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Bemidji native to travel to Central America to study Mayan culture

BEMIDJI – Not everyone is willing to travel to Central America to finish a college paper.

But Bemidji native Christopher Zempel will be doing just that, traveling to Belize in Central America to study the Mayan culture and the impacts brought on by business interests for his master of public policy degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis.

His goal is to share the story of the Maya of Belize. He wants to research the Mayan people, and through his research, understand their situation.

“I am conducting my research into Maya land rights through the lens of logging contracts awarded to foreign companies on lands held by the Maya,” he wrote on his website. “I will be tracing the history of logging and its impact on the Maya through interviews and in-depth research at the Archives of Belize in their capital city, Belmopan.”

Zempel was born and raised in Bemidji. His mother, Connie, who still lives in Bemidji, said she had mixed feelings when her son first told her of his plan.

“I was kind of like, ‘Right now, are you sure?’ Like I didn’t believe him. I was kind of shocked, but not,” she said. “Because it’s just like him, he’s got that kind of personality. He likes to travel. When he’s got his mind set on something, he just does it.”

She said he asked her what she thought about.

“I was nervous. About the third time we talked about it I didn’t want him to do it because I was thinking, ‘Well, gee, you’re going to a whole different country,’” she said. “It was the fifth or sixth time we talked about it I was like, ‘You know, if you’re going to do it, you should do it now because you may never get the chance again.’”

Zempel is a 2008 Bemidji State University history graduate.

“When he did that last year of college here (BSU), he had really no plan,” Connie Zempel said. “Graduation came up so fast and we were both like, ‘What are you going to do?’ And he was like, I don’t know. So that’s when he decided he would just jump into law school.”

“It’s kind of a twisty road there. I took a lot of political science courses while at Bemidji State,” Christopher Zempel said. “And then when I came to the Twin Cities, it was originally to start law school. So I did a year at law school and was really dissatisfied with where that was going to take me.”

He ended up meeting other like-minded people in the Twin Cities and found out about the policy program and found it was a much better fit for his ambitions.

“I came back to the U of M to finish my master’s work, and was taking a class on the theories of development and my professor mentioned that the Maya of Belize are struggling with their own government over resource extraction concessions,” he said.

Zempel started asking a few questions, got to meet a couple of people involved in Belize and the pieces started falling into place to go there and conduct research.

“I love to travel. While I was at BSU I had the opportunity to go to Southeast Asia for a bit and to Europe,” Zempel said, “and so I take an interest in what’s going on out there. I think that’s what kind of drew me to the public policy itself was the ability to help people and work on solving real world problems rather than just reading about them in a book.”

He said he is pretty excited to work with the Maya of Belize.

“Going out and actually doing the field work like this, I guess it is a little above and beyond,” he said. “The amount of work involved is quite immense. So far I’ve been reading a lot of the literature, coordinating interviews with the stakeholders … they don’t always have Internet access and things like that. So it’s been a lot of work just getting those people, getting in contact with the people I need to talk to.”

When he goes to Belize, he will conduct interviews, analyze the information and produce a written work.

“That also means I got a lot of work to do,” he said with a laugh.

He is planning to fly to Belize in mid-June.

“I plan on being down there for two months this summer. Then when I get back I’ll have until the following May to finish my work,” Zempel said. “That will give me time to analyze the data I collect while I’m there and if I have any follow-up questions, that will also give me time to reach back out over the phone or over the Internet to collect additional data.”

He is currently raising funds for the trip with his website, His goal is to reach $2,500 for his trip. The site will be up for a couple more weeks.

“The idea came from having a conversation with a friend of mine. There was a group of people I went to Bemidji State with that utilized a similar website to raise funds for their local brewery,” Zempel said. “We had a conversation about that and so when I started getting involved with getting research together, that kind of popped back into my mind that other people have used it, so I thought I’d give it a shot.”

Because finding traditional grants for research is extremely competitive and challenging, he is still waiting on if he is going to receive any grant money for his trip.

“Regardless of funding, I’ve got plane tickets, an apartment locked down there, I’ve got the interviews starting to line up and my research going through university approval right now,” he said. “Pretty much no matter what the funding looks like, if I have to fund it myself I’ll have to fund it myself — that’ll be more of a financial burden than I want to take on, (but) at this point, I’m going.”

Joe Froemming

Joe Froemming is a page designer for Forum Communications Co. You can read his blog at

You can follow him on Twitter @JosephBemidji

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