Professors Spencer and O’Hara bringing the jungle to Augustana students

Maya cross jewelry

Maya jewelry 2

Maya cross jewelry sales: a cross-cultural collaboration


For the last decade, biology professor Craig Spencer and philosophy professor David O’Hara have led students into the heart of the Mayan jungle in Peten, Guatemala. After a decade, Spencer and O’Hara have found a way to bring some of the jungle to students.

The two professors are leading the Maya Cross project, a sustainability and development  venture that pairs Guatemalan artisans with Augustana faculty and students to produce and sell jewelry made from the quick-growing and abundant bejuco de agua vines.

“When I first saw this vine, I thought it was absolutely beautiful,” Spencer said. “And I thought, maybe something can be made from this to provide some income for these poor women and to protect the forest. Since then, I’ve been working tirelessly to find some marketable use for the product.”

While Guatemalan natives were crafting goods from the vine before the project began, the tools they were using were not efficient. Spencer and O’Hara, along with their students, met with various local Guatemalans to develop better methods of harvesting the vine and crafting it into jewelry.

Spencer and O’Hara hope to promote sustainable practices in Peten to protect the rainforest. Currently, the rainforest is being deforested at an “alarming” rate, according to Spencer, as economic pressures force more encroachment.

“You have people that burn the forest down not because they are bad people or because they hate the forest, but because they need income to feed their families,” O’Hara said. “The easiest way to do that is to burn down the forest and grow corn.”

However, both professors noted that the soil in Peten is not suited for growing corn and the soil nutrients are quickly depleted, leading to more of the forest being cleared.

Numerous faculty and students at Augustana have helped bring the Maya Cross project to life. Business administration professor Jaciel Keltgen worked with Spencer and O’Hara on various marketing and distribution issues, saying she was inspired by their passion for the project.

“Last spring the Maya Cross project became a very unusual ‘client’ for my principles of marketing students,” Keltgen said. “Students did a fabulous job unraveling the various business components, all with the intention of helping artisans in Guatemala earn a living wage by utilizing beautiful, natural, abundant vines.”

One major roadblock was customs. Maya cross jewelry is subject to stricter custom controls than other goods because of the vine.

“I’m [only] down in Guatemala once a year, so I can’t just fill suitcases and bring them up from time to time,” O’Hara said.

Keltgen and her students helped with some of the logistical concerns, and Spencer hopes that Vermillion, S.D.-based nonprofit Sharing the Dream will provide additional help with distribution.

“I’ve been working for about two years with them to see if they will take on this product line,” Spencer said. “This is still in the works, but hopefully by this summer we’ll have a partnership with them.”

Senior Mason VanEssen was part of O’Hara and Spencer’s 2014 J-Term course in Guatemala and worked with them, along with Keltgen’s marketing class, to bring the project to life. VanEssen’s Civitas project centers on creating a business plan for the jewelry and developing plans to further economic development and sustainability in the region.

“Mason had a great vantage point: He had traveled to Guatemala in January 2014 with Drs. Spencer and O’Hara, so he has a working knowledge of the geography and realities of life in the small village,” Keltgen said.

VanEssen said the jewelry perfectly fit the criteria for his Civitas project.

“It wasn’t until several months after the trip before it became clear that this project could be an intersection of my majors as well as a way to live out Civitas’s mission: to be a global citizen,” VanEssen said.

After graduation, VanEssen plans to remain in Sioux Falls and hopes to continue working on the project.

For Augustana students looking to support the project, Maya cross jewelry will be sold in the Commons this Monday and Tuesday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.


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