Editorials | Environmental | March 2008
|Reciclamos! Is Community Recycling a Sustainable Livelihood in Coastal Mexico?|
Mneesha Gellman & Josh Dankoff - Upside Down World
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Luz and Marta spend their days sorting through the old beer bottles and plastic milk jugs of Mexican residents and tourists alike, but they aren’t doing it on top of a garbage dump, as happens in many other Mexican cities and in developing countries around the world. Rather, in San Pancho, Nayarit, a growing town on the west coast of Mexico, they are employees at the Centro de Reciclo, or Recycling Center run by the Entre Amigos organization. This non-profit, whose name translates to ‘Between Friends,’ was started two years ago by Nicole Swedlow, an American living in San Pancho who wanted to channel the influx of tourist dollars into education and livelihood programs that also cleaned up the environment. Nicole explains: “This is a town that has talked about ecology and environmentalism for a number of years. At the same time there were a lot of women that needed work, so this seemed like the right thing at the right moment.” The recycling program is a positive outcome of tourist dollars and interest in San Pancho. However, the re-creation of the town in the image of a 'perfect beach community’ for outsiders, is a parallel change with potentially negative ramifications in years to come.
|Luz and Marta at the Recycling workshop|
A few years ago, the town of San Pancho did not have any recycling whatsoever; bottles and cans went with the rest of the trash to the dump. Now, however, they are processing hundreds of bottles per week in the community, and raising environmental awareness at the same time.
Much of the glass, plastic, aluminum and cardboard that are processed at the Centro is picked up by trucks and taken to Guadalajara, the closest metropolis with the equipment to melt down the plastic and glass. However, Luz and Marta cut, solder, and sand many bottles into artisanal drinking glasses that are then sold through the Entre Amigos store. The profit from these sales in turn pay the salaries of Luz, Marta, and other employees who work on projects ranging from after-school homework help for local school kids to maintaining the free computer training center and library.
Making drinking vessels from recycled bottles wasn’t necessarily their first career choice, but both women have found solace in the creative, self-governing space of the recycling center that also provides them a regular wage. They still work at times cleaning offices for extra money, and want to open a small restaurant on the side, but they are dedicated to the recycling center. Marta spent much of her life as a cook several towns away. But the restaurant she worked for turned into a bar, with rowdy nightlife and a harried atmosphere she didn’t like, so she left. Now, she has space and quiet to design the goblets, glasses, snifters and tumblers that tourists snatch up from the store and locals are also buying to use in their homes and restaurants.
Other women in San Pancho also rely on livelihoods made from selling art from recycled materials on commission in the Entre Amigos store. These are mothers, wives, and also a crew of younger, less attached travelers from other Latin American countries, lending a more international flavor to the crafts on display. Some folks previously lived hand-to-mouth and were taught art skills to develop income generating products, while others appear to be artists first and fundraisers second.
NGO Commercialization in Action
Entre Amigos is following a long line of NGOs that focus part of their activities on selling goods to earn money for the organization (and the local artists). This commercialization of NGOs has some critics (including the authors at certain points) deeply concerned about the longevity of non-profits that are actually invested in people and people empowerment. Temptations abound to push for bigger and better sales rather than improved service delivery or capacity building once non-profits have begun to market products that support their own overhead. Because unemployment and underemployment in Mexico are estimated above 25%, (1) there is case to be made to harness tourist dollars that flow into places like San Pancho for sustainable community livelihoods and increased educational opportunities. After all, over US$12 billion was invested in Mexico’s tourist sector in 2007 (2). Entre Amigos’ commercialization of some activities, as with many NGOs today, makes them more attractive to conventional outside funders that could be key catalysts in the organization’s growth.
In this situation, the commercial aspect of NGO activity seems to be justified by the positive impact Entre Amigos is having at the community level. In addition to providing the only library in town, as well as the only free computer learning center, Entre Amigos, through the recycling center, has harnessed youthful energy by setting up recycling stations at the local primary school. The idea behind the recycling program is to provide sustainable livelihood employment opportunities and to increase local awareness of the importance of environmentalism. Behavior change in terms of waste management and the environment is difficult, especially in a town where many people simply burn their trash, plastic bags and all. That said, there is regular trash collection in San Pancho and the resources are available to encourage more recycling. One possibility is for the municipal government to provide recycling and waste bins to all private homes and institute a charge on any excess garbage. Recycling Education programs in the schools are beginning, though it is a long-term endeavor to get people choosing to recycle when they can easily burn instead.
The recycling center was assisted in its start up costs through an initial five-week state government grant, but there is no current municipal charge or tax for recycling. As Marta and Luz are employees of Entre Amigos, the program’s other expenses are covered solely by selling art made from recycled materials. Luckily, there is a large amount of space available for the recycling center in the government-built bodegas (or warehouses) at the entrance to town. It is an odd sight, really, to see a small town of roughly 3,000 inhabitants with seven mostly empty warehouses. San Pancho was originally created by former Mexican president Luis Echevveria Alvarez in the late 1970s as a model town for self-reliant development (3). The president himself decided where roads would go, and had the bodegas, schools, and a hospital built, along with one soccer field. During his presidency in the 1970s, San Pancho’s bodegas were full of industrial projects such as soap production and coconut oil extraction under a national industrialization scheme. However, as soon as Echevveria went out of office, the government investment money stopped flowing to the town. San Pancho sat relatively quietly until the late 1990s when it was ‘discovered’ by tourists and property-seeking Americans. This boom followed the 1996 loosening of ejido, or community held, land laws which opened up communally owned Mexican land to foreign investment.
For now, the impact of tourism on towns like San Pancho is a double-edged sword. Tourism provides increased employment opportunities that move many Mexicans into the middle class, while, at the same time, it fundamentally shifts the character of the town into something that resembles the idealized quintessential small town image that gringos want to believe they have stumbled upon. The balancing act between the forces of big-money development and sustainable livelihood is ongoing, and it is easy to feel disheartened in the face of enormous exploitative development projects, which are also vying for the soul of San Pancho. Yet it is refreshing to feel like there is hope in the dedicated work of Entre Amigos, and the increasing awareness of the consumer footprint in the Recycling Center.
For more information, or to make a donation, see www.centrosanpancho.com.
(1) CIA World Fact Book 2008. Mexico. Found at http://www.cia.gov
(2) “Private Investment in Mexico's Tourism Sector Booming;” Erick Laseca
(3) San Pancho’s history can be gleaned from http://www.sanpanchomex.com/communidad.php
Mneesha Gellman holds an MA in International Studies/Peace and Conflict Resolution from the University of Queensland, Australia. Josh Dankoff’s MA is in International Development, also from the University of Queensland, Australia. They are currently traveling and researching in Mexico and Central America, and can be reached at jadankoff(at)gmail(dot)com