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Mason Team Helps Maijuna with Clean Water Project in the Peruvian Amazon

January 27, 2014

By Leslie Temple and Laurence Benson

building a water filter

Mason alum Laurence Benson demonstrates how to build a biosand water filter. Photo courtesy of Michael Gilmore

In May 2013, an interdisciplinary group of nine members of the George Mason University community traveled deep into the Amazon rainforest to continue their work with the Maijuna indigenous village of Sucusari, a remote and heavily forested area in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon.

The team was led by New Century College professor Michael Gilmore and included four undergraduate students, one graduate student and three alumni. Over the past two years, they have worked with the Maijuna to bring clean water as well as hygiene and sanitation education to the community. The project, called Amazon WaSH (water, sanitation and hygiene), focuses on the design and implementation of sustainable community-based development projects that are culturally sensitive and ethically responsible.

The Maijuna had expressed to Gilmore their desire for clean drinking water for the well-being of their children and elders many times over his 14 years of working with them. Children and elders in Maijuna lands regularly suffer from illnesses due to contaminated drinking water and unsanitary practices. In some tragic cases, these illnesses have even been fatal.

child with water

Providing clean drinking water to avoid illness was a major objective of the project. Photo courtesy of Michael Gilmore

The response of the Amazon WaSH Project has focused on two areas: the construction of biosand water filters, and hygiene and sanitation lessons.

Biosand filters are used in thousands of communities around the world that do not have access to clean drinking water. The components of biosand filters are affordable and easily attainable, making the filter a sustainable solution to drinking water problems in remote and economically challenged communities like Sucusari.

Over the summer, the Amazon WaSH team successfully guided the Maijuna through building biosand filters for 25 households. The team sat down with each household and described the workings and components of the filter, and then walked the family members through building the filters themselves. This process not only familiarized the household with the filter, but also gave them a sense of ownership, which is vital to ensure the community’s trust in the technology. All of the families were extremely grateful and were very proud of the filters that they built.

The other major aspect of the WaSH Project is the hygiene and sanitation lessons, which were taught in conjunction with the biosand filters to provide a holistic solution to the issues the Maijuna face.

For many Sucusari community members, much of the hygiene and sanitation information was new to them: proper hand-washing techniques, germ transmission, illness prevention measures and proper oral hygiene. Although seemingly basic, this information, which is so often taken for granted here in the United States, was greatly appreciated by the Maijuna. This gratitude flowed freely and greatly from each of the homes visited. Such a unique teaching experience proved to be enriching for the Maijuna, as well as the team members.

However, the project’s success was not only due to the team members of the Amazon WaSH Project. The Maijuna worked tirelessly alongside the team in a concerted effort to guarantee their best shot at long-term success with the project.

team photo

The Mason team, from left: students Daniel Wegerbauer and Laura Giles; alumna Leslie Temple; student Tyler Rogers; graduate student Chelsie Romulo; student Henry Benson; and alumni Laurence Benson and Gabriel Stonebraker. Photo courtesy of Michael Gilmore

For example, the team integrated four Maijuna community health promoters into each of the household lessons to observe and hear the material multiple times, and then they independently led sessions later on during the team’s stay. By the end of the project, the Maijuna community health promoters were teaching households without the team’s assistance and were troubleshooting issues with success. Ultimately, this is a great indicator of internal capacity building, which is critical for the long-term sustainability and success of this initiative.

Laurence Benson, BS Civil and Infrastructure Engineering ‘12, co-project manager, highlights how one of the strengths of the project is the community’s interest and willingness to be involved: “You can really feel the excitement the Maijuna have toward the project when you are with them in their homes, building filters and teaching hygiene. They have a very positive outlook, which is absolutely key to the project’s success. I look forward to bringing this project to the other communities as soon as possible.”

Co-project manager Leslie Temple, BA Sociology ‘13 and BA Global Affairs ‘13, noted the community’s desire for project success. “It was wonderful to work alongside the Maijuna and to see how valuable this project is to them and their level of excitement about it, which proved to be contagious. For me, the most thrilling part was to see that each family was using the hygiene practices we discussed the year before. I’m sure on my next visit to Sucusari, I’ll see a lot of healthy community members.”

For Gilmore, bringing students to Maijuna lands is always incredibly rewarding.

“This truly provides students with a unique and defining educational experience that they just can’t get in the classroom. In a very real way, through this experience, students have gained in-depth knowledge and hands-on experience in designing and implementing a community-based project that can truly make a difference in the lives of the Maijuna. The Maijuna can’t wait for us to come back down, and neither can I.”