We helped form a youth group aimed at bettering their community by improving the environment around their local hiking hill. The short-term goal was a clean-up day. The longer-term goals are jumpstarting tourism and community economic development.
Cerro Dos de Oro (Two Gold Hill)
This is Cerro Dos de Oro, Capiíbary, San Pedro, Paraguay.
It’s a tri-peaked hill with the two highest elevations reaching about 1165′ (353 m) and 1230′ (372 m).
It projects 165′ (50 m) abruptly from the surrounding rolling plains and offers a fantastic view.
The first time I saw the hill from my contacts’ education center, I wanted to climb it right away. My second thought was, “Tourism project.” My contact was enthusiastic and soon she and a few of the local high school kids took us hiking.
As we approached, we saw the challenges the community would face in any future tourism effort. Like many spots in similar circumstances around the world, people used the base of the hill as an informal garbage dump. Trash was scattered near the trailhead. As we made our way up the trail, we were greeted by plastic bottles and food wrappers.
Why was it in this condition? It’s hard to say. One culture-based hypothesis is that a few generations ago, all the trash was organic and decomposable. People were accustomed to throwing stuff out – and it was no big deal because it would rot away. Now most waste is made of inorganic materials like plastic, but the culture of chucking stuff out the front door remains.
There are structural reasons, too. The municipality’s own development plan says the community “lacks cleaning and garbage collection service.” Hard to take care of the environment when you don’t have reliable or affordable access to sanitation service.
To complicate matters further, the neighborhoods around the cerro tend to be more low-income than average. Lacking basic resources, it’s tough to make the case for environmentalism.
Yet, the cerro is a nationally protected wilderness area and the municipal development plan aspires to leverage it for tourism and economic growth in the future.
Together we form a youth group
As we settled in to our site, my contact kept bringing up the cerro. Angela’s contact mentioned it a few times, too: “When are you going to do a cerro project?”
In the first three months in-site, Peace Corps wants us integrate and work on a community needs assessment. But we already knew the community was interested in this.
So using my contacts’ network and advertising in the two English classes I had been co-developing with a local English teacher, we put out word that we were forming a eco-tourism, cerro-centric youth group. (In Paraguay, the word for youth, joven, implies teens and people up to about 30 years old).
About half a dozen attended the the first few meetings, which we held outside in view of the cerro.
We facilitated a brainstorming session about cerro with this core group.
The ideas spanned the simple (clean up the cerro) to the ambitious (night-lighting, bridges, and ziplines). Signs and trail markers from the town plaza made an appearance.
The next week we facilitated a review of the previous lluvia de ideas (rain of ideas = brainstorm). Then we did a SWOT/FODA analysis (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats / fortalezas-oportunidades-debilidades-amenazas) of Capiíbary as a tourism destination.
It worked out well because a high school teacher familiar with SWOT had come to the meeting and helped teach the concept as we went through the analysis.
Among the findings:
- the town is well-situated on the route between a bigger tourism site and the capital – maybe tourists would visit if they were made aware;
- the cerro is a tourism opportunity and is a protected wilderness area;
- the town already has hotels and but few restaurants that tourists could use;
- the cerro is under threat from illegal rock mining and is used as a garbage dump;
- and locals have little environmental awareness.
At the end of the meeting, the teacher and one of the youth who we had noticed had well developed leadership skills said the group was still too small. We had to rally more support and get something done.
We agreed to accompany this student on an advertising campaign for the group in the two nearest high schools the following week.
The youth groups grows and finds its cause
It pays to advertise. We made two trips each to the two closest high schools, each time with a student representative. We made our pitch to nearly every student age 15 and older. Thankfully our student partners carried most of the Spanish-language heavy lifting.
In a nutshell, the pitch focused on:
- Leadership, teamwork, and citizenship
- Hiking and health
- Ecotourism and marketing
In Paraguayan fashion, our partner youths created a massive WhatsApp group with this icon:
One of the leaders in the group made a facebook page called Jóvenes X Capiibary (Youth for Capiibary).
Next, we had a bigger meeting. We gave pep-talks along with my contacts.
They were very intent on taking a walk to see the trash situation at the base of the hill. Their motivation increased as they strolled among the garbage.
The next day my contacts hosted a group of adventure cyclists (Oikoite) searching for a new 130k race route. We took advantage of this novelty and invited the youth group to hike the cerro with them.
I think the youth group started to feel part of a bigger project that day.
They started seeing the possibilities. But the cycling group had lamented the trash strewn all over the base of the hill.
What happened next caught us by surprise. Working together, my contacts and a few of the youth who had stepped into leadership roles scheduled a clean up of the hill for the following week.
We didn’t expect this to happen so quickly. But of course, we were all for it. We were just a bit worried about outreach for the neighborhood closest to the cerro.
One day after I had returned from a jog, one of the youth showed up at my door, “Quick! City hall is about to close and I need help asking the mayor for garbage bags and a tractor. Sign this.” I quickly showered and put on a dress shirt and off we went.
It was a simple resource request so I was comfortable putting my name on it. I wasn’t sure if the request would work with a foreign signature, but my contacts were out on business and this needed to get done.
It worked. We got garbage, a tractor, and money for gloves. The day of the clean up, two firefighters even showed up as adult supervision.
As an aside, city hall pointed out something interesting to us while we were in the office. The neighborhood around the cerro had a complicated relationship with past projects. We’ll have to factor this in and ensure we do more outreach and education in the future.
Cleaning the cerro
Next, I sat down with the same student and helped him work out a simple program for the cleanup. Who was doing what, when, and where? What would the safety briefing sound like? Etc.
The next day (things have short-fuses here in Paraguay), people arrived a little late but by about 8:30 AM we had more than twenty youth.
My contacts, Angela, and I gave introductions and emphasized safety. Don’t touch dangerous objects like broken bottles or “dirty” things (like the used condom wrapper I found later that day…at least I was using gloves and at least they were using protection). Importantly, no goofing around and don’t try to pick up trash close to steep areas on the hill. ¡No se caigan! Basura no vale la vida.
Brazilian club music blaring, we began around the base of the hill.
This was the more difficult part because we kept finding more and more informal trash dumps.
Local media showed up and covered the event. They made a video in addition to broadcasting the story on the radio (Angela talks at the end).
Everyone in town seemed aware of the project.
Later in the day, one of my contacts and I took a smaller group up the cerro to clean the trail itself.
When we finished at lunchtime after about four hours of work, we had amassed more than 30 large bags of trash. Back of the napkin calculations lead me to believe that’s around 4500 liters. Maybe about 600-700 lbs of trash if each bag weighed 20 lbs.
We had a mandatory group picture.
Then my contacts hosted a lunch for the team.
People are still using the area we cleaned up as a dump to the everyone’s outrage on the WhatsApp group.
I think a little outrage is healthy. But thinking back on city hall’s point, we know this is going to take some time. We’ll have to harness that energy for communication and education.
Where to go from here?
It’s pretty easy for any group to get discouraged or fizzle away. And without a sustainable trash pickup plan, the cerro will get dirty again. More to come on this line of effort.
Additionally, I’m working with a few of the group members to work on getting the cerro into the most important tourism networks. One youth added the cerro to Google maps.
I’m talking with TripAdvisor to add the city of Capiíbary to their system so that locals can put the cerro, hotels, and restaurants into the world’s most popular travel app.
Additionally, I want to talk with the Paraguayan tourism ministry so they add the cerro to local tourism maps.
Maybe if the tourists start trickling in, minds will focus. Perhaps I could teach a tourism class in the near future.
Angela and I are also considering a environmental education program in the schools near the cerro to build long term support and understanding. Peace Corps Paraguay has a manual called Basura Cero (Zero Trash), which sounds promising. Maybe we can do Cerro de Basura Cero.
We think this project will last our entire two years year here and beyond.
Crucially, this project already has strong support from our contacts and some of the youth are already stepping into leadership roles.
They want to clean another part of the cerro and the town plaza as well. We’ll also be trying to facilitate a discussion about root causes to get at more sustainable solutions.
We’ll keep you posted!