Guatemala Project Builds Tech from the Ground Up Many of Guatemala's rural indigenous communities lack infrastructure basics such as clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity. A group of American eco-engineers is working with Mayan villages to change that.

Guatemala Project Builds Tech from the Ground Up

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Now from Venezuela to Guatemala, where our tech contributor Xeni Jardin has been taking us all week. In her series, Guatemala: Unearthing the Future, Xeni has been reporting on how people there are using new technology to try to solve old problems. In many parts of this country, basic necessities like clean water are very scarce.

And now, a group of American eco-engineers is trying to change that. They're coming up with ingenious devices, and they're training aspiring engineers in rural communities on how to use them.

Here's Xeni's report.

Mr. JOSE ORDONEZ (Xela Teco Employee): (K'iche Maya Spoken)

XENI JARDIN: Welcome to Xela Teco, says engineering student Jose Ordonez in his native K'iche Maya language. He's inviting us inside the Xela Teco workshop. Xela is local shorthand for the town's name, Quetzaltenango. And Teco - well, that's technology.

(Soundbite of welding)

JARDIN: At this workshop, Ordonez and other tech-minded Guatemalans build eco-friendly infrastructure devices. A few feet away from the entrance, blue sparks sputter from the welding area.

(Soundbite of welding)

JARDIN: This work brings survival basics to poverty-stricken villages in the Mayan highlands.

(Soundbite of hammering sound)

JARDIN: Here, an ironworker is crafting parts for a pint-sized generator. It will run on waterpower and provide homes in nearby village with electricity for the first time.

The Xela Teco workshop is a small business supported by the U.S.-based nonprofit, Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group. And what the heck does appropriate infrastructure mean?

Mr. STEVE CROWE (Engineer, Xela Teco): First of all, technologies that are minimally damaging to the environment. Second of all, technologies that - they utilize materials available in country. They don't have to have a bunch of gringos working with them to bring parts down from the United States.

JARDIN: Steve Crowe is the one gringo working here today. The tall, bespectacled engineer explains that Xela Teco builds green technology. That helps poor rural communities with the basics: electricity, fuel and clean water.

Mr. CROWE: This is tap water, which in Guatemala, is very contaminated.

JARDIN: So, Steve and the team here are working on a simple, inexpensive filtering device. It's a cleaned-out metal oil drum with a layer of gravel at the bottom and progressively finer layers of sand, the finest at the top.

Mr. CROWE: On the top layer of sand forms a layer of bacteria, which kills the bad bacteria that's in the tap water.

JARDIN: Now the water has gone from dangerous to drinkable. Steve pours out a cup.

Mr. CROWE: The water that comes out of here is cold. I mean, it's cold and it's refreshing. It's turned out that this is an automatic cooler as well.

JARDIN: Xela Teco operates on the idea that without the basics, the poverty cycle just gets worse. Dirty water spreads disease like cholera and typhoid, killing more people and making others too sick to work. And providing work is something that makes Xela Teco different from many other aid projects.

The American tech experts offer technology training to people in these same communities. People like aspiring engineer, Adriana Gunon(ph).

Ms. ADRIANA GUNON: (Through Translator) We shouldn't rely on other people to come to our country and help us. We Guatemalans have to push for our own development. And I hope all the Guatemalans out there will hear me and be inspired by what we're doing.

JARDIN: Gunon oversees the biodigester.

Ms. GUNON: (Speaking foreign language)

JARDIN: That sounds high-tech but it looks like a big plastic bag. The villagers fill it with animal poop and kitchen scraps. As the stuff decomposes, it produces methane gas that can be siphoned off and used for cooking or for boiling water.

They're going to take 50 biodigesters to the nearby village of Nahuala, and they're planning to bring more to other rural communities. Devices like these could be crucial for people in these villages who have to live on just a few dollars a day. They can't afford other power sources like diesel generators and government help doesn't seem to be coming. Plus, deforestation is widespread in this area and the alternative fuel could mean people here won't have to cut down more trees for firewood. Adriana Gunon.

Ms. GUNON: (Through Translator) This biodigester produces about four hours of gas a day. So it helps people save money and it teaches them how to take advantage of natural resources they wouldn't otherwise know how to use.

(Soundbite of machinery)

JARDIN: Tucked away in a room nearby is the electronics lab.

Mr. JOSE ORDONEZ (Xela Teco): (Speaking foreign language)

JARDIN: Jose Ordonez is crafting circuits here from scratch. He designs them on the computer but then he fuses the design on to a metal plate using an ordinary clothing iron. A few minutes later…

Mr. ORDONEZ: (Speaking foreign language)

JARDIN: A finished electrical circuit will go inside each of Xela Teco's waterpower generators. After they had the first installation up and running, they plan to install more in other Mayan villages nearby.

Although he enjoys the work, Xela Teco's director, Steve Crowe, says the ultimate goal is to step aside.

Mr. CROWE: If you come back in two years, I won't be here. Xela Teco will be a self-functioning business that has no more need from this outside help.

JARDIN: And if what they're developing inside this modest building is successful, Xela Teco might just end up becoming a blueprint for the future of development work.

For NPR News, I'm Xeni Jardin.

(Soundbite of welder)

CHADWICK: Xeni has a slideshow from the Xela Teco workshop and there are podcasts on this series on Xeni's page at our Web site. Here it is, it's, and that's spelled X-E-N-I.

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