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Releasing our new film! ‘Re-learning Hope: A Story of Unitierra’

Releasing our new film! ‘Re-learning Hope: A Story of Unitierra’

Posted by on Jul 1, 2016 in all posts, on the road, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

It has been a while since we last wrote here and we have much to update!

We have been busy finishing our second film in the Enlivened Learning series – ‘Re-learning the Land: A Story of Unitierra’. RE-LEARNING HOPE is the story of Unitierra, an autonomous university in Oaxaca, Mexico that is immersed in, and has emerged from, the social and indigenous movements of the region. The film tells the story of this emergence of Unitierra and its powerful critique of traditional education and development. The film is a hopeful example of how communities are taking control of their own learning and shaping an ecological path for their communities amidst a context of violence.


Painted mural on Zapatista house in Oventic. photo by Kelly Teamey

The film, which we made in collaboration with participants in Unitierra, raises a host of important questions related to the purpose of education and what it takes to create a deep ecological consciousness and connection with our communities. As participants in Unitierra learn together and with local communities they re-weave the social fabric and ways of living that are more autonomous and in balance with their local ecologies.

‘Re-Learning Hope’ also explores how we can learn autonomy and community living from indigenous peoples. The 500-year struggles of indigenous peoples’ in Oaxaca and Chiapas against the imposition of other ways of life are inspirations Unitierra has taken to heart. Amidst the multiple crises we are all experiencing, in our economies, political institutions and communities, Unitierra is promoting ways of living and learning together that is inspiring, showing us that another world is indeed possible.

For more of our writing on our experiences in Unitierra and Mexico click here.

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How to build (and use) a cacajón (literally a poo-box) according to a cacologist

How to build (and use) a cacajón (literally a poo-box) according to a cacologist

Posted by on Jan 20, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 1 comment

My first, major (and classy) blog entry

My first post was supposed to be a reflection on why I am here and some of the first things I have learnt. This post will eventually come, but for now I will be writing literally about how to bring your shit to life, or even better said, how to enliven your shit.

The reason why the plans were changed was because although I became part of the project just a few weeks ago, when Kelly and Udi were already in Brazil, there was some footage in Spanish from Mexico they were finding hard to comprehend in detail. Kelly was writing the post The autonomy of Poo and asked me if I could help her understand the whole process of building the poo box. I found that César Añorve’s explanation was so informative and humorous at the same time, that it deserved to be shared in its own post:

César explaining the first steps of the process. Photo by Udi

Although César calls it a poo box, it is also more formally referred to as an ecological dry toilet, precisely because it does not require the use of water and, in that way, it does not pollute rivers, seas and oceans. All this can be better understood by reading about how it is built and how it works:

Elements: (“The simplest elements in the world”)

For the poo:

  • 1 plastic bucket
  • Dry dirt
  • “dry leaves that we might find near our house”
  • “charcoal powder, which you can get for a very low price; it is the leftovers of the coalyards, here we call it cisco.” Or, one can put olotes (the corn’s cobs) in the fire and wait until they are carbonized. In this way, you can make your own coal.
  • Optional ingredients: marble or steel powder, which are sold in construction shops, very fine sand, lime.

As César said: “It is like life: the more diversity the better.”

For the pee:

  • Plastic recipient, “so that the pee does not stink while being stored”
  • Hose
  • Funnel
  • Bowl.

To place on top:

Wooden box with 3 holes:

  • One big hole on one of the sides of the box, through which the bucket is introduced and taken out.
  • A small hole on the opposite side, not too big, but big enough for a hand and an arm to be introduced through it.
  • Hole on the top of the box, where one will sit.

Sticking the sides of the wooden box together. Photo by Udi.

How to build it:

1)      Take the bucket and throw in the dirt, the dried leaves and the coal. Add the other elements if you were able to get them.

2)      Add a small piece of flat wood inside the box, under the smallest side hole.

3)      Place the box over the bucket.

4)      Put the bowl on the small piece of wood you have added under the small side hole.

¡So simple!

There is a slightly more complex option in which instead of the wooden box, one can build a whole chamber with a door through which the bucket can be placed and removed. In this model, the pee bowl or container is already connected to the recipient through the hose, so one does not need to empty the bowl every time the toilet is used.

All the elements of the dry toilet put together. In this case, using the chamber instead of the wooden box. Picture taken from César’s book “The ABC’s of Ecological Sanitation”

Proper use of the dry toilet:

1)      When sitting on the toilet make sure that the feces fall into the bucket and the urine into the bowl or separator. This separation is the key to the toilet’s proper functioning: it avoids humidity and bad odors. “This separation of pee and poo is pretty easy for men. Women can manipulate the bowl”, introducing their hand through the smaller hole. “Women’s perspective has been taken into account for every design of the poo-box.” It has been tried before by many of César’s friends who were then consulted about the position in which they preferred the bowl to be (higher, lower, the distance it should keep from the bucket, etc)

2)      If you have built the more complex version of the dry toilet, the urine will go directly to the recipient though the hose. If you have the simpler version with the bowl, before throwing it into the recipient using the hose and the funnel, you can take a small sip, the size of a full spoon. Urine is very good for the health.

3)      After every use of the toilet, cover the excrement in the bucket with a mixture of fine dry soil and lime and/or dry leaves. This dries the surface, avoiding bad odors and the proliferation of insects.

4)      After doing this, always cover the bucket.

What happens with the poo and the pee once they have left our bodies?

Urine as fertilizer

Urine contains a high concentration of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Also, it contains urea, which after a time turns into ammonia, the fertilizer most used in agriculture. Therefore, the urine stored in the container can be mixed with water and used as a fertilizer for garden plants. The proportion should be one part urine, ten parts water. By doing this, a family of six people can produce more than five thousand liters of fertilizer every year. Options for the use of the urine:

  • Apply directly to the base of the plants.
  • Spray it on plants and fruit trees using a hose.
  • Add to the compost.

Excrement as compost

When you see that the bucket is full:

1)      Remove it from the box or chamber and replace it with another bucket. The bucket that has been removed needs to sit for enough time until it dries completely.

2)      After this period, open it. You will be able to see that the dried leaves are covered with a white thing. This will be because of the transformation carried out by the microorganisms. The excrement has dried out and has been converted into an “odorless granular dust”.

3)      You can use this rich compost to fertilize a garden or fruit trees just by throwing it to the earth, or you can take a big flower pot and throw the content of the bucket into the pot. (By doing this, the same family of six can produce 500 litres of organic compost each year.)

The result: the odorless compost. Photo by Udi

If you chose the latter,

1)      Add food leftovers and earthworms to the compost in the pot

2)      Add a little bit more dried leaves on top of everything.

3)      Compact the mixture inside the pot.

4)      Repeat the whole procedure as many times as you need until you have filled the whole pot. You will be able to appreciate how the content of the pot reduces constantly. These are the microorganisms doing their work.

5)      After a few days, start observing the content of the pot attentively: you will be able to appreciate how a plant starts growing. “In my case, I got and aguacate and a chilli”.


The process that has taken place here is amazing. Our waste, which we thought dead, which we thought of as that, as waste, has been literally transformed into a living being, into a plant. When I heard Cesar’s explanation for the first time I could not believe this had happened. This got me thinking, and although the post has been written in a slightly “funny” tone, truth is I felt this knowledge had to be shared, since the idea of the dry toilet is so innovative and interesting to me on so many levels:

In the first place, there is the most obvious question of pollution. By using a dry toilet, we are not polluting the water we drink. This is a big issue in many places in the world: many diseases are generated by drinking water which has been polluted with excrements. “When we avoid using water to transport excrement, this is a radical action which can contribute to returning the sacred character that water may have had before the era of sewage systems”. At the same time, from a more practical point of view, there is the question of the re-using. Our excrements and urine are not waste but are re-used. This represents and economic advantage, because we save on fertilizers and are able to produce more vegetables and fruit. What is being created here, homemade, is a natural storage of nutrients.

This last point is also very interesting. By using a dry toilet we are making ourselves responsible for our own waste and, at the same time, generating our own compost and fertilizers. We are being self-sufficient. This relates to the idea of autonomy Udi and Kelly developed in one of their posts (Learning Autonomy). Before reading it, I had never thought of autonomy in this way, a collective autonomy through which a community is capable of generating its own resources and becoming self-sufficient. At the same time, the process of autonomy also means to become conscious of our own dependencies and interdependencies and reflect and recognize them. As Kelly points out, only by considering and exploring other options we will be able to perceive and act on our dependencies. The dry toilet is one of these options. Before being introduced to it, I had not really considered the possibility of other options for my poo and pee. I had not deeply reflected on what happened to them after they left my body and I had not thought about the traditional toilet system as one of my dependencies.

Finally, in relation to recognizing our interdependencies, the toilet made me reflect not only on how we depend on the State´s sewage system but also of other interdependencies: the interdependencies within nature. The dry toilet shows very clearly and explicitly the idea of the cycle of life: the food we eat, is transformed into energy and feces and urine, which then serve as fertilizer to grow more food. It is an example of the transformations that take place in nature. And for these cycles and transformations to take place, each being needs of other beings: the soil needs the excrements to become compost, the seed needs this compost to become a plant. And also, as César explained, the earth in the pot needs the plant to continue its transformation process. Therefore, what are we, humans, if not just a part in this cycle of life? And as such, we should be taking something from the world but also giving something to it, just as with the dry toilette, through which the food we have taken is given back to the earth as compost.

Picture from César’s book “The ABC’s of Ecological Sanitation”


I know that probably most of the people that read this post will not actually build a dry toilet in their homes (It would be great, however, if you do it and you can find more information about it at the bottom of the page). Regardless, I wanted to share my reflections about what the idea of the dry toilet generated for me. It is only when we know that other options are possible, that other ways of understanding something exists, that we will be able to reconsider and re-think about our own ways.

From César’s book

* All quotes are either what César said during his class in Unitierra or direct quotes from his book The ABC’s of Ecological Sanitation.(2004, Centre for Innovation in Alternative Technology A.C., Mexico)

Cover of César’s book

**For more information write to César:

Centro de Innovación en Tecnología Alternativa A.C.

Av. San Diego No. 501,

Col. Vista Hermosa

CP 62290 Cuernavaca, Morelos, México




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Visiting another Unitierra – in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Visiting another Unitierra – in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Posted by on Jan 16, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 2 comments

San Cristobal, CIDECI, generator, photo by Udi

Unitierra, as an autonomous learning movement and as an experiment of higher education, has helped to spark other Unitierras in the Americas – in Puebla (a city in Mexico), in San Cristobal de la Casas in Chiapas and most recently, in California, in the United States.  We decided to take the opportunity of arranging a short visit to CIDECI-Unitierra (Centro Indigena de Capacitacion Integral – roughly translated as ‘An Indigenous Centre for Integral Learning’) in San Cristobal de la Casas and learn more about what they were doing as connected and separate from the Unitierra in Oaxaca within which, we had just spent 12 inspiring days (see the previous 8 posts that are related to Unitierra-Oaxaca).

Buses from Oaxaca to Chiapas go only at night.  The journey lasts for an intense 11 hours of very windy roads.  Udi and I were both unable to do any reading or even much concentrating after only 30 minutes into the journey as all roads out of the valley of Oaxaca City become so immediately tortuous.

We had contacted Raymundo Sanchez Barraza, the primary organiser of CIDECI-Unitierra, in San Cristobal, Chiapas, with the help of Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca.  Raymundo had invited us to visit with him the morning we arrived.

Map of Chiapas and Guatemala, discovered in San Cristobal outside of a shop, photo by Kelly

The locale of San Cristobal de la Casas is in the centre of the state of Chiapas (a few hours west of Guatemala), nestled between green hills and mountains.  Its small size (less than half the population of Oaxaca) was a refreshing greeting, especially after the re-circulated air on the crowded bus and the nausea that had permeated most of the waking hours in response to the continuous bends in the road.  The air was chilly, a layer of fog covering many of the surrounding mountains.  We went immediately to a hostel I had booked online to drop our luggage and go to explore the city for a couple of hours before making our way to CIDECI-Unitierra.

The city of San Cristobal de la Casas is beautiful, colourful colonial-style buildings and centred around the main plaza, or Zocalo.  This was the Zocalo that the Zapatistas occupied on January 1st, 1994, when they let their presence be known to the world.  At 7.30am many people, particularly indigenous Tzotzil women wearing traditional goat-hair skirts, were carrying handmade items such as blankets, scarves and shirts and settling themselves in different corners of the square to sell their crafts.  We located a restaurant that was open and serving breakfast which overlooked the zocalo.

Buildings of San Cristobal, Chiapas, from a shop. The bottom postcard is of Comandante Ramona, a revered female Zapatista leader who died from kidney disease 6 years ago. Photo taken by Udi

Tzotzil women in the San Cristobal Zócalo, photo by Udi

After an hour or so we hailed a taxi and gave the address that we had been given to us by Raymundo.  The taxi wove its way through the city, past more outdoor markets, churches and streets lined with houses and shops about to open.  We left the boundaries of the city and turned into a newer section within which the road became increasingly bumpy and only somewhat paved.  At the edge of the housing, there was a steep hill on our right that was fenced in with rows of food being cultivated – maize, beans and squash (as part of a milpa) were immediately recognisable alongside other fruit trees and leaves of lettuce.  Another couple of minutes and we came to an opening gate that painted bright colours of red, yellow and green.  Udi spoke with a young boy who seemed to be helping through the gate and we were ushered through.  A colourful mural painted on the side of a building greeted us with a message – Resistancia y Autonomia CIDECI Unitierra (Resistance and Autonomy CIDECI Unitierra) – see photo at the top of the page.

In front of us were many buildings, all painted in bright colours and many with murals decorating their sides.  I was immediately quite curious and wanted to explore on my own, but decided it was more appropriate to wait until we met with Raymundo.

Mural at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

After asking several people where we could find Raymundo, we walked on a small trail past several buildings, a small pond with ducks wandering about and into a forested area of evergreen trees.  A house on the left had a round table outside with stools that looked like tree stumps.  The entire scene was decorated with brightly coloured paintings of flowers, shells, snails… on the walls, the table, stools, fencing… We timidly entered the house calling for Raymundo who emerged a few minutes later and asked us to wait outside.

Painted table and chairs, CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Whilst waiting, I tried to take in the scene around me.  The colours and designs, the gently swaying evergreen trees in the light breeze, were a feast for the senses and I had to hold myself back from immediately capturing it all on film.

Painted tables and chairs at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Raymundo called us in and we entered into another space filled with beauty – plants, objects, blankets, tables, books…  Udi and Raymundo talked in Spanish and I sat patiently trying to comprehend as much as I could.  There was little space for translation and I hoped that Udi could remember much of what was spoken about…

(Udi explained later…) Raymundo spoke about the trajectory of CIDECI, the influence of the local Bishop from Chiapas Samuel Ruiz and of liberation theology in the beginnings of a cultural and educational initiative with local communities back in the 1980s. He also narrated other influences in the development of CIDECI in its present form, Unitierra and Gustavo Esteva, ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva amongst many others (Ivan Illich, Immanuel Wallerstein, etc.). Later in our visit, as we were guided through the campus by a former student who now works there, we saw various rooms named after a number of these influences which have shaped the thinking and approach of CIDECI (see photos).

San Cristobal, CIDECI, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, dining room, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, Illich sign, photo by Kelly

In its current form CIDECI occupies an area of approximately 20 hectares of land sloping up from a developing neighborhood at the edge of the city of San Cristobal.

View from a high point of CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

With our guide we walked through a number of large and amazingly resourced rooms: mechanics, sewing, architecture or shoemaking workshops, printing or weaving workshops, a music building with rooms divided according to types of instruments, a beautiful library and seminar rooms build out of adobe and decorated with paintings and plants and murals, everywhere murals. We also saw a large seminar room that could accommodate several hundred people and a chapel were students attend a daily service.

Adobe wall outside seminar room and painted chairs, CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, sewing room, photo by Kelly

San Cristobal, CIDECI, weaving room, photo by Kelly

We also visited the bakery, the farm where chickens and rabbits where raised kept and the milpa which made the whole learning community almost self-sufficient.  We noticed in particular a version of a bicycle used to grind corn as it is pedaled.

Rabbits at CIDECI-Unitierra, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Bicycle corn grinder, CIDECI-Unitiera, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

The students come from indigenous communities throughout Chiapas, many of these communities caracoles controlled by the Zapatistas and many with first languages other than Spanish. They come here to stay for a few months or several years before going back to their villages and taking the responsibility to teach or practice the learning they experience here and the skills they acquire. Many ex-students have taken the role of teachers on the various courses they offer which range from the various technical skills mentioned above (mechanics, weaving, shoe-making, electronics, carpentry, hairdressing) to courses around health and nutrition, to those around cultivating food (within a milpa) or raising animals. Alongside these subjects there are also regular weekly and monthly seminars which also bring together others from outside CIDECI.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, courtyard, photo by Kelly

We were invited by Raymundo to join one of these seminars on Saturday discussing the work of John Holloway, an Irish academic who left the academic scene in the UK and moved to Mexico where his work How to Change the World Without Taking Power has become influential amongst activists, here and elsewhere.

The seminar was attended by a diverse group of about 25 or so local academics, students, activists and NGO workers. The seminar meets regularly and many here already knew each other and were familiar with each others’ perspectives. The book for discussion was Holloway’s Agrietar el Capitalismo, el hacer contra el trabajo (Crack Capitalism, Reflections on a Revolution).  During the seminar, we sat in the Immanuel Wallerstein room around a large decorately carved (and painted) wooden table.  After a couple of hours, there was a break and everyone went outside to share coffee and baked goods (from the bakery on site) along with at least 30 or so students, many of which were indigenous women.  There were children also playing which made the atmosphere that much more relaxed and warm.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, library, photo by Kelly

Some days later when we visited Oventic, the Zapatista village some hours drive from San Cristobal, we were told by a friendly shop-owner that most of the young people from the area went to CIDECI-Unitierra after they graduated from the local Zapatista-run secondary school. Here, as in CIDECI, those who teach there are not paid professional teachers but are people from the communities who want to share their learning with others and, in the case of CIDECI, receive a small sum for travel and keep.

We wished that we had had more time to spend at CIDECI, getting to know the people learning, living and/or working there. We found the place a beautiful and creative space to in which to learn and live in a community that is, like Unitierra in Oaxaca, engaging deeply with issues of self-sufficiency, autonomy, ecology and sustainability.

San Cristobal, CIDECI, bishop mural, photo by Kelly

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The Autonomy of Poo…

The Autonomy of Poo…

Posted by on Jan 10, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Cezar Añorve leads a ‘cacaravan’ workshop on dry toilets at Unitierra, still from footage by Udi

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.

Preparation material – mud and burro poo – for building a stove, photo by Udi

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…

Bricks as the foundation for the stove, photo by Udi

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.

Moulding the stove, photo by Udi

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.

Finished stove, outside of Oaxaca city, photo by Udi

Finished mud/poo stove, photo by Udi

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.

Cacaravan workshop with Cesar Añorve, Unitierra, Oaxaca, photo by Kelly

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.

Photo taken by Udi – dry compostable eco-toilet (using Cesar Añorve´s technology) on the way to the roof garden at Unitierra

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’.

Sketch by Cesar Añorve, from slide presentation at Unitierra dry toilet workshop, photo by Udi

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).

Photo used in slide presentation, dry toilet workshop with Cesar Añorve, photo by Udi

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.

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Meeting hospitality and friendship on the road…

Meeting hospitality and friendship on the road…

Posted by on Jan 6, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, on the road, Universidad de la Tierra | 3 comments

A journey such as this one is only possible because of the generosity, hospitality and friendship of others we have encountered on the way. We begun our trip with some sketches of possible routes and a few contacts from friends and colleagues of a number of people we came to meet. Between plans and the actuality we initially felt a gulf filled with a sense trepidation and risk, leaving the relative safety and comfort of our lives, our home and jobs into something unknown. What we had not imagined was the warmth and generosity we have encountered and been drawn into in all the places we have visited, the doors that were opened, the food shared, the walks taken, the friendships built. This has been one of the most wonderful and humbling aspects of the journey, the openness with which we have been received and the hospitality those we have met have shown. Maybe it is also because we have ourselves been more open, to people, to situations, to life. Whatever it is, the friendly rapport and genuine exchanges we felt we had with so many people over the last few months has felt truly alive (enlivened!) and quite a world away from the stifled, cautious and awkward dynamics that often unfolded in and around the academic institutions we had been accustomed to.

Tepoztlan, Amate tree (ficus insipida – a kind of giant wild fig tree) which we were shown by Alberto.

So this post is more of an expression of gratitude, as we start this new year, for the openness we found on the road but also a discovery of the many shapes and forms hospitality takes. The dinners and conversations with Cynthia Chambers, Ramona Big Head, Narcisse Blood and Alvine Mountain Horse. Being guided through ‘the pond’ by Ryan and Adrienne Heavy Head who shared the story of the Beaver Bundle with us. The warm hospitality of our friends Amanda and Sebastien (along with their newborn baby Maeve) in Calgary and the many conversations about the environmental situation in Canada. Being shown around the landscapes, rivers and forests and sites of First Nations art in and around Terrace by Dempsey Bob, and sharing a number of beautiful conversations and meals with him. An unexpected dinner organised last-minute by Rocque in his wonderful house by the lake a few miles south of Terrace.  Through the contact of our friend Amanda who Kelly met in Birmingham – staying with her friend Janice, and now our newly found friend, in Vancouver,  who introduced us to the world of urban gardening there and the exciting initiatives happening around this at the University of British Columbia with First Nations groups. Then in Mexico staying with my camarada Carlos and Rachel in their flat in the charming and bohemian Coyoacan region of Mexico City, spending hours talking about Mexico, Guatemala, academia, anthropology and food, amongst many other things. Meeting a new friend, Alberto in Tepoztlan, a filmmaker and academic who took us on a wonderful walk around the edges of the town to meet some wonderful trees (see the image above). With our home stay in Oaxaca with the tremendously hospitable Margerita and her husband Hector with whom we also shared stories in a (generously) slow-spoken Spanish over breakfast of tamales and one day for lunch an exquisite Oaxacan mole (one of the seven the city is famous for). Funny how food seems to have so often gone with these enlivening encounters and conversations!

Then there was the generosity and friendliness of all the students we met at these different places, those in Ryan and Duane’s class at Red Crow, at the Freda Diesing School, in Unitierra who shared their experiences of being in these spaces.

We had already thought and talked much about these wonderful encounters throughout our journey before we reached Oaxaca where we learnt that in the work and life of Gustavo Esteva and Ivan Illich, and in the ethos of Unitierra, these qualities of friendship, hospitality and generosity are also central orientations.

As we wrote in a previous post on autonomy, these qualities provide a different perspective  to the individualism and self-centredness commonly cultivated in the learning and institutional life of industrial modernity. Illich and Esteva’s writings and their actions instead attempt to show that there are other ways of relating and conducting one’s lives based on these orientations of friendship, generosity and hospitality. We already described in a previous post the atmosphere in Unitierra in respect to this. Here I also want to write a little about our own attempt at creating an environment of generosity in the world of academia.I have a vague memory of reading something somewhere about how the academies of ancient Greece functioned as a meeting of friends to discuss life, ideas, politics. The early scientific and learned societies from the Enlightenment onwards in Europe similarly gathered friends in pursuit of their passion for learning, though like the ancient Greek ones these societies did tend to elitism and where exclusively the privilege of men. Yet how strange that this key quality of friendship seems to have been squeezed out of corridors of the academy, often supplanted by a cold individualism.

Whilst living in England we had experimented with a small group of other colleagues from the university with an ‘amateur academic adventurers club’.  Amateur because we were engaged in something we loved and enjoyed, as the Latin roots of the word imply, and an adventure’s club because it sounded fun and suggested that the pursuit of ideas and social inquiry can have the quality of an active running forth, an investigation and act of discovery. Within this community, we explored ideas and enquiries we were concerned with, thinking about, pondering over, wanting to explore. Over the course of some 18 months we met every few weeks just to talk about ideas, research projects, questions and dilemmas we had been thinking about in relation to our enquiries. Our only rule was not to talk about the day to day troubles we all faced in the academic environments we were working in: increasing and increasingly redundant bureaucratic controls and procedures, a confining utilitarian and profit-driven logic, growing workloads, decreasing time to pursue our own ideas, enquiries and to research and write, decreasing spaces for collegiality and the exchange of ideas. Anyway, we did not talk about any of that.

So we attempted to create a space outside this atmosphere of institutional, and subsequently interpersonal, toxicity which was the opposite, an environment of hospitality, friendship and the nurturance of ideas. Taking turns we came to develop and deepen various themes which were enriching in our own enquiries and enlivening in our sense of the possibility of how a community of friends engaged in the world of ideas and social research could work together in creating and relating and thinking. This environment also became one that gave us strength and solidarity in our day to day working lives reassuring us that another way of doing things is indeed possible. This experiment did not take much, only an intention and effort to be open, generous and hospitable to each other and each others’ ideas and concerns, and some food and drink to go with that.

Some six months or so after our last meeting with this group of friends we have found numerous other examples of generosity and hospitality throughout our journey that emerged spontaneously through various encounters or which were being nurtured as part of an organisation’s ethos, such as in Unitierra. What has been beautiful to see is that the orientation of a society of friends in pursuit of learning is still very much around and is found in many places, just there, nearby, awaiting us to go forth, open, to meet them.

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Reflections and learnings about Zapatismo…

Reflections and learnings about Zapatismo…

Posted by on Jan 1, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Las Mujeres con la Dignidad Rebelde (Women with dignity rebel), purse for sale in Zapatista cooperative, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Udi

On the 21st of December (a couple of weeks after our departure), the start of the new Mayan era (Bakhtun), over 40,000 Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojobal, Chol, Mam and Zoques indigenous peoples – men, women and children, all of whom are representatives of a much larger Mayan community across Mexico and Central America – assembled and silently marched, without weapons and wearing black ski masks, into seven cities in Chiapas, the poorest state of Mexico.  These 40,000+ people are all Zapatistas – the white number stuck to each of their masks representing their particular Zapatista community.  It was the first public statement in over 18 months – the message, although silent, was loud and clear“Did you hear?  It is the sound of your world collapsing/ it is our world coming back…”

What are these different worlds that the Zapatistas are referring to?  How is their world coming back – and how is our world collapsing?  What place does Zapatismo have in the world today – how can we understand it, learn from it and apply it into our own lives?

Pig in scarf, imitating Zapatista balaclava, Unitierra seminar room, Oaxaca, Mexico, photo by Kelly

These were the exact questions being asked in the Zapatismo seminar we attended on our first day visiting Unitierra. This particular week’s seminar that had been advertised across Oaxaca, through email, Unitierra’s blog and through flyer, was focusing on the 19th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, critically engaging with the question of, What does Zapatismo mean today? 

The answer to this question emerged over two and a half hours of critical discussion, debate and emotional statements – different historical narratives – coming from more than 40 people in the main room at Unitierra – Oaxacans – Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Mestizos… Europeans, Americans – from the age of 18 to nearly 80.  I was lucky enough to have simultaneous translations provided for me by a friend.

At the beginning of the Unitierra seminar, Gustavo helped to provide a stronger background of the Zapatistas.  The three people (2 men and a woman) who initially went to the Lacandon jungle (in northeast Chiapas) as guerilla activists in 1983 to begin organizing an indigenous uprising were not indigenous themselves.  They had each been politically active during the 1960s and the 1970s and had endured varying degrees of violence (torture and incarceration) at the hands of the state.  Clearly these years of violence did not encourage them to discontinue their involvement.  Rather, it stirred an even deeper commitment.  Living in the Lacandon jungle – especially as a shift from living in an urban center, is no easy task.  For more than 10 years, these three people slowly mobilized – without any knowledge to the outside world – thousands of indigenous peoples from different Mayan communities, within Chiapas.

Poster – Congreso Nacional Indigena, photo taken by Kelly in San Cristobal, Chiapas

Gustavo told us that aside from learning about survival in the jungle, the biggest learning for these non-indigenous activists was about listening and communication.  When they initially came to discuss current problems – and histories of oppression – with local indigenous Mayan peoples in villages, they were not understood.  They were still talking forcefully through their ideals as guerilla activists.  They had to become more humble, bring their thinking ‘down to Earth’ – and instead, to listen.  This required a complete shift in learning – toward dialogue (that prioritizes listening) and forms of encounter and assembly.

These two notions – encounter and assembly – are still the two key principles for the Zapatistas.  The third is to create.  Encounter.  Assembly.  Create.   To encounter, is to engage with the other, through an ethic of opening up oneself even, or especially at the risk of losing yourself.  It is to listen (radically).  As they see it, encounters cannot be exhausted – listening should never stop.  Assemblies are created through collective decision-making bodies through a perception and practice of power that is atypical to what is normally practiced in politics (our current forms of democracy).  The Zapatistas are re-creating (and re-claiming) indigenous forms of leadership that have otherwise been lost over the past several hundred years.   These assemblies are not about taking power, rather they are about sharing it.  It is about learning how each one of us can exercise power in ways that does not support the current ‘Empire of Money’ – but rather learning how to create other worlds outside.  This is where create comes into the picture – creating autonomous forms of education, health, justice, government, food cultivation that is through shared decision-making.  It is currently through the formation of caracoles (slow moving snails) that governing occurs within Zapatista communities (see Udi’s post on art of rebellion – part 2).

Mural in Oventic, Chiapas (Libertad, Paz, Democracia), photo by Kelly

There is much to consider from what the Zapatistas are advocating.  One of their main challenges is for us to change our perceptions of power.  The Zapatistas tell us that we need to equip ourselves with ‘inverted periscopes’.  This means that instead of trying to understand what is going on ‘above’ in the ‘halls of power’ we should be looking way down below, on the ground, in the spaces that tend to be ignored.  Power is not only with those ‘up there’ – those ‘in power’ – power that is exercised over people.  Another way of understanding this is that there is power everywhere, we all can exercise power in multiple ways –through people and with people – also with the Earth, alongside non-human species.   It is entirely possible to exercise power without taking it.  We may not believe it is so, but this is exactly what the Zapatistas are trying to do.

The shift in learning – towards listening and toward ‘becoming common’ – that occurred between 1983 and 1994, helped to organize thousands of people – Tzotzils, Tzeltals, Tojolabals, Chols, Mams and Zoques – all united for the first time in insurrection as Zapatistas.  To become united they learned new ways of communication and more critical understandings of historical experiences.  They also learned how to arm themselves and how to stand up for themselves following over 500 years of oppression at the hands of (primarily) the Spanish, the Church, the Mexican government and now, multi-national corporations.  The learning continues… from letting go of arms (fire) that were used more strongly in the early days and instead building dialogue through encounters that prioritize communication (the word).

The decision by the Zapatistas, the EZLN, to surprise the world and occupy buildings across Chiapas on the 1st of January, 1994 was no accident.  It was a war that begun out of desperation (and it was through the use of arms that the primary source of controversy is centered).  The Zapatista emergence into public visibility was carefully calculated. It was the same day that NAFTA was signed.  The Zapatistas knew well that such a law would affect themselves – as indigenous peoples – more than anyone else (see my previous post on Maize and Milpa for more discussion on NAFTA).  Their initial demands of housing, land, work, health, education, food freedom, independence, justice, democracy and peace have essentially turned into demands for autonomy, for self-sufficiency through which they are able to provide these demands for themselves.  They continually have to struggle for the recognition of these demands.  There is a long history of struggle and reactions between the Zapatistas and the Mexican Army and government that continues today.

Sign for Oventic outside of village gates, Chiapas, photo taken by Kelly

My first encounter with the Zapatistas – virtually – was in Pakistan when I became acquainted with Assim Sajjad Akhtar who was then dividing his time between leading the Peoples Rights Movement (PRM) in their support for landless peasants in Pakistan, teaching (post)colonial history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and writing as a journalist for Pakistani media – The Nation, Dawn, etc.  (Aasim is now a professor at Qaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and continues to publish as a journalist and assist PRM).  In Pakistan, through Aasim’s knowledge, I learned about the Zapatista’s existence, what they were trying to do and how they were trying to do it (and how it related to what PRM was doing in Pakistan).  My learning was expanded further when I returned to London, participating in the European Social Forum (the regional World Social Forum event) in 2004, where there was an abundance of literature available about the Zapatistas and people speaking about them – people who had spent time with them in Chiapas and other parts of Mexico.  Although the work and struggle of the Zapatistas is located in Chiapas, they have been hugely successful in assembling international solidarity – inspiring imaginations, creating new visions and igniting controversy and debate through an intensity of dialogue that has emerged in various forms and in various places.

Between the WSF London and this trip to Mexico, I had been incorporating the Zapatistas into my teaching at the University of Bath – particularly in two units:  Researching Social Change and Education and International Development.  The insights about the Zapatista orientation and cosmovision as associated to social movements (what they are and can be) and the learning that goes on in them (expectedly and unexpectedly) are immensely engaging and controversial which adds more flavor to critical discussion and learning.

To help me incorporate the example of the Zapatista movement into my teaching, I used a particularly inspiring book that I had encountered in 2009, The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatistas (by Gloria Rumoz Martinez – 2008) at the Solidarity Economy conference in Hampshire, Massachusetts.  From the social research perspective, what I find most interesting about the book The Fire and the Word is the way that Gloria presents the ‘histories’ of the Zapatistas – as a series of narratives and images.  She prioritizes photography, sketches, diary entries, interviews and her own analyses.  These are all woven through the book equally – all modes of representation predominate.  I have always hoped that encountering such a diversity of representations helps to create further debates about the politics of representation – in research – and also what counts as research in the first place.  And, what stories are the ones that matter?  How can historical experience be represented?

My learning about the Zapatistas since 2004 has been in stops and starts, fragmented and intermittent.  The time we have just spent in Mexico enabled a tremendous surge of learning more about the Zapatistas through many events and encounters – the Unitierra Zapatismo seminar, reading more literature (from the shelves of Unitierra) and visiting Chiapas – watching historical documentaries about the Zapatistas (at the cultural centre such Cronica de una Rebelion and A Place Called Chiapas) and visiting Oventic, one of the Zapatista communities – or caracoles (which they are called – see Udi’s posting on Art of Rebellion 2).  There is more I could say (much of which engages with the controversies of the Zapatistas not explored in this post) and a substantial amount that has been written, documented and debated about the Zapatistas.  One particular insight I learned from the Zapatistas stands out for me.

This insight is the statement by the Zapatistas that there is currently a total war occurring – in every corner of the world.  The Zapatistas call this total war the ‘Fourth World War:  The Empire of Money” that is against all of humanity and the Earth (the idea of 4th as following from WWI, WWII and then the Cold War as WWIII).  This “Empire of Money” prioritizes extracting and pursuing profit at the expense of everything and anything blocking it.  In the Zapatista perspective, this is a war of no fronts – there is no nation against nation, group of nations against another group of nations… it is about imposing an ideology across the entire world – of profit and capital, into every corner of the world.  The enemy is everyone – any person or group can be, or is considered an enemy any time that the ‘Empire of Money’ is threatened (the recent media and state resistance to the ‘Occupy Movement’ comes to mind).  The Zapatistas explain that within this current war, states (government) are being reduced to puppets of privatization and the multi-national corporate world.  Armies are fighting to uphold the strength and spread of this empire – rather than protecting their own nations within their own boundaries.  Through globalized forms of exploitation and extortion of profit the ‘Empire of Money’ seeks to capture and control all territory (land) and labour to expand and construct new markets.  The ‘Empire of Money’ seeks to destroy any way of life that defies this orientation and organization – anything that allows individuals and communities to exist outside of capital must be destroyed or reduced to a quantifiable exchangeability – cultures, languages, histories, memories, ideas, dreams… The new world/s the Zapatistas are creating threaten the Empire of Money. It is through non-capitalistic (non-profit orientated or non-quantifiable) forms of self-sufficiency, autonomy, hospitality and comunalidad –  that is practiced, promoted and studied at Unitierra that this ‘Empire of Money’ is also directly challenged.

Map of military occupation in Chiapas, photo by Udi, taken in San Cristobal de la Casas

During the seminar at Unitierra, there were many fragments of discussion that directly engaged with the Zapatista insight of a Fourth World War.  For example, Gustavo commented toward the end of the seminar that ‘War is everywhere now’.  And engaging with the repeated questions of ‘What do we do – what should we do?’ Gustavo commented — ‘The Lacondon jungle is inside of us – we are already in it…’

Many of the young people in the Unitierra seminar room had spoken of their involvement in social and political change – profound frustration with the present challenges and a lack of coherent vision for the future.  I remember how several spoke of their lack of knowledge and understanding of political activities prior to the Zapatistas, how wonderful it was for people like Gustavo who were older and had such a rich history of experiences and knowledge.  Several also spoke of the importance of ‘searching for light’ — ‘looking for examples that inspire us to invoke the world through thinking of it, imagining it.  It is also about acting out of love, hospitality and friendship’.

Mural in Oventic, Chiapas – sharing maize cosmovision, photo by Kelly

I remember something very wise that Edgar (Edi) the young Zapotec learner at Uniterra we had met first earlier that day, said during the Zapatismo seminar.  He said that Zapatismo is about looking into the mirror at ourselves, seeing our own path, our own choices.  It is about looking at the responsibilities that we face and that we choose each and every day.

I left the seminar, my head and my heart full – yet also hungry for more of these encounters, these assemblies, to inspire my imagination to create….

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