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Students Help to Relocate a Guatemalan Village

Oct. 19, 2006 - Student engineers at the University of Wyoming are contributing to the relocation of a Guatemalan village threatened to be destroyed by mudslides.

Two officers in the UW chapter of Engineers Without Borders - USA (EWB) recently returned from a visit to the Guatemalan village of Panabaj, located at the edge of scenic Lake Atitlan, and sitting at the base of three volcanoes. Michael Ziemann of Cheyenne, chapter president, and Vice President Allison Hiddinga of Rochester, Minn., spearhead UW's contribution to the relocation project.

"Hurricane Stan brought extensive rain, causing large mudslides that devastated the village," says Ziemann. "The people are aware of the dangers and most know that relocation is necessary."

The Guatemalan government considers the immediate area around Panabaj, an agrarian community of about 500 families, to be at a high risk for mudslides, and has ordered the relocation. To oversee the project, the government contacted Rodolfo Hermosilla, a prominent Guatemalan engineer who is also a professor at one of UW's sister universities, Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Ziemann says the professor invited UW students to assist on the project.

"We contacted our sister school in Central America to find out if their students were working on any projects that would fall within the scope of EWB, and they invited us there to see what we could contribute to their undertakings in Panabaj," says Ziemann. "Relocating an entire village is a much larger challenge than most EWB projects. This requires site selection, design and layout, and the planning of the structures to be built from scratch."

With funding from the College of Engineering, Ziemann and Hiddinga visited the village to assess the project and determine the scope of UW's possible involvement.

"We will help with the planning and construction of a technical school in the new village that trains people in the fishing enterprise, handicrafts and other economic activities," he says. "Strengthening the village's economic sustainability, through education, is the most important thing we can do."

After returning to UW, Hiddinga is leading student efforts to design the trade school.

"We (UW EWB members) really have something to contribute technically, but we want help from throughout campus in other facets of the reconstruction," Ziemann says. "We are seeking anthropologists, sociologists, and students in disciplines such as health sciences, agriculture and geography who have something to contribute to the project."

The experience of visiting another country will help students gain a new perspective on where the United States fits into the world, Ziemann says.

"There is nothing like going there and seeing first-hand how people's lives are so completely different than what we are accustomed to," he says. "This is a unique opportunity for students to really help improve the quality of life."

The UW chapter of EWB was established in January, in part to expand students' educational opportunities to meet the most basic needs of developing countries, says Richard Schmidt, chapter adviser and associate dean of the College of Engineering.

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