Editors Note: This article was written by Morgan Harden, a recent graduate of Kenyon College. She has degrees in Spanish Literature and English, with a creative writing emphasis, which she uses to write, translate, and share stories. Drawn to its story and collaborative model, she began volunteering remotely for Mano a Mano after her graduation. This work eventually led her all the way to the organization’s epicenter in Cochabamba. After her time volunteering in Bolivia, Morgan will be headed to Argentina to begin her Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Fellowship.
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Where it Starts: Mano a Mano Workshop #1 at the CEA
From the sheer number of pitchforks, you would’ve thought we were preparing for a witch hunt, not a compost pile. With a series of clanks and bangs, Maria, Mano a Mano environmental engineer, drove a wheelbarrow full of tools towards the waiting group of students. One by one, Maria pushed the tools into their open hands. The students held the instruments uncertainly in front of them, as if to ask what do we do now? In response to the silent doubt, Maria called out, “let’s get to work!” Soon, the scraping of tools and students working in Mano a Mano’s Center of Ecological Agriculture (CEA) filled the air.
The twenty-seven students and their five teachers, visiting for Mano a Mano’s “Environmental Issues and Agroecological Principles,” split into groups to gather composting materials. This workshop is the first of five Mano a Mano offers, all aimed at teaching people about ecological practices. As the groups branched off, I stayed behind with the first group to build the base with dry plant matter. We gathered dried branches and roots, placing them in a rectangular shape and stomping down to compress them. When we had the base built, I stepped back to watch, as the students put the last few branches into place.
“Just like a mattress, nice and flat,” one of the teachers commented, over my shoulder, pointing towards our work with pride. “Anyone want to try it out?” He asked his students. If that compost pile were a mattress, we’re talking about the kind designed exclusively for medieval torture. The mangled, dried branches boasted only thorns and a fine dust. A few of the boys feigned jumping towards the pile, while others poked their neighbors jokingly.
Though it felt like we were doing most of the hard work, (anything can feel like that under the Cochabamba sun), that isn’t the case. Millions of bacteria, microbes, and other natural agents decompose the pile; we just created the structure they need to work. Compost piles are essentially a balance of nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials, which allow for aerobic decomposition. Each layer of compost serves a distinct purpose. The first layer of the pile, which I worked on, is carbon-rich materials. The dried branches we used are an ideal material, since they allow air, essential to decomposition, to pass through the structure.
Stepping back up to the pile, Maria asked the group, “Does it look good to you guys?” The students surveyed their work. It was obviously a question that begged a negative answer, yet none of the students could find anything wrong with the compost pile. A silence fell over the group. In all fairness, I didn’t see anything glaringly wrong with it either. After a moment, Maria traced the edges of the pile with her hands, saying, “It’s all flat. What do you think will happen if we keep putting things on top of it?”
Again, silence. Then, one small voice emerged, “it’ll fall over?” Maria, placing one foot on the pile, nodded in response.
“Exactly, we have to build up the sides so that when we add onto it, it doesn’t fall over. It needs to have a strong base, so we can build it up,” she clarified. With Maria’s instructions in mind, we descended on the structure again, stacking material along the sides.
When the base was done, the second group returned, with a wheelbarrow full of manure. With noses held sideways, the students shoveled manure onto the pile, while Victor, Mano a Mano agronomist, wet the compost pile with the hose. Those students provided the nitrogen-rich materials, which basically kick-start the composting process, by giving essential energy to the bacteria. The water, sprinkled on top of the pile, also helps the process, since bacteria need water to perform decomposition.
Finally, the third group stepped up and set a layer of topsoil on top, to help the compost break down more rapidly. Then, we repeated the process, piling up the structure in different layers, careful to build the sides, as it climbed skyward. We finished quickly, adding little by little, until a compost pile sprang up among us. As Maria noted, working alongside the students, “we can’t change everything overnight, but we have to start somewhere.”
In actuality, we didn’t start the day with the compost pile, but with a discussion about environmental issues and agroecology. Maria led the group, explaining climate change and its contributors, such as pollution, deforestation, and water contamination. It was all valuable information; among all South American countries, Bolivia is the second most vulnerable to the side effects of climate change. Again, Maria stressed the immensity of the issue, “it’s a big problem, and we can’t fix everything, but every little bit helps.” The compost pile was just a small example of how waste can be reused. Instead of throwing away food scrapes or animal waste, we can compost them, creating a fertilizer to bring nutrients back to the soil—keeping waste from going to waste! Everything about the day revolved around sustainability, from the compost pile and small environmental projects, to the eco-friendly lunch (cooked exclusively in solar ovens) we enjoyed.
During lunch, I ended up next to one of the teachers, Professor Ciro, who told me about the journey from Cuenca Educativa Guardano of Oruro to Cochabamba. They had traveled over five hours the previous day to attend the workshop. Having made nearly the same trip days before, I couldn’t imagine the ride in a bus (with twenty-seven teenagers). Curiosity struck me, so I asked Professor Ciro what motivated them to come so far. In a quiet tone, he replied that the students needed to learn about environmental issues. “They’re the base of their communities,” he reasoned, “they could start a real change.”
Of course, not all the students will grow up to be agro-ecologists or environmental engineers. Maybe one or two will pursue a career in sustainability, but that’s not the point. Just like the compost pile, working little by little, building up a base with strong sides and the right materials is the best way to help it grow. Every student came out of the workshop with a better understanding of environmental issues and hands on experiences with sustainability projects. With any luck, those students will be agents for change in their communities. Those students will teach their classmates what they learned, spread awareness and sustainable practices. And that’s a victory. After all, every little bit helps.