Unexpected lessons: How poverty slows accomplishment

by Polly Edmunds. co-founder Border Partners

Palomas Mexico home

Rudolfo's humble Palomas home

Because we choose “to stand with” rather than “to do for” those who face the daily challenge of poverty, we are learning how poverty can negatively affect accomplishment and goal achievement. Again this spring, Rudolfo taught us this.

Rudolfo is a local master at traditional adobe block production, so my husband Peter asked him to help with an experimental project in Palomas. He agreed to try using some ground up paper in the traditional adobe brick to add better insulation and to try using the “cast in place” process to speed laying the brick and strengthen the construction results.

The two had some encouraging initial success. So Rudolfo then decided to start building a small, improved house on his property using the improved brick and methods as a means of continuing the experiment.

This adobe brick production requires a particular type of dirt that is high in clay content. Since a load costs $40, Peter gave Rudolfo money to purchase what he needed, the week before Easter.

Rudolfo and Peter

Rudolfo and Peter construct alternative adobe brick.

But the delivery man couldn’t bring the special dirt because his truck was broken, and his mechanic wasn’t working during Holy Week. So that stalled the experiment. Projects don’t always honor our time lines, and that’s often particularly true in Mexico.

But a week later, after enough time passed to repair the truck, there still was no load of gravel in place. When Peter inquired, Rudolfo apologized:

“While I was waiting for the truck to be fixed, we needed food. Since I had the $40, I used that money to buy food. And then we also got our water bill, and I had to pay that right away so the city wouldn’t turn off our water. But next week I’ll go work in the fields and earn $40, so we can order the dirt.”

Things take longer than you expect at times–for reasons that are surprising to people who live in “the land of plenty.” Rudolfo, by sharing his economic challenges, increased our understanding and empathy.

When we partner across the border line, we all have lessons to learn.

Addressing Mexico’s severe drought with rainwater harvesting and graywater reuse

The severe drought currently cursing Mexico has not spared the northern state of Chihuahua. The drought has already cost farmers more than a billion dollars in crop losses alone and set back the national cattle herd for years, reports Reuters. Experts say this is only the beginning, that Mexico faces a drier future.

Van Clothier

Van Clothier (Image source: Amazon)

The grant we’ve received from the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission allowed us to bring a regional expert on water conservation to Palomas this month. Van Clothier, a certified water harvester, taught us about rainwater harvesting and graywater reuse possibilities for Palomas buildings. Van is the author of Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering and owns Stream Dynamics, Inc., a watershed restoration business located in Silver City, New Mexico.

Van’s expertise helped us assess the suitability from among several houses for the graywater re-use systems we’ll be constructing. He also helped our team evaluate the entire block of property that houses the public library and the funeral building the town has allowed Border Partners use to house our woodworking shop.  His consultation is a prelude to setting up rainwater harvesting and shaping the land so that the water flows to the trees on the property.

Van suggested some simple ways to form what amount to rainwater gardens. We’ll construct depressions in the land to catch rainwater flow. Plants can then grow around the perimeter of these rainwater basins. Alternatively, a tree can anchor the central position in the rainwater garden if it’s established so as to protect the root ball.

An added bonus is that the BECC grant will enable us to hire several people from Palomas to work on the project. This gives the town a boost economically and is a welcome income source for local families.

Van Clothier gave us lots of ideas and, best of all, we learned that some of what we want to accomplish will be simpler and less expensive than we originally thought. That’s priceless information as we prepare for more dry years to come.

New papercrete greenhouse helps Palomas gardens grow

new seedlings ready to plant

Juana presents a flat of new seedlings ready to plant in a family garden.

By Helena Myers, U.S. Garden Coordinator for Border Partners

Well, it’s happening! Juana’s greenhouse made of papercrete is finished, and plants are sprouting in Palomas.

Our Palomas garden coordinator Juana Lozoya Ortega and her husband Fernando, along with Peter Edmunds and his crew built a papercrete greenhouse to support our Palomas home-gardening efforts. Now buckets and large pots hold plants sprouting in the greenhouse’s warm, sunny environment.

Juana recently took a flat of seedlings the greenhouse has already yielded to a beginning gardening family (see photo atop post). Now those seedlings are all nestled in a new family plot that’s surrounded by cement blocks and covered with plastic.

Our gardening program now counts 16 serious, active gardeners who have plastic-protected beds of at least 4×4’ dimension. They’re already harvesting greens and radishes.

Juana & new papercrete greenhouse

Juana stands proudly in the new papercrete greenhouse.

Juana supports the Palomas gardeners with materials: seeds, compost, wire and plastic. And she continually searches out new gardeners, finding two more in the past two weeks. The enthusiastic gardeners are so proud of the plants they’ve grown from seeds sown in December that they hesitate to cut them. We encourage them to harvest them for salads because, if they leave an inch or more, the plant will grow back.

Palomas residents are familiar with tomatoes, chilies or vegetables that thrive in summer heat. But we plan to gather all the gardeners at Juana’s and make a big leafy green salad to demonstrate how to use winter greens because they are not familiar with fresh uncooked winter vegetable usage. Our plan is to keep gardens producing all year, so eventually people can eat nutritious food without going to the store, where they can only find wilted vegetables.

Last month an expert gardener from Columbus brought soil samples to demonstrate soil improvement methods to our Palomas gardeners. She explained the process of mixing biochar with manure to prepare it to serve as a soil amendment. Fernando is presently now watering and weekly turning a large compost pile, using manure from the stock yards mixed with biochar.

Palomas gardeners

Palomas gardeners help Mother Nature grow their food.

Our future plans are to attempt to propagate fig tree cuttings for all the gardeners and to begin to establish peach tree cuttings. We’re also looking forward to implementing the grey water systems that will result from the new environmental grant Border Partners received. Two gardeners already use water from their washing machines to trees in their yards, so this will extend the water conservation efforts we’ve already begun.

It is an exciting time of new growth in the gardening sector of Palomas!

BECC Grant to Border Partners will conserve water, grow crops in Palomas

water conservation

Grant conserves desert water. Photo: Microsoft Images.

Border Partners received a grant for  $10,000 from the Border Environment Cooperation Commission last week. This is exciting news to our fledgling organization, as it is the largest single grant award we’ve received to date.

The funding will allow us to build graywater reuse systems and rainwater harvesting systems in Palomas. We’ll be able to install systems at 15 residential homes and also at the public library this year.

Along with this project, the BECC grant will fund the construction of a model bathroom that will demonstrate water-saving technologies appropriate for the desert environment.  The model will include a system to reuse the residential graywater–drainage from the sink–on a garden. It will also utilize solar hot-water heaters.

from the BECC website:

U.S.-Mexico Environmental Program (Border 2012) is a collaboration between the United States and Mexico to improve the environment and protect the health of the nearly 12 million people living along the border. The bi-national program focuses on cleaning the air, providing safe drinking water, reducing the risk of exposure to hazardous waste, and ensuring emergency preparedness along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Border 2012 is a results-oriented program that takes a “bottom-up” approach to addressing the environmental and public health needs of the border region.  Issues and projects are identified and implemented at the local level.

Border Partners is proud to be working with this bi-national program. By conserving water and promoting sustainability, we’re helping to create a new model for future viability on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Border 2012 map

Border 2012 area map. Courtesy: EPA website.

Papercrete adds value to a Palomas home

completed addition

Papercrete addition to Palomas home adds value economically.

Home readied for addition.

Palomas home is readied for a papercrete addition.

Papercrete is a building material that is gaining acceptance because its production recycles paper products for construction uses.

Just as importantly, papercrete provides improved insulation. According to Wikipedia, papercrete’s R-value is within 2.0 and 3.0 per inch. And since papercrete walls are typically several inches thick, that provides great insulation from summer sun and cold winter winds.

papercrete walls

Papercrete block is used instead of cement block.

Unlike concrete or adobe, papercrete blocks are lightweight, less than a third of the weight of a comparably-sized adobe brick. This is because the paper fiber replaces the sand, clay or gravel component found in adobe or cement.  Papercrete is also mold resistant and also assists sound-reduction.

For all of those reasons, Border Partners is promoting papercrete as a potential boon to Palomas. A local family used papercrete blocks to add a room to their home this month. The photos illustrating this post show papercrete in action!

finishing exterior

The exterior of the walls receive a protective finish.