Saturday, March 24, 2007

Dry Season: A Tour of Tecnología Para la Salud

Heading East on the Panamerican Highway out of El Tejar, trucks roar past brickyards, mechanics' shops, used car lots, hourly-rate hotels, cheap restaurants and wood-sided cantinas. After passing Burger King on the right, zooming under the pedestrian walkway in front of the Dong Bang Industrial maquila the road continues into the shade of a rapidly dwindling municipal forest, then emerges to cut cleanly through the small town of San Miguel Morazan. The turn to the right under the town's only pasarella is the new cutoff road that leads to the coastal highway, Pastores, and Antigua. To the right of the cutoff sits the Colonia Elvidio Sucelio, as well as the grounds of an environmental project called Tecnología Para la Salud.

Tecnología Para la Salud is an integrated program addressing rural health concerns through environmentally sound solutions. The two primary areas of focus are the cultivation of medicinal herbs and the manufacture of sustainably designed domestic appliances. The property contains a workshop, a greenhouse, a demonstration garden, a large orchard, and facilities for making herbal shampoo and soap. I spent a morning with Julio Cesar Coroy, who leads the workshop and specializes in water quality and sanitation issues. He walked me around the facility, explaining the various projects that are underway, and talked with me about some of the larger challenges of operating an NGO in Guatemala today. Through the players below you can listen to Julio as he gives me a tour of his facilities.


Tecnología Para la Salud maintains a large area of plants and trees, all considered to have medicinal values within Guatemalan traditions. One of the primary activities within TPS is the cultivation of starts in a greenhouse, which will in time be brought out into the surrounding communities to become part of small medicinal gardens, as well as a source of income when the herbs are dried and sold at weekly markets. While two Mayan nurses are employed in caring for the garden and instructing others in the uses of these plants, both women were down with the flu when I visited. Although his own specialities lie elsewhere, Julio made a valiant attempt to explain the medicinal values of a few of the seventy varieties cultivated on the grounds at TPS. For fun, I have decided to provide the Spanish names, followed in parentheses by an English translation. I would also urge you to do your own research before using any of the below information to treat your own illnesses.

Té de Limón (Lemongrass): Used widely in Guatemala as a tea to soothe an upset stomach, lemongrass can also be used to make a concentrated oil that functions as an insect repellent or fungicide.

Orosus (Lantana): Used to cure dysentery and amoebic infections, diarrhea, and other stomach ailments. The leaves, soaked in alcohol, are used as a compress to alleviate rheumatism. There are a number of other uses, from treating muscles and menstrual cramps to treating epilepsy. Interestingly, this plant is considered an invasive weed in Florida.

Sábila (Aloe Vera): TPS uses aloe mostly in the production of shampoo, but it has a large variety of uses, from treating gastritis to sunburn.

Ruda (Rue): According to long-held beliefs in Guatemala, rue is used to cure newborn babies of colic. It is made into a paste, which is rubbed on the child's back. Julio also suggests that it might be used as a pleasant substitute for cologne or perfume.

Epazote (Epazote): The panacea of Latin America, epazote is traditionally added to beans when they are cooking for its ability to reduce their flatulence quotient. Additionally, epazote (along with papaya seeds) is used traditionally to cure parasitic infections of the intestine.

Albahaca (Sweet Basil): Used to treat stomach pain.

Ajenco (Wormwood): An alternative to rue for curing colic, but it has a really bitter flavor.

Romero(Rosemary): This herb is used in Mayan rituals as an incense.

Aguacate (Avocado): Adding avocado leaves to your bath is a traditional cure for rheumatism and backaches. Liquid obtained from boiling an avocado seed can be used to help close a wound that is slow to heal.

Ixbut(Ixbut): According to Mayan tradition, mothers drink tea made from the leaves of this plant to increase lactation.

Macadamia: Macadamia trees bear fruit after six or seven years of growth. To avoid the long wait, many commercial growers use grafts from mature trees instead of growing them from seedlings, but trees grown in this fashion have a shorter lifespan and are more susceptible to disease. The three macadamias at TPS are pure trees that were planted five years ago, and will probably bear fruit in the coming year. Their yield increases annually thereafter, and is of high value in global markets.

Yerba Buena (Mint): Milk that has been cooked with either cinnamon or mint is a regular part of breakfast in Guatemala, usually served over cereal. Kellogg's Cornflakes are so popular here that the box is often painted on the walls of small grocery stores alongside other contemporary staples--beans, cornmeal, canned milk and Coca-Cola.

Solar Powered Dehydrator

The ability to dehydrate herbs allows small farms to package and sell their products at regional markets (Antigua, Chimaltenango) through out the year, reducing individual risk and stabilizing monthly income. As part of its integrated model for self-sustaining rural farms, TPS manufactures solar-powered dehydrators for use in outlying communities. A wooden frame supports a black skin made of sheet metal, and the tapered base contains to metal grills which heat the air and force it upwards into the body of the dehydrator. As an added benefit, the area beneath the grills at the base of the dehydrator remains cooler than the outside air temperature, thus creating simultaneously a cold-storage and a drying area. The dehydrator at TPS was filled with quilete (mulberry), berro (watercress), and lemongrass in preparation for a batch of herbal shampoos.

A shot of the greenhouse (left) and dehydrating unit (center).

Drying racks inside the dehydrating unit.

My visit, in early March, fell within the hottest and driest season in Guatemala. Without its own well, Tecnología Para la Salud uses the same water that supplies the town of San Miguel and its surrounding colonias. Julio told me that during the dry months it is a struggle to provide enough water to support the large number of plants on the grounds. While larger trees and bushes are able to take advantage of natural aquifers, many of the project's seedlings, destined for outlying areas, are particularly sensitive to the heat and drought of the highland summers. According to Julio, there are often times when the water cuts off, and while TPS could store water in tanks on the property they choose not to because to do so would have a huge impact on the water available to neighboring farms and homes. Julio, who orchestrates the installation of wells and pumps around the region, is also currently negotiating municipal bureaucracy top attain a permit to install a well on the property. He has not yet been able to acquire permission, or to find a way to meet the costs of the project.

Ten minutes away, in the free-trade zone of El Tejar, the maquilas, factories and flour mills enjoy a federally subsidized water supply, consuming tens of thousands of gallons of water annually to wash machinery and corn during production. At Dong Bang, the price of unlimited annual water usage for an entire twelve-line clothing factory is about $1,000. For a family of four in the Colonia Elvidio Sulecio, beside TPS, water access is provided after payment of a one-time fee of approximately $500 and an annual maintenance fee of $40. This family, even if employed by one the nearby factories, will most likely never install anything more than a single faucet in their home. I would speculate that the entire annual water usage of TPS and its neighbors is equal to the monthly water usage at MASECA (a mill) or Dong Bang.

Letrinas Aboneras

Human waste remains one the greatest challenges in rural communities around the world. Traditions often provide insufficient means for safely containing and processing raw waste. Contaminated surface water and airborne fecal matter both become vectors for disease, leading to endemic infections, especially among infants and the elderly. I was once told by a UN ecologist who was installing latrines in rural Yunnan, China, that diarrheal diseases are by far the greatest cause of death worldwide. Changing weather patterns and the advance of deforestation lead to greater annual flooding, which only further increases the contamination caused by the improper storage of human waste.

Tecnología Para la Salud fills orders from local communities for both pit toilets and composting toilets. While pit toilets address the issue of surface-water contamination, they carry the likelihood that in time the water table will become contaminated, halting the use of wells for drinking and irrigation. However, the higher initial cost and greater amount of maintenance make composting toilets an unpopular alternative despite the effort expended by environmental agencies around the world to increase their use.

The composting toilet is essentially two tanks for solid waste and one tank for urine, which is kept separate and mixed with water for direct use as a fertilizer. Ash and plant matter are regularly added to solids tank until it is filled. The tank is then switched with an empty tank while the full one is given time to decompose into harmless fertilizer, which can then be added to soil without risk of contamination. Both aging tank and fresh tanks need to be stirred weekly, and this added (unsavory) task is the greatest cause for the composting toilet's unpopularity around the world. TPS processes all of its sewage this way, producing enough fertilizer for its extensive gardens.

Bomba de Lazos
During the rainy season, Tecnología Para la Salud harvests rainwater through a collection system attached to the roofs of the project's offices and buildings, storing the water in a large cistern. Attached to the cistern is a demonstration of an incredibly simple device called the bomba de lazos (rope pump). The pump is built from two cinder blocks, an old tire, three length of PVC pipe, a length of nylon rope, and a handful of rubber beads tied onto the rope at regular lengths. The passage of the beads through a pipe generates enough suction to draw water from great depth (up to 30 bars of pressure), and by adjusting the width of the beads in proportion to the diameter of the PVC pipe it is possible to control the load borne by the entire system.

Turn your head sideways to enjoy a performance by Julio's tiny working model of the pump he has modified for use in rural communities around San Miguel Morazan.

A view of the cistern, with larger versions of the pump visible on top. The bicycle-powered upgrade offers, according to Julio, "a good chance for some exercise".

Estufas Mejoradas

TPS also produces cooking/heating stoves built from cinder blocks and prefabricated metal fittings, engineered for greater fuel efficiency and the elimination of smoke within the home. Many highland families burn wood in open hearths, producing indoor smoke pollution that is a leading cause of blindness, cancer, respiratory illnesses and premature death, especially among women and children who spend much of their time inside the home. The redesigned stoves offered by TPS (and many other NGOs) are designed with a smaller, more efficient burning chamber and a chimney that carries smoke outside of the home (while also serving as a radiant heating element for the home). The material cost per unit is approximately $100, plus the day of labor required to install the unit in the home. TPS manufactures the parts required to construct the stoves, selling them unassembled to other organizations who transport and install them in communities in the Chimaltenango region.

Concerning Idealism, Entropy, Pick-up Trucks, and Irrigation

TPS emerged thirteen years ago, in a decade that saw in Guatemala the signing of the 1994 Peace Accords, the United Nations' extensive documentation of human rights abuses during thirty years of civil war, the dramatic reduction in troop sizes, and an apparent re-structuring of the federal government. Non-governmental aid organizations from around the world matched or surpassed the funding that was offered by national and regional governments in the push to improve living conditions among the rural poor and farming classes. Thirty years of grass-roots activism and independent media work finally attained critical mass in the nineties, and Guatemala was briefly able to enjoy a position in the center of the world's human-rights discourse. If an aid organization could attain legal status it could quite reasonably expect to find a source of funding and the favor of both local and public opinion. Jacob Schive, a Dutch activist who had been living in Guatemala since the mid-eighties, began investigating and interviewing rural communities in the mountains around Chimaltenango to better determine what sort of aid would be most effective in the region. After much research, a team of planners and workers had begun to take shape, and working relationships had been established with several villages. A board of directors was assembled, and Schive began to work on creating an administrative platform for his work, which in time became the non-profit organization called Tecnología Para la Salud. The various elements of the program (stoves, latrines, gardens) began to take shape at this time, as well as a system for making these resources available to their target communities. Contact was established with Ayuda Popular Noruega (APN), an expansive and well-funded NGO with projects throughout Central and South America. APN put its full support into Tecnología Para la Salud, and with this assistance the organization was able to buy land, to create paid positions for technicians and directors, to begin manufacturing stoves, latrines, and cisterns, and to initiate the program's garden.

After several good years, the organization began to lose its momentum, and as founding members moved on to other organizations it became clear that funding from APN was being misappropriated by several of the program's new directors.

"When something is given as a gift," Julio said, "people don't always appreciate it fully. They don't push themselves to improve, to refine their practices. They become content with the abundance provided by other people's hard work. There is a life-cycle in these organizations, from idealism to corruption. It happens so often it almost seems normal, but I don't know why this is. So, money began to run out, and many employees just left for different jobs. It was a mess. But the organization didn't collapse, because the board took the right position, fired the members who were lining their pockets, and they saw everything as a learning experience. The system has begun to change, so there are no longer donations. Instead, the funding structures in development organizations is based on exchanges--we get materials or funds in exchange for our own products, not because we asked for them."

In 2001, after eight years of support, APN withdrew its support from Tecnología Para la Salud, partly in response to the organization's internal problems and partially as part of APN's larger interest in shifting its interests from Central to South America. This departure was not wholly antagonistic. In support of what TPS had done to correct its own problems, and further to support those few workers were continuing work in the region, as a parting gift APN bought the program a new Toyota pick-up to enable them to transport people and materials to outlying communities.

"Currently, much of our funding comes from the sale of pit toilets and the herbal shampoo we make. I am trying to promote discussion about how we can attract outside funding and donations. Our salaries are all determined by the costs of administration and by TPS's income, and they are pretty slim. We work a lot here, and we have to move a lot of capital through the organization in order to aquire materials for what we make. We are surviving on what we are able to sell, but we don't have much room to maneuver. We believe in what we are doing, and that our ideal is to fight for the environment and for public health. But we are making a sacrifice, as well. If things remain the way they are, our work might come to an end, because we can't pull everything we need for food and shelter out of the air. We are continuing, in the hope that we can find more support, so we can continue our work."