Sometimes you have an experience very alien to your normal day to day life it has the effect of not feeling real in hindsight. That’s kind of how I’m feeling right now. Palenque, in the state of Chiapas in Mexico, in many ways could not be any more different to Dublin where I was born and raised.

Pej’Pem, the project I worked on, was placed in the centre of a beautiful jungle bowl, appearing to be a giant, natural colosseum. Howler monkeys or ‘Saraguatos’ as we called them, would make sure their haunting and booming voices would be heard everyday, from dusk till dawn. And of course, no one spoke English. In fact the majority didn’t like to speak Spanish either, instead opting to speak Ch’ol, a native dialect spoken by some 40,000 people in a pocket of Chiapas.

The end result was that upon my arrival I was simultaneously bewildered, overwhelmed and fascinated. It felt like I was in a favourite video game of mine, SIMS, where you can just pick up and move your characters at will. In this case I was a SIM plucked from Ireland (albeit willingly) by EIL and randomly placed in, well, a random place, without having a huge idea of what was going on.

However it is testament to the people in Pej’Pem that I never felt out of place in my project. They were wonderful people with a surprisingly similar sense of humour to the Irish. They enjoyed my cluelessness and the funny moments it produced but always made sure that this was inclusive and not a big fat ‘haha’ at the Spanish-less and funny looking Irish fella. I grew to love my work.

The farm that I worked on had an incredible little story behind it and was an inspiring example of how to combat the problems of deforestation, land degradation and loss of biodiversity (embodied by SDG15 relating to Life on Land). 8 years previously, the farm had merely been derelict land, abandoned after being deforested and having all of its nutrients wastefully used by the unsustainable growing of maize on the land. This occurrence is not uncommon in Chiapas, where huge swathes of forest have been cleared in order to plant food crops, resulting in a devastating decline in the populations of flora and fauna native to the region. However this land had been transformed, largely through the determination, knowledge and concerted effort of those working there, hailing from Chiapas, into an outstandingly productive organic farm. The locals working on the project acknowledged the importance of trees in fertilising the soil, fungi in decomposing the soil which they needed to grow their crops and the imperative need to keep the farm as a wider part of the jungle ecosystem, not simply detach it and abuse it. It made me think that Ireland could really adopt some of these approaches to their own ecosystem.

I found out a lot about sustainable farming; visiting community projects who were trying to sustain themselves independent of the electricity grid and water pipes, small villages whose livelihoods were being improved drastically through education on healthy diets for their poultry, efficient ways to re-use soil and biowaste and inspiring examples of how de-forested land can be converted into land for flowers and bee-hives, generating honey and subsequently a local economy. It was amazing to see how innovative the Chaponecans were in the face of growing problems of deforestation, climate change as well as greater migration and violence in the area.

Despite these problems, I was utterly at loss for words at how positive the locals were despite the challenges they endured on a daily basis. The dominant religion in Mexico, Catholicism, was a huge source of strength and inspiration for many of the people who worked with me on the farm and it made me see religion in a different light to how it exists in Ireland. I made some fantastic friends who taught me a lot through telling me about their life experiences, their knowledge about the flora and fauna of the area and tips in learning Spanish, as well as Ch’ol itself. Due to my shocking lack of flexibility and aged demeanour they affectionately (I hope) dubbed me “jump’nox” or “old man” in English. I learnt a lot about myself out there as well. I found real peace in taking care of the plants and bees on the farm and am intending to build on this experience by sharing my knowledge I’ve acquired with others as well as thinking about setting up a project through which I could translate this knowledge into positive action.

Jack O’Brien

Global Awareness Programme 2019