Garbage in Peru
I was talking with one of the volunteers with Help International who did a good job expressing how Yankees normally feel when they first get to Piura. She said that upon leaving the airport to go join the other volunteers, she thought the cleaning up the garbage around the airport might be a good project for them. But then they saw more of the city. And more of the garbage. And that maybe they could clean up garbage everywhere. Forever.
That’s just kinda the way things are out here. Across the street: garbage. Down the street: garbage. In the fields: garbage. They just don’t have a great way of taking care of it. There is some sort of waste disposal system, but evidently it isn’t adequate for the needs of the area.
Garbage in Noé
Problem and Plan
Such is the situation at the village where we do our work. The village rests about 200 yards from the main highway, and in-between the highway and the village is: garbage, and lots of it. It’s not that the villagers like it, or even that they’re always the perpetrators (apparently people from other local villages dump their garbage there without asking,) but nonetheless, garbage has built up in the area over the last 10 years.
Since self-reliance entails not just sufficiency in work, but also in family and community, one of the requirements for the participants is to plan and participate in a community service project. They enjoy having the garbage near their city about as much as any normal human being, so they decided to clean it up for their project.
We decided on making the magic happen on a Saturday morning at 8am. We went out to work after about 15 participants arrived, but by the end, we had nearly 100 people (mostly participants, but also just some helpful citizens of the town) cleaning up the trash.
We started by the edge of the highway and worked toward the city, finding all sorts of things. Bottles, cans, and plastics were abundant, but so were diapers, shoes, socks, underpants, bras, shirt sleeves, clay jars, feathers, and tires. Most of the trash had been burned and left, so it was a while before I even realized that the little charred balls I was picking up were diapers the whole time.
We cleaned from about 8:30 to 12:00 and got the entrance looking much healthier. Although the area we cleaned looks pretty OK now, we only did a small portion on one side of the entrance road, not even getting to the thick part of the garbage. Good gravy.
We might have done an equal measure of environmental harm as we did good unfortunately. The participants decided that it would be a good idea to cut down the trees and bushes near the road so that people wouldn’t think it was an acceptable place to throw garbage. They also burned a lot of the trash even though a truck was going to come take it away in the afternoon. Everything I learned in scouting says that burning all those rubbers, plastics, and diapers isn’t good for the area.
We didn’t manage to get all the participants to come today either. Of course there were a couple that couldn’t come for work or other reasons, but the elementary school here also had a meeting for parents at the same time, so we lost a lot of the mothers. The silver lining to this issue is that the meeting was for a parade that the kids and parents will do on Sunday, and we could hear the drums and trumpet laying down the beat for the kids to march to. That made picking up garbage feel a bit less like picking up garbage.
I’m also a tad worried about the participants who were ill equipped for the job. Only us “gringos” had gloves, the rest were just using their hands. We weren’t very well tooled either; we had a few shovels and rakes, but most people used their house broom to sweep the garbage along. We also didn’t have wheelbarrows until a couple showed up at the end, so we mostly transported the trash by piling it onto blankets we found and carrying it between two people to the larger pile. It worked, but it did mean more hand contact with the trash.
The kids helped too, though I wish they hadn’t. They didn’t cause any trouble, it was just that they also didn’t have gloves and were excitedly picking up all sorts of contamination to throw onto the pile of whatsit. Fortunately no one got cut or injured, but I realized that it was a very real possibility when I saw a disposable razor resting on the ground.
The final risk is that future behavior doesn’t change, but the town has really answered the call for change. They hate the garbage there as much as anyone, and the town officials and the participants decided that from now on, whenever someone sees somebody else throwing trash in the field, that they will tell the governor who it was, and then the governor will put their name through the loudspeaker to tell them off. I anticipate this being pretty effective at reducing the amount of trash tossed into the field.
If there’s a rule that people will follow, it’s a rule that they decide on themselves. A small external spark seems to have provided the people of Noé with the energy and vision they need to create the city they want. After all, they certainly don’t want to see their work go to waste.
The service seems to have given renewed energy to some of the participants in their other program efforts as well, helping them understand how action oriented self-reliance is, rather than being a passive learning effort. They’ve always been grateful for the chance to learn something new. Now they’re grateful for a tangible change effected in their community. And they want more.
Garbage in the United States
Garbage makes it to the ground in the U.S., but not in quite the abundance that we see in Peru. The obvious question is “why?”
The answer is a lot more complicated than most Yankees will often admit. It’s easy to quickly dig to what seems to be the source of the difference: a disparity of available resources. But the kicker is finding the source of why the U.S. has a higher level of decadence than Peru.
Rooting this out would require long and intensive research of available resources, government structure, learning curve effects (especially from the fact that the U.S. gained independence nearly 50 years before Peru,) international relations (especially related to wars, espionage, trade relations, and everything that happened in the Cold War,) climate, population size and density, cultural effects of colonists, conquerors, natives, and later arrivals, religion, natural disasters, and haphazard opportunity. This is to say nothing about the ethical implications of many of the happenings that got both countries to where they are (let’s not pretend that the U.S. has clean hands in international or internal affairs. The recent episode with Snowden is one of our nation’s tamer instances of questionable ethical actions in recent history.)
The short answer, is that a lot of “luck” is involved. It’s easy to say that there’s something different about Americans, or even something sacred about the country that gives it divine advantages, but proving it is nearly impossible, and there’s plenty of evidence that it’s not true (bar any religious beliefs). To a large extent, people act in conjunction with the environment they’re placed in, and an American placed in a Peruvian context without any prior baggage from the U.S. would act perfectly well like a Peruvian (and vice versa).
I’m grateful for my country and the set opportunities it provides. I’m grateful for Peru, and the set of opportunities that it provides. I can’t brag about either, because I have no credit for how either country has gotten to where it is now. Indeed, very few people can claim more than one man’s credit (or blame) for the shape of any nation.
And just as an aside, I don’t anticipate that having nothing to do with your country’s greatness will have a deterring effect on the pride of being associated with it. Just look at sports teams: sports fans go crazy when their team wins big, feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. Have you ever thought about how weird that is considering that none of those fans actually had anything to do with the outcome of the game?. I also think it’s weird when people yell at the refs from 30 rows back in a packed and loud stadium (He can’t hear you. You don’t have to yell at him).
Keep seeking truth.