• John Hasse

Top 5 Unearthed Sustainable Development Projects From Around the World

At Unearthed, we believe the first step to a student being a socially aware global citizen is to see and respect the world as it is. More and more educational travel companies are trying to incorporate service projects into their trips. While this is a well-intentioned goal, many of these experiences are unfortunately only surface level at best and can even be detrimental to the local communities they are supposed to be helping. Rather than pay lip service to the term “responsible travel”, here at Unearthed we actually put people before profit. A local’s livelihood, his or her her landscape, culture and community come first. Not only this, but we work with local community members to ensure that each one of our projects is actually making a positive benefit for those who call that place home.


With this in mind, we design every one of our programs so that they are aligned with our vision, a code of conduct and the UN Sustainable Development Goals - the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. These goals are at the core of our trips, as they include the universal sustainability principles of human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption. Through our sister company, Antipodeans, we are proud to say that we were the first school-based educational travel company in the world to be accepted as a signatory of the United Nations Global Compact.



Over the last 28 years, we have been fortunate to partner with a variety of amazing communities from across the globe to implement impactful and long-lasting improvements through our student-led project work. Read on for the stories of our favorite five projects!


1. Greenhouse Building in Quilla Huata, Peru


U.N. Goals 4 (Quality Education) & 6 (Clean water and sanitation)



Located in the Andes just outside of Cusco, the small village of Quilla Huata, which translates from Quechua to "House of the Moon", is home to over 600 people. Families in this community rely solely on income from agricultural production, as each home is in charge of looking after two or three plots of land, which they work by hand. During the rainy season (December to April), families are able to grow and harvest their produce before selling it at the nearby Cuzco markets.


During the dry season (May to November) however, it is very difficult to grow food, as each family is lucky to harvest even a single crop of potatoes. Consequently, many local children receive an average of only one meal every two days while still attending school and helping to tend the crops and family cattle. In an effort to make ends meet, many teenagers, young adults and fathers are forced to produce adobe mud bricks by hand for sale at the Cuzco markets. Alternatively, community members are forced to leave Quilla Huata altogether in an effort to find work in Cusco or in the nearby jungle.


Because of Quilla Huata’s location, the majority of these community members seeking alternative employment are uneducated and many of them either can’t find work or are paid extremely low wages. For example, some work 12 hours per day, 7 days a week, on dangerous construction sites and are paid only $3 per day. This is barely enough income to secure food and accommodations for themselves, let alone send money back to their families in Quilla Huata. On top of this, many community members who travel to Cusco for work end up spending months without seeing their families, experience accidents on the job (which are often not covered by their employers), run into problems selling drugs or stealing (particularly teenagers) or become homeless.


In addition to the difficulties many adults within the Quilla Huata community experience, there are also a host of health problems for the local children. Not only are many children in the community undernourished, but due to the fact that there is no city-wide sewage system many kids also experience severe dental issues due to water-born parasites, as the only available water is 20 times more dangerous than what is normally deemed safe to drink. Because of the lack of fluoride in the water supply, more than 90% of the children living in Quilla Huata, including some of those as young as 20 months, have numerous cavities or completely rotten teeth.


Finally, indoor air quality is a huge issue in Quilla Huata, as many houses in the community have limited or no electricity and cooking facilities are often poorly ventilated and filled with wood-fired smoke. Consequently, health issues such as bronchitis, pneumonia, skin conditions, ear, nose and throat problems are common, especially during the rainy season when temperatures can drop into the low 40s.

In an effort to create a healthier, more enjoyable living environment for the Quilla Huata community, Unearthed has worked with local leaders to build greenhouses for some of the local schools as well as participate in a hygiene program focused on preparing nutritious food for local children. Over the last few years, five Unearthed school teams have helped to build two new greenhouses, which provide valuable food for the local community during the dry months. While these first steps have made a large positive impact on the community, there is still a long way to go. We are excited to send future teams to Quilla Huata and to continue our work with this amazing community filled with positive, happy people, who are full of hope, ideas and energy.




2. Renovating Schools in Kompong Khleang, Cambodia


U.N. Goals 3 (Good Health and Well Being), 4 (Quality Education) and 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities)


Located on the northern edge of Tonle Sap Lake, about an hour from the vibrant city of Siem Reap in Cambodia, the Kompong Khleang community is comprised of a group of floating villages. Dotted with wooden houses perched atop 10 meter tall stilts, this remote community is surrounded by water during the wet season (May to November) and by flood plains during the dry season (December to April).


Though not far from one of the most famous travel destinations in Cambodia, like many villages located around Siem Reap, the Kompong Khleang community is quite under-resourced. Consequently, many of the most disadvantaged community members are routinely in need of housing, as construction supplies are difficult to acquire and homes are not easily built.


Unearthed began working to expand the amount of community-based tourism in the Kompong Khleang community in 2009. Specifically, we were brought in as tourism sector partner to help nearby villages organize a community-based tourism (CBT) program. Through the efforts of our student teams, Unearthed has been able to assist the local community with the construction of smaller houses for those most in need as well as the renovation of some local schools and health clinics.


As we continue our work with the Kompong Khleang community, we seek to further our role in helping to develop tourism in the area as a means to reduce poverty and preserve the cultural heritage for the local people. We look forward to our continued partnership in the years to come.




3. School Renovations in Ben Tre, Vietnam


U.N. Goals 4 (Quality Education), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure)


Ben Tre, known by many as “Coconut Land”, is one of the provinces in the MeKong Delta located in Southern Vietnam. Wedged between the two main branches of the Tien Giang River, which is itself one of the two main branches of the Mekong River, Ben Tre is comprised of one capital city, 7 commune-level towns (or townlets), 147 communes, and 10 wards. The entire province is criss-crossed with a network of smaller rivers and canals, which combined with extensive irrigation make Ben Tre a major producer of rice, but also means that the area is prone to flooding. Because of the community’s physical location, there is also limited access to educational resources, as many of the villages can only be reached by small row boats. Consequently, although eager to learn, most local children in Ben Tre have limited access to learning materials, including books.


For the past few years, Unearthed teams have been working with local communities in Ben Tre to assist in building new toilets, classrooms, as well as bridge and concrete paths for local schools and communities to make access to education easier for the children there. Through our teams' work, the Ben Tre community has seen lower levels of sickness in local schools as well as better learning conditions for the children living there. We hope to continue sending future student teams traveling to Vietnam to visit our friends in Ben Tre and to continue working with the wonderful community there to improve living conditions for the local people.



4. Supporting Women’s Empowerment Through Hat Making in Ilumán, Ecuador


U.N. Goals 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality) and 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth)


Nestled at the foot of the impressive Cotacachi volcano just northeast of Quito, the village of Ilumán is home to one of our favorite projects. Home to about 7,500 residents, the community subsists primarily on agricultural production. However, Ilumán is also recognized as one of the last villages making traditional hats, which are sold in local artisan markets and used during folk dance celebrations held throughout the year.


Headed up by Belen Picuasi, along with her sister, aunt and 72-year old mother, this community of fiercely independent women is dedicated to carrying on the 200-year old tradition of wool and felt millinery by producing ornate, indigenous hats. Requiring more than 5 full days of effort to create just one single hat, Belen and her family work tirelessly each week to prepare a new batch of beautiful hats (which are used for celebrations held throughout the year) for the nearby market in Otavalo that takes place each Saturday. Our last two student teams were even able to help Belen and her mother transport, set up and sell their hats at the market - one of the largest outdoor markets in all of South America!


In addition to their hat making, Belen and her family also run a local hostel, Unay Muchiku, which includes comfortable rooms, delicious home cooked food and first class views of the surrounding mountains. And that’s not all! The final reason we feel so attached to the Ilumán community is because of our work renovating the nearby Aywa Child Care Center, which provides day care services and food for more than 30 local children, ages 1-3. Our last two visiting teams were able to replace the ground floor with tiles (formerly wood) as well as re-cement and repaint the 2nd floor, which serves as a dining area, nap room and play area. Some teams even got to celebrate their hard work with the local community with a bit of dancing using some of Belen’s beautifully made hats.


Needless to say, we can’t wait to send more of our teams back to Ilumán!



5. Turtle Conservation, School Renovations and Environmental Education Program Assistance in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica



U.N. Goals 4 (Quality Education), 14 (Life Below Water), and 15 (Life on Land)


The small town of Puerto Viejo, located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, was once home to an abundance of sea turtles. Unfortunately, due to the construction of a giant port just to the north, large amounts of people and pollution have cluttered the area. As a result, turtle numbers have begun to decline at a rapid pace. In recent years, the local community has sought to change matters and revive the dwindling turtle population through a variety of means.


Over the last few years, multiple Unearthed teams have sought to support sea turtle conservation along isolated beaches located on the coast surrounding the Puerto Viejo area. Specifically, our teams have participated directly in the local sea turtle conservation program through the following: conducting beach patrols, observing the nests and sea turtle eggs during the spring, collecting research data, performing beach cleanups, taking part in environmental education activities, posting signs, conducting night watches and protecting the turtle hatchlings as well as supervising their release into the sea. Additionally, our teams have taken part in the basic renovations of a local school as well as implemented an environmental education program in the community. Fortunately, due in large part to the above community initiatives, the local sea turtle population is slowly increasing.


Wildlife conservation is of increasing importance in countries like Costa Rica as well as across the world, especially with the rise of the global wildlife tourism industry. Given this fact, Unearthed plans to continue sending future groups to the Puerto Viejo area to ensure that the sea turtle population keeps moving in the right direction.




At Unearthed, we believe that exposing students to global issues first-hand helps them develop into socially-aware citizens. Through rewarding community service projects, local immersion and outdoor adventure, we seek to expand students’ perspectives on other cultures and the environment, bringing to light their own unique impact on this earth and those who inhabit it. By participating in our programs, you are contributing towards a more sustainable and prosperous future, as Unearthed students, schools and parents are part of a worldwide movement with real and lasting purpose.



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