Welcome to Guatemala
Building Bottle Schools
- Central America and Mexico, Guatemala
- Personal Essay
Sensory overload is something that one may experience upon his or her first arrival to Guatemala. There is so much to see, smell, hear, and taste in this country. I remember during my first trip from the airport to the Peace Corps office, noticing at once all of the bright colors that envelope the Indigenous women, and the layers of fabric spilling out of baskets expertly balanced on top of their heads. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the sudden smells and tastes of street food, wood fires, sweet mangoes, and the sounds of Spanish, Mayan languages, bus horns and newspaper vendors.
Guatemala is known as the land of "la eterna primavera," or the eternal spring. There is an endless amount of flora and fauna that can be found here, based on its location in Central America, as well as its incredibly varied topography that ranges from palm tree-lined coast to pine tree-covered mountains. Here you can find nature at its best; underground caves, exquisite rivers, virgin forests, tropical birds and animals, ancient Mayan ruins, volcanoes, tranquil lakes, a vast array of fruits and vegetables, and much more.
About 60% of Guatemala's population is Indigenous Mayan, with the rest of the population composed of a mix of Indigenous and Spanish settlers, called Ladinos, and a small population of Garifuna who are descended from Caribbean Islanders and shipwrecked African slaves. Therefore, a rich variety of culture, tradition, and language are represented throughout the different regions all over the country, which only adds to its dramatic color and beauty. The people are warm and friendly, and throughout most of the year, so is the weather!
Peace Corps began in Guatemala in 1963, one of the very first countries to welcome the newly established organization. Throughout the periods of unrest that Guatemala has suffered, including military coups, dictatorships, and a genocidal civil war that terrorized the country in the 1980's, Peace Corps was never evacuated and has maintained a well-respected presence. The Peace Corps programs in Guatemala have naturally evolved over the years with the needs of the country, and today Peace Corps promotes six programs in the areas of agriculture, health promotion, ecotourism, youth development, and municipal development, with over 200 volunteers.
Environmental education has for many years been an important focus of the eco-tourism program, as well as of many volunteers through secondary activities. Trash management is a large issue here, as it is in many countries all over the world. In 2008, a Peace Corps Volunteer named Jonathan Miller, in the environmental education program, came across a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Pura Vida working in Guatemala that specialized in using an innovative and environmentally friendly form of construction. Founded by Susanne Heisse, the NGO found an alternative use for trash; instead of lining streets and rivers, it is used to successfully build walls, homes and other structures in the form of plastic bottles stuffed with trash, also known as "eco-bricks." Layered within a sturdy frame of cement, wood, or metal, the stuffed bottles are held together with chicken wire, and then covered on both sides with cement to form the walls that are usually built with cement block. Proven and tested by engineers, this form of construction is just as safe and efficient as using cement block.
Jonathan saw this "eco-brick" construction as an opportunity to build a much needed school in a community where he was working, and in so doing ignited a spark amongst other Peace Corps Volunteers to begin similar bottle construction projects in their own communities.
As a result of these projects, the towns become cleaner and items that were once thrown into a trash dump to take 500 years to decompose are put to use as tools of construction. Not only is this kind of construction good for the environment and more cost-effective than using traditional cement block, it brings an entire community together. In order for thousands of bottles to be stuffed, tons of trash to be gathered, a structure to be built, and a dream to become a reality, it is fundamental for the community to fully support the project and to work together. Today, one can find homes, schools, latrines, walls, benches, and other structures built out of bottles.
Peace Corps volunteers have been working in coordination with Pura Vida, as well as other NGOs, to keep spreading this form of construction all over the country. The stories you will read about here, the school Quiche, the two classrooms built in Baja Verapaz, and the school in Alta Verapaz, are very different and inspiring examples of some of the successful bottle projects completed in Guatemala by Peace Corps volunteers and their communities.
Bottle construction has become a fun, challenging, and extremely beneficial addition to projects undertaken by Peace Corps Volunteers and the communities in which they live in Guatemala. It proves that not only can we make the world a better place, one person at a time, but one trash-stuffed bottle at a time.