March 23, 2010
Ever wonder how our breakfast decisions impact our planet? Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Joe Siry did—a contemplation that eventually inspired him to launch a 2010 Alterative Spring Break trip to a coffee farm in Guatemala. The collective creation of Siry, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ashley Kistler and visiting Instructor of Economics Bob Reinauer (who wrote his dissertation on the Guatemalan coffee industry), the ASB Guatemala adventure immersed 12 participating students into the world of fair-trade coffee production.
Before the sun rose on Friday March 5, the group of courageous Rollins explorers began a long journey that would eventually find them in Santa Anita la Union near Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala. From an anthropological perspective, Xela offered a rich academic experience owing to its ancient Mayan culture and untouched Spanish culture. But it’s here that lessons in world economics and environmental studies also ensued, beginning with a five-hour hike through the mountainside coffee plantation that would be the group’s home for the next several days.
High in the mountains, surrounded by volcanoes, 32 families of ex-combatants from the Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity collectively farm organically certified, shade-grown coffee. “This coffee is not at all like your typical Folgers mass-production coffee,” explains Siry. “Families employ responsible farming techniques, which are far less eroding on the land.” Once harvested and packaged, the coffee is distributed through Just Coffee, a Wisconsin company that imports and distributes 100% fair trade coffee from all over the world. Santa Anita produces 40,000 pounds of coffee each year; delicious, aromatic beans that are eventually sipped in niche coffee cafes that purposely support the organic and fair trade coffee movement.
While the coffee was certainly strikingly delicious, the group from Rollins didn’t travel hundreds of miles to simply sip coffee and observe; for five full days, professors and students dove into farm life tackling grueling projects like helping to build a new water system and cultivating new coffee plants in the on-site nursery. Some students helped to restore the computer center, arranged the library, and taught in the elementary school.
When Cecil Mack (Class of 2011) wasn’t rebuilding computers and setting up community internet access, he was busy filming his experiences, footage that will eventually become a documentary film that captures the personal growth of the people who joined him on this trip. “Before I left the U.S., I didn’t know what kind of film I wanted to make, so I just shot as much as possible,” Cecil explained. “Now I see that it’s about cultivating interest in preserving a place where people arrive as strangers and leave as family. This is a place worth preserving.”
While onsite accommodations are still very humble, an eco-tourism industry is now thriving in Santa Anita. Mack hopes his film will encourage people to travel there and experience what he and his fellow travelers experienced— that our lives are enriched by the people we meet and the places we go.
For Kistler, the epiphany came while having dinner with one of the farm families. “I’ve been coming to Guatemala for eight years, but this trip changed my view of the Guatemalan civil war, which is something I thought I knew a lot about,” Kistler reflects. “Listening to these former guerillas really humanized the conflict for me.”
The group assimilated with the farm community; they ate dinner with families, limited water use to only two hours a day, spoke as much Spanish as they could, and genuinely immersed themselves in the coffee culture of Guatemala “It was amazing to connect to this very natural, organic way of living,” recalls Mack. “This natural lifestyle just made so much sense.”
While a critical component of the course work, the trip is currently an elective. All three professors would like to see the immersion experience become a required part of the curriculum. For the participants of this trip, their view of how students learn about the world has now completely changed. “You can’t truly become a global citizen without visiting other countries,” says Mack, who has been obviously impacted by this once-in-a-lifetime journey.
Learn more about Alternative Spring Breaks
Photos submitted by Cecil Mack (Class of 2011)