frijoles, and some tortillas and I felt such gratitude. We had just had a conversation the week before about how they struggled to find healthy foods to eat and they were kind enough to share what they had with us. This was true in all the houses we visited. Everyone was so kind to us.
One of my favorite parts about being in Guatemala was learning all about the plants. I did my best to ask as many questions about the native plants as well as the plants we were cultivating. As is to be expected, the flora is completely different there and even that took some getting used to. They also have a host of other agricultural issues that we don’t think about as much in Wisconsin. Instead of winter, they have a dry season. This period is when plants die back or become dormant. The plants that grow outside are the kinds of plants we can only grow in greenhouses here. I want to continue to expand my knowledge of both native and cultivated species. The process has reinvigorated my desire to learn more about the plant species in Wisconsin. I’m curious how this new knowledge I’ve acquired will shape the future of my academics at UW Madison.
Being with two other interns was really great. We learned a lot from each other and we accomplished a lot together. We all have individual strengths and leaned on the each other when someone’s expertise was required. I have a lot of knowledge about plants and community gardens, Theresa knows about designing curriculum and working with children, and Renesha knows about how to create healthy eating habits and what people need to be healthy. It was kind of a superteam, honestly. I think that our combined interests made the work we did more effective. One thing Henrry talked about was how he loved the diversity of interests within his organization and said that's what made it strong.
One of the more difficult aspects of the internship was the lack of resources. After we formulated the plans for the community garden, school garden, and the home gardens we needed to take a trip to a hardware store. The closest one was across the lake so we had to jump in a boat taxi (which is the only way to get to Panajachel) and ride in a tuk tuk (an auto rickshaw) to pick up the supplies. It was a fun morning, but it definitely took all morning. Things like this take time to do in Guatemala. It meant that we had to be really organized before we left. We needed to make sure we had everything we needed on a list. Forgetting anything wasn’t an option because it would take half a day to get the supplies again. This taught us to really think about what was absolutely needed as well. We couldn’t just drive up somewhere and fill our car, we had to take the supplies back onto the boat taxi in our hands. Its teaches you to be on top of things.
There are certain assignments in the International Studies class that I took to accompany my internship that have really stuck with me. I’ve thought a great deal about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of A Single Story”. I worry that the one story people will hear from me is about how Guatemala is so malnourished and how poverty stricken the nation is, but that is not the only story and its not the only truth. I was at a diversity training event in Madison late last year and I was talking to someone about my Guatemalan father. They asked what my dad did for a living and when I said he was an engineer who designed submarines the person looked surprised. For him, Guatemalans are malnourished and poor. It’s that stereotype, the one story, that I worry about perpetuating in talking about my experience in Guatemala. Although that was the population we worked with, they were not the only Guatemalans we met. We met many students and scientists that are working towards making their country a better place to live for everyone.
Though I grew up with a Guatemalan father, that is quite different than experiencing Guatemala for myself in a more immersive way. I never felt less Latina than I did being in Guatemala. And that sentiment was echoed by the people I met. One evening, among some new friends, someone told me I wasn’t Latina because I was too American. Of course, I still know that I am Latina. We come in all forms and cultural backgrounds. But it stuck with me. What does it mean to be of a culture? And not of a culture? I grew up with the foods and the traditions, but being in Guatemala - it made me realize just how much I missed too. In the states, I am Latina. In Guatemala, I’m American. I know that I am both of these things.
In my application to the study abroad and internship program I wrote about my personal connection to Guatemala which is that my father is from Guatemala. What I didn’t mention was that he passed away ten years ago. I was grateful that I was in Guatemala for his birthday this year, June 1st. It meant a lot to me that I was able to go and spend time there and learn more about the place where my dad was from. It’s difficult to convey but many of the people I met there reminded me so much of him and it was like getting to spend time with him. He was a Badger too and loved UW Madison. I kept thinking about how proud he would be of me.
There are so many people that I want to thank! Firstly, my family - I could not have gone to Guatemala without their support and encouragement. My friends who reassured me. My university who trusted me. I am eternally grateful for the scholarships and grants I received from UW-Madison’s International Internship Program: Cultivated Internship Grant, Oscar N. & Ethel K. Allen Memorial Study Abroad Internship Grant, and College of Agricultural and Life Science Study Abroad Scholarship. The core funding support for the Sustainable Food Systems program in Guatemala was through the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund as part of a public-private collaboration between the U.S. Department of State, Partners of the Americas, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators. My fellow interns Renesha Carter and Theresa Nepomuceno - who were my coworkers, my dinner dates, and good friends for six weeks. Dr. Claudia Calderón who organized and implemented the Study Abroad program and the internship that followed. I am so thankful for all of your work! Henrry Ruiz Solsol and Kevin Recino, estoy muy agradecido por el tiempo que compartimos juntos.