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Sustainable Agriculture Engineering Service Trip in Belize

September 7, 2016

About Me

Cassandra Johnson is a fourth year chemical engineering student from Issaquah, WA. I had my first co-op at Takeda Pharmaceuticals where I was a part of the Analytical Team in the Oncology Department. At Takeda I ran various physiochemical assays and created new analytical methods to test the stability of new compounds. Originally I was a chemistry major, but I switched to chemical engineering after this co-op. I’m excited to continue exploring the engineering field through courses and research. Furthermore, I have a minor in graphic and information design, and I hope to find a way to combine these two fields. 

Sustainable Agriculture Engineering Service Trip in Belize 

As engineers, sometimes we can get caught up in all the math and science and forget the people that we’re creating the products and technologies for. When I saw the advertisement for the engineering service trip to Belize I was excited at the opportunity to experience another culture and to see how engineering might fit into an agricultural community. The trip was partnered with a non-profit organization called Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) that aims to spread sustainable agriculture techniques to farmers. One unique aspect of SHI is they seek farmers who are looking to make changes to their agricultural practices instead of forcing farmers to change their ways.

The Northeastern group that went on the trip consisted of twelve undergraduate engineering students. The trip took place in the southern part of Belize known as the Toledo District. On workdays we would drive two hours to communities deep in the forest where we met with families who were working with SHI on sustainability techniques. Each family had a house surrounded by chickens, horses, and pigs, and other livestock, along with gardens and acres of various crops. These families sustain themselves using these resources, which is why teaching the best agriculture practices is so important. We helped members of the communities make chicken coops, pigpens, gardens, and solar drying panels. We also helped with reforestation efforts by planting cacao trees and coconut trees. A big cash crop in Belize is the cacao bean—Farmers will use the solar drying panels to dry cacao beans that they either sell or make chocolate.

Typically, once the farmers learn the best sustainable agriculture techniques from SHI, they have enough crops to sell and make a living. In the past, farmers would take part in practices as “slash and burn” where they would burn the forest down to try to help fertilize the soil. What they didn’t realize was techniques like these were actually destroying the forest and weren’t helping them produce better crops. It was interesting to experience a culture that only used natural resources instead of modern technology and machines.

Even though most of the focus was on sustainable agricultural practices, as an engineer this trip opened my eyes to a few different ideas. Firstly, this trip allowed me to see how engineering requires you to understand the people who you’re creating the product for in order to be a successful. You have to understand the needs and values of the people so you can use that context to create the best solution. SHI needed to understand the farmers and culture of the communities in order to offer them the best practices. Secondly, I saw the impact of where and how you grow up has on the life you lead as an adult. Had I grown up in in a farming community in Belize I might be helping my family grow crops and practicing agricultural techniques instead of going to college in Boston and studying engineering. It’s extremely interesting to think about how values of a culture play such a huge role in an individual’s career path. Lastly, this trip showed me that as an engineer, I can apply my problem-solving and critical thinking skills to pursue humanitarian work in communities similar to the ones in Belize to create new technologies and advancements.

All in all, Belize was an eye-opening experience and a nice change in pace from all the math and science courses. Working alongside members of the community and staff of SHI allowed me experience the culture in a way I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I had the opportunity to interact with the community and listen to their stories, which allowed me to broaden my perspective. I highly recommend every engineer, and college student, take part in some kind of service trip. 


Local Coverage: Sammamish Patch