The trash queen of Guatemala

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    A building boom fueled by trash

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Editor's NoteJoyce Maynard is the author of best selling novels "Labor Day" and "To Die For," as well as the explosive 1998 memoir "At Home in the World." She maintains a home in San Marcos la Laguna, Guatemala.

Susana Heisse is an environmental activist who uses the “eco-brick” to promote recycling and proper nutrition in Guatemalan schools. She will be profiled on CNN's The Next List Sunday, September 30th, at 2 p.m. ET.

By Joyce Maynard, Special to CNN

I first met Susanne Heisse in the fall of 2001, when I traveled to Guatemala with the plan of spending a few months in the astonishingly beautiful little Mayan village of San Marcos la Laguna, on the shores of the clear blue waters of Lake Atitlan.

It would have been hard to miss Susanne: at six feet tall, she towered over every indigenous person in the village, and most of the gringos, striding down the narrow stone paths of the village in her flowing skirts, with her flowing hair, and her big, commanding voice. She'd talk — in somewhat unconventional English, or her native German, or Spanish — about a subject few of the rest of us (at our yoga classes, and drumming circles, or taking our daily swims) chose to think about: The unromantic topic of trash.

    San Marcos is probably the most beautiful place I've ever laid eyes on—a kind of paradise. It’s also very poor, and situated in a country with minimal infrastructure.

    Over the months I lived there, I’d watch a familiar pattern take place. Some idealistic young traveler from North America, passing through, would notice the problem of ugly plastic bottles and empty chips packages, lying on the ground and decide to do something about it. They’d spend a few days picking up trash, or more likely, paying indigenous children to do so. They might even purchase trash cans for the village. Then they’d motor off to their destination--with a sense of accomplishment, no doubt, for having cleaned things up. But oblivious to the larger problem: Nobody was emptying those nice new trash receptacles, or if they did, they had nowhere to dump them, besides some giant pile of garbage, on the side of the mountain, that only kept growing.

    It is Susanne’s brilliance that she not only recognized the deeper problems beyond the unsightly litter but she found solutions that met other vital needs of the indigenous community at the same time: school supplies for the children, and building supplies for homes. But even more than that: she saw the immediate and visible issue of trash as a point of entry for educating people about the environment, about soil and water and nutrition, and about the relationship between those little plastic chips packages and the whole quality of life in that beautiful place.

    Susanne is a big dreamer, but she’s also practical. She recognized the need for a place to put the garbage, and like a Mayan person, she recognized that every single material available in a place as poor as that one can and should be put to practical use. So she came up with an idea that used trash as its own container. She got children in the village to pick up all those hundreds of plastic wrappers and stuff them into the discarded bottles they’d turn in to her in exchange for school supplies. She took the bottles, and used them as building blocks embedded in adobe structures. This became particularly important after Hurricane Stan in 2005, when so many people had to rebuild their homes.

    Then she went deeper again—and embarked on a program of educating local people about the foods they were consuming , that had come in those brightly colored packages: processed chips, sugary sodas. (And wherever she went, she handed out bananas as a healthy alternative). She expanded her project beyond San Marcos—creating a building manual that taught people in other villages — all around Guatemala, and now beyond — how to use those plastic bottles as a building material.

    In the eleven years I’ve made San Marcos my part-time home, I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning idealists come and go, with projects aimed at improving the lives of the proud and hard working indigenous people of that village. Susanne is a rare activist who has stayed on in her little thatch-roof home, with her outdated laptop and her satchel full of bananas. She has kept working through a few hurricanes, and a landslide that buried part of the village, and the certainty of more hardships to come.

    Her tenacity and endurance – like that of the Mayan people alongside of whom she works — have produced the tangible effect of making the village of San Marcos much cleaner. But she has accomplished the biggest kind of change: she has changed the way people look at the products they consume, and what they do with them. And what they choose to put into their bodies, and their soil.

    To the children of that village, Susanne is a kind of magic figure — part queen, part witch. In my eyes, she is a true hero.

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