Developing in Guatemala
People can’t always predict how a particular experience might shape their future—how choosing a certain path might transform a life. Recent graduate and anthropology major Amanda Dibble chose to spend her “gap” year before college traveling and working in Guatemala. She forged a strong connection with the land and people. Two years ago, Amanda decided to return to Guatemala to pursue a research project. With an undergraduate research award in hand, she headed to a rural Mayan village in the Petén region. Fast forward to the present. She’s still there. Her research project led to a full life in Guatemala built upon the desire to help create a more sustainable community.
Amanda’s ethnographic research focused on investigating the perspectives of the Q’eqchi’ Maya people of a rural village toward agrochemical use in their farming practices, as well as measuring the degree and type of agrochemical use. Amanda lived in a villager’s home, helped in the fields, washed clothes and bathed in the local river, and tried her hand at making tortillas. Throughout this immersion experience, she observed, conversed with, and interviewed many local people in her effort to understand the forces that influenced the villagers’ relationship to agrochemicals.
What she found is a population under pressure: pressure to sustain more people on less land and pressure to sell land to provide for their families. Agrochemical use is high and knowledge of the risks of such use low. What she ultimately documented is increasing agrochemical dependence brought about by diminishing land holdings and the loss of traditional techniques.
Amanda’s research resulted in an exceptional honors thesis, according to Robin Sheriff, Amanda's faculty mentor for the project. She couldn’t be more proud of Amanda’s work. "Her thesis is a very poignant but scientifically sophisticated snapshot of the effects of globalization on third-world family farmers," contends Sheriff. "She took everything we have to offer in our department and went out there and courageously documented what is really a heartbreaking process."
Some anthropologists restrict themselves to the realm of scholarly output but others move from scholarship to activism. Amanda took the latter path and it is the reason she remains in Guatemala. She was moved by her scholarly findings and the people she worked with.
“An interest in humanity is fundamental to entering the field of anthropology, and, especially when one lives among those she or he is learning from, it is natural to choose to parlay that work into a real-world product for the betterment of those populations,” explains Amanda.
While there are many ways to work in the interests of a community, Amanda chose to live in Guatemala full-time and work with a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, called ProPetén. One project they are working on is an expansion and digitalization of library resources—a collection of information gleaned from all scholarly studies conducted in the region.
Amanda also is working independently on two presentations: one outlining her research findings, which she hopes to offer to regional communities and NGOs; and a second, intended for university agronomy classes, addressing the effects of agrochemical usage and alternative farming methods, subjects not covered in Guatemalan educational institutions.
“Ultimately, at least at the community level, just doing a presentation is not likely to be the most productive way of disseminating information and helping people to bring about change in their situation and practices,” says Amanda. “However, it is a first step. In the future, I would like to be able to expand the project, work with various communities, and perhaps do some testing of market products and soil and water samples. I am sure the latter would be very eye-opening for the wider population in addition to the rural communities.”
Amanda sees more formal education in her future but is not in any rush to leave Guatemala. She is taking time to narrow her focus, she reports, though she knows she wants to pursue development work.
Did Amanda know that her choice of a gap year experience would lead to this life in Central America? No. But the consequences of her choice are still unfolding as she helps build a safer, more sustainable Guatemala.
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