The Philosophical Roots of SOIL’s Waste Transformation Work in Haiti

Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) is a US 501-c3 non-profit, based in Haiti since 2006.  With a mission to transform wastes into resources, SOIL has spent the last 6 years working with communities to develop sustainable sanitation solutions where human wastes are converted into fertile soil. SOIL has provided ecological sanitation services to over 25,000 people and is now producing more than 3 tons of nutrient rich compost per week.  Although we believe in the technologies that we are implementing, we also believe that our successes have resulted, not from the technologies employed, but because of the philosophical underpinnings of our approach to community engagement.  This is the story of the philosophy on which SOIL was built.

In nature soil transforms organic matter, sustaining ecological systems by converting one organism’s wastes into another’s resources. It is from the soil that our organization has borrowed both our name and our philosophy. We too, believe that the path to sustainability is through transformation, of both marginalized people and discarded materials, turning disempowerment and pollution into participatory production.

Though rooted in ecological principles, the social element of our philosophy has also been deeply influenced by the liberation theology movement. Liberation theology is a school of thought, developed among Latin American Catholics, according to which the Gospel demands the church to liberate the people from poverty and oppression.

Liberation theology in practice is based on a sincere faith in humanity and a willingness to stand with the poor in their struggle for justice. Justice implies more than a short-term fulfillment of needs based on dependency. It implies a commitment to social change whereby the poor are liberated from their suffering in this lifetime through active participation in, and transformation of, their reality.

The concept of waste presents an important parallel between ecology and liberation theology, and it is at this intersection that SOIL’s philosophy of liberation ecology is based. The dictionary defines waste as leftover or superfluous, rejected as useless or worthless. Both ecological theory and liberation philosophies challenge this traditional concept of waste, through the idea that all that exists is transformable. In ecological systems one organism’s waste may nourish and sustain an entire food chain through a series of molecular transformations. Liberation theology shares this conceptualization of waste at the social, rather than biological level. It is a school of thought, which recognizes the humanity and worth of every person, affirming the capacity of those who have been marginalized and oppressed.

In a world where development aid has often served to reinforce social divisions, there is a need for a development ethic that inspires practitioners to look beyond aggregate statistics, to focus on what is happening to the most threatened and marginalized human beings who will generally be found living in similarly threatened ecosystems.  I argue that the philosophy of liberation can provide such an ethic.

The primary characteristic that distinguishes liberation ecology from other ecological and development approaches is that it advances a research agenda grounded in the struggle for social and economic rights, in recognition of the connections between poverty and environmental destruction.  Social and economic rights are seldom the focus of human rights discourse, but a discourse of liberation argues that inequitable access to resources is as relevant to the human rights discussion as physical violence. According to the principles of liberation ecology, the fact that the poor have an increased risk of dying, from preventable disease or lack of resources stemming from environmental degradation, constitutes a human rights violation.  Liberation ecology recognizes the fundamental connections between poverty and environmental destruction, and seeks to intervene in this vicious cycle by actively engaging in critique of the sociopolitical structures that maintain this dangerous interplay.

In practice this approach requires that development initiatives be built with a knowledge and appreciation of the historical forces that created the conditions which the initiative seeks to alleviate. For this to happen practitioners must be able to engage in genuine interactions with the communities that they are serving, they must learn to speak the language and make efforts to understand the culture and history of the country.

Sadly, in Haiti many development workers never have a chance to develop these genuine relationships.  Exaggerated security restrictions and work conditions that do not facilitate learning of the language and culture have created a community of aid workers that remains largely isolated from the majority of Haitians.   High staff turnover and agendas dictated by foreign donors make it challenging to integrate a socio-historical perspective into development projects and, as such, good technologies often fail due to complex social issues not considered in the project planning phase.

Although SOIL is a small organization, with a limited reach, we are grateful for the freedom that comes with being locally based.  We are thankful that we can take the time to ensure that our international staff has an appreciation of the communities in which we work, allowing us to tailor our projects to the needs of these communities.  And most of all we are proud of the fact that the SOIL team (now 43 Haitian staff, 6 international staff and volunteers and supporters throughout the world) is united by our shared love for Haiti and our commitment to the philosophy on which SOIL was built.

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