Global Newsroom

From Trash to Hope

Friday, 15. July 2011

Jose Carlos Leon Vargas (Photo: Kenneth Noble)What does it mean to live in a landfill, dump or slum today? According to the UN-HABITAT program, nearly one billion people – one in every six human beings –are slum dwellers, and that number is likely to double in the next thirty years. For Mrs. María, a mother of two, living in the landfill of Oaxaca City, in southern Mexico, a slum represents hope and opportunity.

It was almost three years ago when my fiancé and I founded SiKanda, a non-profit organization that collaborates with marginalized families who live in slums or fringe areas, to improve their living conditions. Although our intention was to help families generate income opportunities, improve their health, housing and nutrition, I believe the ones that learned the most were us.

Living with less than $2 us dollars a day is almost unthinkable for anybody who reads these lines. But for all those like Doña María, creativity, adaptation and hope are the main tools for change. In the past two years, SiKanda was able to obtain small funds to start a programme called “W.O.W.” Windows of Opportunity for Change. The project has the aim of teaching wormcomposting to the families who live in landfills in order to produce organic fertilizer and sell it to farms, organics markets, and fair trade shops. W.O.W. provides also basic equipment to the rag-pickers to protect themselves while picking the trash by hand; and also builds houses made of recycled materials. Finally, the programme aims at educating people in schools, universities, companies, government institutions and industries about the problems faced by the millions of people living without water, electricity and health.

In the first year of activities, we noticed that the families started organizing themselves to grow decorative plants for sale. They did this in order to use the fertilizer that they were not able to sell. Lupita, a single mother from Oaxaca’s landfill said: “I’ve always wanted to sell plants and have a tree nursery. I am proud of picking trash by hand because it helps me buy food; but now I can work less because the worms produce fertilizer and I only need to look at them a few minutes everyday”.

SiKanda is a small organization and I always considered that raising funds was one of the most important elements in a project. It is relevant indeed, and it is never easy to obtain financial support for the programmes, but what is at the heart of the project is the hope that every family has, and the willingness to live in a more decent manner.

A few months ago, we started a similar project in two public schools located in marginalized areas of Oaxaca. The kids and their families were used to either burn or throw their trash on the streets. Now, these children are learning to recycle, make compost bins and plant their own vegetables. Six-year old Magaly said after one of the recycling workshops: 'my mom always put the trash in the streets and then many dogs, rats and mosquitoes come to the house and make all the street dirty. Now I know that if I classify my trash I wont get sick and the dogs wont bite me when I walk to the school'.

There is a great lesson to be learned from that almost 20% of the world population who lives in slums: creativity and hope. Creativity is what we loose constantly in a highly automated world; creativity is what we need when all devices and methodologies fail. Creativity means also taking and using what is needed and sharing it with others. Hope is not only that aim of improving our lives but also thinking of others, building community is a way of increasing hope in our lives.

When I think back in late 2008 when I first met the families who lived in the landfill of Oaxaca I remember their first words: “tell us how can we, the rag-pickers union, help you in SiKanda. We are happy that you are giving us a hand but we also want to be the other hand that collaborates to make of this place something better”. That day I remember I learned from those who suffer the most, a real lesson of solidarity. That day the families from one of the largest slums in Oaxaca transformed the trash into hope.

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Jose Carlos Leon Vargas was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and graduated in international relations with a master's degree in International Cooperation and Development. He has more than 10 years of working experience for non-governmental organizations. After working with Initiatives of Change in London and taking part in the third Action for Life programme he returned to Oaxaca where he and his wife have started the NGO SiKanda.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.