Students Practice Permaculture in Puerto Rico
Arriving under a dark January sky, a group of George Washington University students were led down a path lit with tiki torches to their new homes in Puerto Rico for the next seven days. This would not be a tropical vacation though; the accommodations were a group of raised tents, at the edge of a permaculture farm in rural Las Marías province.
This group of students was part of GW's Alternative Winter Break program, which saw 100 undergraduate students travel to five locations in the United States and Central America on service missions. These 24 students, led by graduate student veterans of the program, worked with Plenitud Eco-Educational Initiatives, a non-profit organization that provides training in organic farming, bio-construction, and other sustainable farming practices.
"They talked a lot about multiple functions for each element and multiple elements for each function," said Emma Chapman, an Elliott School sophomore, who partcipated in Alternative Break for the first time. "For example, the group leaders emphasized working with the land, rather than against it. One of our projects was to dig swales and build berms — essentially ditches and raised walls — on the middle of surrounding hills. The swales catch rainwater and the berms help to keep it there, so that the plants on the hills can benefit from the rain more, with less water wasted and less erosion."
Plentitud specializes in permaculture, or permanent agriculture, a farming philosophy that prioritizes ecosystem sustainability. The practice aims to minimize waste and human labor while maximizing output, relying on synergy between land components. This often involves more upfront costs, relying on difficult, hands-on work at the beginning of a project.
"One day we dug a drain water system for the kitchen, to catch all runoff dish water. We then planted banana trees on the sides of the runoff ditch. The trees, which are hearty plants, can live off of the drain water, and act as a natural filter," said Emma, who volunteered with Heifer International in high school, a development organization that tackles world hunger through education.
Not everyone agrees with the practices though, Emma explained. The farm next to Plentitud, for example, used conventional techniques — instead of working within the existing landscape, their visible hills had been cleared for more crops. Though Plentitud's mission involves sharing ideas, said Emma, they taught the group about sharing without pushing.
For the students, the experience had greater implications than farming practices. Their time together involved group meals prepared themselves, sunrise yoga, and a touch of the rustic — including a rooster wake-up call each morning.
"My time in Puerto Rico brought personal reflection, an appreciation for the environment, and love. It forced myself, as well as the other participants, to reexamine what is truly important to us," said Hannah Spiegel, an Elliott School senior, who had previously participated in Alternative Break. "Engaging with people who lead a seemingly simple and unrefined life brought me joy, and helped me to understand that ways of living different from our own should not necessarily be looked down upon. All of these experiences have been influential in my actual understanding of international affairs and appreciation for the greater, global community."