For the past four years, Libby McDonald, CoLab’s Director of Global Sustainability Partnerships has been working in Nicaragua on waste management strategies that leverage community assets in order to alleviate poverty. In the interview below, she discusses the methods behind this work, including her model for meaningfully engaging students in it.
Nse Esema (NE): Tell me about your work in Nicaragua?
Libby McDonald (LM): We are working in super remote regions. Our challenge is, how do we create waste management systems that incorporate the informal sector in moving recyclable material? Because there are no recycling companies on the Caribbean Coastline, an important aspect of this work is transporting the material to Managua and figuring out how to do this through the creation of viable businesses.
In 2011, my students and I, went to the region and realized that we had to connect enough municipalities in order to be able to create a regional waste management system. Getting municipalities to work with each other and also getting the group of waste pickers to work together (in El Rama, Bluefields, and the Corn Islands) was and continues to be a big part of our focus.
For instance, the waste pickers in Bluefields were all working as individuals. Getting 26 women to decide how to run a cooperative business together isn’t easy, but students, through their work and travel to the region, played a big role in organizing them. Together we figured out the supply chain, did waste sorts (to figure out the composition of the waste), met with different stakeholders and wrote the project design. Initially, we planned to focus on five municipalities but we scaled it down to three in order to get funding from the InterAmerican Development Bank. We removed the 2 smallest municipalities.
NE: How did you all successfully organize the waste pickers?
LM: In 2012, through a D-Lab Waste course, I took a big group of undergraduate and graduate students back to Nicaragua. We went over to do a number of things: figure out how to create businesses through studying the supply chain, understand the composition of the local organic waste, meet with waste pickers, organize the first cooperative in the region (26 women, Luz de Futuro) and work with a slaughterhouse to figure out the best design for a biodigester.
The student group that organized the first cooperative went to the vertedero (open air dumpsite) everyday and hung out with the women. They began to talk to them and started suggesting this idea of organizing into a worker-owned cooperative.
For a glimpse into this organizing process in action, watch this video from the CoLab Radio blogpost: Organizing Process for Waste-pickers at Nicaraguan Dumpsite.
We started in BlueFields because the municipality was going to close that dumpsite and the women were going to be displaced and lose access to materials if they didn’t pull together.
The students spent a lot of time with the women, doing visioning exercises and talking about values. Ultimately they sat with the women to develop a business model with unifying principles and a mission statement. At the top of the list is: We are mothers and therefore caring for and educating our children is of the utmost importance. What that means is that when you are creating a business you aren’t working all the time, you are also at home taking care of your children. So the women organized into two groups and would take turns caring for large groups of children and working in the recycling business.
NE: Was organizing the other groups of women, in the other municipalities a similar process?
LM: The next year I went back with another group of students. They decided that because the government in El Rama was so amenable to working in partnership with the waste pickers it made sense for the waste pickers to co-create businesses with the municipality. There were two groups of waste pickers and we encouraged them to work together, but they ultimately decided to work alone. This group of students did a lot of participatory mapping and used participatory processes to get the waste pickers and the local government working together.
To learn more about this participatory mapping process in action, read this CoLab Radio blogpost: Mapping El Rama, Nicaragua’s Formal Waste System.
NE: Student engagement in these partnerships has been fruitful; what is your model around this? Considering that the work in Nicaragua has been happening for four years with a different set of students every year, how do you create lasting connections in the communities and how do you build on the learning from group to group?
LM: First of all, as much as I can, I have past student groups talk to the new students groups. Also as the instructor of D-Lab Waste I am always thinking about a process that has a beginning, middle and end and real learning objectives embedded for each student group. The trick is to make sure that the project that I am developing –- typically it is a multi-year, funded development project, in which students get the opportunity to participate — is effectively meeting the needs of the community, the funder, and my students. What that means is that the community has to be creating systems and businesses that are economically viable. Students have to feel that not only that their learning objectives are being met but that they are making real accomplishments; what they are developing over the term has to support the work that they do in the field.
For example, the group that designed a bio digester for a slaughterhouse in Bluefields, produced a very good study of biodigester facilities all over the world to prepare them to go down. They wanted to understand what this technology looks like in different climates, in different cultures and in different social contexts. Students also get to practice participatory planning methods and reflection in the field. We are reflecting constantly, talking about the work that we’ve done and figuring out how we can quickly pivot given the changes that constantly happen in the field. People come out of the IAP trips saying they’ve never experienced anything like this before and it is because they feel so much accomplishment. Luz De Futuro is alive today, as are the cooperatives developed two years ago in El Rama, and the biodigester is finally going in. For whatever reason, this model allows the students to feel accomplishment and move implementation forward.
NE: Can you say more about how you and your students build relationships?
LM: Let me start by telling you how I got into this. I did similar work in Brazil and the UN called me and asked me to come and work in the Semi-Autonomous Region of Nicaragua (RAAS). I was like, that is crazy I don’t even speak Spanish. I agreed to visit anyway and initially they took me on tours of Nicargaua. When we finally got to the dumps in Bluefields, I met these women who were all working and there was something about them that sparked me, then we got to El Rama and I felt the same thing. So I keep going back, again and again.
So, I am the conduit. I get the community ready for my students to come. I always do a couple of trips to prepare for my students’ travel- everything from shaping the experience to identifying spaces and food.
I spend a lot of time in the communities I work in, I don’t show up blind. I work with local Universities. I am very anal about preparing for my students time there. In El Rama I spent a lot of time with the waste pickers. I also tell my students that garbage sites are work. You have to get in there and work next to the women, you eat what is in front of you and you work alongside the people we are going to serve.
On one trip, I was in the municipal office and my students went to the dumpsite without me. When I arrived at the dumpsite, the students were out in the middle, knee-deep in garbage and I wasn’t even there to tell them to go do it. They just got there and did it, because we’d talked about what it means to be truly participatory. It is relationships. It’s not all these strategies we set up. It is working with people, eating with people. Its not only you knowing them, but they knowing you. My students have been extraordinary.
NE: What challenges have you faced in this work?
LM: My first trip with students was a really hard experience. The students wanted Internet connection. They wanted the right food. They felt I wasn’t listening to them. I had to think meaningfully about what I owed to my communities, what I owed to my funders, and what I owed to my students. On some level that first group were my greatest teachers. They taught me all the problems that could come up in the field.
NE: What would you say has been the impact of organizing these waste-pickers into cooperatives?
LM: When you form a cooperative money is equally divided. This means some people end up making less money and some people end up making more money and that can create problems but what the women of Luz Del Futuro will tell you is that they aren’t competing with each other anymore and they are there for each other. When one is sick another takes care of the children. That is meaningful.
Ana Oreja, a waste picker with Luz de Futuro who just came to the US to talk at D-Lab said recently, “For us it is about respect, it used to be that we worked individually and the municipal haulers would come in on their trucks and they would throw trash at us, dump it on us and dump it down the ravine where we’d have to scramble down to get it. Now, we have uniforms and nametags and are respected as municipal workers.” For the majority of waste pickers that we work with, that is enormous.
Post by Nse Umoh Esema and Libby McDonald.