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 The SIRDO experiment in Mexico
 Reflections on the SIRDO exper...

Title: Women and waste management in urban Mexico
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Title: Women and waste management in urban Mexico
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Schmink, Marianne
Publisher: Schmink, Marianne
Publication Date: 1985
Subject: Caribbean   ( lcsh )
Spatial Coverage: Caribbean
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Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
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Table of Contents
    Title Page
        Title Page
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
    The SIRDO experiment in Mexico
        Page 4
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        Page 6
        Page 7
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        Page 11
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        Page 21
        Page 22
        Page 23
    Reflections on the SIRDO experience
        Page 24
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        Page 26
        Page 27
        Page 28
Full Text


Marianne Schmink
Consultant, The Population Council
Center for Latin American Studies
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida 32611

Presented at the Latin American Studies Association meeting,
Albuquerque, April 17-21, 1985


I. Introduction

In urban areas of the developing world, the accumulation and

means of disposal of wastes can have a marked influence on the

sanitary and health levels of the community. Low income populations

often inhabit hillsides and other broken terrain that make it

difficult and expensive to provide traditional waste disposal

systems. The International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation

Decade (1980-1990) focused greater attention on these issues and on

the need to develop low-cost alternatives that are technologically

appropriate to urban areas. But technical solutions must also be

linked to sociological aspects of such new technologies. One

important issue is the role played by women in service management.

In recent years there has been growing recognition of the

important role played by women in managing water and sanitation

systems in low income communities of developing countries. Studies

carried out in the 1970s highlighted women's heavy labor

contributions to water provisioning, especially in rural areas.

They also showed that although women were the principal managers of

water and sanitation systems, this fact was frequently overlooked by

planners who tended to focus their project efforts on community

leaders who were predominantly male. This tendency sometimes

impeded successful implementation of water and sanitation projects

and limited women's access to the health, employment and productive

benefits such projects could provide (see United Nations 1977;

Elmendorf and Buckles 1978; The Tribune 1982).

Women's management of water and wastes is a good example of

their participation in an essential activity that tends to be

"invisible." Disposal of household wastes is but one of the many

tasks women carry out routinely as part of their housewife role. By

extension, it is most frequently women who become involved in

addressing problems of water supply, sanitation, and waste

management at the community level. The importance of these basic

services for low income communities underscores the need to

recognize and support women's individual and collective efforts.

Waste management has both a service aspect -- the sanitary

disposal of household and community wastes -- and a potential

economic return when wastes are not just discarded but recuperated

for re-use. Use of recycled wastes by industry is big business in

many developing countries, indirectly absorbing thousands of workers

who collect useful materials from garbage deposits and deliver them

to intermediaries who in turn supply them to factories and workshops

in the paper, steel, plastics and other sectors. In Mexico City an

estimated ten thousand persons work in the dumps or streets,

separating wastes according to their re-sale value and selling these

items for about one peso per kilo to middlemen who in turn sell to

industries for three to four pesos/kilo. In Brazil, an informed

estimate placed the value of these activities at US$250 billion

annually, roughly equivalent to the nation's coffee production (Isto

E 1984). Some 6,000 tons of garbage are collected daily in Sao

Paulo, 53% of it by just one company. The 1973 oil crisis, and more

recently the impact of several years of economic recession in

Brazil, increased the prices of recylable materials and incentives

for re-use. The paper industry in that country now depends on

recycled wastes for 30% of its raw materials, compared to 18% in


1972. A case study of the paper industry in Cali, Colombia,

similarly found that waste paper provided 33% of the raw material

used. It also emphasized the heirarchical nature of the waste

recycling industry, in which the income of the individual garbage

picker remained low despite the substantial profits to be made at

higher levels of the enterprise (Birkbeck 1979).

The rising economic value of waste materials also provides an

incentive for individual families to separate and save or sell

certain items among their household garbage. Recycling of wastes at

the level of urban communities is probably a far less common

phenomenon. Yet such enterprises hold the double promise of

improving service provision and community health conditions, while

also providing a potential economic return. If organized on a

cooperative basis they permit the community to retain control over

the profits generated. These benefits can be especially important

for women, who are most likely to be participants in community waste

recycling activities.

The remainder of this chapter documents the initial impact of a

new technology for community management of waste recycling in two

urban neighborhoods in Mexico. It is based on a collaborative study

that received support through the Mexico City-based working group

"Mujer y Ciudad," part of the Population Council/USAID project

entitled "Women, Low Income Households and Urban Services in Latin

America and the Caribbean." The study was coordinated by working

group member Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, and counted on the

assistance of Josefina Mena, the inventor of the technology and

founder of the group that sought to implement it. Cooperatives in

the two communities also collaborated in writing the project's final


report. Finally, consultant Marianne Schmink subsequently visited

both community sites twice in order to collect additional

information for a publication documenting their experiences with the

new technology (Schmink 1985).

II. The SIRDO Experiment in Mexico


The SIRDO (Integrated System for Recycling Wastes) system has

been under development by the Alternative Technology Group (GTA for

the Spanish Grupo de Tecnologia Alternativa) in Mexico since 1978.

GTA is a small group founded by architect Josefina Mena in order to

develop technologies for recycling organic wastes in urban areas.

The SIRDO is designed not only to manage urban wastes, but also to

include in this process the potential for income and employment

generating activities. The system is based on intensive labor

inputs in all phases from construction through maintenance, as well

as production. Its characteristics enable cooperative community

management for day-to-day operation.

Basically the SIRDO system works as follows. Each house is

connected to the community system by two pipes that separate the

"gray waters" (those containing detergents flowing from bathroom,

sink and laundry) from the "black waters" coming from the toilet.

After filtering, 80% of the "gray waters" can be reused for

irrigation. The "black waters" are channelled into an accelerated

sedimentation tank where sludge is separated from the water. The

sludge is spread into an aerobic decomposition chamber and then

mixed with household garbage. In this chamber solar drying

evaporates the water and within a year's time the sludge is

transformed into a nutrient-rich fertilizer. The chamber's dual


compartments yield fertilizer harvests at alternating six-month

intervals. The treated "black waters" in the meantime pass into

garden beds where vegetables and flowers may be grown; they may also

be channelled into ponds to support aquaculture.

The unique technical feature of the SIRDO is its combination of

aerobic and anaerobic processes. The system produces a dry powder

fertilizer that resembles ground coffee in appearance and is free of

pathogens. Yet it is based on waterborne sewage instead of dry

privies that are unacceptable to most urban populations in Mexico.

The intermediate scale of the SIRDO is the key to its innovative

quality. Wastes in the chamber are decomposed by aerobic bacteria

contained in excreta. These bacteria must be supplied with the

proper proportion of carbon (as food) and nitrogen (as fuel) in

order to enable the aerobiotic process. Black water sludge must be

added to the chamber at intervals no longer than 48 hours in order

to achieve the proper chemical balance. Such careful control would

be impossible with a municipal-level system for treating wastes, in

which nitrogen would be lost from urine during transit. On the

other hand, the system is too costly to be installed on a

single-house basis. Therefore it is ideal for community-level

management and operation.

Because of its hybrid nature, the SIRDO is carefully adapted to

each specific site, and monitored over time to assure proper

functioning. Ecological and socioeconomic aspects of each community

will determine the precise technical design of the system and its

management. Through such experimentation, the GTA is continually

improving the SIRDO with the active collaboration of community

members. The system is therefore a good example of the complexity


of the process of technological and socioeconomic change, as it has

been experienced by two Mexican communities.

Introducing the SIRDO in Merida

At the beginning of 1978, a group of families were awaiting

access to low-cost housing in Merida, a city on Mexico's

southeastern coast. Typically such subsidized housing consists of a

three-room core unit with water, electricity and drainage. The

waiting list for houses with the conventional type of drainage used

in the region, with an absorption well and septic tank, was long.

There were some units, however, equipped with the SIRDO. This

system was 20-40% less costly than the conventional one and posed

fewer risks of environmental contamination. Families interested in

living in the experimental block where the SIRDO was to be installed

could be given housing right away. Those who accepted the offer

were compelled to do so by their urgent need for housing. Although

the drainage system was explained to them, for most it was still an

unknown when they moved in.

Between January and May of 1980, the GTA built the first two

SIRDO units in Merida with financing from INDECO, a government

agency charged with assisting low-income populations in acquiring

lots for housing with basic services provided. The agency's central

office was interested in the new technology, and the regional office

in Merida somewhat reluctantly revised its housing program to

accommodate the new drainage system. Apart from offering lots with

water and electricity, the agency financed the drainage system and

connected it to core houses -- the basic three-room unit to which

families could later add more rooms. Original plans called for

installation of houses and drainage in 28 blocks near the southern


edge of the city. In practice only one block was provided with the


At the end of 1980, the agency granted housing to two dozen

families in the experimental block. Little by little they began to

occupy their lots. Most of the families were headed by men employed

in services, small-scale commerce, or crafts. The vast majority

were self-employed, and more than half earned less than the

prevailing minimum wage. Most of the women had no regular

employment, but since marital unions are often somewhat unstable,

many had worked at some point in their lives, either as primary or

supplementary supporters of their families. Those women who did

hold jobs usually worked as domestics or in the small-scale sale of

food and other items. Only one woman worked in a factory. The

families had three children on average, and most of the adults were

literate but had not continued their education beyo;. the prii-ia,,

school level.

The GTA presented a series of orientation talks in August of

1979 about the SIRDO which the families attended somewhat

skeptically. Because of ambivalent support for the project within

the regional housing agency, all but one of these families were

subsequently settled elsewhere. Thus those who moved into the

experimental block did so without the benefit of the orientation

sessions. Furthermore, community members who opposed the new system

committed several acts of vandalism. The drainage system began to

function, but there were many problems in its initial phase of

operation. Users complained of flies, unpleasant odors, and

leakage. In addition, changes had to be made in the housecleaning

routine. Acid products could not be used for cleaning because they


would damage the chemical balance in the decomposition chamber. The

system also required that organic garbage be separated from

plastics, glass, and metals which could not be dumped into the

chamber. For these reasons, many community members were resistant

to the system despite the assurances they received from GTA as to

its advantages.

But soon the odors began to disappear and the other problems

were resolved. The children were the first to begin to collaborate

with GTA staff and participate in maintenance tasks such as

separation of garbage and dumping of organic wastes into the

chamber. They even painted wall murals that showed how to use the

system. Seeing this example, many of the women began to cooperate

as well. In May of 1981, a few community women started meeting to

allocate tasks on a cooperative basis. They also formed a committee

to guard the system against vandalism by those opposed to the SIRDO.

Strong opposition to the SIRDO was encountered at both sites

where the system was initially introduced. As in many other

countries, in Mexico the provision of urban land and services is

influenced by political considerations (Legorreta 1983; Velez-Ibanez

1983). Typically, community leaders or groups recognize the need

for housing sites and/or services and organize residents to make

demands to politicians in the ruling government party. In response,

government agencies seek to establish a "patron-client" relationship

with these leaders by offering to subsidize urban services. Usually

the community receiving the services is required to contribute labor

and money to the project as well. Private companies also profit

from contracts for public work projects. Through such

"clientelistic" politics all parties can stand to gain.

It is perhaps not surprising then that a community-managed

system such as the SIRDO might initially be perceived as a challenge

by those having an interest in the established way of doing things.

Community members with close ties to benefactors worry that their

position may be weakened by such community initiatives. Some

government officials may be resistant because they think such

projects will make the urban population less dependent on state

support and thereby increase their political independence. And

private firms may resent the loss of profits from large public works

contracts. Added to the potential resistance of those with vested

interests in the status quo is the natural skepticism that tends to

surround the introduction of any new technology. Many people are

just more comfortable with a system they know works and which is

what "everyone else has." Furthermore, since most people have

little awareness of the risks of contamination from other types of

drainage systems, the SIRDO's environmental benefits can only be

demonstrated through an educational program. What frequently

happens then is that vested political and business interests from

both within and outside the community that are opposed to the system

take advantage of its unfamiliarity to encourage opposition. "ney

argue instead for the traditional form of service provision that

relies on the clientelistic process.

There are, however, other government officials who favor new

service delivery systems such as the SIRDO because they stimulate

community self-help and are lower in cost than traditional systems.

This position has been increasing in strength as the current

economic crisis makes the Mexican government less and less able to

afford costly investments such as conventional drainage systems.


Furthermore, the SIRDO has generated strong interest because of its

role in reducing the risks of environmental contamination and in

educating the urban population about these concerns. So despite

some incidents and harassment, the experiment went forward.

In October of 1981, to the astonishment of the residents of the

experimental block, the first harvest yielded nearly a ton of

fertilizer. Community members now needed to organize the labor

required to remove the fertilizer from the chamber and to process it

for use or sale. This increased the workload and required greater

organization on the part of the community. Thus the idea of forming

a cooperative was born. After seeking information and technical

advice from several sources, the residents voted to name their new

cooperative Muchuc-Baex, a Mayan term meaning "let's get

together." The fertilizer itself was named tierra bonita (pretty

earth). By January 1982, the Cooperative Muchuc-Baex was legally

constituted with 18 members, 14 of them women.

The Cooperative's first goal was the sale of the fertilizer.

This required modest capital to purchase plastic bags, labels,

stapler, a scale and a few other essential tools. The GTA offered

several small loans during this initial period to assist the

Cooperative and was later repaid in fertilizer. Members set to work

extracting the fertilizer from the chamber, mixing it with earth,

and putting it into one-kilo bags for sale. Initially the mocking

remarks of neighbors ("crazy women playing with shit") discouraged

some women from participating in these tasks. Others, however,

persevered and by the end of 1982, the Cooperative was selling its

fertilizer in two main supermarkets in the city, bringing in a

small, but symbolically important income to the group.


By September of 1983, the GTA had delegated most of the

responsibility for maintenance of the system to the community, the

neighborhood's children had written and performed their own play

recounting the history of the Cooperative, and Muchuc-Baex had

reaped four fertilizer harvests. The quality of the fertilizer was

evident both in kitchen gardens of the members and through tests

carried out by the local agency of the federal agricultural ministry

(SARH). To promote its fertilizer, the group used photographs of

the giant cucumber produced in one of their gardens.

With technical assistance from the GTA, eight Cooperative

members operate and maintain the SIRDO. In general, the men carry

out the heavier, periodic cleaning jobs for which they receive

nominal payment. The tasks associated with day-to-day operation,

which are not too time consuming, are taken care of by the majority

of the neighborhood's women who do not hold jobs outside the home.

The maintenance tasks are periodically rotated among members on a

voluntary basis. The technical requirements of the SIRDO are

spelled out in the "Biotics Manual" provided by the GTA which serves

as a reference guide for community managers. Cooperative members

work collectively to process and package the fertilizer on weekends.

While Cooperative members are now convinced of the advantages

of the SIRDO, they also recognize that some problems still exist.

Their housing development was not designed with the system in mind,

and its piping and treatment sites occupy physical space that is in

short supply; nor is there any work area for the maintenance

operations such as cleaning of filters. Other aspects also could be

improved: the cement covers for the gray water filter, for example,

are so heavy that women generally have to rely on male help to


remove them; and there is a need for equipment, such as gloves and

masks, to protect workers from the fine dust raised during the

sifting and mixing operation.

To insure its economic feasibility, the Cooperative's current

need is to widen the market for its fertilizer. Its members have

produced four harvests of about one ton each -- about half the

maximum capacity of their two units. Two of these harvests were

sold or used, the third was damaged by gray water detergents, and

most of the latest harvest is now stored in the houses of members.

So far most earnings have been re-invested in productive enterprises

(e.g., purchase of earth for mixing) although small amounts have

been distributed to members based on the amount of labor


At this initial stage the Cooperative is willing to sell below

real costs in order to build a market for their product. The good

results they have seen in their own gardens have given them

confidence in their product and the patience to wait for demand to

grow in the long run. Currently most sales are to middle class

urban dwellers who use the fertilizer in their gardens. Cooperative

members hope they eventually can get it into the hands of peasants

to improve the quality of their overworked soil. Fertilizer could

even be exchanged for foodstuffs needed by members' families;

however as yet they have not found a mechanism to link them directly

to peasant producers in their region.

Aside from the potential economic return from fertilizer sales,

Cooperative activities take on a larger meaning for the community.

From the beginning, membership has been made up almost entirely of

women, although several of their husbands regularly help with


specific tasks. In some cases, husbands have tried to impede their

wives' participation, but the women recognize the value of their

collective activities and continue to participate in the

organization. To these women the SIRDO provides a basis for

community solidarity that surpasses the importance of the future

income they hope to generate. The Cooperative's president put it

this way:

Most people (in the cooperative) are not thinking about
money. I lived for eleven years without knowing my
neighbor's name. After I moved I lived here for three
years without knowing my neighbors. If I don't know my
neighbor and there is an emergency in the middle of the
night I can't call on her nor can she call on me.
This is the greatest value of the cooperative. Here,
we are more sisters than neighbors. If I don't have
money to eat, I'm not ashamed to ask Dona Candita for
two hundred pesos or for some leftover tortillas. The
drainage system has done this. If it did not exist I
assure you that I would be here all these years without
knowing my neighbors' names.

Community women stress that mutual aid is now a practice

that extends to virtually all aspects of their daily lives.

Cooperative members work together in other activities as well,

including the collection of inorganic garbage and the wholesale

buying of vegetables from peasant producers. In 1981 they built

a recreational park for their children and convinced the state to

donate playground equipment. They use their own fertilizer to

plant productive kitchen gardens. In the future they plan to

build a warehouse to store their fertilizer.

The Pilot Experience in the Valley of Mexico

A more recent pilot SIRDO experience in an urban community

in the Valley of Mexico has drawn on the lessons learned in

Merida (Monasterio, Mena, and Parada 1983). This zone, including

Mexico City and its surroundings, accounted for about twenty

percent of the total Mexican population, or roughly thirteen

million persons in 1978. While the population of the zone

continued to grow at an annual rate of about five percent, the

volume of wastes produced has grown at the astounding rate of

about thirty percent per year. By 1984, this amounted to

approximately 13,000 tons of waste per day in Mexico City, of

which about one-third were organic materials. On average, each

resident of the city produces one and a half kilos each day of

waste products. An estimated seventy to eighty percent of these

wastes are not systematically recycled and pose a threat of

contamination to the environment. Alternative waste-management

systems like the SIRDO appear. to be well-suited to such


The history of the community where the second SIRDO pilot

project is located is distinct from the Merida neighborhood.

Located near the northern margin of the city, it is managed by a

community cooperative that began in 1956 with forty-eight low

income families. The cooperative first negotiated the purchase

of an area for settlement, then took charge of dividing it into

lots, opening streets, and assisting residents to construct

houses. Later it oversaw the installation of the community's own

water system and electricity, and the building of schools, green

areas, and other facilities. All this has made the community a

desirable neighborhood in comparison to other less organized

areas in the Valley of Mexico.

By 1976 the problem of waste disposal had become apparent.

The community was inhabited by about 18,000 persons who produced


about 240 tons of wastes per month. About one-third of this

quantity was collected by trucks; the rest was deposited by

residents in ravines, green areas or vacant lots. Open-air

drainage also collected in ravines. As these deposits led to

contamination, the community began to explore ways to resolve

their growing problem.

The first option was conventional waterborne drainage, the

cost of which had been estimated at twenty-six million pesos

(about US$1 million) in 1972. The community was able to raise

only two percent of this amount over the next eight years. In

1979 a new estimate by the municipality placed the cost at

forty-four million pesos without calculating direct costs which

would raise the sum to nearly sixty million (more than US$2

million). By this time the cooperative had managed to raise two

and a half million pesos, or about four percent of the total

cost. Given the impossibility of paying for the conventional

system, the cooperative began to seek alternative solutions.

This is when it came into contact with the GTA in Merida.

In early 1982, forty members of the cooperative visited

Merida, attended a meeting of the Cooperative Muchuc-Baex, and

became acquainted with the SIRDO. Shortly thereafter cooperative

members voted in a general assembly to use the money collected

for the conventional drainage system to finance installation of a

pilot SIRDO, with technical assistance from the GTA and other

groups in Mexico City. Community members explored financing for

the project's various stages. This pilot system would serve

eighty-four families settled on forty lots surrounding a natural

pond, as well as a secondary school with about eighty students.


Experiments with aquaculture were to be carried out in the


At the outset, only about 20% of the population favored the

new technology; another one-half were doubtful or did not

understand how it worked. The remainder were opposed.

Nonetheless construction went ahead over a period of twenty-seven

weeks and the pilot system was inaugurated in December, 1982.

Twenty-two community members contributed their own labor; the

direct costs of construction came to two and a half million pesos

(about US$55,000). In order to assist in preparing the community

for the new technology, members of the Machuc-Baex Cooperative

developed a seven-lesson course for users, promoters and

technicians. Both adults and children attended this course. A

competition that was part of the course invited the children to

suomit their best drawings related to the SIRDO.

Immediately after the pilot system began to function, two

more sections of the community requested consideration for the

next SIRDO. One group formed a committee of twenty-four persons

and named a treasurer on each block to collect funds to finance

the project. GTA began to prepare designs for these two areas.

The municipality tentatively offered six million pesos (about

US$60,000) in credit for construction of the system. A

Technical Council, consisting of cooperative representatives,

technical advisors and state and municipal government personnel

was formed to oversee the new installation.

While these plans were getting underway, however, those

opposed to the new system were also organizing. They formed a

Council for Municipal Collaboration and tacitly opposed


construction of the new SIRDO. They put pressure on the

municipality causing it to withdraw its offer of support for the

SIRDO and promise instead to construct a traditional drainage

system at a cost of three hundred million pesos (about US$3

million). The atmosphere became unpleasant as a director of the

local primary school prohibited two teachers from taking their

students on a site visit to the SIRDO as a field lesson on the

environment, and the dome on the gray waters filter and the

grating on the chimneys of the decomposition chamber were broken

by vandals. In 1983, the anti-SIRDO group was able to win

control of the cooperative's directorship, but the community

itself remained divided over the issue.

In contrast to the experience in Merida, membership in the

cooperative in the Valley of Mexico averages about thirty percent

women. Since the cooperative's statutes permit only one member

per family, representation is usually by the male head of the

household. One woman reported being prohibited from taking her

absent husband's place at a cooperative meeting. In contrast,

the Merida cooperative is based on individual membership which

permits women to have a greater voice in collective decisions.

As one woman put it: "Sometimes I think one way and my husband

thinks differently. But both votes count." Despite limits to

their direct participation in the cooperative, however, the women

in the Valley of Mexico found ways to exert their collective

power in matters related to basic community services, including

the SIRDO.

The cooperative's new leadership soon felt the women's

pressure when the community's water system failed. Women bore


the brunt of weeks of hauling water long distances and of

deteriorating sanitary conditions. A small group of women who

previously had not known each other called a meeting to discuss

solutions to the water problem. Systematically they organized

neighbors in each zone within the neighborhood until they

succeeded in ousting the cooperative's directorate and calling

for new elections. They also raised nearly US$5,000 from raffles

and donations over a one-month period, to pay for needed repairs

and overdue water bills. They succeeded in forming a "Gran

Commission" to oversee the work of the cooperative's Directorate.

Six of the nine commission members are women.

Once the water problem was resolved, the commission turned

its attention to other community problems including road paving,

green areas, and drainage. When the municipal authorities showed

up and began to dig up the neighborhood streets to put in the

promised conventional drainage system, the women resisted.

Individual women faced the construction teams saying, "you will

not dig in front of my house!" They were backed up by a large

group of women who informed the officials that, "If you arrest

her, you will have to take all of us." The women of the

community were learning to use their collective solidarity as an

effective tool of resistance and pressure within their own

communities. (For a similar case of women's resistance, see

Velez-Ibanez 1983, 118-121.) The road was now paved for getting

on with activities related to installation and operation of the


During the first year following its installation, the

SIRDO's primary merit was an improvement in the environmental


condition: fewer flies and rats now that garbage and sewage no

longer accumulated in the ravine behind the houses. However

since only a small proportion of the neighborhood's houses were

connected to the system, other sources of contamination still


As in Merida, the appearance of the first harvest of

fertilizer provided the needed incentive for greater involvement

by the users. The fertilizer was tested by the state water and

sanitation company after the residents used their ties to

advisors to the state governor (who favored the SIRDO) to elicit

its assistance. The tests initially showed some germs remaining,

due to improper operations, so the residents corrected this

problem by further drying and the addition of more organic

matter. By May of 1984, the tests had improved.

In the meantime, the SIRDO users began to organize

themselves for the tasks of producing the fertilizer and planning

new productive activities. In March about 20 families connected

to the system formed a more formal user's group called the

"Community of SIRDO Users" and began to meet on a weekly basis.

One community resident, a medical doctor, also began to train

eight young men from the group to maintain the system and collect

garbage. Given the large number of users at this site, and the

greater distances from the houses to the chamber, this division

of labor was more attractive than the communal system used in

Merida. The users agreed to pay these young people a small wage,

based on the Mexican minimum wage, for an estimated two to four

hours work per week. In order to cover this expense and start-up

costs for other activities, members agreed to contribute 500


pesos aboutt US$3) to the group every two weeks.

Soon the user's group decided to adopt a more formal

organizational structure with elected officers and six

specialized commissions. The General Director and Secretary are

men, the Treasurer is a woman, and each of the six commissions is

the responsibility of one woman. The group also named three

advisors for technical, social, and administrative matters.

These are professional people who live in the experimental block.

Each commission began to develop its own set of activities.

Commission I is in charge of operation and maintenance of the

pilot SIRDO. Its principal task is to supervise the young

trainees who operate the system. Commission II is preparing for

the production and sale of the fertilizer, which has been named

ABOSIRD Tierra Nueva (New Earth). They have spent about US$50

for a two-color, silk-screened logo which will be printed on the

plastic bags in which the fertilizer will be packaged. The

initial plan is to distribute most of the fertilizer to the

families using the SIRDO and to sell the rest to cover their

costs. Already they have been approached by other community

residents who want to buy the fertilizer for their own gardens.

They are also planning a market survey to set an appropriate

price at which to sell their product.

The other four commissions have more long-term objectives

which are expressed by the group's motto: "For a Self-Sufficient

Urban Community." Commission III is in charge of planning

productive activities related to the recycling of plastics, metal

and glass. The group hopes to move towards recycling most of the

neighborhood's inorganic, as well as organic, wastes. As a first


step, they consulted an expert in plastics recycling from

Mexico's National University who is experimenting with a

technology to convert waste plastics into useful products such as

the plastic tubing used for plumbing and for construction of


Commission IV has the task of developing horticulture

projects. They began by planting a small experimental plot of

carrots, radishes, squash, onions, tomatoes and herbs next to the

chamber. Two biologists from the local university have been

offering their advice, as well as seeds, on a voluntary basis.

The first garden was planted without the use of fertilizer in

order to compare it with later yields. The group now plans to

expand the plots to other areas surrounding the SIRDO. They also

plan to plant fruit trees nearby, beginning with trees that have

already been grown successfully in the area, such as peaches,

pears and avocados. To irrigate these crops, the group is

building a large holding tank for recycled gray waters from the

SIRDO. A pump will be installed to allow year-round irrigation.

The final goal is to have 400,000 square meters of land producing

food for the community's 23,000 inhabitants on a regular basis.

With assistance from biologists, Commission V is developing

plans for future aquaculture projects using treated black waters

from the SIRDO. Plans call for creation of four tanks for the

various stages of water treatment; 6,000 to 10,000 trout will be

raised in the fourth tank. Infrastructure and community training

necessary to operate such a'project is estimated to cost

US$12,000, which must be raised from outside sources. Initially

the fish would be consumed within the community and then


hopefully, with increased production, sold for a profit.

The sixth commission has the delicate task of overseeing

waste management in homes and caring for the environment. These

tasks are primarily social and educational. Committee members

oversee the composition of garbage dumped into the SIRDO chamber

and, when necessary, suggest corrections. Another task of this

committee is to contact the 28 families living in the SIRDO area

who are still not connected to the system. They encourage these

families to clarify their views on the SIRDO and either decide to

be connected or waive their rights so that families on nearby

blocks, who have expressed an interest in using the system, may

become users.

All these new activities reflect a greater sophistication on

the part of SIRDO users as to the need for effective public

relations within the community. SIRDO users also have learned

that it is more effective to be open-minded about the

conventional drainage system favored by some community members.

Instead of proclaiming themselves sirdistas, they now advise

neighbors to base their decision on an anlaysis of the relative

merits of the two systems. They are confident that the

conventional system will never be completed due to its high cost

and that the SIRDO will gradually win over community residents as

the income-generating activities take shape and environmental

conditions improve. Within the community there are already about

200 families who wish to have SIRDOs installed on their blocks.

The potential economic return from the SIRDO depends on the

development of productive activities by community members. The

GTA has calculated that 50 to 80 full-time jobs could be


generated at the Valley of Mexico pilot site once fertilizer,

aquaculture and agricultural production are well underway. The

cost of producing the fertilizer can be reduced by more than half

if maximal use is made of community labor. The Merida experience

has demonstrated that a kilo of fertilizer that can be sold for

US 70-80 cents costs less than US 5 cents to produce. Materials

costs accounted for only US$250/year to produce four tons of

fertilizer. Given the demand for low-cost fertilizer in all

parts of the world, the economic potential of the system is


SIRDO users also point out that because of the system there

is more unity and communication among residents of the

experimental block than there had been before. Solidarity has

been fostered by their everyday communal labor, their work on the

commissions and their weekly meetings. The SIRDO also has

increased their awareness of the danger of contamination posed by

the inefficiency of conventional sanitation systems.

The SIRDO and its related activities have greatly increased

women's visibility within the community and their confidence in

handling community affairs. While men continue to dominate

formal decision-making positions in the community, women have

increased their power through informal pressure groups such as

the water commission. Their collective participation has

increased their self-confidence and encouraged them to speak out.

Women represent more than half of the membership of the SIRDO

user's group, they have the greatest involvement in the

day-to-day operation of the system, and they head all the working

commissions created by the users' group. While they have not yet


reached the level of confidence and independence achieved by the

women in Merida, the women of the Valley of Mexico are expanding

their community participation through involvement with the SIRDO.

III. Reflections on the SIRDO Experience

Six years after the first pilot experience in Merida was

installed, the SIRDO has achieved national credibility in key

sectors of the government, the press, and the academic community.

The nation's three principal newspapers carried out a support

campaign called "Operation SIRDO" beginning in June, 1984, that

focused on the system as the solution to problems of

environmental contamination in Mexico's cities. Scientists from

a variety of government and academic institutions have been drawn

into activities like plastics recycling, aquaculture,

horticulture, and testing potential uses for the fertilizer, as a

result of GTA's educational work that convinced them of the value

of applying their technical knowledge to the problems of

low-income communities. The GTA has also enlisted the aid of

allies within the government in order to neutralize opposition to

the system from other official sectors. In Merida, for example,

the new state governor and federal-level housing officials have

put pressure on regional authorities who were opposed to the

system with the result that the state government has made a

commitment to share with the community the costs of some needed

repairs to the system.

By 1984 the GTA was building SIRDOs not only for grass-roots

groups, but also for the government and the private sector. The

state oil company, PEMEX, intends to build ten SIRDOs a year in

its new developments in order to protect the environment from


contamination. The federal urban development and ecology

agencies are beginning to work with the GTA in several

communities and would like to build as many SIRDOs as possible

during the next year. University students will be trained to

work with communities where these systems are installed. Current

initiatives include creation of workers' cooperatives to produce

parts for the SIRDO, thus providing employment for community

people who have participated in construction of the systems. The

parts would be sold to both the public and private sector.

With growing acceptance of the SIRDO come new challenges for

GTA. As responsibility for operating and maintaining the systems

is gradually handed over to the community, GTA's role becomes one

of outside technical advisor. The process is part of GTA's goal

to design a system that would alter the relationship between

user, technology and the environment in order to foster

collective action as an alternative to passive dependence on

governments that often lack either the will or the resources to

respond to local demands. In both Merida and the Valley of

Mexico, this transfer has entailed periods of tension as

community members begin to assert their independence by reaching

decisions contrary to the advice of GTA. After these

experiences, GTA modified its strategy of technology transfer in

order to ,.duce the potential for technical mistakes. Before

introducing the system, GTA now forms a community Health

Committee and a Production Cooperative to be responsible for

decisions related to the system's productive activities. A small

number of community persons are trained to operate and maintain

the system within the technical limits established by GTA.


The two pilot experiences in Merida and the Valley of Mexico

demonstrate some of the problems and potential involved in

introducing new technologies. Community acceptance of an

innovation like the SIRDO involves overcoming technical, social

and political obstacles. The first SIRDO was not designed with

the idea that it would be managed mainly by women and young

people. However since women and young people generally take

charge of household waste disposal and sanitation and are less

apt to be employed outside the community, they are the ones who

are able to devote the necessary time to operating and

maintaining the system. Their roles need to be anticipated in

the design of a system so that they can carry out day-to-day

activities without outside assistance. (For example, some parts

of the original system had to be reduced in weight so that women

and children could handle them). The potential of the system to

generate income through the sale of fertilizer (and eventually

fruits, vegetables and fish) may offer women a greater

opportunity for economic independence.

Women's active participation in waste management can improve

their influence in community affairs. In Merida, the need to

operate and maintain the SIRDO, and to handle fertilizer

production, gave rise to a new cooperative structure dominated by

women. This structure developed a strong sense of solidarity

among women who had not previously known one another and

increased their independence and confidence in dealing with

husbands and other family members. They consciously acknowledge

the importance of the SIRDO in providing this new source of

collective and individual strength. In the Valley of Mexico, a


strong pre-existing cooperative structure, dominated by men,

initially impeded women's access to formal decision-making power.

However the SIRDO stimulated the creation of less formal

organizations in which women have expanded their community

influence. Their growing consciousness of the effectiveness of

collective action has spread to other areas of community concern

such as water management. Participation in these activities has

built up women's confidence and strengthened their influence in

community affairs and in relations with outside authorities.


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1979 Garbage, industry, and the 'vultures' of Cali, Colombia.
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1984 A reciclagem vem a tona. 29 August, pp. 52-56.

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