An Internship in the Bush with SHI-Belize
05.11.2012 - 15.11.2012
It took four hours to travel a thirty miles into the bush for my internship with Sustainable Harvest International. SHI-Belize is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in the southern Toledo district of Belize. They work with local rural village communities to improve the overall quality of life as well as conserving the integrity of the rain forests in Belize (visit sustainableharvest.org for the full scoop). Each village that has families enrolled in the program is assigned an extension officer who, over a period of several years, develops relationships with the families in the village. I worked with a different extension officer each week. Nelson was my supervisor for the first week in Dolores, and Ernesto was my boss for week two in San Benito Poite. I stayed with an SHI staff member of the weekend at his house in Pueblo Viejo.
Most of my work was right alongside the extension workers, assembling structures for the farmers to use as well as planting trees in gardens or forested farming areas. The first and second week of work differed only slightly, and merely in the types of structures we worked on. The first week consisted mostly of carpentry work. Nelson, Cerilo, Julian (a part time worker in Dolores), Liz (another CCSP student) worked on mobile chicken coops and solar dryers for drying cacao seeds. We also spent a good amount of time planting cacao trees in families gardens and forested farm areas. It is one of SHI's main goals to increase agroforestry (farming the forest) so that people will be less inclined to chop it down to plan corn and beans.
During my second week, which was in San Benito Poite, much of the work was centered on continuing work on latrines that were in various stages of completion. Some of the work I did was structural, like building steps up to the toilet room. Most of the work, however, was adding finishing touches that required more manpower than the extension worker, Ernesto, usually had on hand. I spent a good portion of the week mixing cement to plaster the outside and inside walls of the latrines. Working outside in the rain is not on SHI’s to do list. This is not a problem in the dry season, but the wet season becomes a bit tricky. Luckily, I had plenty to do inside when it rained. The first day I got to San Benito Poite, the rain drove us inside to apply some cement plaster to a wood-conserving stove. It is designed to use far less wood than an open fire stove, so people need to chop down fewer trees. The stoves also carry smoke away from ground level, reducing the amount of smoke inhaled by the women cooking.
In terms, of family life the culture was again much different than home. An entire family consisting of three generations lived in a one-room house. The families I stayed with were K’ekchi Mayans (I did learn a few K’ekchi words, but I can't spell them) and they were very hospitable. I slept in hammocks the entire time, but the most difficult thing about it was the cold. I didn't expect to be cold in Belize, but I almost froze at night. The thatch house we stayed in is basically made of sticks and some boards, so insulation was surely lacking. It is technically “winter” here, but I still sweat in the afternoon sun, so I wasn’t expecting to be cold at all. Anyway, I survived living in a thatch hut, and learned to enjoy going to bed at 6 P.M. when the sun went down, because there wasn’t much to do in a pitch black Mayan hut (the single solar powered light bulb didn’t last very long).
The culture was also something to get used to. It was a new experience for me to be a totally alien presence in a very quiet village that does not get many visitors from outside the community. Arriving to the villages in a pick up truck, which draws enough attention by itself, I stepped out and everyone immediately knew that I was a stranger simply by the color of my skin. It was not an uncommon occurrence that people, especially children, would stop in their tracks on the road to watch Liz and I work at whatever we were doing. Whoever I met was very curious to know why I was in the village, what I was doing, and where I was from. That has been an overarching theme of my time in Belize, but it was magnified in the remote villages.
That’s it for the internship. Next week is, Marine Ecology, our last unit of Tropical Ecosystems. Our class will spend 5 days on Glover’s Reef, which is one of the best places in Belize to see the marine reef ecosystems. I won’t have much in the way of reflection on an ecology class, but I will put up some pictures (here’s where I get to use my underwater camera!). I return in about three weeks, so my final post will likely be a short closing remarks. Keep me in your prayers as I travel about and wrap up the semester.