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Julie Wells recalls a water based project in Candelaria, Nicaragua

This past May I had the incredible opportunity to travel with Green Empowerment to Candelaria, Nicaragua. The landscape was very rugged and dry, quite unlike our previous village where it rained almost every day. Due to the dryness of this area, the village needed a way to get a ready supply of water. Solar panels powered pumps that pulled the water from an underground reserve to a large container where it was kept.

Piping for the water to flow from the sand filter to its collecting hole

Once Candelaria had water at its disposal, there were other projects soon to be underway. One project was building a sand filter at a woman’s home. Previously, the water used to wash the clothes would fall to the ground along with the bleach used in the water. The water was not being used efficiently. Building a sand filter would catch the wash water and filter out the clean water so that it could be used for other purposes.

We began by going down to the creek and gathering various rock sizes and gravel. A large barrel would first be filled with the large rocks and then decrease in size until the gravel was placed on the last layer. In this way it would act as a filter to catch the bleach-laden water.

After filling the barrel we dug a trench along the hillside that would contain piping for the water to flow down. The water would collect at the bottom and it could be used to water the garden. This project was completed in several hours and it was very rewarding to finish a project that would soon be used by a family. I thought it was an innovative project that was making good use of the water that was available.

Collecting rocks and gravel for the sand filter

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Not in Peru.

In the slums of US cities, livelihoods are not based so much on natural resources, but on wage labor at the bottom of the capitalist economy. But in Peru, and arguably in the majority of the world, the people struggling to get by live on natural resources. Their day-to-day survival depends directly on the productivity of soil, the abundance of water and the access to trees for cooking and shelter.

In Peru, I hear so many stories of rural folks organizing to defend their land, their water, their trees from the multinational companies that come to extract resources and sell them to the rich world. Yesterday, a man from somewhere in the jungle said that there were government engineers snooping around and marking off land 6km into the forest from the farthest villages. At first the engineers said it was protected land, but that villagers could still hunt animals and cut trees for their personal use. But then these engineers stated that no one was to cross this new boundary. Soon other people showed up. With saws. A Chinese company started hauling out the ancient trees by the truckload. The communities formed a “Defensa Ecologica”. The next time the government engineer came around no one would give him food or lodging. Except for one family who finally let him in. They gave him a place to rest…and when he was sleeping they stole his shoes. In the morning, the angry and now shoe-less engineer had no way to tromp through the forest…

Today I talked to Juan Santos Chavez, who has built a micro-hydro system for himself and 9 other families in the village of La Libertad. Juan knows the micro-hydro system depends primary on one thing: water. And water depends on the thickly forested hill hovering over La Libertad. He and the rest of the association has talked to the owner of the forested land about the importance of keeping in forest, to protect the river’s spring for the drinking water and electricity of the village. But the land owner has defended the idea of private property and cuts “his” trees when he pleases. La Libertad say they will try and negotiate, but they have decided to take all peaceful measures necessary to defend their water.

The bloodiest conflict in Peru in recent years was not a clash of the infamous Shining Path with their Maoist ideology, but rather a confrontation in July between police and indigenous activists protesting a law that facilitated access of oil and timber multinationals to the rainforest. It was defense of rights to land and natural resources that sparked this fire.

This theme is echoed in the fight against the mining companies in the mountains of Cajamarca. Peasants march, block roads, and hold vigils to protect their land and water. In an extreme case, the Ronda Campesina captured a helicopter pilot exploring for minerals and made him walk naked around the freezing highland village for days. A mercury spill that poisoned the town of Chorropampa haunts the public memory. In a society and economy based on agriculture, the quick riches of tearing down a mountain lure some but hold know illusions for others who know their wealth and ability to survive comes from the land.

Their wealth circulates from the field to the home, to their plate and back to the field. People don’t have much cash, but they eat hearty meals, have a roof over their head and adobe or wooden walls to keep out the rain. Nature provides and they are willing to defend her.

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The Sacred Valley is full of paradoxes. Stunning vertical landscapes. Tourism and a hippy mecca. Andean Waldorf schools. And grinding poverty…

I first meet up with Sandra and Sandy: two good natured, down-to-earth Canadians who are volunteering in Peru. Sandra with Kuasay Wasi Clinic (http://kausaywasi.org/) and Sandy with DESEA, Desarrollo en Accion (www.deseaperu.org), Green Empowerment’s new partner in implementing a project to improve health through household water filters. With the exciting news from the Metabolic Studios of Annenberg Foundation, the project finally has the resources to really get off the ground. I am in the Sacred Valley to see the team of DESEA, meet the communities and work out the logistics of the new grant.

Ricardinia, the newly-hired field manager, took us out to the communities: Totora, Accha Pampa and Chaipa. While at about 4000 meters (13,000 feet) themselves, they were nestled in valleys with the surrounding peaks towering at the aching heights of 5000 meters (16,400ft). Ricardinia grew up a day’s walk from the closest road, in some hidden village in these sacred hills. She left for high school and trained to be a teacher. She heard the radio ad for the DESEA field manager and was hired on. She is a huge asset as she is the main cultural and linguistic bridge to the poor communities.
In Totora we met Gregorio, the filter workshop manager, who was the young mayor of this adobe village. He was dressed in western clothes and spoke in fluent Spanish with a Quechua accent that made round words sound like triangles. He had attended the CAWST (www.cawst.org) training as is a devotee of the biosand filters that he builds everyday. We caught him with a bundle of wire mess as he was heading to Pampallacta to repair the school’s filter.

When they saw Sandra arrive in Totora, a group of women gathered for a “clinic” (not a building, but an event). They squatted on the ground and unwrapped their bundles of brightly woven cloth to reveal children that needed a nurse’s eye.
We met a woman and her baby that had lost a dangerous amount of weight from diarrhea. She had taken her to the Kuasay Wasi clinic where she was given a dehydration solution. By the time I met the baby, she had gained back some weight and looked like she would survive, but it drove home the point that simple hygiene and clean water are the most important things we can do to save children’s lives.

These communities speak almost no Spanish. They maintain the poetic Quechua language and traditions alive. Everyday clothes look like a celebration, with dozens of buttons on the wrists arranged like pearls on an evening gown, and big flat round hats covered with ornate red cloth that dangled over the edge.

And yet, illiteracy, isolation, discrimination and malnutrition have taken their toll. Sandra describes meeting a woman who could not remember how many of her children had died; was it 5 or 6? I hear stories of a toddler eating paint, excessive alcohol and spouse abuse. I don’t see this kind of malnutrition where I live in Cajamarca, where rural people have few resources, but plenty of food, although both areas show signs of protein deficiency, with a diet based on rice and potatoes.

In Totora and Accha Pampa, we walk into the tiny dark kitchens, covered in soot, to see the filters. Ricardinia translates from Quechua. The people we met said they used the filters daily and even said that they had noticed an improvement in health of the children. They understand that the filters clean. The filters are made in one of the project communities out of local materials. The concrete structure is filled with sand and gravel which effectively remove pathogens.
biosand filter

Ricardina, Gregorio and the team say that everyone wants a filter. But once they have it, there are some (perhaps 15%) who don’t use it. Do they want it just because it’s a new thing to have in their home? It’s modern and different? Daily habits run deep too, thousands of years deep. And introducing some new-fangled things into those daily patterns is a hard thing to do. Even when you know it’s good for you. I know I should floss every day, but I don’t. It seems that here, the filter use and health education is not a secondary complement of filter installation, but needs to be at the core of the program.

school water

This pipe, from a dirty open sink hole, delivers water to schoolchildren

We surveyed the existing water sources. In Totora, there is “agua entubada” (piped, but not potable, water) that just comes from an open river, above which the animals graze… Kids drink from water that comes from an open sink hole near the school. Other communities have gravity-fed water systems that deliver spring water to some of the houses, but not to others.

Sandy has a kit to test for total coliforms and fecal coliforms, which are indicators of unsafe drinking water. The streams have lots of fecal coliforms, the sealed water spring water distribution systems are clean and the filtered water is clean. However, this has shown several of the systems are not working properly and need to be fixed (the sand was not fine enough and the water passes too quickly). This monitoring tool helps them adjust the filter fabrication.
lab test
The complex social and cultural environment will pose plenty of challenges, but also makes the need for the health and water program all the more evident. With the support of Metabolic Studios of Annenberg Foundation, 150 filters will be built and installed. Most importantly, workshops on health and hygiene will be integrated into the program and health promoters trained from the communities. Something so simple can save a life. After spending time with the DESEA team and going to the communities, I am optimistic that this partnership has what it takes.

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