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A community-centered alternative for sustainable management of solid waste in two communities within Utria Natural Park, Colombia.

To reduce water, soil and air pollution caused by the inadequate management of solid waste in populated areas of the national parks.

Photo of Carlos Vergel
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Our model allows for the repurposing of more than 80% of solid waste, generating income to make the system sustainable and creating employment in the community. 1. Study: our team moves into the community to understand their situation and the environment in which they live. We visit all homes, commercial places and local institutions to educate the public on our intentions. Only If we have support from over 75% of inhabitants (through a signed agreement), we move forward with the execution. 2. Habit forming: during our time in the community (2 or 3 years) we continue our education process until new habits necessary for the success of our model are adopted by most in community. 3. Building phase: a waste-handling plant is built near or inside the town to receive, sort, use and dispose of waste. We call it a park to change the perception of the places where trash is handled; it becomes a point of interest and education for the community and region, and generates no health risks or bad smells that might affect the community it serves. 4. Operation: the day before start of operation we call on the community to come clean their streets with us. By then, those responsible for operating the system have already been selected and received technical training. They will collect trash a few times per week. Organic waste (80%) is transformed into organic fertilizer; recyclables (10% to 15%) are sorted, compacted and packed for sale. Other waste is sent to the closest landfill that meets national standards for final disposal. 5. Support and Monitoring: changing habits takes time, at least three years of continuous work to achieve it. We empower the community to take charge of the management of the system once we leave, working hand by hand with them to develop the skills required. Once the system is in their hands, financial supervision and visits continue in order to prevent any situation that may jeopardize the stability of the system.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our beneficiaries are families that live in the populated centers in Utria National Park (Nuqui and Bahia Solano). Around 90% of the population is afro-colombian and 78% of the population lives in poverty. Most will benefit from our waste collection and repurposing system, but some will directly gain employment. Another group of beneficiaries are tourists, who will enjoy a cleaner and safer environment. Finally, the municipalities will be able to meet the national demands for waste-management standards. Before the peace agreement was signed between government and FARC guerrilla (2016), this territory was suffering from the armed conflict. Thanks to the peace process this natural park has become a great tourist attraction, representing an income opportunity for these communities, but the mismanagement of their solid waste is jeopardizing this prospect.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

We solve in an integral way (habits, collection, sorting, repurposing and final disposal) a problem affecting more than 6000 poor communities in Colombia that lack this service, or struggle with inefficient waste-management models. We build this sustainable solution alongside the community. Months before the start of each implementation, our team moves into each town to build trust and gather support from the community. From our experience, the main obstacle to the success of community-focused projects is the lack of trust from community members towards the people implementing the initiatives. We have already implemented this model successfully in 5 small towns and 1 municipality in similar conditions of isolation and population. Isolated rural towns rely on poorly-equipped waste-pickers, who risk their health to sell recyclable waste to middle-men who gain the most, taking advantage of the pickers by paying low prices for the collected material. We change this paradigm.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Early Adoption: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the intended users of the idea. I have begun to expand the pilot for early adoption.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

We empower communities through sustainable, local-based entrepreneurship systems around waste management and food security.

Expertise in sector

  • 3-5 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

We were invited to an environmental forum in Utria National Park, and saw first hand the impact that improper management of solid waste has in such a natural wonder. The local residents, flora, fauna, and tourism are directly impacted by this pollution. Our model, already successful in other parts of Colombia, could be the solution.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

The communities inside Utria National Park have been direct victims of the armed conflict that has raged in Colombia for over 50 years. The signing of the peace deal with FARC will change this situation and open the area for economic activity, especially tourism, but this means that the natural reserve must be able to contain the environmental impact of a growing number of visitors. Our project aims to allow the communities inside the park to take advantage of their new situation by turning waste-management from a problem to an opportunity for local entrepreneurship. Because these communities are not accessible by land, it is a priority that most of the waste be used, recycled or repurposed locally. 5948 tourists visited the park in 2017, and the lack of a waste-management strategy is affecting the natural reserve, its water sources and the prospect of growing tourism.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

Our partners are National Parks of Colombia, The Environmental Research Institute of the Pacific-IIAP, The Municipalities of Nuqui and Bahia Solano and the Black Communities Council. The municipalities will provide the land to build the waste-management plant, logistics support, funding and will incorporate our model into their waste-management plan. The Environmental Research Institute of the Pacific-IIAP will provide funding. National Parks of Colombia will document and standardize the model for future application in other parks and communities. In every instance we join efforts with public and private stakeholders, as well as international cooperation agencies. This approach has been applied in the 6 other implementations of our model across different regions in Colombia.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

There is an existing group of waste-pickers who work with recyclable waste, and that can be integrated into our model as part of our team. We can empower the community through workshops and support, so that many of their young and especially female population get to participate and lead the waste-repurposing activities (handcrafts made with reusable waste). The population is aware of the historic proportions of the new opportunities arising from the peace deal, and are ready to tackle them.

Geographic Focus

Populated centers of Nuqi and Bahia Solano located in Utria National Park in Colombia, South America

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

36 months. All of our model implementations require between 2 to 3 years between all phases described before in this application (study, habit forming, building, operation, support and monitoring). The first 2 years are where the bulk of the efforts are concentrated, and the last year is more of a hands-off phase where we supervise and act as consultants and only intervene if necessary, to allow the community to take charge and continue the work on their own.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Luz Gallo

Hey Carlos Vergel , great to hear an idea that thinks a complete cycle of waste. The most interesting part is that you start from the waste to the production and no the other way.
I'm curious about why you choose national parks and not just villages?