Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Change You Can See

Community development initiatives rarely solves problems overnight.  It’s a hard realization to come to, but the nature of the field is so large in scope, population size, and unproved theories that goals are hard to meet, let alone create. So it’s refreshing to come across a project like Hug It Forward’s bottle schools (or here).  The solution is ingenious in it's simplicity - it takes two of the pressing issues in Guatemala, education and the environment, and presents a solution that's rapidly adaptable and easily incentivized. 

Take an empty plastic bottle, stuff it to the brim with inorganic refuse like paper and plastic, and you’ve made your very own eco-brick. Now collect 13,000 more and you’re ready to build your very own school.  Local masons use the bottles in place of cinder blocks, wrapping them in chicken wire and coating the outside with a plaster of concrete.  They're as structurally sound as traditional building methods, cheaper, and remove hundreds of pounds of trash from local watersheds.

School building is currently prohibitive in communities where the average income is less than $2 per day.  In addition, most communities burn their trash, this offers a green solution to waste disposal, a positive result they can see.  The tangible solutions and relatively short-term gratification that result from bottle projects sprouting up all across Guatemala are innumerable; the project cleans up neighborhoods and drinking water sources, teaches environmental awareness, fosters community leadership, imparts new technical building skills, and provide a space new students and teachers can call their own.

Here in Chaquijyá, Manna Project is still in the middle of phase one: environmental education and bottle stuffing. It’s a funny thing to teach a roomful of bewildered Mayan men and women how to stuff plastic bottles with trash because a school built from trash-filled bottles is hard to imagine. So we’re trying a broad approach: We’ve recruited the local community leaders (COCODES), the primary and pre-schools, a local microfinance organization, and a slew of friends we’ve made along the way to help spread the word.  We recently installed trashcans along the main road to make trash collection easier, and next month we will begin our bottle stuffing competition between 3rd through 6th graders to get the ball rolling in two separate elementary schools.  Along the way, we're seeing the community come together on the project.

Now we realize the trash collection for this project is a temporary solution to Guatemala’s general waste management problems, but it's a start, and it highlights the long-term positives of responsible trash policies.  The timeline is long, but the change is real. The development world needs more projects like these: creative, holistic, and community-led.  Therein killing at least two birds with one stuffed bottle.

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