Too often in our world we can become entrenched in what seem like unapproachable problems.  We all hear about them all the time; climate change, war, economic downturns.  These issues affect us all and at the same time they feel so large and distant that its hard to know how to begin to unwind them.  How do we start to reclaim our lives and our world when problems are presented to us as unsolvable?  Over the course of the last three months we’ve been trying to transform these overwhelming feelings into positive action through the study and practice of permaculture.

Permaculture is a social movement with two main components, a set of ethics and a set of design principles which together form a basis for transforming our surroundings.  The three ethics which form the foundation of permaculture are the following: care for the earth, care for people and equitable distribution of surplus yields.  These ideas may sound straightforward but putting them into practice in our daily lives can definitely be a challenge.  The design principles of permaculture give us a set of guidelines which help us to effectively evaluate our daily actions and bring them more in line with the ethics.  Our course has been structured around teaching one of these principles each week and then looking for how it plays out in the course of our work.  For example, one of the permaculture principles is “integrate rather than segregate,” we presented this idea upon entering our first homestay where students could see the importance of integrating with a new culture and a new family.  Another principle instructs us to “apply self-regulation and accept feedback.”  We presented this principle at midcourse when the group was in a phase of collective and individual feedback processes.  These principles have been a compass for us on over the past three months. However the true test of these theories lies in the practice.

Guatemala has been a strong place of both learning and practice for us in this regard.  Our second week here was spent partnering with the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute in the community of San Lucas Toliman.  We were able to see how all the permaculture principles were present in the construction of a composting latrine in the kaqchiquel community of Quixaya.   The facilitators at IMAP guided us through the process of constructing a latrine which will convert human waste into organic fertilizer, a valuable product.  Students took careful notes and studied the process because they knew that the following week we would be building one on our own in the community of San Juan Cotzal.  We finished the latrine in five days and left San Lucas with a greater sense of permaculture in practice and accomplishment.

The following week we traveled to the Ixil community of San Juan Cotzal deep in the Cuchumatanes mountains.  Cotzal is a community that was heavily affected by Guatemala’s 36 year civil war.  An international consensus has ruled that the crimes committed against the Ixil people amount to genocide.  In the area surrounding Cotzal over 260 indigenous communities were targeted and wiped off the map during the 80’s.  Dragons has a long standing relationship with a cooperative of widows who survived the war.  These women have dedicated themselves to healing through their traditional art, backstrap loom weaving.  Recently the cooperative has purchased a piece of land and constructed a community center.  Their vision for this center is that visitors can come and learn about the traditions of the Ixil people.  They also envision that their center will serve as a school for young girls from their community to learn to weave.  These women are a beacon of resilience.  They have stood up in the face of problems that are unimaginable to most of us and together they are working for a better future.  In conversations with them we found out that one thing the center needed in order to function was a latrine.  As a group we went to Cotzal with our new knowledge and the desire to collaborate.

The opportunity to do a permaculture installation in Cotzal was special because it gave us the chance to see, experience and implement all of the principles.  One of the permaculture principles we studied this semester instructs us to “design from patterns to details.”  We began our project in Cotzal by taking the pattern of the latrine learned how to construct in Quixaya and adapting it to the setting in Cotzal.  While we had the general idea, the community had the building skill and the knowledge to make the vision a reality.  Everyday we went to the center and worked with community members to co-create the vision.  Over the course of the week the project expanded to include the installation of a small orchard and path around the latrine.  We planted avocados, peaches, plums, lemons and flowers in the area in front of the latrine.  This creates a closed loop system where the fertilizer produced by the community that comes out of the latrine can be used on site to produce food and flowers.

We completed the latrine in seven days.  The sense of accomplishment and collaboration was even stronger than the first time around.  Not only had we created strong bonds with the community and built something lasting with them, but we had also  learned a lot about service.  We learned that in order to serve we need to learn first, and that the product of our service, in this case the latrine, is most importantly a symbol of the relationships we formed in Cotzal.

The problems of the world will most likely endure.  What we can change is our attitude and response towards them.  Rather than feeling overwhelmed and being drawn into apathy and inaction we can put our energy into creating the world we want to live in, one step at a time.