Greening the barrios in Mexico City

Saving your garbage is a tough sell in a place where gardening is seen as peasant labor. But that doesn’t stop Dulce María Vega from rolling up her sleeves, going door-to-door and recruiting her neighbors for a grand mission. IMG_0465

Dulce is the friendly face of sustainability in her neighborhood. With more than 30,000 residents, Lomas de Plateros is one of Mexico City’s largest apartment complexes. When she first teamed up with Noelle Romero of Organi-K, a local environmental group, to establish a pilot Ecobarrios project at the massive complex, people thought she’d lost her senses.

“First we ask them to do something very simple: to separate their organic waste from the inorganic waste,” she explains. “Most of them don’t want to work with the compost because they consider it dirty work, playing with the soil – but that’s ok.” It took awhile, but soon the neighbors grew accustomed to seeing her, and a few of them even began to join her out in the garden. “Now they’re beginning to understand it to the point that at least it doesn’t disgust them to take their organic waste and put it in a bucket so we can pass by for it. “ And as they began to see the tasty fruits of her labors – tomatoes, beans, broccoli, lettuce and strawberries, for example – more of them started coming around. IMG_0475

“Now you can begin to see the contrast,” she said. “They come by and see the seeds have germinated and they’re amazed to see it’s a living thing because they’ve forgotten that food comes from nature.”

Ten families in her section of the complex are now participating, saving their garbage and their recyclables for pickup and even getting their hands dirty by working the compost and planting. Now a group of 15 families in another section of Lomas de Plateros calling themselves “Participacion Ciudadana” (Citizen Participation) have expressed an interest in starting their own composting and gardening project, and Dulce will be the one to organize it.

A recycling dropoff center will be installed in the complex to collect paper, plastic, metal, glass and tetrapack – this latter being the boxes used to package milk and juice that are nearly impossible to recycle in the United States. At the same time, the groups will be experimenting with vertical crops and organoponics. Finally, they’re teaming up with the city’s Commission for the Integral Development of Solid Waste and other local organizations to launch a similar project in Section F, the largest of Lomas de Platero’s sections with more than 10,000 residents.

But this project is about more than gardening and recycling, Noelle explains. It is a seed project for an Ecobarrio.

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“We need a new vision, a new paradigm,” said Noelle. “With the green circle we’re giving a great message: Minimize your solid residues, minimize your consumption, take advantage of your organics and make them into compost, which in turn will give you the fertilizer for urban organic agriculture.

“So this is how we’re going to close the cycle; and thousands of people who live here will be able to see that you can grow your own food and be sustainable food-wise. This is going to change the vision.”

Dulce, an avid gardener and recycler, had been thinking for some time about how to get her neighbors involved in greening up the city. So when Noelle approached her about starting a pilot program for urban organic agriculture, she jumped at the chance. The composting and gardening project, called the Circulo Verde or Green Circle, is designed to teach people to close the cycle in their organic waste production by bringing it full circle, converting it to soil and then to food for neighborhood consumption and eventually to supplement volunteers’ income. IMG_0458

Organi-K, an environmental group founded by former Green Party leader Arnold Ricalde, is the hub for a variety of initiatives ranging from reforestation to recycling. Organi-K implements the concepts of permaculture, an environmental design system invented in Australia in the 1970s and making its way around the world.

Early this year, Organi-K received a grant from the city’s Commission for the Integral Development of Solid Waste to initiate an urban agriculture program, and Noelle became the coordinator. She began scouting for places to launch the program, and Lomas de Plateros seemed a logical place to start because of its size and the green spaces available.

The Ecobarrios, project, as Noelle explains it, revolves around the establishment of a community that holds a new vision of sustainability. Participants will be given tools to help them track their progress in waste reduction and consumption of resources. The long-term plan has three phases:

1. The Green Circle composting and gardening project. “Once they change their food consumption habits and grow their own food, a new vision can be born regarding responsible consumption and food sustainability,” Noelle says.

2. Sustainable water consumption. “How can we harvest water in times of an approaching cut in water services? What water saving systems can be implemented in people’s homes, and what water consumption habits can be encouraged in these families, such as using biodegradable products or using less water while washing dishes, taking showers, doing laundry, washing cars, etc.”

3. Sustainable energy consumption. Here the community implementation of energy saving systems, installs energy-efficient light bulbs, installs solar water heaters and if possible, solar panels. “By the end of the third phase of an Ecobarrio, we would expect to have a community that holds a new vision and that follows a new life paradigm of love and collaboration with the planet,” Noelle says.

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Looking ahead, another Ecobarrios project set to begin soon is in the Pemex housing complex, home to 7,000 people. The Tlalpan municipality is funding the project here, and the group is just waiting for a change in administration in the housing complex to begin another Circulo Verde project. Organi-K has applied for funding from the Instituto de la Vivienda (the housing department) for an even more ambitious project that would implement ecotechnologies on a new housing project in Iztapalapa, on the western outskirts of the city. Keep an eye on this blog for future developments, and contact Noelle Romero at noelleromero@yahoo.com.mx or Arnold Ricalde at despertares222@yahoo.com.mx if you want to pay a visit to Organi-K and lend a hand with one of its projects.

IMG_0466 See the slide show here