Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hola desde El Salvador #13 / Finishing up

Dear family and friends,

I can hardly believe that this will be my last update to you from El Salvador … after three years and nine months in this country, I am so used to my life here that I find it difficult to imagine anything else. But although there is much work left to do in El Amatón, this will be left to the Rural Health and Sanitation Volunteer who will follow me, and most importantly, to the community itself. While I am sad at the prospect of leaving the community that has been my home for three and a half years, I am looking forward to taking the next steps in my life, and especially to reconnecting with all of YOU again!

Water System Infrastructure Project:

What a long and frustrating struggle this has been! As you all know, the Mayor & Co. completed construction on their water project last year, but the water remained off due to legal and technical problems (the Mayor does not have the land title, or permission, to the area where the well is drilled, and supposedly an incorrect pump was installed). As you also know, for the last year and a half I have been working with the community to solicit the necessary funds to install a solar-powered pumping system, in order to decrease electricity costs and make the project more sustainable. Since my last email in December, we actually managed to secure nearly $140,000.00 in funding for this project from some major donors -- the Spanish Association for International Cooperation, Rotary International, and the United Nations Development Program. This would have been enough for a 100% solar system – four pumping stations with solar panels at the well and three intermediate tanks, pumping water to the tank completely independently of the electrical grid. There would have even been money left over for watershed conservation efforts.

About three weeks ago, everything seemed to be coming together for the project to go forward. Since neither the Mayor nor the community had permission to the well drilled by the Mayor, the community proposed to drill a new well in a closer location, where the hydro-geological studies we did in 2006 showed an aquifer. The idea was to connect the new well, with the solar pumping system, to the existing tubing and tank. A delegation of community leaders went (with the engineers helping to design the project and people from the donating institutions) to inquire about obtaining permission to connect the new well to the Mayor´s system of tubing and tank. To our surprise, the Mayor gave a verbal OK, with a promise to elaborate a written permission for the following week. We were so excited! It seemed that at last, after years of struggling, El Amatón was going to have a truly sustainable water project.

It all started during the last week of March, when a commission named by the community went to the Mayor’s office, supposedly to pick up the Municipal Agreement that they had agreed to elaborate, ceding permission to use the existing tubing and tank with the new well. They came back empty-handed and discouraged: apparently, the Mayor had changed his mind because he feared that if a new well was drilled, his well (that is, the illegal, contaminated, and really far away well) would be left unused.

We fought the good fight. We made calls to the engineers at the UCA, the folks at Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Foreign Relations who were managing the Spanish Cooperation funds, and the Rotarians from the Santa Ana Club to try to talk to the Mayor again, without encouraging results. Melvin and Aroldo, representing the ADESCO, accompanied me to the UCA to meet with the engineers and the folks from the Ministry of Environment to try to formulate a solution. Finally, we had to admit that the solar panel project could not be done. We had no security to the current well, so we could not put the panels there. We couldn't drill another well because we had no tubing to connect it to. And due to the high altitude change between the water source and the tank, the system would have been technically complicated (with four pumping stations) and expensive if parts needed to be replaced quickly due to vandalism or sabotage (a not unlikely possibility given the Mayor's aversion to projects other than the ones he can claim credit for). I hung my head as Melvin, Aroldo, Ing. Villalta from the UCA, Ing. Zambrana from the Ministry of Environment, and I stood at the base of the water storage tank and the reality sunk in that the truly sustainable water project I had fought for with everything I had for the past three years and five months would not become a reality, at least not in El Amatón.

In the meeting with the community that followed, we explained the situation and discussed what would be the most appropriate use of the funds. Finally, the community decided to propose to the donors that part of the funds be transferred to a watershed conservation project, and the remainder (the majority, since watershed conservation is not a super-high budget activity) be distributed to other communities for solar-powered pumping systems where the people do not currently have access to potable water and solar pumping is a more feasible option.

As I rode back to San Salvador with the engineers (I had an appointment the next day in San Vicente for my final language interview and was planning to go and visit Silvia and Niña Dora, my host family from training), I reflected on the decisions made. I think they were the right ones. I am sure there are hundreds of communities in El Salvador that still do not have potable water, and some that do not have electricity either, where solar energy really is the only option. I sincerely hope that we can give the gift of water to these communities.

When we stopped at a gas station outside San Salvador, as Ing. Zambrana hopped out to fill up the tank, Ing. Villalta turned around and asked me, ''How do you feel? ''. I hardly knew how to respond – things had changed so fast I was still processing it all. The fate of three and a half years of my work had just been turned upside down. The day before the last meeting, I had been nearly hysterical with nervousness as I sat and talked with don Salomón and Aroldo about the few people in the community, the Mayor's puppets, who were actively working against the solar panel project. ''Why can't I just go home, tranquila, and not worry about this anymore?'' I sobbed. ''I've done everything I can to try to help you implement a good water project, I've put my heart and soul and all my resources into this fight. I've told myself I'm not going to worry about it, that's not going to do any good, and that now it is up to the community to unite if it wants this project. But then in two seconds I'm worried about it again.'' I sobbed as don Salomón tried to comfort me.

''It's because you feel love for the community,'' he said gently. ''When you feel love, you can't help but worry.'' I collected myself a little.

''I know, I know,'' I said. ''It's like it says in the Bible – we are all part of one body, and when one part of the body hurts, we all hurt. Honestly, in a few weeks I will be home in the U.S. and I will have all the clean water I want in my house. But there are so many good, good people here that don't deserve a bad water project. You deserve a well-thought out, sustainable project that will not tax your scarce resources so much. And it hurts me to know that you may not have it after so much effort.''

That was when we still had hope that maybe, just maybe the Mayor would be willing to reconsider. But now, knowing that the project could definitely not proceed, I felt strangely calm. It was a huge disappointment, of course, both for me and for the community I (mostly) love. But it was almost as if now, recognizing that the negative legal and technical factors were just too great, the pressure was off. We were done with this fight and it could not be won. We had to make the best of it and look for the best way to invest the money promised and try to improve El Amatón's water project in other ways.

And there are other ways to address the problems we hoped to address through a new, legalized, cleaner well and the solar panels. In addition to preparing the inquiries to the donors about transfer of the funds to other projects, I spent quite a bit of time preparing detailed recommendations for the community and for the next Volunteer regarding what they can do to make the water project more sustainable. They can continue working with the Institute for Human Rights at the UCA to legalize the well. The IDHUCA can also help them to legalize the Water Committee that the community named to administer the project, and draw up statutes (with community participation) defining project norms and rules. This will help ensure that administration is left in the hands of honest people selected by the community through democratic process. They can count on the help of UCA engineers to train the Committee in system maintenance and administration. And perhaps the next Volunteer can focus on income generation projects to help make payment of the service of water more feasible for the families.

At first, I thought, ''What a shame. What a waste of a year and a half. The people of El Amatón are no better off than they were when we started designing the solar panel project. They are in exactly the same situation that they would have been in had I gone home at the end of my two years of service.'' But as I thought about it more, I found things to console me. For one thing, the Mayor has now turned on the water. Without the threat of another project being implemented, there is no doubt that the Mayor would have never turned on the water system before the 2009 elections. So people have gotten water a little bit sooner, although this is small consolation knowing the problems of the system.

No, I would say that looking back on the last year, what I am really glad about, what I take most pride in, is the filters project. The water from the Mayor's project may be expensive and contaminated, but at least people now have in their hands the infrastructure, and most importantly the knowledge, to protect their health giving adequate treatment to the water. And I suppose I should not underestimate the importance of the capacity-building that has taken place in the past year with community organizations: the ADESCO, the Health Committee, and the Agriculture Committee (many of whose members will hopefully compose part of the new Water Committee to administer the project). They have learned many skills, such as designing, soliciting, and managing projects, which will hopefully help the community to overcome any problems it should encounter in the future.

So my service is ending with a big disappointment in the area in which I have invested the most time and energy. But there have been other, modest successes:

Filters Project

Since my last email, the filters project has really come into its own. Numbers don´t tell everything, but sometimes I think I lose sight of the big picture when I am in the midst of delivering and installing the filters and training the families one by one. But as doing the monthly reports reports has helped me to see, we ARE having a substantial impact in the community: we´ve installed 73 filters installed, providing safe drinking water to 382 people. But numbers are just numbers. I think the smiling kids with glasses of clean water in the pictures say it best.

Many people have commented that they already experience less stomachaches and their kids don’t get diarrhea as much, but it’s really too early to see the long-term health effects since many (most) people probably had parasites when we installed the filter. The Health Committee has plans to provide de-parasitizing medicines to the families using the filter in the near future – hopefully then, we will see a dramatic change in health.

Much more than any number of filters installed, I´m most proud of the way the project has built the capacity of the Health Committee. They have learned so much and taken on so many new responsibilities: education of their fellow community members, monitoring, managing donations, preparing reports … all the skills they will need to keep carrying out projects to improve community health, little by little.

Agriculture Projects

Since it is dry season, we have been on ¨break¨ from most agriculture-related projects. But the women from the home gardens project have been making their compost piles and plan to plant again this year. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Committee is gearing up to execute a project of vegetable cultivation on a commercial scale, with technical support from the Ministry of Agriculture and the financial support of my ever-generous church family at Wildwood Presbyterian (you guys are the best!). In a cooperative effort, they will cultivate about a half-acre in different vegetables for both home consumption and sale in the market. This will hopefully help boost their families’ incomes, since vegetables are much more profitable than the basic grains (corn and beans) they now cultivate. If the project goes well, the Committee hopes to expand the project, perhaps by soliciting a grant for construction of a rainwater catchment tank and installation of a drip irrigation system, in order to allow them to cultivate vegetables year-round.

One ag project that has been active in the dry season is the improved chicken raising project. During the rainy season, it´s not the greatest idea to be raising tiny chicks because they are so vulnerable to the wet and the cold. But the dry season is perfect time to incubate new chicks, and the women fired up the incubator again in January. Most people in the project (and many others) signed up for a slot to brings eggs to incubate and increase their flocks.

Niña Yolanda pulls out the bottom tray of the incubator to show the chicks hatching

Library Project

After over a year of waiting, a library project from Rotary International that I had been working on with about 10 other Volunteers finally came to fruition in March. With much hassle and the payment of a couple bribes (I’m serious) we received two shipping containers of beautiful books to start or expand libraries in 11 rural schools, and I gave a training on library organization and reading promotion.

Fellow PCVs Barbara, Chip, and I with a Ministry of Education employee

sorting the books to make sets for each school

Kids from El Amatón with new books (they looked a lot happier before I pulled the camera out)
A sampling of the books by Latin American authors
Closing thoughts

When I first joined Peace Corps and arrived in El Amatón, I imagined that I would leave everything perfect in the community: a sustainable water system, the entire area forested, all the lands with soil and water conservation practices and diversified agriculture, everyone participating in keeping a clean, healthy community, no trash in sight. I've found that community development is a much messier process than I ever imagined, and the biggest obstacle is not getting funds. It's motivating everyone to work together for the true good of the community. So there is a lot of work left to do. I am leaving the next Volunteer, and most importantly the community, a lot of challenges still to be overcome.

So I didn't save the world. Not even close. I didn't even dramatically change the lives of the people of one community. But I have learned a few things along the way that should serve me well as I work with communities in the future. Community members have obtained skills and knowledge that will serve them well in their efforts toward sustainable development. I have made some wonderful, wonderful friends. And even if their lives are not dramatically different, I hope that the lives of the people of El Amatón are a little bit better because I have been there. And I guess that for now, that will have to do.

What’s next?

Tommorrow I head to Guatemala and southern Mexico for two and a half weeks, then I’ll be back in Wisconsin and Illinois for about a month and a half. I’d love to see as many of you as possible before I head east to Cornell. There, I’ll work as a lab and field assistant in some organic agriculture studies from mid-June until August, when I start classes in my grad program.

Con amor desde El Salvador one more time,


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hola desde El Salvador #12 / Filters are here!

Dear family and friends,

I hope that this email finds you all enjoying the holiday season and looking forward to time with dear family and friends. I am a little sad that I will not be able to make it home for Christmas this year to see my U.S. family and friends, but I am thankful that I will be with my Salvadoran family – all of the wonderful people of El Amatón that have supported and upheld me during these last three years. My time here is growing short (I return to the U.S. in April) and I want to spend as much time with my adopted community as possible. Of course, the invitation is still open to anyone who would like to come and visit during my final months!

Bio-Sand Filters Project

I write with good news -- the bio-sand filters are finally here! In October I trained the Health Committee, and together we held community meetings on basic hygiene and sanitation and filter use and maintenance. The filters were delivered from the Pure Water project in Honduras near the end of November, and I am currently in the process of installing as many as possible with the Health Committee. We are hopeful that these filters will nearly eliminate gastrointestinal diseases caused by bacteria and parasites. THANK YOU to all who helped make this a reality!


Carlos identifies good hygiene practices in the Health Committee training

Marlene explains filter maintenance in the all-community training on filter use


Photo of the filter with logos of donors and technical support organization: Wildwood Presbyterian Church (left side), Holden Village (above front), the Burnt Hills Rotary Club (center front), Pure Water for the World (bottom front). The Peace Corps logo is on the right side of the filter because we also received a donation from the Peace Corps Partnership Water and Sanitation Fund.

Delivering filters by hand-cart to the homes

Loading filters on don Santiago’s ox-cart for delivery


Alexander adding the sand to a filter while kids watch

Girls with their family’s newly installed filter, as they begin 5 days of pouring water through to clean the filter

We are still battling the Ministry of Health bureaucracy to get them to express support for the biosand filters project before the municipal authorities. (We have had some problems because the Ministry usually only supports chlorination systems. However, since we suspect that the water has organic material, chlorination without pretreatment is not recommended.) My patience is wearing a bit thin, but I have to think that the months of phone calls and presentations and meetings will convince them in the end.

If you are interested in more information and pictures of the progress of the bio-sand filters project, click here: Project Report – El Amaton Biosand Filters – Dec 2007.

Water System Infrastructure Project

We´re also still plugging away at the legal issues with the help of the Institute for Human Rights at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA). Right now the Mayor has agreed to sign a shared administration contract (which would give the community control over all decisions regarding the project) and our main challenge is trying to obtain legal permission to the well.

Fundraising for the solar panels project (to decrease the energy costs of pumping water from the well to the community and make the project more sustainable) is going slowly and I am getting discouraged. We have the support of three Rotary Clubs and four Districts, but we are still far from our Rotary goal. We also have a proposal in with the Ministry of Foreign Relations to see if we can obtain support from international donors, but with such a small community I am afraid we will not be competitive. If you are interested in helping (and especially if you have Rotary contacts), please visit

For now, the water from the project is not falling regularly, and even when it did fall a few times people were so worried about how much it will cost that they were hesitant to use it. Since dry season is setting in, water is getting scarce and has stopped completely in the public tap several times. We were without any water two weeks ago, so it was down the bluff to haul water (one hour per trip). Now that the creek has dried up, we can only obtain drinking and cooking water from the natural wells. For washing clothes, we are making the trek to the river contaminated with human sewage...something that will continue unless we can get this solar panel project off the ground to pump water from the well to the community sustainably. It´s frustrating to have been here three years and not yet see a change in supply of this most basic need, despite my best efforts. Sigamos en la lucha…We continue in the struggle.

Soil Conservation

On a brighter note, the soil conservation project has had great results! We did some monitoring visits to the fields where we dug the acequias (water infiltration ditches) in April. Farmers have already seen improvements in their crops and in water infiltration. One farmer reported that the cornfield in the lower part of his field was always buried with eroded soil before the construction of the acequias. This year, however, he has not observed soil erosion and the corn in the lower portion of the field has been very productive. Another farmer told us how in years past, strong currents of water passed and swept away the bean plants, but this year no strong currents have passed and the beans have produced very well. I wasn’t expecting to see such immediate results (just one growing season), so this was a nice surprise!

Farmers with their water infiltration ditches among corn and bean crops, Sept. 2007.

Home Gardens

We reaped the majority of our harvest of semi-hydroponic tomatoes, sweet peppers, radishes, and broccoli in September and October. Fresh tomatoes and sweet peppers are soooo good … tomatoes roasted, peeled, and mashed up with mint in a yummy sauce called chismol and peppers roasted on the plancha.

Me with harvest of radishes from my flat

Linda harvesting tomatoes in her aunt, Tita’s, garden

Youth Environmental Group

The Youth Ecological Club finished up a really active year with an Earth Celebration Day of environmental dramas and a hike to the cloud forest of the volcano (inactive, we hope) that towers over the village. It is a beautiful, if demanding, hike. The path begins winding through coffee farms and rocky fields of corn and beans, then shifts to tropical dry forest, and at the highest elevations, moist cloud forest. Upon reaching the summit, we hiked down to the bottom of the crater, where the kids had a great time playing soccer and swinging on vines! A fun end to a year of hard work on their part.

Left: Magali weeding around one of the trees we planted in the community water sources

Right: Cristina and I about half way up the Cerro (she’s already a little tired!)

Harvest Time

Harvest time is now in full swing here in El Amatón, a bit late due to the delayed onset of the rainy season. There has been a whirl of agricultural activity as people pull up and thresh beans and mound up and de-grain dried ears of corn in their fields – and then, without hardly taking a deep breath, plunge into the coffee-picking frenzy that will last until early February. After all the paperwork and bureaucracy and politics of the water projects, it has been great for me to engage in real, physical work of the various harvests. I’ve gone to pick coffee with Lidia on her father’s farm, a basket strapped around my waist to catch the red-purple beans as I run my hands down the branches. Then it was off to the frijolar to pull up and thresh beans with don Aroldo and his sons. And last weekend I went with Melvin and his family to tapizcar corn, or break off the dried ears of corn from the stalk (still in their husks) and toss them into piles, to be mounded up into a single pile at the end of the day for de-graining. Since each pile we made drew from a pretty large area, my third-base to first-base throw from my softball days (wayyyyyyy back when) came in pretty handy! There is nothing like working in the fields in the fresh air to leave behind all the frustrating bureaucracy that accompanies community development projects – and to really feel like a part of the family and community.


Left: Elias and me picking coffee

Right: Lorena (Lidia’s niece) picking coffee


Aroldo and son Marcos threshing the first bean crop in August


don Mamerto and Rudy tossing dried ears of corn into a pile

Aroldo and Melvin pick ears of corn below their pile

Congrats to those who have made it to the bottom of the latest issue of “Hola desde El Salvador.” I wish you all a very merry Christmas and look forward to hearing from you.

Con amor desde El Salvador,


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Hola desde El Salvador #11

Dear family and friends,

I hope that the beginning of the school year finds you all well back in the U.S. (or wherever else you may be!) Things are moving along here in El Salvador, although (as usual) much more slowly than I would like. I guess that after all this time I am still an impatient American!

Bio-Sand Filters Project

The good news is that – thanks to many of YOU -- it looks like we will be beginning the bio-sand filters project very soon! (In case you forgot or are new to my email list – these are cement filters filled with sand and gravel to be installed in each house. The filtration process removes 97% of bacteria and 100% of parasites and worms.) Gastro-intestinal illness (caused by bacteria and parasites found in contaminated water) is the most common health problem in the community and also the biggest killer of kids under 5. The Health Committee and I are hoping that this project will nearly eliminate this problem, improving child survival, school attendance of kids, and productivity of adults. The project has already been approved by the Peace Corps Partnership program and is posted on their Web site for potential donors to make contributions (read the project summary at: I want to thank all of you who have already donated through my church … they will soon be sending the money to Peace Corps Partnership, which, along with promised contributions from Holden Village (an ecumenical retreat center in WA state) and Pure Water for the World, should put us very near our goal! Please know what a difference your generosity – whether with financial support or well-wishes – will make in the lives of the people of El Amatón.

In mid-September I’m planning to visit another Peace Corps Volunteer who is paired with Pure Water for the World in Choluteca, Honduras to observe the different stages of the project. Then, I’ll return to El Amatón to train the Health Committee to carry out the filter installation and monitoring and hygiene education.

Water System Infrastructure Project

This is going much, much slower thanks to political issues. Most of the infrastructure of the Mayor’s project is already built – that is, the tubing and tank. And as you may recall, I have been working with engineers from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in San Salvador and leaders in the local Association for Community Development (ADESCO) to design a solar panels project and raise the funds to implement it. This would help decrease the energy costs of pumping water from the well drilled by the Mayor to the community and make the project more sustainable.

Unfortunately, we are having some problems with land title issues. Upon beginning the project, the Mayor has claimed that the municipality had a 50-year permission from the landowner for the use of the well. That turned out to be a lie – there is no permission, no title, no nothing. And instead of trying to obtain the title to the well in the name of the ADESCO, the Mayor is trying to obtain it in his own name. He’s also pressuring the community to transfer the title of the land where the water storage tank is built to the Mayor as well, saying that the project will be stopped if they don’t.

For now, the community has narrowly voted against ceding the title to the water storage tank – but there remains the problem of the title to the well. I really, really don’t like the idea of the title being in the hands of anyone but the ADESCO. Especially with the trend towards privatization of water here in El Salvador, if the land titles are not in the community’s name the project could be sold off to a private company, with a high possibility that the quality of service would decrease and the price increase beyond the ability of the families to pay (if interested, read this article from World Press about "Privatizing Water and the Criminalization of Protest"). Certainly, without security to the well and project administration firmly under the community’s control, we can’t be accepting donations for solar panels to pump water from the well to the community.

We have sought legal counsel from the Institute for Human Rights at the UCA (IDHUCA for its initials in Spanish) and they have promised to help us investigate the situation and protect the water project from being (further) exploited for political or financial ends. Hopefully we will be able to resolve the land title issues in favor of the community, in which case the fundraising for the solar panels can continue. We already have the support of two Rotary Clubs in the U.S. But this could be a long, long process.

I’m just glad that the bio-sand filters project is decentralized and therefore not tainted by such nasty politics. If we can get the bio-sand filters installed and people start filtering their drinking and cooking water, that will make a big difference in the community’s health, even if they still spend nearly their whole lives finding water.

Agriculture Projects: soil conservation, trees, veggies, and chickens

-- Soil Conservation: In view of the water project, the Agriculture Committee has worked hard to promote projects that will contribute to conservation of the watershed and increase water infiltration. Before the planting season we carried out a soil and water conservation project consisting of water infiltration ditches called acequias. These structures are dug on level curves across sloping farm fields and help to detain both water running over the fields and eroded soil particles. For each meter of acequia, the agronomist Manuel informed us, 2 barrels of water are stored in the underlying aquifer in each heavy rainfall. So the 2,500 meters we dug will be helping to store 5,000 barrels of water with each rainy-season storm for use in the dry season, as well as helping prevent erosion and preserve humidity in the soil. Not bad!

Above Left: Samuel digging an acequia.

Above Right: I try my hand at digging acequias.

Below: A finished acequia.

-- Agroforestry: More recently, about 30 farmers participated in an Agroforestry project, planting 3,000 multiple-use trees on their lands. Kevin, the agronomist from the NGO that donated the tree seedlings (Trees, Water, People) and I made the first round of visits to the farmers who had planted the trees last week. It was especially fun to visit don Leopoldo’s parcel – not only did we get to see the little seedlings planted just this year, but also the trees we planted over 2 years ago during my first year in El Amatón. Some of the cedro trees are over 1 ½ times my height already.

Leopoldo and I with a cedro tree planted 2 years ago, during my first year in El Amaton

-- Home Vegetable Gardens: This year I continued the semi-hydroponic home vegetable gardens with a group of about 7 women. After making compost, preparing liquid bio-fertilizer, starting the seeds, mixing the substrate (compost, coffee husk, and sifted white pumice rock), transplanting into the containers, and caring for plants, we are finally harvesting tomatoes, sweet peppers, radishes, and … broccoli! Broccoli was a new one for us this year – we weren’t sure if broccoli could be made to produce in this relatively hot climatic zone, but when I went to thresh beans lat week with don Aroldo, Niña Emelina brought us steamed vegetables – including broccoli -- with the lunch she carried out to the fields. ¿De su huerto? I inquired, indicating the broccoli. “From your garden?” On my last round of visiting the gardens the huge plant had just a tiny sprig of broccoli nestled beneath giant leaves. “Sí,” she nodded shyly. It was delicious.

Above Left: Cutting up leaves to be used in a liquid biofertilizer for the vegetable crops.

Above Right: Moises with crop of radish plants.

Below: One of my pepper plants.

-- Chicken Project: Through the generosity of my home church, Wildwood Presbyterian, 17 more families have also joined the chicken project and have begun to raise improved breeds of chickens in enclosures. Last year’s beneficiaries shared their knowledge of proper facilities, animal nutrition, vaccination, and record keeping with the new participants. Meanwhile, last year’s beneficiaries have continued to add to their flocks, hatching more chicks from the communal incubator. We (my Ministry of Agriculture counterpart, Manuel, and I) are now teaching the women to vaccinate their chickens so that they can organize community vaccination campaigns at the beginning and end of each rainy season.

Above Left: Emelina teaches new participants about the vaccinations their chickens must receive.

Above Right: Alejandro and Yulissa hold their family's young chickens

Below: Yolanda vaccinates a chicken against viruela.

Youth in Action for the Environment!

One area where I feel like things are really coming together is in my work with the youth. In April I worked with 5 other Volunteers to organize an Environmental Leadership Camp. Each Volunteer brought 5 student leaders to El Amatón, where they spent three days in talks and activities on natural resources and their protection and leadership skills for motivating their peers to get involved in environmental activities. I have been totally impressed with the youth from my community and the way they have involved their fellow students and followed up the camp with concrete actions: forming a Clean-Up Committee to manage trash in the school, organizing a River Clean-Up, planting trees in community water sources, promoting a recycling campaign, and even writing and performing environmental dramas and songs (at one point before the big show they were coming over to my house every single day after school to rehearse, making a big happy environmental racket!). It’s been a pleasure to work with these kids – their enthusiasm is contagious, and with all of the time we have spent together, I feel like we’ve become more than just teacher-and-students. We’ve become friends. (In fact, they have informed me in no uncertain terms that they are NOT going to allow me to leave!)

Reforesting community water sources with the youth.

Book Recommendation: Mountains Beyond Mountains

So in the past couple of weeks it has been raining almost nonstop which has put a damper on a lot of planned “outdoor” activities like supervisory visits to the sites where trees have been planted … and so, miracle of miracles, I’ve actually gotten to spend a few afternoons in my hammock reading. By far the best and most inspiring book I’ve read, which I am now recommending to everyone, is called Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man who would Cure the World, by Tracy Kidder. It is about a doctor who began working in rural Haiti in the 1980’s and since then has dedicated his life, and the organization he co-founded, Partners in Health (, to providing a “preferential option for the poor” in health care – from Peru to Africa. It’s an amazing tale of what a difference a “small group of dedicated people” can make. I found the PIH philosophy especially refreshing … their firm conviction that each human life is beyond value, disdain for standards of “cost-effectiveness,” and commitment to improving the lives of the poor, whatever it takes. I could sympathize with Dr. Farmer’s frustration with standards applied in the international health community which deem $5,000 / year to treat a multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patient in Peru “a poor use of resources” -- while $68,000 / year is spent per TB patient in New York. I get mad, too, when people tell me that $100,000 is too much money to bring water, sustainably, to 500 people in El Salvador – while the average home for a four-person family in the U.S. costs more than that. Give this book a read … and let it move you to action, in whatever way you feel called.

Read more about Mountains Beyond Mountains at PIH's website.

So it is looking like I will be here in El Salvador until April of next year, in order to see through the monitoring of the bio-sand filters project. I am considering a visit home between now and then, most likely at Christmastime, but we’ll have to see how things go. At any rate, I’d love to hear from all of you!

Con amor desde El Salvador,


Thursday, May 3, 2007

Hola desde El Salvador #10 / Request for assistance with Water Filters Project please!

Dear family and friends,

How time flies! It has been 6 months since I last wrote and my third year in the Peace Corps is nearly half way over. I can hardly believe it.

I hope that spring is finally arriving back in the U.S. and that you are all enjoying the warmer weather and the greening of the landscape. Here it is still dry season but we have had several showers that signal the impending beginning of the rainy season. Soon I’ll be able to sleep past 1 a.m. and not have to worry about if I will be able to obtain a few jugs of water from the public faucet or the small natural wells below the community. Hooray! (Although I will have to contend with the mud!)

As always, I continue to struggle alongside community members to satisfy the most basic of all human needs – clean, sufficient water. This has been a long road, with many twists and turns and dead-ends. But now, working with the Association for Community Development and its Committees (Water, Health, and Agriculture and Environment), we finally have a vision for how this might come to pass.

I write to you today to let you know how things are going, but also to humbly ask those of you who are willing and able for your support of this endeavor. Whether you can offer your time and energy in fundraising efforts or prayer and moral support (or both!) I would be very grateful. Please read on to learn more about the current status of the water project, our vision, and how you can be a part of it.

As some of you may recall from my last email, we had carried out a hydro-geological study of the area and we knew the location of the nearest viable aquifer (about 1 km away from the community) where a well could be drilled. An outstanding team from the Engineers Without Borders chapter of Rowan University had conducted an assessment trip to El Amatón and was hard at work designing the water system infrastructure (pump, energy source, tubing, water storage tank, etc.). Then our Mayor came to the community announcing a project about which I had deep reservations, a project based on a well drilled for political reasons. The well has abundant water, but it believed to be contaminated by nearby latrines and it is located 3 km away and 200 m below the community. Several experts in water systems with which I have consulted have warned that the great distance and rise from the well to the storage tank means that the energy cost of pumping the water will be more than a community of such scarce resources can sustain, if only electrical energy is used. Unfortunately, the Mayor proved closed to our efforts to drill a slightly closer, cleaner well, and work is currently in progress on this project.


Bio-Sand Filter Project

While people in the community are encouraged by the prospect of having sufficient water after so many years of scarcity, the majority share these concerns of water contamination and the expense of pumping the water, and are supportive of efforts to better the project. The Health Committee and I have investigated different options for purifying the water, and the community has nearly unanimously voted to pursue a project of installing 120 bio-sand filters, one in each home of the community.

(At left) Diagram of the bio-sand filter. Removal of most harmful contaminants and pathogens takes place on the top surface of the sand 2 in. below the water surface, where a natural biomass layer of microorganisms degrades organic material and removes bacteria and parasites.

The filters, promoted by an organization called Pure Water for the World (, are capable of removing 97% of all fecal coliform bacteria, 100% of parasites and worms, 100% of Giardia cysts, 99.98% of Cryptosporidium oocysts, and 50-99% of organic and inorganic toxicants from contaminated water. Together with the hygiene and sanitation education that the Health Committee plans to do, the filters should solve the problem of contamination of the well and make a big difference in the health of the community. There are many mothers that have lost one or more children under 5 to diarrheas, and I don’t think there is a mother in El Amatón who has not at some point feared for the life of a child dehydrated by diarrhea. Now, putting in a new water system, it would be a terrible mistake not to make sure that an appropriate purification system is also installed. (And although I was never in the acute danger a young child with parasites faces, I can say that I have never felt so miserable as when I have had amebas, Giardia, and bacterial infections – and I had access to good medical care and medications to eliminate the infections. I can’t imagine how these people manage to work or study at all with chronic parasitism!)

I’ve already seen lots of support from the community for this project – in the last community meeting, community members agreed to pay a collaboration of $10 per family towards the cost of the filters, help with transport and installation, attend all the trainings and hygiene and education sessions, and put into practice personal hygiene and environmental sanitation recommendations in their homes. Eight more people also joined the four existing members of the Health Committee, specifically to help with hygiene and sanitation education, training on proper use and maintenance of the filters, and follow-up visits to make sure the filters are working properly!

We are still waiting on price quotes for the filters from a project being carried out by a Rotary Club in another part of El Salvador, but we think that the cost of buying and transporting the filter, supplying parasite treatments, and hygiene and sanitation education will come to about $100.00 per family, or about $12,000.00 total.


Solar Panel Project

Making sure that the water gets to the community at an affordable price is going to be a bit more of a challenge. I’ve continued to work with the Engineers Without Borders as well as some great professors from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in San Salvador to design a project of solar panels to supply at least a portion of the energy for the pump. What they have come up with is a hybrid solar – electrical energy system to operate the pump. In this system, solar panels installed near the pump would produce energy, which will be injected into the electrical grid. Any energy generated by the solar panels will be used to power the pump without increasing the electricity bill. Energy needs beyond what the solar system can generate will be provided by the grid.

The only catch is the initial investment: about $100,000.00 for a 20-kW system supplying nearly 100% of the energy for the pump; about $80,000.00 to supply 75% of the energy, and about $60,000.00 to supply 50-60% of the energy. I know it sounds like a lot, but I’ve run the numbers and the investment is a good one, both economically and ecologically. One engineer calculated that without the solar panels, the community will probably be paying around $15,000.00 per year in electricity bills – so in a little over 7 years, a 100% solar system would save the community its cost in electricity bills, and the system is guaranteed for 25 years. And to be honest, I think that this is the only way to guarantee the sustainability of the water project and the health benefits that sufficient water for good hygiene and sanitation would bring. Without the solar panels, the monthly quota per-family will be over $10 just to cover the electricity bills, and the ADESCO will need to charge more for the salary of someone to operate the controls of the pump and to build up a maintenance fund. In the socio-economic study that I carried out with Engineers Without Borders, the most people said they could pay per month for water was $4.00 (too bad the Mayor never asked them that. Grrrrrr.) The solar panels would also provide a great opportunity for environmental education about the connection between renewable energy and environmental protection. That’s still a very new concept here in El Salvador (an almost nonexistent one in the rural areas), and having a concrete example functioning in the community would help bring it to life for both kids and adults.


How Can You Help?

OK, here comes the part I don’t like. But I love El Amatón, so I have to do it.

We have knocked on door after door after door of government aid agencies, businesses, and NGOs in search of the necessary resources to realize this vision of clean, affordable water. However, with the exception of Rotary and Pure Water, which are standing by ready to help, the institutions have largely been unresponsive. We will persist in following these channels, but I have grown weary of bureaucracy in the face of such great human need. I am tired of responses like “USAID is no longer funding any water system infrastructure projects in Central America. We’re focusing on roads and bridges” (when what people in the rural areas need is water) and “I’m sorry, we like our projects have at least 1,000 beneficiaries” (when my community has less than 500) and “Is it even worth it to put in a decent water system to serve only 500 people?” (when I know almost all of these people by name and understand their need and love them as family). These responses contrast so sharply with the overwhelming generosity that I experienced working with family, friends, and my church on the classrooms project, and with my church on numerous projects thereafter. You all, all who donated to these projects, didn’t see numbers. You saw people -- children of God, if you will -- with needs, and you responded. And I thank you for all that you have given, not only financial resources, but also gifts of time, energy, prayer, and well wishes.

So while we will persist with our proposals to institutions, I have decided to return to the grass-roots – to appeal directly to people of faith and conscience in the confidence that the Spirit of compassion moving in and through each of you can accomplish marvelous things.

I want to begin with the filters project, for two reasons. One, it is a more modest, reachable goal. And more importantly, it addresses the most basic need of health and child survival. What I need from those of you who are willing and able is this:

-- First, if you are religious, please pray for my community. This request may seem silly to some of you, and that’s OK. But I realize that everyone wants to help, but not everyone is in a position to do fundraising. This is a way that everyone can be involved if they wish. It really does strengthen me to know that there are people praying for me and for my community, for guidance and for persistence in seeking God’s will of justice and peace “on earth as it is in heaven” for this particular community. Don’t for one moment think that the contribution of prayer is any less significant that other forms of assistance. It means a lot to me!

-- Second, if you would like, please talk to your faith communities, classes, and civic groups to promote giving to the water filters project. We accomplished a lot through my family, friends, and especially my church on the classrooms project, so just imagine what could happen if this effect was multiplied – if each of you was able to mobilize your faith community or civic group. Again, I understand that not everyone feels comfortable doing this, and that many faith communities already have causes that they are dedicated to and may not be able to take on another. That’s OK. Please don’t feel that you have to do this. I feel bad just asking. But I know there may be some people who would like to help in this regard and I would be very grateful for anything you can do!

I have assembled several documents to help you promote the water filters project. They are as follows. If you would like me to send them to you for promotion purposes, please email me.

-- El Amaton Bio-Sand Filters Project – Brochure: a trifold brochure summarizing the need and the project, encouraging people to “adopt a family” or “adopt a child.” It is two pages and should be printed out on a single sheet, front to back, and folded brochure style. This can be distributed to interested groups.

-- Bio-Sand Filters Solicitud – El Amatón, El Salvador: The full Project proposal with background information about the community, the water contamination problem, technical information about the filter and studies of its effectiveness, and the proposed project (objectives, activities, expected results, tentative budget).

-- El Amaton Bio-Sand Filters Fundraising Talk: A suggested “script” for a presentation on the bio-sand filters project to an interested group. This will need to be adapted to your group – in particular, you will have to establish the method for collecting donations. I’ve also put together a Power Point presentation that is the companion to this script. It has lots of pictures which are always good for making people feel connected to the cause.

Here’s how the funding is going to work: There are two tax-deductible organizations holding donations for the El Amatón Bio-Sand filters project. One is my home church, Wildwood Presbyterian Church. The other is Pure Water for the World. If you are interested in contributing, please contact me and I can provide the addresses. All checks MUST be marked “El Amatón Filters Project.” People should be aware that 100% of any donation they make will go towards the El Amatón filter project; none will be directed to administrative costs. The Financial Secretary at Wildwood Presbyterian has managed all donations for El Amatón for the classroom project and other projects on a volunteer basis and (bless his heart!) will continue to do so. In a similar way, the Executive Director of Pure Water for the World will receive donations for El Amatón from people who prefer to donate through this organization.

In order to make things easier on these two very generous people, I am asking that any organization (church, temple, civic group) collect donations and then make out a single check to Wildwood Presbyterian or Pure Water for the World, instead of having individual members send checks. Please designate a responsible contact person from each organization. We will then send reports to this person, who will in turn share them with individual donors from his or her group.

The Director of Pure Water for the World will be helping us channel donations through Rotary Clubs, because Clubs receive matches from their respective Districts and Rotary International. This way, your donation will go further.

In the optimistic scenario that the donations received exceed the amount needed for the filters, we would dedicate the funds towards the Solar Panel project in order to make the pumping of water from the well to the community economically and environmentally sustainable. We are also planning on submitting a Rotary Matching Grant for this project, but since the project budget exceeds the maximum we can solicit from Rotary International, in this case your donations would be kept separate in order to complement funding from Rotary Clubs. I’ve attached the project proposal for this effort as well.


I have been amazed and humbled by the support that all of you, family and friends back home, have shown throughout my time in El Salvador. I was hesitant to ask for fundraising support after the classrooms project, but I know of no other source so responsive, so giving, so compassionate. You all come from a diversity of backgrounds – you attend Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, and Evangelical churches, Jewish synagogues, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and some of you do not feel a connection to any particular organized religious tradition but have your own sense of ethics and spirituality. But what each of these traditions shares – what we all share -- is the conviction that each and every person is of infinite value, that we are all brothers and sisters, and as such we must care for each other and for the Earth that has been entrusted to us. This is not something that one person can do alone. It is something that must be done in community. So once again, with a bit of sheepishness but even more love for my adopted Salvadoran village, I appeal to you all, my community of family and friends.

So, while the institutions shuffle papers, let’s help get these people some clean water!

With gratitude and hope,


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hola desde WISCONSIN, #9

Quierida familia y amigos,

I hope that you all had a blessed Thanksgiving and are looking forward to the coming Advent / holiday season. I know I certainly am!

You probably noticed the change in the subject line, from “Hola desde El Salvador” to “Hola desde Wisconsin.” That’s because my application for a third year was approved, and I am now on the month-long home leave that Peace Corps grants extending Volunteers. If you’re around … please do let me know; I’d love to get together and catch up.

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-- Water Project: Since my last “Hola desde El Salvador, lots of people have been working hard on investigating options for the water project … hydrologists and geo-physicists doing studies to inventory subterranean water sources, the Engineers Without Borders team from Rowan University working on plans for the pump and water system infrastructure, and the Water Committee and I coordinating all these efforts. Unfortunately, political maneuvering has raised its ugly head again, frustrating many of our efforts to design a truly sustainable water project.

Above: Pictures of getting water and carrying it back from the natural wells where we must hike when there is no water (or insufficient water) in the public faucet. One round trip takes about an hour.

After our first attempt at well drilling in the community with Living Water did not yield the amount of water we were hoping for, we faced the prospect of bringing a much larger machine to deepen the existing well or drill a new one. Since this would be much more costly than the first drilling attempt, we decided that is was necessary to invest in hydro-geological studies of the village to determine the best location for a well, and ensure that we did not mis-invest any more funds in the future. We got two types of studies: a hydro-geological study and a geo-physical study. The two engineers presented their findings in early November, recommending that we drill a well 80 m deep in a location approximately 1 km from the community. We had hoped to be able to drill a well within the community in order to reduce the energy cost of pumping water from the well to the proposed storage tank site above all the homes of the village, but at least this well would have been much closer than the well drilled by the Mayor in 2004, 3 km away. We began to investigate different well-drilling companies for price quotes.

The Engineers Without Borders team from Rowan University was also working very hard over the last few months. They had sent me a digital map of the community, produced from their surveys, and the community chose several plots of land in strategic locations for public taps. The engineers had hoped to return in January to add the proposed well location to their surveying data, and present us their final designs so the community could choose one.

THEN the Mayor’s people came back to bother us again.

You may or may not remember that we began our efforts to obtain potable water working with the Mayor to design a project based on a well that he had drilled in 2004, 3 km from the community. The well was clearly politically motivated (drilled 3 days before the presidential elections), and the community was never consulted regarding possible well locations. But although the well was far from the community, it had abundant water, so we decided to try to take advantage of it. In the process of soliciting funding for implementation of the project, the Water Committee and I became aware of severe legal, technical, and economic problems with the project: namely, that we could not get land title to the well, and the distance and elevation change from the well to the proposed storage tank site were so large that the community would not have been able to afford the monthly quota required to cover the energy cost of operating the pump. In fact, an engineer from the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives who visited the community to assess the project for funding in September of 2005 suggested drilling a well closer to the community. He asserted that the initial expense of drilling another well would be justified by the long-term cost savings in the energy needed to pump the water, which would make the project more feasible for the community. However, the Mayor proved very inflexible when presented with these problems, and refused to consider other options. The Association for Community Development (ADESCO) and the Water Committee made the decision that the Mayor’s water project was not a viable, sustainable option for bringing water to the community, and submitted a letter renouncing the project to the Mayor in the summer of 2006. We then began to pursue other options, on our own, and until now were progressing slowly but surely.

Apparently, after the energizing visit of Engineers Without Borders in late August, word reached the Mayor that we were designing another water project for El Amatón. Two weeks ago, representatives from the Mayor’s office showed up at my door. We have good news,” Israel, the FMLN-fanatic who does PR for the Mayor announced, flashing his triumphant, insincere, ear-to-ear smile that has always turned my stomach. “The project is all approved by FISDL [Social Investment Fund for Local Development, a government fund available to Mayors]. It’s being contracted out to a company today. We’re going to start on the 16th of next month. And the unskilled labor -- the community won’t have to do it for free. We are going to contract people from the community and pay them. But, it won’t be the rural three dollars a day wage. We’re going to pay them city wages,” he proclaimed triumphantly, flashing another one of his sickening smiles.”

I felt like crying. For the past year, I had been walking side by side with the community to design a water project that was truly sustainable, one that did not use an inordinate amount of energy and one that the community members could afford to operate and maintain. And we were making progress. We knew the location of the closest aquifer where a well could be drilled. The project had been adopted by an outstanding team of Engineers Without Borders, from Rowan University. They came in late August to conduct a land survey of the community in order to be able to design a distribution system, and to perform water quality tests to know the type of filtration that would be needed. And most importantly, they took the time to visit each and every house, talking to people about the water project, what they were hoping for, how much water they needed each day for various uses, and how much they could pay per month to operate and maintain the system. Since then, they had been working on designs for the pump, supply tubing, tank, and distribution system, and researching options for powering the pump, including a solar system. They had planned to return in January to present their final designs to the community so they could choose one. This water system was being designed with community participation, to satisfy the people’s felt needs while remaining economically feasible.

And then came the Mayor to push a project that was not sustainable, a project that had been designed without consulting the community, simply because the Mayor couldn’t stand for anyone else to get credit for bringing water to El Amatón. Before, when the Mayor was pushing this project, the community made the decision not to work if there was no title to the well (taking a suggestion from the representative from the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives). Unskilled labor is almost always the community contribution in any project. It makes them invested in the project, because they have had to sacrifice something to make it a reality. This promise to pay community members was all a ploy to trick people in the community to working on a project that wasn’t for the benefit of the community, simply because it was the project that the Mayor designed.

The ADESCO president and I tried to talk to the Mayor’s representatives. We raised our concerns about land title to the well (there still is none) and the economic feasibility of pumping water so far. They brushed us off, asserting that land title wasn’t necessary and that if people couldn’t pay to maintain the water system, that the Mayor would cover it. Now I’ve only been here two years, and even I know that is a complete lie. It’s not a wise idea for the community to rely on the Mayor to keep their water system operating. Don Salomón and I begged the Mayor’s people to listen to us, to hear about the work we had done and the project the community wanted to execute, and then support us in our efforts when we had all the designs in. They were completely closed to considering any other project. “We already have everything, it’s all approved, we have the money, we’re even going to pay people to do the work. The community needs water. Everyone will benefit. Why ask any more questions?” They said they’d send invitations for an all-community meeting to present the project, and left.

When they had left, don Salomón began to shake his head. “Estamos mal, mal, mal, mal mal,” he muttered ander his breath. “This is bad, bad, bad, bad bad.” We commiserated about the Mayor’s ploy to foil our grassroots efforts in favor of something he can claim total credit for, even though it’s not the most sustainable option. Finally we got down to business. We made plans for an emergency community meeting, BEFORE the meeting with the Mayor’s people, to make them aware of the sustainability concerns with the project they would present. The community made a list of recommendations to present to the Mayor: first, that the Mayor support the drilling of an 80-m deep well only 1 km from the community instead of fixing the well 3 km away; second, that the community have title to the water source for the project; and third, that the community choose a design from those being elaborated by Engineers Without Borders. I spent the next few days running around with don Salomón, trying to catch community leaders in between their hectic tasks of threshing beans and harvesting corn, to gain assurance of their support of standing firm for the community’s best interests.

Unfortunately, everything went just as I’d feared. The Mayor’s representatives came and got people all excited with the promise of full funding and paying members of the community to carry out the unskilled labor. They gave as few specifics as possible and did not encourage any questions. When don Salomón timidly offered concerns about the energy cost of pumping water such a great distance and elevation change, and about land title, Engineer López brushed them off with slippery, vague answers. He refused to give an estimate of how much families would need to pay per month to operate the water system, instead saying “that’s something you figure out afterwards, but don’t you worry. We know how much you can pay, and it won’t be too much” (despite the fact that they never spoke with anyone in the community about the water project). When don Salomón asked if they had land title, he said, “Look, everything is all worked out. FISDL is a very formal organization and they want everything all legal, and they wouldn’t have accepted the project if everything wasn’t worked out.” They probably have an acomodato, a temporary permission -- which, according to people in Peace Corps, is not very secure. They have cautioned me never, ever to undertake a water project if the community does not have land title.

By the time poor don Salomón had raised these issues, people were getting restless. I’m not sure if this was done intentionally or not, but the Mayor had scheduled the meeting to fall just before dinner. I think what he wanted was a quick meeting to get everyone excited and get them to say yes, we want the project, with as few questions as possible. “Ya estuvo,” people were beginning to say. “It’s all done. Everything’s great. Let’s go.”
Don Salomón tried to calm the crowd down and began to offer the recommendations that the community had agreed to make. The Mayor’s representatives would have none of it. Engineer López stood up and moved to the center, pushing don Salomón out. “Look, everything is all in order. All we want to ask the community one question. Do you want the project, or not? Raise your hands, everyone who wants the project!” he cried.
What could we do? Almost everyone raised their hands. And who could blame them? The project was there, with full funding. Our project was still moving along slowly and we would still need to fundraise one the price quotes for the well and designs were in. My heart sank.

I can understand why people in the community said yes, and I am glad that the community will have a water project (if this comes through … after all, the Mayor’s people came in September 2005 saying the same thing, that we were about to begin the project, but more than a year later we still have nothing). However, I am worried about the project’s sustainability, with the possibly high energy cost of running the pump, the risk of losing the well since the community does not have land title, and the fact that the designs were made with no community participation.

So now I’m wondering why I am staying a third year now that they don’t much seem to need me for the water project (the main reason I proposed to stay). But there is still work to do to make this project more sustainable, and of course there is always the watershed management and reforestation that we are planning. After all, the site of our proposed reforestation project is the watershed for the Mayor’s well and any other well we would drill, the area of infiltration. Taking care of the watershed, planting trees and carrying out soil conservation, is still an important contribution I can make to satisfy El Amatón’s need for water on a long-term basis.

I have written letters to both my community and to the Mayor, which voice my support of the water project and respect for the community’s decision, as well as offer my help in two areas in which I believe project sustainability can be improved, if the community desires: First, I offered to try to help raise funds to drill a well nearer to the community. The Mayor is clearly unwilling to take on the expense of drilling another well. However, if we are able to raise funds to drill a well closer to the community (ideally at the site 1 km from the community recommended by the studies) and there were sufficient water, I hold out hope that the Mayor would be willing to adapt the project to use this water source. I also presented the community with the idea of continuing to work with EWB on solar energy for the pump, which is not contemplated in the Mayor’s project. I was initially hopeful that since we didn’t have to fundraise for other parts of the water project (pump, tubing, tank, etc.) we would be able to raise enough funds for the solar panels. But the EWB team has told me that while they are willing to keep working with us on sizing the panels, they estimate the installation costs at $60,000! We’ll have to put our heads together to see if there is any way that we can scrape together that kind of money. (I’m looking into submitting an application to the United Nations Small Donations Program, but the average grant is only $20,000). If we can manage to add renewable energy to the project, it would be a great advantage for the people of the community because it would lower their energy costs. And of course, it has great environmental advantages of not burning fossil fuels, thus avoiding air pollution and contributions to global climate change. Now, I just have to keep in communication with the community and the Mayor to see if they are open to adaptation of the project so that it truly reflects the interests of the community.

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-- Home Vegetable Gardens Project: In addition to the slow progress on the water project, the last few months have seen the continuation and fruition of several other projects. We had much more success with the home vegetable gardens using the semi-hydroponic techniques, harvesting lots of tomatoes and peppers in September, October, and November. The women are excited to keep using this method of growing vegetables, and since cultivating in containers conserves water, we are going to try maintaining a few plants even in the dry season. We’ll begin making our compost piles and starting the seedlings in January, when I return and the coffee-picking season ends.

Semi-Hydroponic Vegetable Gardens Project: Tomatoes in my garden (left); Me harvesting tomatoes (right)

Tita harvesting tomatoes (left); Marleni harvesting peppers (right)

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-- Improved Chicken Raising Project: The chickens in the improved chicken raising project have finally begun to lay eggs. Participants are pleased with the improvement in chicken health and protection that they have observed since beginning to raise the chickens in enclosures: they no longer lose chickens to predators or eggs to dogs. However, the “improved” race we began raising at my Ministry of Agriculture counterpart’s suggestion requires a lot of concentrate in order to grow and produce well, which makes the profit margin for production of eggs very slim. One woman in the community has had success with a different breed of chicken, which, according to her, produces an egg daily with a diet of mainly corn (cheap and abundant within the community), plus green plants that it forages. Some of the women in the project plan to begin raising this breed, the Cavir, and we’ll probably provide Cavir chicks to the second group of project beneficiaries next year.

Tita and her family with their chickens

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-- HIV/AIDS Awareness: So the home gardens project and the chicken project are at least somewhat within my assigned project sector of agriculture and forestry, but I think it’s a common experience of Peace Corps Volunteers to arrive in their communities and see that the needs don’t fall into any one project sector. All of us end up being jacks-of-all-trades, working in areas we never thought we’d work in when we first received our assignments. So it was that I ended up organizing an AIDS Awareness workshop for teachers, student leaders, Health Committee members, and religious leaders from El Amatón and two surrounding communities.
In such an isolated rural area, I never imagined that HIV and AIDS would be a threat, and I never pictured myself working in HIV/AIDS education. Then I found out that there have been deaths from AIDS in El Coco and El Tanque, the two villages nearest to El Amatón, and I realized that this was something we needed to educate community members about. AIDS is something that is simply not talked about, and as I began working with the youth I realized they had lots of questions that their parents would not -- or perhaps could not -- address. So I began making plans for a two-day workshop to educate educational, community, and religious leaders and empower them to bring the correct information to their peers.
We held the workshop in September, and I was very pleased with how it went. I began with basic information about the biology of the HIV virus and the illness it causes, then turned the workshop over to a professional health educator to present the epidemiological situation in El Salvador, modes of transmission, and prevention strategies. Then some Peace Corps friends and I presented a drama illustrating the discrimination faced by people living with HIV and AIDS, and used it as a starting point to discuss the need for empathy and support. Testimonies from two women living with HIV and AIDS only made this point more clear as they provided a human face to all the information the leaders had been learning. The second day was mainly spent in showing the leaders participatory educational activities they could use to teach about HIV/AIDS prevention, and making action plans to bring this information to their communities.

I’m pleased to say that in El Amatón, the participants have already followed through: the youth gave a presentation to their peers in the school, and the Health Committee prepared a talk to give to the entire community. With each presentation, from the first nutrition session to the trash management presentation and now the HIV-AIDS prevention talk, I see the Health Committee taking more and more responsibility for preparing and giving the trainings -- which gives me hope that they will be able to continue educating the community about health issues even once I leave. And, ever the gender-equality crusader, I was especially proud to see Judy, a young woman my age who I asked to join the Committee at the beginning of this year, speaking confidently in front of the community. Since she joined the Committee, I’ve seen her self-confidence and sense of responsibility for the community blossom. I’ve also noticed a marked shift in her husband’s attitude toward women in leadership. Whereas before he had been opposed to her even attending meetings, he’s seen the benefits of her work on the Health Committee and has become very supportive of her efforts. These are intangible benefits of my work in community development, not something I can point to like a school building or a healthy tomato plant or a water system. However, I count Judy’s new-found confidence in herself and enthusiasm for promoting health, and Federico’s support of women in community leadership, as some of my contributions that brings me the most satisfaction and pride.

Judy helping give the Health Committee's talk on AIDS prevention

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School Graduation: About two weeks ago we celebrated the graduation of the first ninth-grade class to complete their primary education in El Amatón -- made possible in large part by the two new classrooms that many of you helped support, some with your dollars and others with your thoughts and prayers. It was a historic day for El Amatón, so thank you all for making it possible! In my Life Planning Education class, I continually encouraged them to continue studying, and I think that most are planning to continue on to high school in El Coco. I’ve helped two of the brightest and most dedicated students apply for scholarships.

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OK, I think that’s enough for now. Why do these letters always get so LONG? I’m sorry, I really am. I guess it’s just that I really am passionate about the work I am doing, and I rarely get the chance to talk to others about it. I hope I don’t bore you all!

Anyway, I really would love to see as many of you as possible while I am home in the US, and if that’s not possible, hear from you to catch up. I wish you all a blessed and peaceful holiday season, filled with the fellowship of family and friends.

Con amor desde Wisconsin (With love from Wisconsin),