When organizing a community project, I believe the most important part in its implementation is the actual community participation and its organization. Putting the infrastructure in is important as well but if there is no social cohesion behind it to hold it up and maintain it, sooner or later it is bound to fail. In a lot of rural communities you have to answer the question of what will the individual gain from the project, not just what they will gain on a community level. These are challenges that a development worker faces when trying to work and organize these communities, especially as an outsider. This is what we have been facing as we have been trying to organize the compost project and waste management project in Palenque. They are problems that require us to change our strategy in order to connect to the community members. We must connect with them on a personal level as well as connect them to the project and the benefits they will reap from it. This adaptations are critical to the success of any development project.
The benefits gained from a community project must be transparent from the beginning of a project. Community members need to see what they can gain from spending their valuable time on project participation, both short and long term benefits. Sometimes it is necessary to focus on the short term because most people in these communities only see in the short term. Why is this? Their lifestyle and day to day has shaped this way of thinking and it is often hard to get them to focus on the long term benefits of a project. Most of these people don’t have biweekly paychecks and salary jobs so for them they are earning money day to day doing menial labor, whether it be in a field or small construction projects around town. So their mindset isn’t in saving their earnings for their children’s college tuition or putting their money in a savings account; it is simply to pay the day’s food and other immediate expenses in order to maintain a basic level of comfort in their home. Heck, the majority of people don’t have a bank account and the idea of a monthly family budget is foreign to them. It is simply not ingrained in their day to day. So this is why we must focus on short term benefits when pitching these projects to community members even though as a nonprofit we are focused on long-term impact. This all ties into understanding community members and being empathic towards their daily lives in order to understand what will motivate them to participate.
As somebody who doesn’t live in Colón, part of my job is simply connecting with community members in Costa Arriba. It involves sitting down and talking to them, participating in community meetings, town halls, and community events. It means having a genuine interest in their problems and listening to them when they speak to you. This is an important step in community organization because people are more likely to respond positively to your requests of participation when they feel that you have invested yourself in their daily lives and problems. By no means am I saying that a development worker should merely feign interest in the lives of the people he or she wants to help in order to complete a project; you must be interested in peoples’ lives to be a development worker. It is requisite #1.
It is an essential part of the job that your passion for people must come first if you wish to make a positive impact in their lives. "
This has been precisely our desire for our waste management project; we want to empower and educate community members to take charge of their community’s waste problem. However we have faced setbacks in getting community members to participate and this may very well be due to our strategies in recruiting households to join the project.
This October we have focused our efforts on jump starting the second phase of the composting project which involves heavy community organization. We need to find and “recruit” at least 15 households in Palenque to participate in the project in two ways:
Strategies we’ve used to get people to attend the initial meeting have been going from house to house and personally inviting people to join the project and handing out flyers to that they would attend a general meeting in the Community Commons in order to discuss the project and ask for volunteers. The house to house call was vastly more effective as we were able to recruit 8 households to the project. In contrast, when I went around and handed out flyers, nobody showed up to my meeting. It seems that sitting down and creating that personal connection initially and then asking for participation is the key to getting people involved. It’s slow but it works!
We are working on making a coordinated effort to go door to door together as a project team. It will be Francisco Pizarro and Cynthia Vergara from Let’s Do It!-Panamá and me for Future Scientist. We will spend the day knocking on doors and getting people to go to an initial educational seminar in order to train them on basic composting practices and community cohesion. As the Panamanian Independence Holidays as well as the Christmas season are fast approaching, we have to put a little more pressure on community members in order to assure their consistent participation in the success of the project.
Going into November and the “mes de la patria” or Patriotic Month, we have to double down on our efforts and work harder at organizing the community. Both Let’s Do It!-Panamá and Future Scientist are passionate about the project and believe in the good it can do. It is up to us to sell that belief to the good people of Palenque so that they are able to see the vision themselves for a healthier future in Costa Arriba.
Uniting with Let’s Do It!-Panamá and Open Blue (https://www.openblue.com/), we have set out to clean up Costa Arriba. To combat the trash buildup in the region we began a waste management project by kicking it off with the Let’s Do It!-World event World Cleanup Day (https://www.worldcleanupday.org/). We organized five different communities in the district of Santa Isabel so that they would join the World Cleanup Day. Playa Chiquita, Cuango, Miramar, Palenque, and Nombre de Dios joined the movement to clean their communities and set the example for proper waste management. We wanted to use this event to introduce the topic of waste separation and management and use it as a segway to our next step in the project of selecting participant houses this October.
Let’s Do It!-World is a non-profit that began in Estonia in 2008 when 50,000 people organized to clean-up the entire country in just five hours. This model has been expanded worldwide and now 169 countries actively participate or have participated in the World Cleanup Day, an event that Let’s Do It!-World began last year on September 15, 2018. This worldwide event has served effectively to raise awareness and mobilize people to get out and do something about their respective trash problems. This was our objective by bringing in the communities in Colón to participate in the World Cleanup Day. We wanted to mobilize people and get rid of their “trash blindness” in order for them to see the effect that their actions have in maintaining the cleanliness of their community. From here we want to move to forming a voluntary group of households to bring their organic waste to the community compost center. We hope that after mobilizing and seeing the difference they can make in their community they will be motivated to join our project and make it their own. If you want to learn more about Let’s Do It!-World go to their website https://www.letsdoitworld.org/.
In order to mobilize the Santa Isabel district, a lot of community organization was needed. We started the day by organizing the main work force in Miramar. Here Open Blue employees volunteered their time to contribute to the effort. We also collaborated with the Suplente Tomás Salazar from Miramar who helped pinpoint the areas with the highest amount of trash contamination. Another environmental group called Planetario Verde (https://www.facebook.com/Planetario-Verde-114825813223009/) joined us in Miramar with a busload of volunteers to aid in the cause. Future Scientist took point in organizing the other communities (Playa Chiquita, Cuango, Palenque, and Nombre de Dios). In Nombre de Dios the Community Council took the lead in the cleanup under the management of Representative Daniel Barrera, in Playa Chiquita the primary school and teachers participated in cleaning up their community, in Cuango a mother and her son were the only ones who joined us for their clean up on the Cuango beachline, and in Palenque the mayor and several community members took charge of their town. Open Blue contributed rubber gloves and trash bags for all the cleanup efforts and Future Scientist ran up and down the coast delivering this material to the cleanup teams. Thankfully I was able to connect with all of them.
I spent some time in each community supporting the cleanup effort as best I could and connecting with community members. In Playa Chiquita I helped pick up trash with the elementary school students, who were incredibly enthused to take on the task and use the gloves and bags to get the job done. I was able to meet with a few community members and talk about issues within the community. In Playa Chiquita a mother and her young son met me and asked if we were going to do a cleanup in Cuango. I said yes and offered to bring them back to the town to begin picking up the trash on the beach. That mother and son that traveled to Playa Chiquita looking for me were the only ones in Cuango that participated in the World Cleanup Day and it was inspiring to see their initiative in lending a hand for the betterment of their community. From Cuango we moved on to Miramar. Due to the sheer quantity of people that participated in the cleanup in Miramar they had finished by the time I had made it there. And by the time I made it to Palenque the cleanup team had disbanded and they had carted off the picked up trash to Colón City. All in all it ended up being a successful day and we had collect approximately 286 lbs. (130 kg) of trash between all five communities. Around 120 people participated in the event and Colón had done its part in making Panama a cleaner place to live.
Now that people are aware of how trash can affect their livelihood and they can see how much damage can be done (and undone) in such little time, it is time for the compost project to move forward into its second phase. In the coming weeks we will begin to recruit households to join our project and bring their organic waste to the community compost center. We are hoping that at least 15 households join the project and help create a waste conscious community. We are hoping that this leads to Colón becoming a national example of responsible waste management for the country.
At the end of August, the agriculture students at the Centro Educativo Jacoba Urriola Solís in Portobelo won 3rd place in the Regional Science Fair with a composting project we proposed and are now going on to the National Science Fair! The idea behind the project was to teach students an alternative method of composting using air pumps to facilitate the aerobic process that composting needs in order to convert organic waste into rich compost. We created an experiment with three groups of two buckets in order to see what frequency of air pumping was most effective in aiding the decomposing process with two different types of compost mixes. We wanted the students to take this to the Regional Science Fair to present to the public and they did just that, along with several other waste management projects that they did with Professor Wilfredo Aguilar and Professor Francisco Ábrego. The project turned out to be a good complement to the other two projects and the Centro Educativo Jacoba Urriola Solís won third place in the Colón Science Fair allowing them to move on to the National Science Fair in Panama City! They will continue collecting data to present a more complete set of results at the national stage.
Every year Panama holds a national science fair that is sponsored by the National Secretary of Sciences and Technology (Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología or SENACYT in its spanish acronym). High school students from across the country prepare science projects to be presented on a provincial stage, and if they score in the top three they move on to the national stage where they present their projects in Panama City to be judged by representatives from SENACYT. The students who score in the top three at the national competition can win them the chance to participate in an international competition. The national competition will be in October and Professor Wilfredo Aguilar and two other students will go to Panama City to present updated projects to the other participating students, teachers, and SENACYT judges who will be present at the competition. We are confident that Portobelo will represent Colón and the nation with pride, and I am excited to cheer them on the day of the competition. We are excited to continue working with the school in Portobelo and continue developing projects for the students to take charge of and learn from.
Using this project we are creating a link between the school and the Waste Management project we are developing for the district of Santa Isabel in Colón. The compost project in the school in conjunction with the other science fair projects will serve as a way to get students involved in composting and raise awareness of the importance of separating and composting organic waste.
A new stakeholder in Portobelo: Profesor Francisco Ábrego
Professor Francisco Ábrego is a new teacher this year at the Portobelo high school and he has been a great complement to Professor Wilfredo’s agriculture program. He is enthusiastic about his work and has brought many new ideas to the students, especially in the form of composting. Along with our Future Scientist composting experiment with the air pumps, the professor and his students presented about bokashi composting (a japanese compost recipe/technique) and effective microorganisms.
Technology Focus: Bokashi Composting
Bokashi composting is a specific mixture of organic ingredients that makes a potent compost. The ingredients are dried manure (chicken, cow, pig, goat, duck), soil, rice husks, and molasses (or sugar). Professors Ábrego and Aguilar along with the students are selling the bokashi compost to boost funds for the agriculture program as well as utilizing it directly to improve soil quality in the school garden.
Technology focus: effective microorganisms
Effective microorganisms are a mixed culture of naturally occurring bacteria and yeast that are thought to enhance the quality of soil, improve plant growth, and improve yield. It can also be used to clean out septic systems as well as an antibacterial cleaning solution that Professor Ábrego has tested in his uncle’s chicken coop in Veraguas. The scent of chicken droppings and animal smell was eliminated within minutes and in Portobelo they use it to clean their coops and rabbit cages.
These are all lessons in composting that the students can continue to do after they have graduated and we hope that they will pass on this knowledge to their parents and communities long after. And by connecting these projects with the projects we’re doing in Costa Arriba we can connect the students to the problems that are in the region and have them actively participate in the solution.
These last few months have brought our focus to waste management. We want to see a cleaner Costa Arriba. More than that we want to empower the people of Costa Arriba to take charge of their waste in a sustainable way. We have begun a project with high school students in Portobelo. The goal of this project is to optimize how quickly we can achieve decomposition of several kinds of organic wastes under different conditions with minimal smell and flies. In particular we are trying to use pumped air to speed up composting without the need for manual compost turning. As a parallel goal, we want the students to bring this project to the national science fair and for them to present their results. We hope that this too will call to attention the necessity of properly disposing of organic waste and the ease of creating compost for the plants, flowers, and crops they may have at home.
The project’s design is simple. We have six buckets filled with organic material. Three buckets are filled with green plant material and brown (dry) plant material. The other three buckets are filled with brown material and fish viscera. The six buckets are then separated into groups of two, three groups of two buckets with the two types of material mixtures. Two of the three groups will be subject to two different frequencies of air being pumped into the buckets, one group with 12 hours of air a day in two 6-hour intervals and the other group with 2 hours of air a day in two 1-hour intervals. The third group will act as a control group with no air being pumped into the bucket. We want to see the difference in speed of decomposition among the three groups, with the hypothesis being that the bucket with more air being pumped into it will have a faster composting rate than the other buckets, given the fact that composting is an aerobic process that is facilitated by heat and constant exposure to oxygen. We are excited to see where the students take this and see if they translate it to waste management habits in their own lives, especially in regard to organic waste.
The students’ reaction to the project was general curiosity. They were curious about what the air pumps were for, how we were going to try to compost fish entrails with plant material, and what the results were going to be with varying degrees of air flow in the buckets. I am confident that this curiosity will be met with constructive teaching by Professor Francisco Ábrego, a new agriculture teacher in Jacoba Urriola Solís High School. Professor Ábrego has been spearheading the education of new composting and agriculture ideas such as bokashi (https://www.planetnatural.com/composting-101/indoor-composting/bokashi-composting/) and effective microorganisms (https://permaculturenews.org/2016/01/19/what-are-effective-microorganisms/). These are agricultural ideas that I have never heard of before, let alone seen implemented in Panamanian agricultural life. And from what I have seen, these experiments have been successful, and Professor Ábrego has gallons of effective microorganisms as well as sacks upon sacks of fresh bokashi compost. He wants to use these composted materials in the school garden and agricultural field in order to improve soil health and crop yield as well as sell to farmers in the area to raise profits for the school.
Our project, along with Professor Ábrego’s other projects, will make for a diverse, unique, and most importantly, relevant, science fair presentation. Our experiment, if successful, could be scaled up to be reproduced within the school or even on a community level. The results will show the efficacy of an air pump in increasing composting rates and facilitating ease of composting by eliminating the need to mix the compost everyday. Composting is an important topic for Colón, and Panama in general, due to the widespread waste management problems. Since 33% of waste that is produced in the country is organic matter, composting can be a solution to eradicating a third of the country’s waste. With the Open Blue waste management project gaining steam, this composting project and education can be integrated into the project as a way of including schools. Both projects can be the beginning of a widespread effort to raise awareness of the importance of reducing and reintegrating waste for positive uses and in creating value from the food scraps we tend to throw away.
This June, Future Scientist’s President Richard Novak paid a visit to Panama after seven years since his last trip to the country. The last time he was here was leading a student group, and they did a water storage tank project in the high school in Portobelo. Now seven years later he came back to assess Future Scientist’s expansion up the coast and how the Self-Solving Initiative is taking place in the communities of Costa Arriba. From his arrival on June 21st to his departure on June 26th, our time was filled with meetings with other organizations and amongst ourselves with two other members of Future Scientist that are in Panama, Morgan Hess-Holtz and Amador Goodridge. It was a productive five days of discussion and analysis and it will help to set the tone for our operations for years to come.
On Saturday, less than 12 hours from Richard’s arrival, Morgan, Richard and I began a first tour of meetings in Costa Arriba in the communities of Palenque, Nombre de Dios, and Portobelo. Our meeting in Palenque was with some of the members of the water committee. We talked about the water security of the community and what actions have been taken to ensure water security. We asked them for their ideas on what could be done to better committee administration of the water system as well as the new water well that was constructed by Open Blue. We stressed the importance of stronger collection tactics in order to get the whole community to participate and pay their monthly water bills. This is a local problem that plagues most rural communities in Colón and in other Panamanian provinces. After Palenque we traveled further upcoast to Miramar, the site of a clinic and a future project, and all the way to the end of the paved road in Cuango to get a sense of the communities and local economy. We then made our way back to our next stop, Nombre de Dios.
In Nombre de Dios we met with Aníbal Villacres, my counterpart in the community. With Aníbal we discussed steps we could take in involving the the new government in the water security of the region. We decided with his input that we needed to facilitate dialog among the town and the representatives and mayor of the region, Ministry of Health, and other representatives of local institutions. From there we will organize a discussion of what Nombre de Dios needs with respect to water security and quality, and we will draft a set of goals that could apply to the entire district of Santa Isabel. We hope that together we can mobilize the local politicians and leaders to invest in their communities and inspire the community to advocate for their own benefit in order to create positive and sustainable change in Santa Isabel.
After Nombre de Dios we went back to where it all started: Portobelo. Richard wanted to revisit the school where the storage tank project was done by him and the student group seven years ago. There he was able to reconnect with Wilfredo Aguilar, the original Future Scientist counterpart. They have been friends from when Richard came with the student group to install the storage tanks. It was clear WIlfredo was happy to see Richard and it was nice to see the two old friends reunite. We went to lunch with Wilfredo at a little restaurant not too far from the school. There we discussed future collaboration between the school and Future Scientist. We talked about the upcoming science fair that the older students participate in and ideas on what kind of projects the students could do. The Future Scientist team is brainstorming ideas for the students and we will present them to Wilfredo later on. It will help us reintegrate into the school after a bit of a hiatus extending up coast and having a focus on the local clinics, developing relationships in other communities, and finding other project opportunities in these communities. After we said our goodbyes we made our way back to the city. Richard was finally allowed to rest before the whirlwind meeting tour that would be our Monday and Tuesday. Before that tour we were to have an internal lunch meeting among Amador, Morgan, Richard and myself in order to discuss Future Scientist and the week ahead. It was a productive meeting where we discussed how our Saturday went in Costa Arriba and next steps for the organization. Morgan, Amador, Richard, and I were also able to catch up and get to know one another a little better which was great for group cohesion for the activities to come the following two days.
Our first meeting of our tour was in Open Blue (https://www.openblue.com). We met with Francisco Pizarro and Cynthia Vergara from Let’s Do It!-World (https://www.letsdoitworld.org) and Javier Visuetti from Open Blue. We discussed the Miramar waste management project, our visit to the compost center at the vocational school, fish waste that Open Blue produces and how we could incorporate that waste into our project in Miramar, and next steps for the Miramar project like securing a location for the waste center. It was great for Richard to meet these key players in this project and get a sense for the direction we wanted to take it. Our next stop was the Technological University of Panama (Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá or UTP) (http://www.utp.ac.pa).
The UTP is one of the more prestigious and demanding schools in Panama. Here I have met professors and students alike that are a part of the engineering department. I have collaborated with them for charlas in Costa Arriba as part of our Agua Colón grant. We want to start including them in projects and are looking for an assistant with an engineering background to aid me in project management in Colón. In UTP we spoke with the dean, Prof. Martin Candenado, in order to formalize the collaboration between the university and Future Scientist. We want to work with students in order to get them into the field to get hands-on experience and develop projects to take their studies further. We will continue to work with the engineering staff and students and later on, once we see that the collaboration is bearing fruit, we will work on formalizing our connection with the university.
The following day we stayed within the City of Knowledge and visited the foundations and organizations within the area. We started the day with an update meeting on the AGUA COLÓN project with the project lead, Dr. Zohre Kurt, at INDICASAT-AIP (http://indicasat.org.pa/home). We discussed what the geographic focus should be for the project, what our next steps in water collection should be, and what kind of data we need to measure impact. Critically, we need aggregated diagnoses of patients who come into the health centers and clinics related to symptoms of waterborne disease. We came to the conclusion that the information that both the Agua Colón project and Future Scientist need this information to measure impact, so we are starting to collect this information and will likely hire a short term contractor to help.
The Agua Colón project is funded by SENACYT (National Secretary of Sciences and Technology) (https://www.senacyt.gob.pa), and we want to continue that collaboration for support of future projects. We met with them to discuss how we can continue to work together and help SENACYT reach students and young people in Colón, a dramatically underserved province of Panama. SENACYT is dedicated to providing academic support to high school and college students with education programs, camps, workshops, and even fully paid trips to study in the United States. They wanted our help to connect with these students in Colón and create a strong line of connection between SENACYT and the Colón youth. An idea was that Future Scientist could act as a mentor to students looking for these types of academic opportunities in order to help them with the necessary requirements in application. SENACYT provides these opportunities to students in order to help them rise out of poverty on their own merit, and they are opportunities that Future Scientist can advertise and support among the youth of Costa Arriba.
Our final destination on the meeting tour and the last meeting we were to have on Richard’s stay in Panama was with an organization called CATHALAC (Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y el Caribe or Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean) (https://www.cathalac.int). CATHALAC is an organization based on intergovernmental agreements across Latin America. They support the water health of Latin America by providing water analysis and watershed monitoring technologies as well as educational programs to empower communities to take charge in their water health. Our meeting with them served as an introduction between the two of us and we hope to collaborate with them in the future given Future Scientist’s history of providing access to clean water through the Clean Water Initiative (http://www.futurescientist.org/clean-water-access.html).
Richard’s visit was an impetus towards new relationships and project opportunities with organizations that we had been previously unaware of. It was great meeting the people behind these organizations and it is clear that we have similar goals. It is only the beginning of what we hope to be long and fortuitous partnerships. We want to leverage these relationships with these organizations in order to arrive at mutually beneficial collaboration, with the ultimate benefactor being the people of Colón.