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5.1: Community Scale in Chiapas, Mexico

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    A 20-hour bus ride from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico brought me into Chiapas, the poorest state in all of Mexico. The capital of Chiapas is Tuxtla Gutiérrez but, in many ways, the cultural capital is San Cristóbal de las Casas. The meandering cobblestone streets are replete with coffee houses, restaurants, custom movie theaters that fit anywhere from two to 40 people, and dozens of languages from all around southern Mexico and the world. In the streets of San Cristóbal, it is hard to remember that extreme poverty is a daily reality for many of its inhabitants. The young indigenous children selling beautiful and sometimes magical clay and felt animalitos are shy and well-nourished. The loud party music rocking the center of town at night attracts a reasonably sized crowd, and the street vendors seem to sell well. Yet, like many cities, just scratching the superficial layer reveals extreme poverty in its crevices and edges. Interestingly, in the valley of San Cristóbal, much of the poverty is up the mountain, yielding a juxtaposition of roughhewn wood and mud homes with no electricity, no running water, and phenomenal views.

    I had come hoping to work with Las Abejas, a pacifist contemporary of the Zapatistas, and, to that end, I was to meet with the local non-governmental organization (NGO), Otros Mundos (OM). We were meeting to determine if we were going to work together and, if so, toward what goals and in what capacities. I was excited and nervous. I had just spent the last five years working in Northern Mexico, in the desert of Coahuila. Coahuila is as different from Chiapas as two states could be. In my opinion, if not for political lines, these two states would be in different Americas, with Coahuila part of North America (as all of Mexico is), and Chiapas—with its jungles, animals, foods, indigenous cultures, and mountains—part of Central America like its neighbor Guatemala. In Coahuila, we had already built friendships, partnerships, projects, and trust. Here in Chiapas, it felt like I was starting at step zero, and, with my terrible Spanish, that can be a scary and exciting place to be.

    I did have one connection to Otros Mundos through a colleague who had inspired me with their work. Otros Mundos was run by three amazing, change-making women: Tania González, Ursula Lascurain, and Claudia Ramos. Together they possessed a potent mix of backgrounds, including local, indigenous, and educated in DF (Mexico City). My colleague had described their presence and perspicacity. I was not disappointed. The meeting between Otros Mundos and I started in my favorite manner...over food. After getting to know each other, we dove into details of each other’s work.

    The OM staff described their experiences teaching solar and water technologies in communities throughout Chiapas. They shared their work co-creating an inspiring collaborative agreement between all local NGOs to be safe contacts for reporting domestic abuse. They also shared their involvement in protests against the Mexican government and corporations that were trying to forcibly take indigenous land that had been found to have minerals beneath it. They described their involvement in protests against these same groups’ destruction of our future through excessive greenhouse gas emissions

    I described our work, an interesting challenge made more difficult by the fact that even after five years we still had no name. I chronicled our past projects, successes, and failures. I could feel Otros Mundos relaxing while I described with candor the ways in which we had failed before. I made a point to speak to the ways in which we could work together and how we would love to collaborate on clean water, energy, and food projects but wouldn’t be able to collaborate on protests. I clumsily tried to share how I did not feel it was appropriate for new foreigners to engage in political protests, that in Mexico it was illegal for visitors to engage in protests, and how it wasn’t really what our group did.

    Specifically, I tried to describe how vital I feel it is that there are people out there telling people what is wrong and what needs to stop; however, our work was in something I called “point positive design.” In point positive design, we focus on building better alternatives so that people have healthier options. For example, instead of protesting a new coal factory, we build solar-powered systems. Otros Mundos suffered my Spanish, and my discomfort, as I tried to honor their work and describe ours. Eventually, Tania González stopped me, and said, “Oye, nosotros entendemos, ustedes no son activistas, son practivistas.” That is, “We got it, you are not activists, you are practivists.” Now, after all these years, we finally had a name: Practivistas.

    After our day together, we decided to prototype our working relationships. To do that, the following week we collaboratively ran a small needs and resources un-conference. Attendees included local community members, rural community members, community leaders, NGO leaders, and Otros Mundos staff and interns. I presented for 20 minutes on past Practivistas (our new name) projects, and then we broke off into separate tables to discuss the most pressing needs and available resources in the area. We then came back together to brainstorm possible ways to meet current needs with available resources. It was a great time, and deeper relationships were forged along with some great ideas for projects. These projects included a demonstration: a side-by-side comparison of improved cookstoves so rural community members could comparison-shop the style of the system they want; a biogas digester at a local appropriate technology demonstration home with six pigs and a small restaurant and rainwater harvesting in a rural Tzotzil community.

    After reflecting on our un-conference process and results, the next step was to meet more members of a local Tzotzil community, populated by a few families and located a few hours outside of San Cristóbal de las Casas. There we would meet to assess the interest in working together. The Tzotzil are an indigenous Maya people of the state of Chiapas, and the Tzotzil language (Bats’i k’op) is a Maya language endemic to Chiapas. I had been instructed that the Tzotzil were generally more reserved with outsiders than many other Mexican communities I had worked with.

    The community had already been working with Otros Mundos, so the trust was already there. The reception was warm and so was the food and tea. The matriarch of the house we met in served us eggs and fresh pole beans scrambled together. The ingredients were all from within 100 feet of her house. Her house was home to four children and four adults. It had a red clay floor, roughhewn wood plank walls, and a somewhat effective improved cookstove. After the food, she presented us with lemongrass tea, also from within 100 feet of her house. The tea was incredibly delicious. It was also a safe way to hydrate since waterborne illness is a serious risk, especially in Chiapas, which has a mortality rate from diarrhea among children under five years old that is three times higher than the Mexican average.

    Between watching my surroundings, listening to stories, and entertaining two of the most curious children, it took me a while to understand why the tea tasted so good. The taste was imparted from the smoke of the fire, rendering it smoked lemongrass tea. Looking up, I saw the roof looked almost painted black with soot. Unfortunately, this delightful taste betrayed a nasty truth: indoor air pollution from cooking on stoves indoors is one of the largest killers of women and children in Southern Mexico.

    After we ate, drank, and got to know each other, the community leaders invited me to a community meeting the next day. This is a rebel community and, accordingly, there are few photos or participant names we can share (and definitely no GPS coordinates). The next day, we made the few-hours journey from the city back to the community. Before we went to the meeting, we stopped in at the matriarch’s house, where she fed us again. It always amazes me how often the people with the least, share the most.

    At the meeting, I experienced a great “first” in a community meeting. The community leaders, Otros Mundos, and I were gathered in a round room with a mud floor and no stove. The head community leader was speaking about the importance of community engagement and trust, and about some serious issues of sanitation, respiratory infection, water, and energy. Partway through his talk, he fell asleep.

    There I was, sitting and listening (arguably the most important engineering design skill), and he just nodded off mid-sentence. I worried about his health and felt my own awkwardness. As I glanced around the room, I saw that no one else seemed alarmed. We sat together in silence for a few minutes until it became natural and, eventually, the main community leader woke up and continued speaking.

    This small village contains a wealth of nature and community; however, it is resource-restricted in money, energy, and water. During the long dry season, the local people must collect surface water for household uses, which results in waterborne illness. Indoor air quality (from the cookstoves) and waterborne illness became our top priorities here. Lifesaving technologies are often mundane technologies. Improved cookstoves can mitigate the health impacts of cooking with biomass by being more efficient and directing the smoke outdoors via a chimney. Rainwater harvesting systems assist in avoiding waterborne illness by catching the water before it touches the ground.

    That summer, Practivistas came back with twenty students to work with Otros Mundos, a demonstration home in San Cristóbal, and the Tzotzil community. In the community, we worked together to build improved cookstoves and to design and build a unique rainwater harvesting system.

    The main criteria of safety, cost, locally repairable, and water availability through the dry season for the entire community provided some very interesting challenges. Those challenges were made more interesting by the steep and tight topography of the area, the lack of financial resources, and the communications barriers presented by having Spanish as the second language for both the students who spoke English and the community members who speak Tzotzil. Luckily, Otros Mundos played a critical role of trust, context, and training.

    The design and construction process was a joy. While measuring the roof area, my tape measure broke and the seven-year-old granddaughter of the matriarch helped me fix it. The skills and trust of all the participants together created lasting systems and creative solutions. For instance, in order to utilize more locally available and low-cost resources, we made gutters by bending corrugated roofing metal into a trough. My favorite innovation was to collect and combine the rain from two different houses (Figure 5-1) into one 19,000-liter tank for storage and community use (Figure 5-2). This combination allows for more catchment area as well as for larger centralized storage at a lower cost than separate tanks. It is a solution that is born from the human-centered design process and the communal nature of the participants.