It's hard to believe I've been here for five months. One fifth of
service, $1,000 in the bank. The truth is the time flies.
WHAT IS WORK?
But what really is Peace Corps work. It is completely different for
every single volunteer. For me, I have a lot. In fact, last Friday my
Associate Peace Corps Director Flavio Linares and I looked at each other
and agreed that I've got enough work for two people. Who knows maybe
I'll get a site mate. I have two counterparts, Israel Galvez who works
on weekends, and Mario Flores who works during the week. Leaving me to
work full time. Counterparts are usually representatives of a
government agency or non-profit organization. In my case, it's both-
the Committee for Trabajadores and the Municipality of Ipala.
My program, Manejo Integrada Proyectos Ambientales or simply
Environmental Management is a conglomeration of waste management,
environmental education and ecotourism. It's a new program, as the last
one was cut. But all visitors first experience with Guatemala is the
environment. Air pollution in Guatemala city is a serious problem,
slash and burn techniques still are deforesting Guatemala at a geometric
rate and trash lines all but the most touristy roads. Guatemala also
has some of the rarest flora and fauna, and most breathtaking scenery in
the world. Yet the economics of poverty and local tradition are the
driving forces which keep the farmers planting corn and beans and
SO WHAT DO I DO?
After the day to day chores- slapping laundry, hauling water, vegetable
shopping and eradicating insects from my house- I do several things...
A few times a week I hike up to the top of Volcan Ipala to search out
what animals and plants exist in the forest that surrounds the lagoon.
Usually I bring along a local for two reasons- I want to make sure I'm
welcome at the fincas I enter and it usually ends up giving the locals
an appreciation of how extraordinary their environment is.
The Volcano is the only one of it's kind in Guatemala. It's also one of
only a few in the world which has a lagoon within the crater. Rising
about 900 meters above Ipala Chiquimula and about 1800 meters above sea
level, it's pretty big- enough for a 45 minute hike. The lagoon is about
a kilometer in diameter. The forest on the south side is a Cypress
forest in neat rows that a past volunteer planted more than ten years
ago. Epiphytes and Spanish moss cloak the trees in a vibrant green.
The constant southward bound wind has bent the trees to face up the
crater's ridge. On the north side is a virgin cloud forest where birds
sing in the cool shadows of the high canopy. Rare wild orchids perch in
the crooks of the tree canopy.
As of Tuesday, December 2 the Guatemalan Congress will declare the
forest surrounding the crater and the lagoon a protected area. Protected
here is a bit different. Here, all the land has owners and the
government - specifically the municipalities need to provide other
answers. It's not enough to say - you can't plant corn. The farmers
need alternative sources of income. Thus the need for ecotourism.
The second kilometer lower on the Volcano for one km in circumference it
to be an area of reforestation. Right now the area is entirely
agriculture or cattle ranching. Farmers have two options:
- Reforest with subsides from the government. After paying Q1,000,
farmers begin a regressive investment plan where they are paid to grow
trees for sale as firewood. After six years they can cut it all down.
- Begin a plan of shade coffee. The first year, farmers plant trees to
provide shade. The following year they plant coffee. After three years
they have a crop with three times the monetary yield of corn. I'm
involved because studies have shown that 60% more wildlife lives within
a shade coffee area and the resulting bird population removes the need
SO WHAT ELSE DO I DO?
I am only into my second month into country and thus I am still trying
to introduce myself to my community. Before I can run, I need to walk.
Confianza is everything. For the last month I have tried to eradicate
beliefs that I was a Mormon, pawn of the municipality, or CIA. Everyday
I explain how I want to develop with local help, an ecotourism park on
the top of the
volcano for the benefit of the community. For this reason I play
soccer , basketball, go to community meetings and simply TALK to my
neighbors every chance I get.
Starting in February I'll be teaching environmental education classes
with the teachers of my community. Two classes every month with 30
teachers a pop. Whew. Puts butterflies right in the old estomago.
Right now I am working no organizing a committee of community leaders
from all the villages and towns surrounding the Volcan. A real
challenge. With them I hope to develop a working plan to get the basics
up top. My counterparts and I have scratched up the initial ideas such
FIRST remove the hazards and negative impacts:
- Reduce the giant sucking sound. Every year the lagoon loses a
of water to the villages of La Laguna, Chaguoitte, Monte Rico and the
town of Agua Blanca.
- The problem with cows, water contamination. By far the most
politically sensitive part. Telling someone what a man can do with his
cow is 'fightin' words'. But the same cows they protect, defecate in
the water the farmers drink. Yuck.
- Messy tourists. Almost all of the tourists coming to the
Guatemalans. Thus the trash problems of the cities, towns and villages
follow them to the most pristine areas. A lack of services is another
- It's actually quite rational that the locals would like to pave
the entire area. After all they see little or no benefit to nature.
Just a pest. My job in part is to prove a benefit to being near
beautiful wildlife. Realistically I working with primary school
teachers to try and start the learning early.
- Create a profit mechanism so that the park can sustain itself
benefits back to the community.
ENOUGH OF WHAT I DO.. THE ADVENTURE OF BROKEN NOSES
Last friday I was playing a soccer game. The gringo had just marked an
assist to the great displeasure of the man guarding him. It's very
embarassing for Guatemalans when a gringo does well at their sport.
Usually, the referee gives a players a wide berth for damage imposed on
Thus no whistle was blown after I jumped up for a header and was
grounded by the blow to my nose from my opponents head. As I lay there
looking at the stuff flowing from my nose I realized I was in trouble.
My 19 year old gun toting teammate Reis' question about I could play the
second half didn't build my confidence, either.
Five hours later I arrived in Guatemala to have my nose set by a very
good Guatemalan doctor. This was after tens of animated- Spanish only-
discussions with the local campesinos, the Mayor of Ipala, and a
taxi driver with questionable ethics. But I learned, at site, I have no
one to depend on but me. A scary and invigorating idea.
Each year PCV's are invited to dine with PC Guatemala and embassy
staff. My friends and I were invited to dine with Michelle and Justo
Silva. This wonderful young couple went Far out of their way to make us
fill comfortable and stuff us with turkey, Puerto rican rice,
potatoes, pumpkin pie, flan, and much more. My stomach
hurt. One belt notch was not enough. Best meal I've had in Guatemala
and a giant step up from beans and tortillas.
The lesser know function is the party at Hotel Antigua the following
day. One hundred and fifty volunteers from all over Guatemala, few of
whom had seen another American soul in days, weeks, months is the
makings for an intriguing evening. The theme was Ropa Americana.
Ropa Americana is an accumulation of clothes from the 50's 60s 70s and
80s. Disco mixed with 70's funk makes for some of the wildest costumes
you may ever see. Beat every Halloween party I've ever been to.
That's all for now. Remember E-mail and real mail is very welcome.
a/c Municipalidad de Ipala
Guatemala, Central America