When first preparing to volunteer in Morocco, I had many friends express surprise that there was a Peace Corps post here. Morocco is often seen as a well-developed tourist country for beach and desert excursions. While there is some truth to this, there are also many things that we take for granted in America. A primary example of this is access to a structured system of waste disposal. In the States, even the most rural regions demand better services for waste reduction and recycling.
Despite Morocco hosting the UN Climate Change Conference “COP2016”, most rural communities lack a basic system for waste removal. Residents have two options: throw waste on the ground in makeshift dump areas (often near water sources or highly trafficked areas) or burn trash. Neither are ideal.
Although it is easy to dismiss this as an aesthetic issue with no long-term consequences, there are many health concerns that correlate with lack of sanitary waste removal. Water contamination and concentrated pollutants in the air and soil increase respiratory problems, compromise the immune system, and even develop cancer-causing carcinogens.
This very real systemic issue is echoed through mores in casual littering. It is not uncommon to observe people drop trash as they are walking – reminding me of my childhood, where many people in the States would throw trash out of their cars or burn trash in their backyard. However, as attitudes about littering has changed in America over the past twenty years, I hope that the Moroccan government will increase their campaign to change the attitude here, as well.
Taking the systemic and attitudinal issues into account, I try not to allow my Western perspective to dictate the most prominent needs of residents. So, it was an association leader who approached me, requesting help to plan a solution for proper waste management. One piece of advice I would give to any person involved in community development work outside their own home is to always allow the residents to propose, advocate, and lead the cause. It is this understanding—local-first, community-led always—that led to the creation of an environmental awareness project.
One of the things we knew we needed to ensure this project was sustainable was buy-in and involvement from local officials and leaders. My lead community partner worked with officials to form an agreement for waste management, while I talked to local school leaders about the idea. Some teachers pushed back on the idea, fearing that students may damage the waste bins. After conversations, we decided that it was important to educate students about the environment and ways that they could help care for it.
My lead community partner formed an agreement with city officials in which they agreed to remove waste on a weekly basis, so long as she could provide the waste receptacles. We worked together to write a grant that provided these waste bins.
Simply having waste bins in the community wouldn’t maintain environmental, however, it was important to address broader mores regarding waste and promote critical environmental awareness. Since I live in an agricultural community, many of the students are interested in farming. We decided to frame this awareness around something they already know by supporting teachers in their community gardening efforts. This would lead to deeper conversations about ways they can creatively reduce and recycle waste.
The grant application was a success and we received funding from USAID to begin these efforts.
In March, my community partner used these funds to purchase waste receptacles, as well as gardening tools, for community use. In celebration of this, her association hosted an environmental awareness and trash clean-up weekend with the schools. Community officials went above and beyond to support this effort. They provided certificates to the schools and associations and sent trucks to help remove the bulk of waste in the community.
Despite rain in the forecast, the sun shined bright the afternoon we hosted over one hundred students at the primary and secondary levels. Students were able to hear about the environment from not only their amazing teachers, but also the local doctor, who spoke about health impacts of improper waste management. From there, students learned about the healthy environment initiative from community officials and my community partner.
Students at the primary level worked with their teacher to draw pictures about the environment, which they showcased to us during the celebration. When we presented the first waste receptacle to the primary students, they acted first with trepidation and then excitement, as they picked pieces of paper off the ground and threw them inside. Each time they opened the lid, they slammed it shut just as quickly—as if fearing something would jump out at them from outside. One of the teachers mentioned that many of the students may have never seen a waste bin before. It was something new in the seven-year-olds eyes – a path to a cleaner future.
With community leaders, students at the secondary level used the gardening tools to help clear the waste in front of the schools—scooping shovelfuls of trash into wheelbarrows to be hauled away. As they raked the last of the trash from the area, students picked up rocks and formed out Arabic letters saying: “Protect our Environment.”
City officials provided a loader tractor and dump truck to help haul the bulk of the waste away and throughout the weekend students and other community members helped clean the polluted walkway and stream near the school.
After the official induction of the waste bins, my community leader’s association invited the officials and teachers for tea in their one-room weaving space. It was a great time for celebration, but we knew that it was only the first step.
We are all members of communities. Tell me about a way you have impacted change in your own community or something you would like to do for the betterment of your home.