News

September 19, 2007

‘A Project of Truly Epic Proportions’

Engineers Without Borders member Michael Adelman ’10 reflects on his experiences this summer in Honduras

Michael Adelman ’10 (Clarks Summit, Pa.) is pursuing a degree in civil engineering. From July 18 to August 1, Adelman participated in an Engineers Without Borders project in Honduras where students worked to help create sustainable economies related to growing local coffee. The following is a firsthand account of Adelman’s experiences.

    This past July, three students and one professor from Lafayette traveled to the remote village of Lagunitas, Yoro, Honduras, where they spent two weeks working alongside members of the community on a coffee project of truly epic proportions. I was fortunate enough to be a member of this team, along with Samir Awuapara, Sebastian Felipe Barreto, and Dr. Gladstone Hutchinson, and the experiences I had were truly unforgettable. I learned a tremendous amount about sustainable development, and how cooperation and dedicated effort can really lead to improvement in the lives of people.

    The idea of “sustainability” seems simple, but it can be a challenging feat to achieve systems that are really sustainable. The basic definition of a sustainable system is one that can function for a very long period of time, while providing benefits environmentally, socially, and economically, which means that one must look at the big picture and consider a large number of factors in carrying out any sustainable endeavor.

    This particular community of Lagunitas has a relationship with Lafayette students that dates back several years. This village was the site of the first water system project undertaken by Lafayette’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a multidisciplinary student group that works on sustainable projects to meet people’s basic water and sanitation needs.

    The coffee project this past summer was funded by a Kathryn Wasserman Davis Foundation “Projects for Peace” grant. Its goal was to build on the foundation of the work already done in Lagunitas by EWB: now that the community had basic water infrastructure, we could help them become more economically viable and take the first steps towards escaping poverty. Samir and Felipe worked as EXCEL scholars this summer before the trip doing extensive research on coffee, assisted by Kavinda Udugama (who had originally applied for and won the grant), Professor Hutchinson, and myself.

    Obviously, one key to improving coffee production is to make sure that coffee is available to begin with. We thus spent many hours with the farmers of Lagunitas, hiking up steep mountains with various tools, and building coffee-tree nurseries in the forest. This labor was literally very fruitful: the community now has 13,000 new coffee plants that will produce beans for years into the future! The people of Lagunitas did not have the resources needed to invest in all of these new trees, but now that we have helped give them that initial boost they can continue on their own toward prospering as coffee growers.

    We also helped the community develop a cooperative framework for development, involving local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and especially among the community members themselves. The coffee farmers will be working together as part of a collective group called Manos Unidas (“United Hands”) formed by the community. Although each family has their own trees, they will also work together on restoring old fields and divide both the labor and the produce fairly amongst themselves.

    We brought some coffee-processing equipment with us as well that could be used in the community, including a hulling machine and a roaster, and we worked with the people to bring a few batches of coffee beans from the tree all the way to the cup. Our goal was to show the community what was possible for them and help them envision themselves down the road not just as growers but as processors, roasters, and sellers of coffee. The work done in the two weeks in July was a good start, but we also wanted to build the community’s entrepreneurial skills in the hopes that they will use their own initiative to expand this project in the future.

    We also took the opportunity to make improvements and repairs to the water system, working with the villagers to construct everything from 20-foot drainage swales to better check valves in order to ensure better environmental protection and system function. Some aspects of the original design did not work as well as planned, but most of these problems have now been corrected in a way that the community can maintain. Also, EWB learned important lessons from the successes and problems with this project, which can be applied to future water systems in other communities.

    I was extremely impressed with the people of Lagunitas during my stay in their community. They were welcoming and hospitable, even taking extra time to prepare meals for us. They are very hard-working and skilled at what they do, and I have no doubt that they will succeed as coffee growers and entrepreneurs. They may not have much, but they are very creative and they know how to make a little bit go a long way. I felt honored to be working among these people and I will certainly miss them, especially the children, who not only brought smiles to our faces, but were eager to help out whenever they could.

    Leaving the community of Lagunitas, I felt optimistic about their potential for the future. Thanks to the combined effort of the village of Lagunitas and the students of Lafayette, we really had achieved something special.

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