Since early June 2012, two recent Harvard University graduates, Julian Moll-Rocek and Janie D’Ambrosia, have been visiting EcoLogic’s agroforestry plots in Guatemala to observe, gather data, and provide “tips and tricks” to our EcoLogic field technicians and community farmers on ways to measure and track the progress of their agroforestry efforts.
It’s Janie this time. The last time we wrote Julian and I had just arrived in Ak’Tenamit, a vocational boarding school composed largely of students from the K’ekchi’ Mayan communities of the Sarstun region of Guatemala. We received an incredibly warm welcome from APROSARSTUN, an NGO located on the Ak’Tenamit campus and EcoLogic’s partner on the ground, and we were finally able to meet the two students with whom we would be working for the next two months. The students, Roland and Matteo, are both in their sixth and final year at Ak’tenamit, and working with us is how they will complete their “practica” — a two month long field project required to graduate.
We rented one of the bungalows on campus for the week as we prepared for our 4-6 week trip to the field. Originally, we thought three days would be more than enough to finalize our field methodologies, plan our route, and pick up supplies. As much as we had prepared, our first chat with Rolando and Matteo revealed just how much we still had to learn, including community structure and dynamics, cultural norms and taboos. As biology majors in college, we felt comfortable taking soil samples and measuring tree diameters and soil cover, but evaluating project impact through interviews and community activities was a new experience for us.
During our first one-on-one interview, it became apparent that farmers do not keep reliable track of crop yield, so there was no easy way to quantify the benefits of agroforestry in terms of production. We had to think on our feet and developed a mini-workshop on important numbers for farmers to keep track of during different plot stages. During the coppicing (trimming) of the trees, they can measure how much wood is produced. During harvest, how many ears of corn are harvested. During fruit harvesting , how much fruit is collected. We created a “cheat sheet” to distribute to the farmers with important dates relating to the plot (planting, coppicing, harvest) and the important productivity measures related to each.
By far the most important part of our work here has been speaking with agroforestry farmers about why they participated in the project, and finding out what problems they have had related to their plots, and about the help they’ve received from Ecologic and APROSARSTUN. Their answers are as interesting as they are diverse, ranging in subject matter from community politics to group dynamics to land tenure issues. Overall, the project participants and communities have received us with great warmth and openness. Discussions are often lively and insightful and never so serious that there isn’t time for a good laugh and playful banter.
When we aren’t in plots or interviewing project participants or doing community-based work, Julian and I are enjoying the beauty of the small villages, learning how to cook Q’echi-style, and, most importantly, taking an occasional break! After our last meeting in Cerro Blanco, we invited the community to a ukulele jam session (Julian and I both play) as a thank you for their hospitality.
The evening of ukele strumming was wonderful. A whole mélange of people showed up– men straight from the field, women and children taking a break from household chores, and young people who wanted to learn chords. By the end of the night, we had young boys singing “Drop, baby, drop” (a Hawaiian favorite) , and translated “Eight Days A Week” for a sing-along. One of my favorite moments was when a farmer asked, “So what talk do we have to listen to?” We were able to say “No talk, just music and a bit of fun. We hope!” It seemed the least we could do in light of the kindness we’d been shown by the entire community.
Now we’re off to our next community — Sarstun Creek. The adventure continues!
Julian Moll-Rocek has done research in the Amazonian rainforests of Madre de Dios, Peru and Janie D’Ambrosia has previously worked on a national reserve in Southwest Kenya. Both Julian and Janie have degrees in organismic and evolutionary biology, a field that looks at the function, evolution and interaction of organisms—or in this instance, how crops and trees can work together and integrate beneficially into the broader natural ecosystem. They are also showing our field staff techniques to use new technology (such as GPS) to create more accurate maps and georeference the agroforestry plots of the farmers we work with.