Makin’ poopers
category: Jims Guatemala

LASF-f-section_sm.gifWhen I signed up to come to Peace Corps, it was with the understanding that I’d get to put my skills to use. I’m an architect, I like to build stuff. When we got assigned to Rural Home Preventive Health, I understood that we’d be building sanitary infrastructure and teaching about health topics related to that. Unfortunately for me, they redesigned the program right before we arrived… going from 80% construction and 20% education, to our new approach of 10% construction and 90% education. The reasoning is sound; if people don’t understand how the technology works, they won’t know how to maintain it, or build their own…hell, they won’t even care that they have it. letrina_abandonada.jpg Because of this, there are a lot of latrines in our valley that are now chicken coops or tool sheds, because it’s more convenient to poop in the fields and they don’t realize that it might make them sick in the long run. Nonetheless, I was less than thrilled at not getting to build much. But now that we’ve been in our site a while, I am starting to get rolling on more construction projects.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by Marcos, one of the village leaders. He’s a quiet guy, and after an hour of conversation, it came out that he wanted help in constructing a new latrine. It seems the one he has now is pretty gnarly (wood-covered hole in the ground, like most around here), and is polluting the river to boot. Could I help him?

“Sure!” i said, figuring he was just fishing for a handout. Nope, turns out he really wants to do it bad enough that he is willing to buy ALL the materials, at personal hardship to him. He just doesn’t know how to make a sanitary latrine. Luckily, I am an expert.

You see, this is really a big deal, that he came for help like this. Many infrastructure projects in Guatemala are gifts of some rich international aid agency, and if you don’t have something to give the locals they won’t give you the time of day. This breeds complacency and a welfare mentality, and has ruined a lot of good communities in the past. Luckily (?), our community is pretty remote, so they’ve not been spoiled that way. Instead, the current “best practice model” is a percentage arrangement, where participating families have to kick in a certain percentage of the materials and all the labor, if they want to receive aid money. This gives them ownership of the project, so they value it more, and also fosters independence because they are shown how to do it themselves.

So, I agreed to help him, gave him a materials list, and figured I’d never hear from him again.

IMG_5885.jpgBoy was I suprised a few days ago, when he came by my house and said, “OK, I have the stuff. Are you ready to start tomorrow?” This is the GOOD kind of suprise, though, so I cleared my schedule and we started on Friday with the concrete base. You see, he wanted the Cadillac of latrines. We do two types here: one is basically a hole in the ground, but sealed with a concrete pad and vent tube. It keeps the flies from moving in and out with their cargo of disease. But it fills up in 5 or 6 years, and has to be moved to a new hole.  

What Marcos wanted is the LASF, or Letrina Abonera Seca Familiar. That’s what you’re seeing in the drawing I made at the start of the post. It’s a composting latrine: in goes the poop, and 6 months later, out comes fertilizer. It never fills up. You never have to move it. It doesn’t contaminate groundwater. However, it DOES cost twice as much as the other kind, and the family needs some training on how to maintain it correctly. But Marcos couldn’t be dissuaded; he’s a practical man, and realizes that it makes more sense to spend the extra time and money now and do it RIGHT, rather than do it again in half a decade. I can’t believe he’s Guatemalan.

IMG_5898.jpgSaturday we laid the blocks around the composting box. “Do we need to hire a mason?” is the question they always ask. Um, no… we’re building a shithouse, folks. It needs to be tight, strong, level- but doesn’t have to look professional. I can do that, and I can show them how to do that. Emily came by to help on Saturday; it always amuses them to see a woman building anything. Today we plastered the inside of the composting chambers, and later in the week we are going to make the formwork and pour the upper concrete slab. I will post pictures as things develop.

IMG_5896.jpgFor those of you at home who are interested, I want to do more latrine projects. I have already received a pledge from US Architects to sponsor one. My plan is to use whatever donations I can get to offset half the cost of materials for anyone in our village who wishes to make their home healthier with a “proper” latrine. Then, we will build it together. If any of you readers (or any of your friends/ relatives/ coworkers) are interested in sponsoring a sanitary latrine in Guatemala, email me at Total material cost for a latrine is about $300, so by donating $150 you or your loved ones can help a Mayan family to help themselves. I will even get you pictures of your sponsored family.

2009-6-27 Update: Marcos’s latrine is finished! Click HERE to see it.

Posted by: jfanjoy