Over winter break, a group of eight UC Davis students set out from Guatemala City in a rented microbus, which was navigated through pothole-filled roads along the flowering cane fields and volcanoes. Four and a half hours later the group arrived in Coatepeque, San Marcos, 15 minutes away from the mountain town of Sintana, where they would devote their time and energy to educating Mayans about agricultural cultivation.
The trip, which lasted from Dec. 15 to 22, is one of three that will take place throughout the year through UC Davis’ Guatemalan Mayan Bean Project. The project works in cooperation with Alma Cautiva NGO and is aimed at helping impoverished Mayans in highly conflicted areas through agricultural education, improving locally available bean cultivars in El Quetzal and La Reforma, Guatemala, and facilitating cultural exchange.
Second year horticulture and agronomy graduate student Colleen Spurlock began working with Alma Cautiva NGO four years ago. After many talks with Alma Cautiva director, Mynor Reina, and multiple investigations into agricultural practices that do and do not work in the region, the Guatemalan Mayan Bean Project was launched as an agricultural extension project. The project’s goal is to improve the yield of staple food crops through education of local people.
“In addition, a mission of Alma Cautiva is to facilitate the cultural exchange between students from the United States and working people of Guatemala, and to explore the areas of Guatemala where no other NGOs are present,” said Spurlock in an e-mail interview. “This helps bring attention to the corruption and misery that are in some parts of Guatemala that few tourists have ever seen, and the students’ presence brings hope to the people of San Marcos.”
During the trip, volunteers cleared a piece of jungle, put up a giant fence and planted beans. The goal was to integrate the community, especially the youth. For senior environmental horticulture and urban forestry major Roelof Diener, the ultimate goal was to show the locals how easy it is to grow their own food and establish a demonstration plot.
“It’s not that we are trying to improve on the Guatemalan agriculture with our U.S. techniques; rather, we are trying to establish home-grown gardens for poor people that live in an area that has the perfect climate to grow basic food crops all year round,” said Diener in an e-mail interview.
Senior plant sciences major Emily Kwok found out about the trip to Guatemala by e-mail in November and instantly knew she wanted to go, so she left the day after finals Fall quarter. For her, the importance of the project is to provide a source of free beans to the locals and to give volunteers a cultural experience that is different from what tourists usually experience. Aside from this, she also believes that the project breaks down social barriers for the native residents.
“The local children we worked with got to see students regardless of gender, race and age working alongside each other. This was important to me because I think it promotes a concept that every individual is important and can contribute equally to a project,” said Kwok in an e-mail interview. “Colleen said that when parents were told that the workshops were being offered, some asked whether or not they could bring their daughters. I think in a way we are promoting gender equality which I think is important considering the prevalence of violence toward women in the country.”
Spurlock believes that education is the most basic path to improving quality of life. This project hopes to give people access to agricultural education and resources as time progresses.
“The project will continue to grow and one of the ultimate goals is to open an agricultural extension office with internet access and a library staffed with both Guatemalans and students from the United States,” Spurlock said .
The next two trips to Guatemala will be taking place over spring break and summer. The spring break trip will be from March 25 to April 1 to harvest and replant the beans, and to hold another set of agricultural education classes. For those who are interested in accompanying the Guatemalan Mayan Bean Project, contact Spurlock at email@example.com or meet her on Saturdays at the Alma Cautiva booth at the Davis Farmers Market.
PRISCILLA WONG can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.