(all photos courtesy of Emma Gallagher)
It took me two shuttles and two “chicken” buses to make it to Project Somos. Outside a little highway town called Tecpan, it’s a place rarely visited by the average tourist. Though it is conveniently located between two of the Guatemala’s most frequently visited locations, the colonial city of Antigua and Lake Atitlan, Project Somos is part of a tiny indigenous Mayan community that people don’t just happen upon. The only reason I discovered it was I’d written an article on eco-construction efforts in Guatemala and left them out.
Luckily for me, Greg Kemp (one of the founders of Project Somos) was directed to the article and, despite my inadvertent omission of his project, reached out to me. He invited me for a visit. They are building earthbag structures. They are cultivating with permaculture techniques, planting on contour and growing mixed gardens. And, as you’ll soon learn, they are doing much more than that. As he put succinctly, it would have been a perfect fit for what I’d written about.
Project Somos, for me, is a different kind of charity project, one that has definitely found a niche in its focus—“an eco-sustainable community for at-risk mothers and children”—but is also taking a much more holistic approach to its mission than most other NGOs. Project Somos isn’t a shelter. It isn’t a school. It’s not a medical outreach program or nutritional support system. It’s not a social services venture or a housing provider. It’s all of these things.
As Greg explained after our tour of the community grounds, what many well-meaning organizations miss is that, to really help people, we must address a myriad of struggles as opposed to just one or two. Sure, education is important, but can kids really study if they are hungry? Sure, a full belly is important, but if it comes from unsustainable sources and without nutritional sustenance, it’ll ultimately fall short, especially if recipients don’t know how to use the ingredients provided. Plus, we all need a safe place to sleep, a means by which to commune, and a way to earn a viable income for the situation to change long-term.
Project Somos is putting its fingers into all of these pies, something many organizations might be afraid to try, but I couldn’t help but make a parallel between their approach to charity and permaculture, a practice with which Greg and (his wife and co-founder) Alicia are well aware of. While they’ve taken on permaculture techniques for growing much of the community food, as we delved deeper and deeper into how the project worked, permaculture ethics and mentality are exemplified in so many of their moves. It filled me with hope.
The main reason that Greg contacted me was to visit Project Somos’s collection of earthbag structures. Currently, they have built five. Two of them house at-risk families and are complete with indoor kitchens, living rooms, multiple bedrooms, and solar-heated hot water in the bathroom. Another, the biggest, is being used as a community center with a beautiful open auditorium for showing films, hosting community meetings, and throwing parties. A small schoolhouse, the most recently built, is the project’s first rectangular structure. Lastly, there is Greg and Alicia’s home, two dome structures joined with simple roof between them, creating a play space for the village children when they visit.
Building with earthbags in a community like this, hiring local workers to do it, opens some great new, affordable, and quality housing possibilities for people who have come to depend on breezeblock construction and huge amounts of concrete. Additionally, Project Somos has used a popular (here in Guatemala) bottle brick method of filling used plastic bottles with clean plastic trash for constructing the interiors of walls, while simultaneously addressing a serious over-abundance of litter that adorns most villages and cities. And, they’ve sourced bamboo from warmer region a couple of hours away, and their local builders have now mastered the material. As well, they are still searching for ways to improve the process, like using mud plaster rather than the concrete covering typically done here.
While the structures were amazing and fun to visit, I was equally excited by the amazing food systems they were putting in place. In a community that has come to live largely on a diet of corn tortillas, salt, and lime, Project Somos is introducing a whole host of new, nutritious crops—quinoa and chia, kale and chard (which grow as perennials), herbs, elderberries, and mixed fruit trees—as well as cleaner, safer methods of farming. The gardens are organic, planted on contour, and mixed, with plenty of nitrogen-fixing beans spread throughout the fields and some GMO-free corn for something familiar for the families. Most of the 145-acre spread will remain forest.
At the heart of the project are people, particularly the families that choose to live in the Children’s Village (two years of support, care and training) but also the community at large, many of which have some hand in what’s happening there. The families that live at Project Somos are composed of widowed or single mothers with three or more children, and community leaders recommend them to the project. At the moment, there are two families, but the project has hosted up to five and has hopes for more earthbag houses, enough to make a community of 20 families and up to 100 people.
While at Project Somos, families are both looked after and empowered. They receive housing, food supplies, medical care, and psychological treatment. The resident children go to school daily, along with some of the worker’s children, and they are taught by a local woman from the village. The facilities include a playground, a memorial at the spot where a Mayan ceremony was performed at the ground-breaking of the project, as well as open spaces with clean air, plenty of light, and a multitude of plants. It’s secure. It’s safe. It’s exactly what the moms and kids, who have had a rough go, need.
Additionally, while the project does accept volunteers (and interns), the community overrides all. Construction and farming are realistically run by local, paid workers, providing much-needed and consistent work for the community. Project Somos is instigating a collection of small, local businesses to keep money flowing to the project’s development (eventually to be completely handed over to locals) as well as provide more and more jobs to those who want them. Plus, many of the initiatives—the community center, as well as an upcoming library and art/music hall—are directed at the entire community, not just the resident families.
As much as it seems the NGO’s “sharing” is of obvious origin, Project Somos’s approach is much, much more than mere charity. Sure, resources from (mostly) Canada and the States are shared with less fortunate families in Guatemala, but the sharing of knowledge and skills are every bit as, if not more, relevant to what’s happening there. From this capacity building, the families and workers will find and revisit ways of living more sustainably, environmentally friendly, economically and emotionally speaking.
For the resident mothers, there is a massive amount of support and training. They are taught to tend a small family garden to boost the nutrition of meals, and they learn new recipes using new (but available) foods each week. They are also taught skills for making handicrafts, parenting constructively, and handling finances, including a savings account. They learn about nutrition, hygiene, and sexuality, information not provided by local education sources. Then, at the end of their two years, Project Somos has worked with community leaders to get the mothers affordable housing and a new start on their own.
For the children, for whom the whole project began, they get to have a much more stable family and existence. Through the program, siblings who would otherwise be separated via adoption or government intervention get to be together. They have the chance to pursue things like art, sports, and music, pursuits that would never be possible in their former circumstances. They attend school, something required at the project but not always in the outside community. In short, they get a chance to flourish, to feel healthy and safe, and most importantly the capacity to dream.
The day I spent at Project Somos left me feeling reinvigorated. I’ve been work-traveling for nearly ten years now, most that time involved in education, specifically teaching English with the occasional sidetrack into math, gardening, and music. Much of the time this has been done for money, but I’ve also worked with several NGOs. In doing so, I’ve felt a bit downtrodden by the experience of helping, as if the aid I was providing had no real hope of making a true impact. It’s a common feeling for many volunteers.
However, the holistic approach I see Project Somos taking is something I haven’t really seen before. It’s education. It’s nutritional, medical, and emotional care. It’s love, fun, conservation, and communal, with real connections and leadership within the local population. It’s small-scale and personal with a result-oriented approach, such that after two-years mothers can leave feeling both revived and capable of independence. It recognizes that no one of these things can cause the changes necessary but rather a holistic wave of all them.
And, that’s why as we chatted over lunch that day, a delicious and fresh meal made by Alicia, I couldn’t subdue my grin. It was as if I were, for the first time, seeing a sort of permaculture incarnation of what an NGO can be and do. It felt as if a real difference could be reached because the approach was really different, viewing the totality of what is needed for lasting improvement rather than addressing a singular issue. It made me think of the way an eco-system works, how each component, from bugs to nitrogen-fixers to weeds, are all relevant for it to be sustainable.
I thought I was just going to see some earthbag houses.