As promised, I return but this time with tidings of a more overtly positive nature. I make no promises, however, of this post being any less clichéd! Having come to experience firsthand some of the problems surrounding waste, disposal, and land use change, it was a distinct pleasure to participate in my own small ways in means of improving these issues down the road.
To be completely honest, the whole thing was quite a change of pace for me. Given full control of my own travels and schedule, I will admit I often set off camera and tripod in hand in pursuit of remote, bio-diverse locations and leave the H. sapiens to their own sordid affairs. But, the past few years particularly this last at the Nic school has softened my resolve, and I can feel warm, fuzzy , social-sciencey sentiments welling up from the clear need for working with communities to solve environmental problems.
This may seem an obvious necessity for environmental work, but I don’t think I would be entirely off-base in saying the integration of this approach into effective environmental action is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Again being honest here, I do also still see tremendous value of the previous generation’s top-down approach some now call “fortress conservation” of creating parks, walling people out and strictly enforcing preservation. But the bottom-up approach of generating local solutions, in local communities, with approaches that benefit both people and nature directly is clearly an essential process for continuity.
The first pleasant surprise was to realize that there was considerable will within the community for projects that might fall under the label of community based environmental management that had little to no outside intervention or instigation. My friend Kelsie, explained to me that her task as a Peace Corps volunteer of identifying needs was almost made more difficult by having active community members already doing productive projects. Not a bad challenge to have really as Peace Corps challenges seem to go. The evidence wasn’t hard to find with a good number of houses we visited using the higher efficiency stoves, made to reduce wood demand, a friendly group of men working on an eco-tourist bungalow, and more than one group discussing establishing tree nurseries for re-vegetating land. While they welcomed and often encouraged her support, it was clear that her involvement wasn’t a strict necessity in any of these projects.
So casting about for a clear and present need, she settled upon that pesky problem of loose refuse that I discussed in my previous posting. Now you may ask yourself, ‘how in the blazes does one possibly tackle the issues of mountains of non-degradable waste becoming litter when no municipal waste system exists for their disposal?’…Well I’m glad you ask the exact question I want to answer! (And herein lies the cliché). When going toe-to-toe with a truly snargley problem, it’s advisable to go back to the fundamentals! Better yet if you can make a three-point plan which rhymes or alliterates (so that others will know it’s true) then you’re really off to the races. So to take on the hydra of overconsumption, littering, and land etc, you must rally under the banner of the three ‘R’s’: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle! (Conveniently these words not only maintain the alliteration in Spanish but have the added ethos of beginning and ending with delicious tongue-rolling “R’s”!)
Awareness is the foundation for freedom, choice, and change. My humble contribution on that front was to bring with me a vehicle for raising environmental consciousness. Scoff if you will but that first most powerful vehicle for me was The Lorax, and with it Dr. Suess took me on an emotional roller coaster ride with each re-reading. Given the problem that many of the English teachers can’t converse in English and the target audience was below that though, I thought better to bring El Lorax.
Though the kids came for the fun camera I showed them how to use, they stayed for El Lorax. I had an amazingly fun (and challenging) time reading El Lorax to several children, as well as having some older ones read it to me. Throughout the process I was continually gratified to see their little gears churning as el Lorax sent away the peces zum-zumbantes (aka humming fish) whose gills got all gummed up, or the cignes-cisneros (aka swany-swans) who could no longer sing, all because the blind desire for Tapantes (Thneeds!) drove Fueunavez (the Onceler) to cut down all the Trúfula trees. The book has amazing emotional potency and I was satisfied to see that cross language, cultural, and age boundaries. I think it gives an incredible combination of the feeling of loss coupled with hope and potential. I almost wish however that there was a little more on the latter front, perhaps the last page having an illustration of a young truffle trees sprouting rather than an agitated looking little Lorax. Regardless, the translation is fantastic into Spanish and truly done with Suessish creative flair. I highly recommend anyone spending times in communities in Latin America to bring along a copy. Of course at this point, if you haven’t read the Lorax, you will be horribly confused. But I make no apologies. Go read it and live your life to the fullest.
In any case, I genuinely believe that helping children to understand the connection between consumption, the goods we purchase and their environmental costs is essential and for those with the patience to listen to a good story, I believe this book can have a moving effect. I was touched when one young boy, Marcel, after listening silently and somewhat stony-faced, quietly showed his appreciation by borrowing my point-and-shoot after I finished reading, to sit and photograph pages of the book, presumably just to capture them for later. I’m glad to have left it in the community with Kelsie to hopefully read to many others.
But we can’t rely entirely on Dr. Seuss, and that lesson of the connection between our material wants and their consequences needs deep ingraining combined with a call to action. To that end, Kelsie and I also designed a short lesson for the kindergarten class. She had previously introduced them to the song “Dirt made my lunch” translated into Spanish to begin grounding the idea that food comes from the sun and the earth rather than a store. We built upon that foundation beginning with the song and then trying to make the connection between other common objects and their sources.
I made simple drawings of a rushing river, a mountain with metallic-veined rocks, and a lush forest. In class we asked the kids to help us assign the water in a bottle, the metal from the soda can, and the paper in a notebook with their origins. Immediately the answer to where these objects came from was an enthusiastic “Dios!” or “mi Mama!” But when asked if God or mom just made them appear by magic the kids would scratch their heads, furrow their brows, and eventually produce answers like ‘the store’ or ‘the factory’ or ‘in town.’ The idea that these objects were made from natural resources was clearly novel. It was only with a patient guiding through questions and the suggestion of our drawings that the kids could think further back the chain to real origins. The dawning of this comprehension when they themselves could assign object with their origins was powerful to watch.
It seems so straight-forward on one level: “todos los recursos vienen de la naturaleza” or “all resources come from nature.” But try it out on the people around you, especially kids. If you ask someone in the states where food comes from, my experience is that the vast majority would tell you ‘the grocery store.’ Likewise, water ‘comes from the tap’, and soda probably also comes from ‘a shop’ or ‘factory’. It is only through serious and concerted effort of the sort we are discussing that have lead many in the U.S. to answer ‘where does paper come from?’ with ‘trees, of course!’ I sincerely believe that addressing our myopic perspective of the proximate sources of our resources rather than their true origins deeply exacerbates the problems of waste and overconsumption.
We closed the lesson however, by applying this realization with a call to action. Kelsie has been working to launch a community recycling project and is particularly targeting the kids as a means of ensuring continuity. Thanks to some enterprising small family businesses in the regional center it is actually possible to get recycling collected. They provide bins to participating communities and will every so often come to collect the recycling that people gather in order to sell in the city where municipal recycling facilities exist. With this in mind we helped walk the kids through the idea that you can keep more of the rivers flowing, the trees standing, and the mountains intact by using less of the resources and that one way to do that is to recycle. To reinforce the point Kelsie and I closed the lesson by singing them another foot tapping song with Ukelele called simply “Vamos a Reciclar!”
Admittedly I don’t have a punchy story for the third R because I didn’t really get to participate in it (which is also why I put them in this less pleasing order). However, I was impressed by a handicraft initiative that Kelsie implemented through a women’s group to reuse one of the most common forms of waste around the community: the lowly chip bag. As it turns out, with a heap of cleaned chip bags, some clever folding, and a good deal more patience than I can muster at this point in life, one can turn a heap of refuse into a sturdy and festive looking tote. If you sew in a cloth inner lining with a zipper you can make a surprisingly nice purse to boot. A number of women in the community have found they can sell these handbags for enough to make it worthwhile if they bring a few of them into town.
The three R’s do their work across multiple timescales which I find particularly gratifying. However strategies to sincerely “reduce” and given the balance of local and global economies remain very difficult to tackle. One is struck by the irony of entering a store in a land of such rich and fertile volcanic earth with ideal rainfall and sunshine to find 90% of the contents imported in individually packaged plastic and only a few sad looking vegetables in the corner. How these dynamics can shift with the seduction of coca cola and what-have-you on every awning and shop wall is a question I continue to grapple with. But who knows maybe the slow plodding along with projects like a personal vegetable garden, writing local food crops into your children’s songs, and generally trying to lead by example can have more impact than we know.
What I can say of our ‘work’ in the community was that in anticipation of this sort of activity the lack of a measured outcome can somewhat bother me. Where’s the data sheet? How do we crunch the numbers on how people are feeling and thinking? Is their a statistically significant difference in awareness between those that experience these intervention and those that don’t? Of course there are people working on these kind of approaches but most of this work is done without it. What I realized though from my dabbling was that the work is its own reward. Marcel pouring back over “el Lorax”, seeing little kids pulling trash from a creek, or even just watching them figure out that the desk they’re sitting at was once a tree give far more justification than any p-value ever could. It made my time in Panama richly rewarding and distinct in quality from my impending work for the rest of the summer.
I am posting this now from a guesthouse in the prosperous capitol city of Libreville on the coast of Gabon. Tomorrow I embark on the 10hr car ride that will deliver me to my research site, where my summer’s work will begin in earnest. Thanks for humoring this diversion into Panama. When next I have internet I will regale you with tales of exploring the steamy jungles of the old world in pursuit of rodents of all unlikely suspects…