The Sustainability Prize


The following is an interview with Issa Secaira Mancía about her graduation project, “A Proposal for an Agro-Ecological Integrated Model Farm for the Training Center at Chuitzanchaj, Solola, Guatemala.” It has been edited for content and clarity.

Issa with Lab Board Member, Michael Gucovsky, and Prize Program Advisors, Professor Irene Alvarado (right) and Professor Jane Yeomans (left).

Tell us a bit about yourself: 

I am from Guatemala. I lived my first years in a farm close to Antigua, Guatemala, and then I moved to Panajachel, Sololá, where I grew up. I have always enjoyed being surrounded by nature and I love to explore it. I also feel a very strong connection with Mayan culture and I have always been closely involved in community service, helping children, youth and families from the surrounding communities. Hiking and bird-watching are the two hobbies I enjoy the most. I also love gardening, working at the orchard, growing fruits and vegetables and cooking healthy dishes. I also enjoy reading a good book, swimming and meditating. 


On the inspiration for the project: 

I lived for many years in Panajachel, a town near Lake Atitlán, in the highlands of Guatemala. This region is very rich in natural resources, biodiversity and culture. However, population is growing exponentially and natural resources are being exploited at a rapid rate. Poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy remain major problems in many communities. Mountains are deforested, soil degraded, and water polluted.  Equilibrium between human activities and nature is urgently needed. Sustainable agriculture brings diverse opportunities to improve people’s lives and at the same time helps preserve natural resources through responsible management. This inspired me to develop a project that would empower people through an exchange of knowledge and practical tools in sustainability-related topics.


On the project itself:

The purpose of this graduation project was to propose an agro-ecological design for an integrated farm for a training center in Chuitzanchaj, Sololá, Guatemala, thereby contributing to the sustainable development of the basin of Lake Atitlán. The aim is to empower people through an exchange of knowledge and practical tools in topics relating to sustainability. The first phase of the project consisted of making a diagnosis using a feature-oriented domain analysis (FODA) in order to assess the production and educational potential of the intended project. In the next phase, data was collected and analyzed in relation to the cultural, technical and scientific knowledge needed to transform conventional agro-ecosystems into integrated and sustainable food production systems. Finally, the project was presented to the Asociación Vivamos Mejor for implementation. Five principal components were chosen: agroecology, livestock, agroforestry, training centers, and organic fertilizers. All of these components are interconnected in order to guarantee an integrated production, the closing of cycles, and the efficient flow of energy and matter throughout the agro-ecosystems.

A graphic detailing the project’s integration of The Lab’s Five Core Principles of Sustainability.


On highlights of the project and its impact: 

When I did my first visit to the site, I identified the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the project. Based on that, I proposed strategies to take advantage of the strengths and opportunities, minimize debilities and neutralize threats. I am very grateful to see that the NGO, Vivamos Mejor, is implementing the ideas I proposed in my graduation project. Together with Vivamos Mejor we established short, mid and long-term strategies in order to guarantee the continuity of the project.

For example, during the visit, I saw many bees and proposed to implement an apiculture component. Bees play a fundamental role in the agro-ecosystems and also can bring opportunities to people in the surrounding communities. As a result, twenty bee boxes were established.  

Lake Atitlán, at the center of the basin, and the surrouncing rivers are contaminated by an improper use of synthetic fertilizers. Farmers also have become dependent on external sources to fertilize their fields. So I determined that there was a need for an organic fertilizer center that will offer alternatives. I proposed to implement a center for organic fertilizers in the integrated farm and training center Paisajes de Chuitzanchaj that will offer useful tools and knowledge to farmers and visitors to the training center, so they can implement good agricultural practices in their plots. Vivamos Mejor already has the materials to build the organic fertilizer center.

This region is very rich in biodiversity, and there are many nutritious native plants that are connected to Mayan culture. I proposed to implement an agro-ecological orchard that would take advantage of the genetic material of the region, and would be a model with clear examples of good agricultural practices that could be replicated and implemented by farmers and visitors. This would help to improve people’s diet and also bring practical tools to manage natural resources in a responsible way. The terraces for the orchard are already done and it will be soon implemented.   


What’s next for you?

I’m looking into Master’s programs in sustainable agriculture, most likely in the United States, Germany or here in Costa Rica. I would also love to work on the project at Chuitzanchaj. My long-term goal is to start a project with my family and have an integrated farm where I can grow and sell high-quality products, live the most sustainable life possible, and create an open classroom to share knowledge and experiences with everyone.

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