Conversations about autonomy centered on some surprising topics during our stay at Unitierra. Talks about (and practices of) the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the production of food, we were, in many ways, expecting. What we were not expecting was that there would be so much talk about shit. And… there was a lot of talk about shit while we were at Unitierra, as related to autonomy. As Gustavo explained during the interview we did with him, ‘we care about shit… as much as we care about food.’ For, you cannot talk about the autonomy of food without understanding the importance of the autonomy of poo (waste). And with this mind, you can also not talk about the autonomy of food and poo without also talking about the autonomy of water. They are all clearly related. In fact, learning about autonomy forces me to learn more about how these connect together, rather than learning more about each ‘sector’ separately.
Waste from humans and other animals, as we all know, is described in all sorts of ways – humorous and informal, technical and scientific… Although I heard ‘shit’ as most often related to humans (whilst at Unitierra), I’ll instead use ‘poo’ for most of this post … I remember in Bangladesh when we were looking into the 100% Sanitation Act national policy, that engaging in the act of releasing waste (poo-ing) was always referred to as ‘when the nature calls’. Regardless of word use, the topic is immensely important – it causes huge numbers of unnecessary illnesses and premature deaths (especially through contamination of waterways) to humans, animals and plants in every country in the world. And, the quest for the top multi-national corporations (Suez, Veolia Environnment (both from France) Thames Water (out of the UK) to control and privatize all water commons for their own self-profit making interests is becoming increasingly problematic and volatile in many regions in the world. We recently learned more about water privatization in the wonderful documentary, Fl0w: For the Love of Water (can be viewed in full here).
The topic of poo came up in all sorts of ways during our stay in Oaxaca – as a resource, as a contaminant, as potential sustenance (into composted fertilizer). There was talk about poo during the workshop within which we helped to construct a mud and (burro) poo stove with Unitierra in a community (primarily of indigenous migrants from across Mexico) outside of Oaxaca city. Stove-building workshops have been occurring through Unitierra very often over the past several years – in over 25 different communities in and around Oaxaca at the request of community members themselves. The women from Unitierra who were helping to run the workshop, were initially learners themselves, having asked previously to have a mud stove in their own family homes. Having a stove such as this helps to increase the self-sufficiency of families to rely less on gas for stoves inside of their own kitchens. The stoves are heated through wood or dried… shit – from burros, cows and/or horses. Unitierra does not pay for any of the materials. The families are expected to pay for the bricks, a pipe and supply enough mud/poo. They also need to fix a space big enough to build the stove.
When we arrived with Adriana and from Unitierra at a family’s house in a suburb of Oaxaca to learn about, and help build a mud stove, I found myself staring at a large pile of soft dirt. Yet, this was only 25% dirt. The other 75% was burro poo.
I was a bit (unsurprisingly) resistant to put my hands into the mound of mostly-burro-poo. I guess I wasn’t entirely prepared to get my hands that dirty…
The mixture however, smelled of fresh Earth and I soon found myself completely lost in using my hands to mold a thick layer of Earth/poo around bricks that would be used to fry tortillas, boil frijoles and heat up tamales.
The layout of the stove is rather brilliant and locks in heat extremely well. It took us a couple of hours of talking, laughing and molding to finish the stove.
Aside from the burro poo and mud stove, there was talk about poo when we learned how to construct a dry compostable toilet during a workshop from Cesar Añorve , a brilliant architect from Cuernavaca who has been working for the last 40 years to teach about and implement such vestibules in people’s homes, offices and public spaces. Cesar started an organization, El Centro de Innovación en Tecnología Alternativa (The Center for Innovation in Alternative Technologies) through which he promotes knowledge and technical skills on dry toilets, amongst other innovations. During the compostable toilet workshop at Unitierra, I was urged to critically consider how the State controls even my own digestive system because of our reliance on the State for the disposal of our own… poo. To be autonomous from the State, I needed to consider how to disconnect my stomach from it.
There was talk about poo when we were urged to consider how we pollute our own water commons – by mindlessly flushing our poo into it – day after day after day after day… Should water be the receptacle of our own waste? Is not water sacred to all life on Earth? Why is it that we so carelessly pollute it? Over half of our water use is for the taking away of our own waste. We rely and depend on a sophisticated system of piping and sewage treatment systems, which are often not up to standard or even used at all, varying from country to country and place to place around the world. The logic of the ‘flow’ of public water systems makes little sense when we think about the entire system of it. ‘When the nature calls’, we poo into freshwater, a finite resource, flush it away into our waterways – the flush polluting these waterways directly or separating it into massive sewage treatment plants (which uses huge amount of energy, more water and chemicals which further poison the waterways). Cesar reckons that the water we flush down the toilet over the course of one year is what we drink in 40 years.
I must say that I had not thought much about what happens to my poo or anyone else’s poo for that matter, for …. well…. about three years. And that was when I first encountered (quite unexpectedly) the wisdom of the disposal of our poo in dry compostable toilets explained in a brilliant undergraduate dissertation by Jessica Smith at Wesleyan University in the USA.
At that time, I was finishing a comprehensive literature review (as a Working Paper publication) for a 2-year research project, Whose Public Action? at the University of Birmingham which had looked into the dynamics of relationships between civil society organizations (also called non-profit, non-governmental, etc.) and the State (national and district level) to provide ‘basic services’ such as sanitation, water, health and education. This research project was one of over 50 projects funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) on the overarching topic of Non-Governmental Public Action. For this research project I had worked on, we had particular case studies in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Aside from fascinating fieldwork I participated in (primarily in the sanitation cases in Bangladesh and India – I will write more about this project in future posts), I spent several months poring over hundreds of articles and books to produce a comprehensive literature review on the ways in which relationships (or ‘partnerships’ as the international development jargon prefers to call them) between civil society and government/State organizations are understood, theorized and described. Aside from a couple of anthropologically-focused studies which got into some of the nuances and power games that are inherent in all relationships (let alone relationships between such different types of organizations), the literature was incredibly dry and, in my opinion, ridiculously simplistic – most-often reducing relationships to adjectives such as ‘competitive’ and ‘co-operative.’ To say I was bored and uninspired at that point is an understatement. That is, until I came across a dissertation entitled: “The Separation between Shit and State” Water Sovereignty and the New Commons in Cuernevaca, Mexico by Jessica Smith.
Much of the dissertation is a personal learning account of Jessica’s travels with the International Honors Program (IHP) which was a year-long learning experience to different cities and places around the world, as an option for undergraduate university students during their studies. Gustavo helped found and was deeply involved in the IHP for many years. Jessica wrote about her visit to Unitierra and the fortuitous coincidence of meeting Cesar Añorve – and learning about not only how to build a dry compostable toilet, but learning many intricacies about what is wrong with international development. In particular, her research explores ‘the commons’ and ‘community’ – ‘not as tragedies or casualties of the modern era, but as something men and women the world over are working to regenerate’ (p. 4).
Through the promotion of the implementation of the dry compostable toilet, Jessica tells us that Cesar is providing the tools for water sovereignty. Similar to food sovereignty, water sovereignty is about being responsible of your own water management, through a local and community-based ‘commons’ autonomy that is centred around reciprocity. Sovereignty in all forms – water, waste and food – opposes the strong tendency in international development that seeks market-based solutions in larger non-local, global-economic systems. This is because in essence, although there are calls for ‘self’ and ‘community reliance’ development is much more about providing – resources, materials and knowledge, which inevitably brings about relationships of dependency, and ultimately the erosion of culture – ‘culture-cide’.
Back in Unitierra, when Gustavo was telling us about education and its capacity for destruction – for ‘culture-cide’, I was considering the need for autonomous forms of learning and how and where this can and does occur. I was not putting together these other areas – particularly water and waste. These new forms of learning, of re-learning, for me that continues to occur through this journey, comes in waves – often quite subtle. Much of these ‘learnings’ seem to be about connections and the realization of how often I separate knowledge into different categories automatically, intentionally or not.
When the conversation with Gustavo shifted to our plans during our stay there was a twinkle in his eyes when he mentioned a special workshop that was going to occur on Saturday with Cesar Añorve. I immediately knew who he was referring to and what the topic of the workshop would be about. Cesar has been coming to Unitierra once or twice per year so I felt it was extremely serendipitous that during our stay I would meet the man and learn his knowledge that I found so unexpectedly captivating through Jessica’s dissertation!
Cesar’s commitment to promoting autonomy and environmental concerns through an activity most of us rarely think about, unless something goes wrong, is admirable. He has spent years on countless projects in different countries and with no concern for personal profit on dry toilets or on systems that reuse water. These range from the simple dry toilets we could all build in our own houses with very few materials to more complex systems in schools and whole buildings involving more elaborate water engineering. What was wonderful to see, and what was contagious about his work, was both the simplicity of the systems he had designed as well as his passion for taking forward his message of the importance of, as he put it, ‘not shitting on water’.
To this end he also toured various places, giving workshops to teach others how to build these structures – to realize that the technology is simple, straightforward and does not pollute people’s houses. All this is part of what he calls his cacaravan the nomadic journey of, as he himself puts it, a cacalogist. His journeys take him near (across Mexico) and far (in China such as this photo shows).
Cesar uses his humorous play on words in his sketches as well, which helps to bring about a lightness to the seriousness in which he conveys his political messages alongside his technology (we will soon be publishing a separate post with more information on Cesar´s technology – although this is a direct link).
The significant connection with Gustavo and Unitierra is also that of autonomy and a long friendship which also stretches back to Ivan Illich. Towards the end of his life one of the last things Illich (a former priest and long-time student of theology) said to Cesar, which he movingly related in the workshop, was something to the extent that one knows God not through the mind or heart but through the stomach. This seems to have a resonating depth not only through the conversion of poo into pollution (or the reverse process back into compost which Cesar promotes) but also in terms of the centrality of food, of the milpa and maize that we have been learning so much about.
The connection Cesar had to the rivers and waterways and his desire to make them clean once again so that the following generations might be able to enjoy and swim and play in these as he did as a child was palpable and inspiring. What was also exciting to see in his work was how, over such a seemingly simple and misleadingly inconsequential activity, so much could be developed in terms of innovations of the toilet structures and addition of simple substances to speed up the transformation of poo into compost and new life. I learned much about the links between food and water sovereingty that day – and the inseparable link with the management of our own waste.