This summer during July and August, members of Lafayette’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) spent three weeks building the groundwork for a sustainable economy in Lagunitas, a poor, rural village in the Yoro district of central Honduras.
Led by Gladstone Fluney Hutchinson, associate professor of economics and business, the team worked together with the villagers of Lagunitas to help them improve their own economy through coffee farming and production.
Though, Hutchinson stresses, the project was not really about coffee – but about helping instill the confidence the villagers needed to build and sustain their own economy. The main goal was to act as a catalyst and pass on the values of entrepreneurship and self-empowerment.
“An important intention was to promote co-learning between students and villagers. This would help make both students and villagers alike more sensitive and effective respondents to the complex demands of world citizenship,” says Hutchinson. “This project is an articulation of our institution’s values and mission – interdisciplinary, sustaining entrepreneurship.”
The students included Samir Awuapara ’10 (Lima, Peru), who is pursuing a B.S. in mechanical engineering and an A.B. in economics and business; Sebastian Felipe Barreto Ortiz ’10 (Bogota, Colombia), a chemical engineering major; and Michael Adelman ’10 (Clarks Summit, Pa.), a civil engineering major. Kavinda Udugama ’09 (Kandy, Sri Lanka), an electrical and computer engineering major, was also heavily involved with the project, but he did not travel to Honduras. He applied for and received a $10,000 grant from Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace, which helped fund the project.
The team had to learn to improvise as the original plan to use bicycle-run coffee grinders was not successful. The students turned to more stable, cast iron, hand-cranked grinders. They also discovered that the villagers not only needed help with the grinders, but with the village’s entire coffee producing infrastructure, from growing and harvesting to storing and selling.
“The student participants in the project, were all highly motivated, deeply humanistic, blessed with practical intellectualism, and were perfectly suited for the challenges of the project,” says Hutchinson. “They had spent months collaborating with the villagers to design a project that was responsive to the development needs of the people of Lagunitas.”
As well as facing the problems with the village’s economy, the students also experienced the common lifestyle of the area by living with villagers, encountering rats and scorpions and the challenge of living and working without electricity.
The students worked with the “Manos Unidas,” or United Hands, farming collective. Together they planted 13,000 new coffee trees and drew up an agreement to start a plantation that would be socially and economically sustainable. The project is also sustainable beyond the students’ involvement because it was turned over to the Honduran Coffee Institute, which will now provide long term educational, technical, logistical, and marketing support for the farmers.
“The people of Lagunitas openly and thoughtfully dialogued among themselves, and with us, about their ideas for their economic development. They struggled with, but eventually understood and accepted entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial risk as a vehicle for development and progress,” says Hutchinson.
EWB’s main project for the last several years has been providing about 1,000 people in Lagunitas and neighboring La Fortuna, who have never had access to safe drinking water, with clean water distribution systems and irrigation. The team has been very successful with this project having received a $75,000 grant through the Environmental Protection Agency.