This is an archived article.

April 16, 2009

Garbage and gardens: side by side in Guatemala

The garden UW landscape architecture Professor Daniel Winterbottom and his students built for the kids at Safe Passage includes lots of the things the kids and their parents wanted: a contemplative garden, an outdoor classroom and a gathering space for meetings and performances.

It’s all next to the biggest garbage dump in Central America.

Thousands of men, women and children survive by picking through about 100 acres of domestic, medical and industrial waste outside Guatemala City seven days a week. They live next to the dump in a barrio built from cardboard, scraps of metal sheeting and whatever else they find at the dump. Water is scarce and electricity minimal.

The UW team worked with Safe Passage, a nonprofit founded 10 years ago that provides education and social services for the Guatemalan children and their families. Winterbottom, 53, heard about Safe Passage from a UW graduate whose sister lives about 30 miles from the dump.

The garden, the classroom and the gathering space follow two gardens Winterbottom and his students have built in the last three years at a preschool near Safe Passage.

A Maine unit of Rotary International provided the $18,000 necessary for the new project, which covers 4,000 square feet.

“I knew the kids would enjoy the garden,” said Andria Orejuela, 34, who is studying for a master’s degree in landscape architecture. “I knew,” she said, “that we’d be providing something where there was nothing. I knew that whatever we did would be an improvement.”

Challenges lay in coordinating design and construction among 17 students whose skills widely varied. Finding correct building materials in a foreign country also proved a challenge, said Corinna Welzenbach, 31, who is a second-year student in landscape architecture.

The garden, which is adjacent to a school for students ages 8 to 19, grew from weeks of design work. “Kids told us they wanted a place where they could be together and talk, a place where they could simply be quiet together,” Winterbottom said.

Crowding in the barrio and work at the dump make noise ever present, along with the smell of garbage and the circling of vultures overhead.

Many dump scavengers are Mayan Indians who fled Guatemalan highlands during 30 years of civil war. Many of them consider scavenging a better life than what they left. “They pride themselves on their recycling skills,” Winterbottom said.

Still, life remains hard. Children often eat only one meal a day, often the one at school. Dinner at home might be food pulled from the dump or a Coke and a bag of potato chips.

When Winterbottom and his students spread macadamia shells as paving for a garden path, the children went, well, nuts. They quickly ate whatever shelling machines had missed, then played with the cases.

Some people in the barrio escape reality with alcohol or by sniffing glue. Some parents beat their children if the kids don’t bring home enough usable stuff from the dump. Children are often in charge of younger siblings because their parents are scavenging. Guns and gangs are daily problems.

Gardens can relieve some of this stress, Winterbottom said.

“I believe every child is entitled to a childhood.” Kids obviously need food, shelter and education, he said, but also the play which fosters curiosity, self esteem and cognitive growth.

“Moms came to our planning sessions,” Winterbottom said. “They know what their kids need, and they want the same good things for their kids that we want for ours. The resilience I saw is just amazing. Humbling, really.”

All told, Winterbottom and his students spent five weeks designing and three weeks constructing the three projects. It was the work of Guatemala Design-Build, a 12-credit course for both graduate and undergraduate students.

Winterbottom’s other projects have included a therapeutic garden at Fircrest, the center for the mentally disabled in Shoreline; a garden at a maximum-security prison for women in New York State and a garden at a New York City foster home for children who have AIDS.

Winterbottom’s next project: A peace garden in Bosnia.