Community Service and Volunteering in Lake Atitlan – Updated
Everything below this update is still happening, but now in a much more organized manner. After over a decade of growing and selling food in Lake Atitlan, it became clear that the time had come to spread this knowledge and leverage the trust that had been built with the community over that time. In 2020, Wellkind Guatemala launched as a way to spread permaculture, social empowerment, and ecology awareness to the greater Lake Atitlan Community. Thanks to Wellkind Trust in the USA to making all of this possible.
In 2021, Wellkind Guatemala planted over 15000 trees, built over 100 family gardens, and kicked off a thriving artisan cooperative that now employs over 110 women in the sustainable production of crochet and woven handicrafts and games. Wellkind Guatemala is fully run by a team of seven young, local leaders who are working hard to support change in their communities. Learn more here.
If you are interested in bringing a community service group, get in touch. And know that 10% of all service group revenue goes back to support Wellkind Guatemala and their important work.
Building long term food security, conserving natural resources, improving access to home and preserving ancient endangered avocado genetics all while enjoying the stunning beauty of Lake Atitlan’s most magical town.
Check out our new Permaculture-Inspired Community Service Project. That’s right! Atitlan Organics has partnered with Awakened Spirit Yoga ,and non-profit foundation Wellkind, to bring Permaculture development projects to the town of Tzununa. This year alone, we aim to build over 40 family gardens, plant 1000’s of fruit trees, remediate dirty house water, rebuild houses, paint murals, and more.
Using our deep connections within the community, as well as our knowledge and resources that have been developed over the past decade, we are finally able to really begin making a difference within our community. Our approach focuses on leadership development, working closely with a 9 person local youth group, as well as a group of women leaders, who are the change agents for their particular neighborhoods.
Our Phase 1 project, which will last a year, is aiming to plant 1000s of fruit trees, build 40 family gardens, renovate 10 houses, install 25 banana circles for dirty house water treatment, award grants to 10 locally run ecologically based businesses, and more.
What is even more exciting is that there are now new and exciting ways for visitors to get involved. All of our permaculture courses, volunteering opportunities, and group retreats will now plug directly into these community service initiatives, allowing people to connect with local community members and leave beneficial impact as they support these ongoing ecological and regenerative community activities.
Work Alongside Mayan farmers to Create Permaculture Gardens and preserve rare avocado varieties
The soil is the life of any ecosystem and small farmers depend on the health of the soil to feed their families and make a living. Soil loss and soil degradation are common challenges, making it harder for farmers to get good yields.
Components of the service project
There is this idea in permaculture called “Stacking Functions,” which basically challenges us to think about how we can achieve multiple yields or functions within one single activity. The Atitlan Organics Service Project is a perfect example of how the single act of coffee field diversification results in a number of benefits both social/economic and natural/environmental. Here are some of the key impacts this project has:
Long Term food security
The most common ‘cash’ crop in Lake Atitlan is coffee, which in recent times has taken a big hit due to international price drops and diseases like coffee rust. When small farmers can’t sell their coffee for a price that makes it worth harvesting, they are left with an inedible, non-nutritive product. In regions like Guatemala where malnutrition is rampant, diversifying coffee fields to produce nutritional crops is of utmost importance. During the rainy season, groups will plant native avocados in young coffee fields, which diversifies the harvest while acting as a shade crop for coffee, and contributes to the nutrition and health of small farmers and their families. During the dry season, we will establish diversified Permaculture gardens in local households to improve families’ access to nutritious food, promote food security and independence, and support sustainable food production.
Soil & Water conservation
Soil and water conservation techniques are surprisingly simple, but also almost always ignored and overlooked. When properly employed, crops like coffee and avocados grow better without the need for chemical inputs, erosion is reduced, and nutrients are held in place instead of washing into the rivers and lakes. Similarly, these simple techniques can be employed in gardens to maximize water efficiency and improve the health of the soil. Keeping soil in its place and slowing water down to hydrate the land are the simplest steps we can take to encourage the health of an ecosystem and the long term sustainability of a small farmer’s land. In particular, the sensitive ecosystem of Lake Atitlan benefits from the reduced the risk of drought and fire, as well as the growth of more trees and native plant species.
Preservation of rare avocado varieties
This is perhaps the most exciting part of the whole service project. The whole idea is to help small coffee farmers diversify their fields with the introduction of native edible plants, mainly focusing on the avocado. But we are not just planting any old avocado! The most popular avocado variety, the Hass, is originally from California, but it is slowly taking over Central America and creating a genetic monoculture of avocados. Furthermore, Lake Atitlan is one of the original centres of avocado development and there are literally hundreds of varieties of all different shapes, flavours, and fruiting times. This project provides the opportunity to select, trial, and preserve rare avocado varieties that may not exist anywhere else in the world, and may never exist again, if not preserved and propagated by someone.
Coffee is a shade tolerant under-story plant that thrives with a diverse set of other support plants growing around it. Despite this fact, many coffee fields are now simple monocultures and also food deserts. The heart of our project is to diversify coffee fields with native avocado species and a small number of other support plants. These plants include: comfrey (root layer, nutrient accumulator), turmeric (herb layer, cash crop/medicine), pigeon pea (small shrub layer, nitrogen fixer/food source), and tree tomato (large shrub, food/cash crop). Along with the avocado and coffee, this creates a multi-level, highly productive forest that supports ecosystem functions such as nutrient cycling, air and water purification, and the attraction of beneficial life such as native pollinators, birds, and more.
Local Economic development
Groups who participate in the Service project are helping to stimulate the local economy, both short and long term. Our Service project is committed to sourcing all project materials locally. We buy organic compost from local farmers and all of our heirloom grafted avocado trees are produced and sold to us by a locally run plant nursery. Our facilitation team includes many local Guatemalan permaculture ninjas who also benefit economically, which getting the opportunity to share their knowledge and passion with visitors from around the world. Furthermore, the plant collection includes a number of cash crops that start producing at different times over the next 3-5 years. Turmeric, pigeon peas, and tree tomato harvests will come first, followed by avocados in the fourth and fifth year. All of these crops have significant economic value in the local markets, allowing small farmers and families to diversify income streams and make money throughout the whole year.
Building bridges between cultures
This project is a true collaboration between the local community of Mayan farmers and the international travel and volunteer community. Each implementation takes place on a local farmer’s coffee field and the whole family is usually always involved in each step of the project. But the project is also designed to enable international volunteers with little farming experience to also give back and contribute something meaningful and long lasting for the family and the community. After a recent installation, the small farmer, Nico, explained to us that what our group of 18 international volunteers and local farmers achieved in four days would have taken his family 4 months to complete. The work environment is always muy alegre, with music playing and people communicating across at least three different languages. And there is truly nothing more rewarding than planting the final rare avocado tree, and leaving it mulched and ready produce fruit for years to come.
Bring a group to participate in this educational service-based adventure
The Atitlan Organics Service Project is dedicated to serving the community and ecosystem of Tzununa through the edible diversification of family gardens and coffee fields, and the cultural interchange between local Mayan farmers and international travelers, students, and volunteers. Our program is designed to offer national and international groups of students, volunteers, and travelers the opportunity to work alongside small farmers, learn about agro-forestry and ecosystem restoration, and leave a long-lasting improvement in the community. We arrange transport, room and board, and the whole community service experience so that the group can focus on giving back and making the most of a rich travel adventure. If you are interested in bringing a group to help diversify a coffee field and aid in long term food security and economic development, get in touch now!
A sample weeklong service project for a small group
Here is a sample itinerary for a small group participating in a weeklong service project with Atitlan Organics.
Brief introduction to Permaculture, resource conservation, ecosystem restoration, and coffee field diversification.
Tour a functioning diverse food forest for inspiration.
Meet the local family, speak with them about their goals for the project, and do a site analysis as a group exercise.
Begin work on site starting with basic earth works, small rock terraces, and mulch collection.
Learn about soil and water conservation, how to build and use an A-frame, and how to ‘work on contour’.
Visit former project sites to see how plantings are being maintained.
Finish earth works and place stakes to mark the tree planting spaces.
Hike to the nearby village of Pajomel to meet the local nursery team that produces the avocado trees.
Learn about grafting, avocado plants, and the importance of maintaining genetic diversity.
Dig holes for trees and collect support plants.
Learn all about plant propagation and techniques you can use anywhere in the world to make more plants.
Walking tour of the Tzununa valley focusing on plant diversity.
Plant and mulch trees and support plants.
Discuss proper maintenance and expectation of the system.
Visit a Mayan Permaculture Community to experience the possibilities held within community based agroforestry projects.
Depending on your group’s wishes, we can custom make experiences that meets any group’s needs. We can include more activities that explore the surrounding regions, like tours of other towns, kayak and paddle board trips, hiking, and more. We can also adjust the length of each experience, to meet the time requirements of your group.
Avocado preservation & biodiversity:
Travel, Food and Lodging
All lodging and meals take place at the Bambu Guest House, the nearby guest house which hosts groups that come to offer service and learn through Atitlan Organics. The Bambu is a natural building that is amazingly comfortable, being equipped with all the basic amenities like hot water, balconies with lake and volcano views, WiFi, and more. Food is served by the Bambu’s farm-to-table restaurant, which sources almost all its ingredients from within Tzununa and the surrounding lake basin.
We can arrange travel between Tzununa and airport, Guatemala City, and Antigua.