In Action

January 12 2018 | by

LIFE IS hard in the shanty towns which have sprung up since the 1990s around the municipal dump of Zaachila, Oaxaca, in the south east of Mexico. Originally created to house job-seekers from rural areas migrating to the towns looking for a better life, they have become normalised. However, in spite of their regularisation, living conditions for the inhabitants are tough, with poor access to basic services, clean water, waste collection, and health services.

One thousand tons of unclassified waste arrives daily at the dump, coming mainly from the twenty-two municipalities in the Oaxaca central valleys. In use for thirty-five years, it does not comply with national laws on the treatment of urban waste, and is out of control regarding environmental pollution and its impact on public health. The proximity of the dump is the main cause of respiratory, skin, and gastrointestinal diseases which affect the population of these neighbourhoods with much higher rates than the national average.


“Mexico has one of the top fifteen world economies, but more than half of the population lives below the poverty line,” says José Carlos León Vargas, Solidaridad Internacional Kanda A.C. (SiKanda), Project Coordinator. “One third of the population of Oaxaca’s 3.2 million inhabitants are from 16 ethnic groups which speak over 40 pre-Columbian languages, with at least 25 percent of the population unable to speak Spanish.” SiKanda, meaning ‘in action’ in Mixtec, one of the indigenous languages, was founded in 2009. “SiKanda promotes projects which are participative and sustainable, with the end result contributing to the improvement of life conditions for a vulnerable group,” continues José. “Since its inception, it has established a strong link with the ‘Pepenadores’ – an informal community of recyclers who live and work around the dump.”

State schools located near the dump are attended by children from very poor families. Families have an average of 3 to 4 children, and the majority of parents are semi-illiterate. In the last 15 years, families living near the dump have been given permission by the State to open schools. The authority provides one or two teachers and the ground for building, but the rooms must be constructed by the communities themselves.

Tetrapack libraries

SiKanda proposed a project promoting educational opportunities for children at three elementary schools in the immediate vicinity of the dump. Specifically, this involved building a new fully-equipped library at each school complete with teaching materials; the initiation of a training cycle for young people covering waste management, domestic agriculture, vegetable production, organic fertilisers, and environmental leadership; and, increasing the participation of families, the authorities, students and teachers in community development through the promotion of alliances and educational activities in public libraries.

“The libraries are built using an innovative and certified construction technique which fits perfectly with the dump site,” explains José. “The construction consists of a prefabricated wooden frame which is then covered with Tetrapack cartons, and the spaces are filled using recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles.”

The amount requested from and granted by St. Anthony’s Charities in June 2016 was €25,000, around 43 percent of the total cost of €58,200, with the remaining funds being provided by SiKanda, the beneficiaries themselves, and other charitable organisations. The contribution from St. Anthony’s Charities would be used to purchase materials to build the libraries, furniture, teaching materials and books, and a part would also be used to cover training costs, and materials for the gardens and for the schools.

Environmental education

In the first months of the project the activities focused on construction of the first ecological library, and environmental education. “During the first weeks, beneficiaries, families, and teachers attended various training sessions on mixed construction techniques with conventional materials, wood and cement, and recycled materials, PET and tetrapacks,” explains José. “Participants were able to visit buildings already completed by SiKanda to get to know the technique closely. Then, during the school holidays, children and adults volunteered to clean, level and prepare the ground ready for construction. At the same time, collection of bottles and packaging, and their cleaning started in order to have them ready for use.” Construction of the first library began in October 2016 and was finished in the first week of November. The project received donations and purchased teaching materials and books ready for the library as soon as the plastering and painting was finished. Construction of the second library started towards the end of November 2017, and the third, in April 2017. Over the course of the year, training programmes were provided. The project concluded in July 2017.

After completion of the project, Mrs Marcelina, 38, mother of five, who has a child attending Technical Secondary School 223, had this to say, “I’m very happy to have participated in building a green library at my daughter’s school. The kids are happy because it is cool and welcoming, and there are lots of interesting books. I didn’t think that it was possible to build such a beautiful room in such a short time, and above all, using a good deal of recycled materials – I mean junk! Our life here is not easy: we are poor and our houses are too near to the dump, but we are good people and are not afraid of work. I thank the people who have funded this project, which I appreciate very much, because I was also given the opportunity to participate and express my ideas and concerns.”

“One of the ongoing actions is the creation of a management system and a cultural programme able to network the three libraries, which will promote more readership and encourage participation by the inhabitants of the area,” says José. “At an institutional level, in the last months of the project, relationships were consolidated with municipal authorities, who expressed a strong interest in collaborating to promote the use of public libraries. The ultimate goal was to formalise a collaboration agreement allowing replication of the project to other precarious districts and schools in the area. The tangible result was the formalisation of a cooperation agreement, signed in mid-June 2017 at a public event attended by representatives from institutions, schools, and the community at large.”

More libraries needed

It is estimated that some 455 people have benefited directly from the project – pupils, teachers and parents, and around 1,775 indirectly – members of the community, neighbours, relatives and dump residents. Although this project has reached its conclusion, SiKanda has drawn up a two-year plan of activities bearing in mind lessons learned from this project and the problems which exist in the communities. These activities include: construction of more green libraries, sanitary facilities, and IT classrooms in schools where these are still lacking; construction of school canteens; promotion of school and community gardens; courses on nutrition and cooking techniques; and promotion of rights for young people and equality in general. There is still much work to be done.

“On behalf of the whole of the SiKanda team, and the families living near the Oaxaca dump, I would like to express our full gratitude,” says José. “Without the support of St. Anthony’s Charities and the readers of the Messenger, this initiative would not have had such good results and such a positive impact on the quality of life and opportunities for the people living in the favelas of Oaxaca. We wish you all a happy and prosperous 2018.”


Updated on February 08 2018