Long Way Home began operations in the municipality of San Juan Comalapa, in the indigenous highlands of west-central Guatemala in 2004, with a grassroots community development strategy to bring local residents together to learn about eco-friendly living, appropriate sustainable technologies, and improved waste management solutions. Together with our neighbors, we built a community park, Parque Chimiyá, on five acres of rural land. The park features a tree nursery, terraced organic gardens, a regulation grass soccer field, a basketball court and a playground. Parque Chimiyá has a volunteer house for domestic and international volunteers and interns, a community kitchen and a pavilion for presentations, classes and other community events.  

At Parque Chimiyá, there is a small admission fee of US$0.25 for park users, but young children can bring recycled plastic bottles packed with inorganic trash in lieu of money. We use these “trash bottles” in our current construction projects. The youth response to the trash bottle program has been overwhelming. This campaign has already reduced municipal litter, introduced local families to a new waste management solution, and created a stream of building materials for Long Way Home’s construction projects. From 2008 through 2011, over 28,000 trash bottles were collected in lieu of park admission fees. In 2012, Long Way Home was pleased to return administration of the park to our local partner, Chuwi Tinamit, the organization that originally commissioned us to develop their property.  

In 2008, LWH purchased land in the village of Paxán, one half mile from Comalapa’s urban center, to build an elementary, middle and vocational school complex. Construction began in January of 2009 and will be mostly finished in 2018. In 2012 Long Way Home welcomed its first 21 students in grades 2nd-5th. In 2013 we achieved official approval from the Guatemalan Ministry of Education and we have 128 students in grades K-9th in the 2017 academic year! Our teachers and Directora are all Comalapa natives.

Environmental education will be a focus of the school’s enhanced curriculum. From organic gardening to environmentally friendly construction methods, local youth will be learning about the inextricable link between environmental health and physical well-being. In addition to the standard educational curriculum, the vocational school will offer coursework in carpentry, masonry, mechanics, electrical, welding and horticulture. The school will cultivate a new generation of entrepreneurs, uniquely skilled and equipped to lead their communities with innovative solutions for the future. Long Way Home’s role is to fundraise for the project, construct the school, build school staff capacity, and oversee the new curriculum’s implementation.

Romeo and velile plotting out the site. Lebone Village Orphanage, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Romeo and velile plotting out the site. Lebone Village Orphanage, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

The school complex has 18 buildings planned, with 15 already completed or in their final stages of construction. We have developed a sustainability plan so that once administration is completely turned over to Técnico Chixot, they will not struggle with resources. Privately contracted construction projects will provide practicum opportunities for students, income for the school, and expand awareness and practice of sustainable building. In 2014, the privately contracted Lebone Village project in Bloemfontein, South Africa contributed significantly toward school costs and provided leadership training for three of our Guatemalan construction crew members. Domestic and international interns and volunteers who come to work at the Técnico Chixot Education Center also contribute to the financial sustainability of the project. The program fee that each volunteer pays currently funds school construction costs. The student gardens will provide fresh food for lunches and snacks while sales of plants and trees will generate additional revenue.

Reused, rammed-earth tires form the walls of the school building, rainwater harvesting cisterns, and retaining walls. Reused glass bottles become skylights, and trash bottle fillers line the roof and seams between tires. We have also incorporated metal waste into the rammed-earth tires. We feel that we are only scratching the surface of the creative reuses for waste materials and we are learning as much from our Guatemalan counterparts as they are from us.

The social and environmental benefits of building with waste are numerous and long-term. Environmental decontamination leads to both restored ecological integrity and improved human health. Ridding the landscape of litter adds to its aesthetic and recreational value, beneficial both to Guatemala’s tourism industry as well as to the local population. This is a low-cost development strategy, appropriate and affordable for rural, low-income residents. The avoided costs of a low-impact building technique imply reduced reliance on renewable resources and reduced emissions associated with production and transport of high energy-consuming standard materials. Furthermore, as 60% of total building expenses go towards labor costs, this economic strategy is an investment in the local population and a multiplier effect that promises to benefit impoverished rural communities. Instead of funneling as much money into cement production and logging operations, the productive reuse of locally-sourced waste materials and onsite dirt in construction creates jobs and limits out-migration of at-risk youth.

These structures are robust in their structural integrity, and their flexible elements offer additional resistance to seismic activity. Due to the thermal mass properties of the earthen walls, the structure absorbs passive solar energy to provide warmth from the day’s sun at night and a cool interior temperature during the heat of the day. As discarded tires collect standing water and breed the mosquitoes that carry malaria and Dengue, pest control is an additional benefit of their reuse in construction. Finally, the educational value of community exposure to waste reuse empowers the population and fosters environmental stewardship.

It is Long Way Home’s goal to lead by example in order to demonstrate what can be achieved with the civic participation and a will to make positive changes from the ground up. We believe that the path to real, lasting change is through youth capacity-building and we are convinced that the creative reuse of waste materials in construction is an adaptable global solution with compounded impacts. This strategy has the ability to preserve cultural and natural resources, alleviate poverty through job creation, and improve local high school attendance rates.