22 February 2012

RIP Community Composting

One day early in 2012 a petition arrived in my mailbox with 12 signatures of my neighbors demanding that I dismantle our community composting project. It turns out that there were 4 ladies behind the initiative, while the others didn’t really understand what they were signing. They sighted two reasons: infestation of cockroaches, mice, and rats; and that the project made the neighborhood unsightly.

The homeowner’s association called us to a meeting and most of my questions about vermin were left unanswered. Like, why did the rats recently appear when the community composting project has been running for nearly two years? And, why were there rats all over the housing development, and not just on our block?

That unsolved they turned to their surefire argument about how ugly all that “garbage” was in our park. Here they had ready answers: decomposing leaves are ugly, decomposing organic matter is ugly. After explaining things like decomposing leaves make good dirt and getting nowhere, I realized that I had touched a raw nerve. These same ladies had previously cut down three medium sized trees in the housing development because “they made too much garbage.” Garbage is anything that does not belong in the house and it needs to go “away” immediately. Anybody who does not comply with this is dirty.

Although many decades away now, Ecuadorians, and especially Guayaquileños act as if they still collectively recalled the days of the muckrakers, the men whose unsightly job it was to pick up and haul away feces from homes lest it lie in the streets. The fight against infectious diseases scarred generations. There are also more recent memories before the land fill was built of garbage piled in dumps around the city, and even more recently of a protracted garbage worker strike during which people built huge piles of waste in the streets. Infestations of rats, powerful odors and infectious diseases, each associated to varying degrees with these episodes of the city’s past, are burned in people’s memory as natural consequences of not “getting rid” of garbage.

Having dismally lost that argument, I appealed to what I thought would surely stir them to reconsider their demands. People in more modern cities pay to participate in community gardens, in which composting is a central element. There are many reasons for this: to feel a stronger bond with the earth, to cultivate healthy vegetables, to diversify their diet, to build a community of friendly neighbors, to make their neighborhood greener and more beautiful, and to teach their children to value taking care of the earth, to comprehend how food waste eventually generates healthy soil, to appreciate the commitment it takes to sow, cultivate and harvest, and on an even more basic level, so they simply know where food comes from.

I related to them that I have a junior youth group in the neighborhood and that the community service project they chose was to make a community garden with the soil harvested from the compost, and I talked about how transformative this action will become for these youth’s lives.  I even asked them about their own children and their attitudes towards the earth, related these attitudes to the woeful state of the environment in the city and how this awareness is directing the future of more advanced cities and countries. Passionate and sporadically eloquent as it was, my plea fell on deaf ears. “If all of these things are so important to you, then why don’t you buy yourself a piece of property in the countryside and do all of these things there?”, they answered.

I don’t mind dealing with ignorance, as I have plenty of my own, but these ladies had come to the meeting to “win”, and not to learn anything. A closed mind cannot be reasoned with. When I realized this and I had said my piece, I felt that any further arguments or fighting would only kindle their ignorance into a flame of belligerence. For fear of smear campaigns and more aggressive petitioning, I desisted.

Over the next week I dismantled the project and asked the administrator of the homeowner’s association to direct the gardeners to put the humus in sacks so I could use it to make a garden either there or in my own backyard. She agreed but within the week I found that it had been taken “away”, presumably thrown into the garbage. People capable of throwing commercial quality humus to the garbage, ignoring even its monetary value, wear blinders so powerful that the mind and heart are eventually crushed under the weight of their own intellectual isolation.

Other participants in the project expressed their sadness at what happened so weakly that I began to wonder if anything at all had been accomplished through the project. Perhaps a bit more distance is required to properly answer this question. Until I glean worthwhile lessons from this episode, I will detach my heart from it all, make peace with my neighbors and learn to accept them as people who rose up to express their beliefs to improve their neighborhood. For now, their version of the status quo has been restored, fears have been assuaged and control over a “chaotic” situation has been regained. My perspective is not compatible with theirs in the way it was presented and this is my failure. I am the foreigner, and my intention to educate has failed. As an educator, I should have known better.

They certainly have not heard the last from me, though. I will regroup and launch a new and improved initiative that will incorporate all of the valuable lessons I have learned through this turbulent episode.