Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Waste not, want not

Jenny Kassman reports on a UN award winning community recycling project in Guantánamo

The large open waste tips where shanty town dwellers go scavenging in a desperate attempt to earn a living are an abiding stereotype of the developing world. Very little has been done by the governments of developing countries to find a solution to the problem of these tips because of the huge costs of purchasing the necessary technology. As in so many other areas of social need, it is Cuba where an affordable and efficient method of waste disposal to the benefit of the community has been developed.

In 2000, Irania Martínez García, currently director of the Centre for the Ecological Processing of Urban Waste (Centro Ecológico Procesador de Residuos Urbanos/CEPRU), had the idea of converting the open unofficial waste tip in the Calle 8, in the south of the city of Guantánamo where she lived, into an environment that would be not only productive and sustainable, but attractive and a focus for the local community. At the same time it would continue to be used for waste disposal.

The tip, which was the largest in the city, covered an area of 9 hectares (1 hectare = just under 2½ acres) and was spilling over into the nearby streets. Emitting foul odours and toxic fumes from the incineration of waste, with toxins seeping into the ground and poisoning the water supply and with a proliferation of mosquitoes, rats and other vermin, the site posed a serious health risk for the community living less than 200m away.

Faced with this monumental task, Irania mustered the help of seven volunteers, all locals, to set about clearing one hectare of the tip. Irania explained that as Cuba was still in the Special Period, caused by the collapse of socialism in eastern Europe in 1990 followed by a severe tightening of the US blockade, there was no money for purchasing machines. Therefore the work of clearing and sorting the rubbish literally had to be done by hand. Very soon, their number grew to twenty, despite the fierce criticism they were encountering from local residents and companies who thought not only was Irania completely crazy but also that her project was posing a health risk to the community.

Happily she gained the support of a local GP, Doctora María González, who provided advice and health protection for the volunteers and who defended Irania against her critics. From then on, Irania has never looked back. In 2001 CEPRU gained official recognition and in 2003, Raúl Castro gave it his enthusiastic support and commissioned a documentary about the centre.

Today, the site with its fifty two workers and covering the full nine hectares, resembles a park rather than a centre for urban waste processing. The approximately 400m3 of waste delivered daily is sorted manually in six processing areas. Organic waste, including animal waste from local slaughterhouses, is converted into manure which is sold to local farmers, or used for the cultivation of vegetables and plants grown at the centre, some of which are sold to the public. Carcasses are boiled to make liquid animal feed, again sold to farmers. Their bones are used as surrounds for the vegetable and ornamental plant plots.

A use is found for almost everything. Seeds from plants discarded as rubbish are grown in the centre’s nursery and the plants are sold to the public in the street or, in the case of trees, planted in the centre itself which gives it the appearance of woodland. Plastic bottles are used as surrounds for plots or are converted into watering containers or pots for seed cultivation. Plastic bags are used as hanging containers for plants with the lids from deodorant bottles used to make holes in the sides for planting. Other plastics are used to make toys which are given to nursery schools and visiting children.

Shoes and used tyres make original flowerpots. Scrap metal, glass and wood are used by artists to create sculptures or to build the huts and shelters dotted around the site. Other scrap metal is sold to the state-owned empresas de materias primas, firms which buy solid waste materials for recycling. Old TV screens are painted white and used as signs and posters. Discarded books have been collected to make up a small library. The stove for preparing the centre’s meals, workbenches, trolleys and equipment used for animal enclosures and shelters for ducks and hens are all made from rubbish.

Irania emphasised the importance of sustainability in the centre’s operations and her wish that staff and visitors should feel in tune with the natural environment. A wood was planted to commemorate Fidel’s 70th birthday where there is now a play area for children to set up camp and build wooden structures. She has created a section for accommodating stray dogs which are then found homes; another enclosure is devoted to breeding fowl which supply the centre with eggs. The most recent venture is the construction of a lake for storing water with ducks and water plants.

Community links are an integral part of the life of the centre. Local primary and secondary schools and pioneer groups visit CEPRU to work in the plant nursery, vegetable gardens, make plastic pots, attend lessons on site or to play in the woodland area. The centre’s aim is to make the children aware of the possibilities offered by waste and of the importance of sustainability. There are also visits by pensioners’ groups, the círculos de abuelos. Five pensioners work at the centre, including Ideliso, a former drama teacher, who now creates products for sale made out of waste materials.

Many people have found stable and meaningful employment through CEPRU. Evangelina García, a founder member of the centre, used to be a casual agricultural worker. Yoender, the cook, was a nightwatchman. Eight of the workers have a criminal record and are on probation, four have special educational needs and one suffers from a psychiatric disorder. All the staff receive one meal and two snacks each day which are eaten in the open air dining area. Then there are the volunteers from the local neighbourhood who lend a hand when needed.

“I was one of those who thought the whole venture was total madness before I joined six months ago,” admitted René Osoria Estrada, head of Human Resources. “Now I can only describe myself as being in love with the place. People work here because they believe passionately in what the centre stands for, rather than for financial gain,” he continues “We are learning to understand and appreciate the importance of bio-diversity and the natural world.” He is hoping CEPRU will soon be self-financing, obtaining income mainly from the sale of scrap metal, plants and of products made out of waste. Recently they have just about broken even in their monthly financial accounts.

The centre has forged links with other institutions, ranging from the University of Guantánamo and the Federation of Cuban Women to the local prison where CEPRU set up a project whereby prisoners work in a similar way to recycle their own waste. A music group, En defensa del Changüí, holds its meetings at the centre. Further afield, CEPRU has assisted in the creation of similar ventures in Havana and Bayamo.
It is hardly surprising that the centre has received numerous awards, both nationally and internationally. In 2006 they won an award from the UN and in 2007 another, more publicised – at least within Cuba – from CNN which the US government would not allow them to collect or even receive because of that country’s blockade against Cuba, now in force for over 50 years.

What strikes the visitor is how everyone working at CEPRU – in common with so many of their compatriots – seems to gain strength from their resistance to the blockade that inevitably affects the functioning of the project, directly and indirectly through its impact on the Cuban economy As René explains, “Much of our work falls into a high-risk category, but it is difficult to obtain adequate protective equipment and clothing as it is so expensive to ship these items to Cuba from distant countries. It would be so much cheaper for us if we could buy direct from the US. So we have to rely on donations.”

Irania sees her work as part of the fight against the blockade. Her motto is “Sí, se puede.” (Yes, we can.) when she describes her mission. “Not only can we recycle waste without using costly technology denied to us by the US, but also we can educate people to make them aware that they can do things for ourselves. We can’t import toys or the raw materials needed to make toys from the US and they are far too expensive to import in bulk from elsewhere, so we can teach people how to make their own. Not only that, but our toys reflect Cuban culture, not that of the US which is so different from ours. What does the appearance of a Barbie doll have in common with a Cuban child?”

Irania is not just a fighter; she is a woman of great courage. During the past ten years, at the same time as working as director of CEPRU she has had to nurse her daughter who contracted leukaemia and later on, her mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Today she is still fighting. At the end of my visit, she took me to a site behind the area CEPRU occupies to show me waste that local firms had preferred to dump, rather than deliver to the centre, thus creating another tip. “It’s a never-ending battle,” she insisted, “but it was Fidel who taught me about the power of persistence and struggle in order to achieve our goals in the face of difficulty. He has been my inspiration all these years and it is thanks to him that we have got so far.”

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