ES 120 Final Report
Whitman Direct Action’s Biodiesel Project in Central America
As a member of Whitman Direct Action (WDA), I was part of a summer
project in Central America that aimed to arm people with the means to promote
local development and improve their community’s quality of life through
the opportunities that biodiesel offers. In the process of accomplishing this
goal, WDA has faced several obstacles that have required changes in plans, modifications
of group dynamics, and an increased personal commitment of the group members.
As we overcame difficulties and applauded successes, I learned various lessons
for achieving future goals and acquired important inter-personal skills and
To disseminate the benefits of biodiesel, we had three objectives. The first was to finalize our testing with biodiesel production by working directly with organizations in Guatemala and Honduras that have the capability to transmit the information that we impart to them. Our second objective was to host a biodiesel conference at Sustainable Harvest International’s (SHI) demo farm in Santa Barbara, Honduras, with participants from all Central America that represent actors or potential actors in local development. Our final objective was to host a forum after the conference to network different entities that can together promote the formation of a biodiesel community in Central America. The magnitude of latter two objectives was expanded when we arrived to Central America, since SIMAS (Meso-American Sustainable Agriculture Information Services) asked WDA to duplicate the conference-forum in Managua, Nicaragua.
Within this framework, I traced several goals for myself. Before going to Guatemala, I achieved the purposes of becoming more “literate” on biodiesel and researching quality testing; organized a group of translators and set up the printing for the biodiesel manual, a summary of months of research and biodiesel-related experiences; and advertised the conference at colleges, NGOs and coops. Accomplishing some of these objectives, such as advertising, was hard due to the lack of information (e.g.: getting the finalized version of the applications on time) and of communication with my other team members. At this point, I noted the flexibility (and even uncertainty) of our agenda. Upon arriving to Guatemala, my somewhat passive role in the group progressively changed to a more active participation. I started undertaking small projects such as researching and experimenting with acid esterificacion (a method of producing biodiesel that requires an extra step that we hadn’t yet tested). My objectives started to depend on the circumstances such as time constraints; they aroused as the need for someone to take on certain tasks aroused. Overall, my goals were to take care of translations (from editing the project essay and updates to our website to spearheading the translation of the manual with Hugo and shopping for materials required to build the processor) and the ¨chemistry¨ part of the project: titrations, quality testing, and trying to answer or find answers to any questions that other group members had regarding chemistry.
On the road to fulfilling the project’s goals, we encountered several barriers. To begin with, our financial resources were scarce. After Whitman College’s decision to withdraw the $5000 that they had granted to the project, on which we had counted, more time had to be spent in fundraising instead of focusing on the project itself, which left a large amount of testing to be done in Central America. The lack of sufficient funds created skepticism about the project’s viability among some of the group members, including myself. I must admit that a great portion of my preliminary work (before the conference) was somewhat marked with pessimism. Limited funds didn’t allow us to visit more Central American communities (nonetheless, this was advantageous at the end due to time constraints). Another big problem was the loss of several WDA members. As members left, they took with them a wealth of knowledge and experience that had to be undertaken from scratch by other group members. Thus, more responsibilities were relayed on the rest of the group, and some topics such as waste disposal had to be neglected. However, new volunteers joined the group (about half of our crew). Only about half of them who had very precious knowledge on chemistry and engineering remained, while the rest, who had little to no experience on biodiesel and thus were unable to contribute much, left. Furthermore, some of the organizations that had agreed to collaborate with us didn’t fulfill their promises. For instance, XelaTeco, a green technology company had promised to provide us with a welder, access to a workshop, help with incorporating solar technology to our biodiesel processor design, and a space to build a processor. We did have full access to the workshop and to the welder, but the welder finished his work four days later than expected and created very leaky processor, and little to no guidance was provided on solar tech. SHI, who was in charge of conference logistics didn’t respond to our communications and thus had us on hold, which in turn forced us to postpone sharing conference invitations and details. Miscommunication, not only with other organizations, but also within our group was a big problem that led to tension and unnecessary mistakes. Before meeting up in Guatemala, two weeks before the conference, half of our group members, including myself, didn’t exactly know what we would do in Guatemala. This uncertainty just compounded my initial pessimism about the project. We had come up with several ways to communicate, such as a wiki page, where we could post our tasks, accomplishments, and comments, but once we arrived to Guatemala, internet access was limited and other priorities didn’t allow us to update the page regularly. Finally, all of these obstacles contributed to time limitations. Since the schedule was delayed, the group members had twice or thrice as much work. There was no chance to try or fully understand certain technologies and processes such as counterflow washing. We also had to improvise a lot due to lack of time to buy equipment, practice presentations for the conference, etc.
Given that we had already made a compromise to work with the organizations and to host the conference, our only option was to overcome all the difficulties, which made us a stronger group. First of all, we had to carefully organize our time and set our priorities. To do this, we worked closely as a team. We constantly had meetings (every day or two) in which Curt and Joe, our leaders (more like mediators) updated us on the project’s overall development, and specific tasks were divided among us. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing, so we could help one another (for instance, by partnering up or sharing ideas on how to do a task better or where to find the resources to perform it) and not duplicate efforts. Our meetings were also a space for discussion, where everyone’s input in decision-making was much appreciated. A key element of these meetings was remembering to focus on one issue at a time and to not go in tangents, which was very common sometimes due to the diversity of perspectives. Confronting difficulties and keeping the project going required much discipline and commitment. In my opinion, the most important factor that helped me acquire this discipline was the inspiration of my teammates: being waken up by them in the morning, watching them work almost nonstop, sharing lunch while talking about the plans for the rest of the day or even while walking to our next destination, and others. This collaborative environment was then carried on to the conferences, where, while some of us presented, others sat among the audience and gave feedback by raising our hands or discretely sending a small note asking questions or making comments. The few times that we failed to think globally about the project as a group of pieces that can only function as a whole resulted in disorganization, such as the day before the conference in Managua, where half of the group members were waiting for the rest in different places for a couple of hours. We also learned how to make optimum use of whatever resource we had around, from the volunteers that we met at Xela (such as Tanner, who helped us out with solar tech) and our small supply of distilled water to empty plastic bottles used for sample batches of biodiesel.
Amidst all the trouble, we met our objectives. We finally built another biodiesel processor with a methanol recovery system at XelaTeco. We then had the chance to spend some time at Anacafe, a palm oil cooperative in Guatemala, where we experimented with making biodiesel from palm oil, a major crop in Central America, and we walked some coop members through the process of making biodiesel. We also visited Nueva Alianza, an eco-village that was producing biodiesel, but wanted to learn more about quality control mechanisms, so we performed some quality testing on their biodiesel and gave them some pointers to ensure the production of good biodiesel. Likewise, we afterwards shared our knowledge with the staff of SHI, where we left one of the processors that we had built as a gift. In the process of working with these organizations we had the chance to interact with the surrounding communities, sharing our ideas with people at the shops that we went to, with volunteers already working with the organizations, and with groups of visitors. Moreover, we compiled a biodiesel manual (translated to Spanish), the first public biodiesel resource targeted to small-scale producers in Central America.
All of the groundwork in Guatemala was a key preparation for achieving our next objectives: hosting the conference-workshops and forums. Even though we didn’t have much time to practice our speeches, the intense preliminary activities allowed us become experts in the subject and facilitated sharing the information. Our audiences in Santa Barbara and Managua were formed by a diverse group of people--college professors, students, NGO representatives, community leaders, farmers, and carpenters—who were thirsty for learning, as evidenced by inquisitiveness and their attentiveness. The post-conference forums provided the best way to assess our roles during the conferences. In the forums, as the different entities shared the past and current projects that they were engaged in, their successes and hurdles, we became more aware of the type of “help” that was needed in Central America. The conference participants agreed that a combination of funding, education, direct work with communities, and some method of long-term monitoring, are crucial elements in most relief/aid efforts. In the forum, they discovered that many of them were carrying out projects that somehow overlapped or could complement one another (such as micro-financing and community ownership of small-scale jatropha-oil presses). They had a chance to share their contact information, and proposed to start an online biodiesel forum. The conference attendees expressed their surprise and gratitude for our interest in them. They stated that the “young heartfelt foreigners” had inspired them, especially a group of engineering students who after the conference had decided to change the focus of their thesis from devising models for industrial biodiesel production to efficient, small scale biodiesel processors. The committed audience in Nicaragua decided to meet two weeks afterwards to concretize their new knowledge by experimenting together (and thus tackle any problems together) by making some batches of biodiesel, and then building a processor from scratch at SIMAS, so that they could then share the experience with their communities.
In this process of teaching and learning, not only did I expand my biodiesel dictionary, but also my perspectives on volunteer work and Central American life. By participating in WDA´s project, I was not only performing peripheral duties for an organization, but, instead, I was aware of all the background and forefront labor required for the subsistence of the project: from designing and building processors and coordinating conference logistics to visiting more than twenty stores in an attempt to find a balance before 1pm on a Saturday morning. In addition, I acquired crucial public-speaking skills: learning to read the audience and how to incorporate them into the presentations, and devising alternative ways (such as diagrams, worksheets, and analogies) to convey unfamiliar concepts targeted to the audience’s specific needs, such as no previous exposure to basic chemistry. My participation also enabled me to become more exposed to Central American reality, which my upper middle class status has always “cushioned”. I had to ride crowded microbuses to search for specific materials in remote parts of an unknown city, get covered with dust from walking all day looking for processor parts, stay at cheap hotels, eat on the streets, and other activities that the average poor Central American (the vast majority of the population) normally does on a daily basis, but is deemed as highly unsafe in my “stratum”. The lack of supplies also drew us closer Central American reality. We had to improvise a lab in a storage room at Anacafe, with only one light bulb, one hose for water access, recycled glass containers as beakers and other innovations. We had to come up with simple quality testing mechanisms given that no advanced chemical devices, such as a gas chromatograph (recommended by ASTM standards to check biodiesel) were available in Honduras (or access to them was VERY expensive). Through this project, I could cross several cultural barriers. In many situations, such as at Anacafe, I was the only woman working with male companions, a very unlikely sight in Central America, where women are still in the process of emerging from traditional roles as passive beings. I also was part of a group of idealist teenagers trying to teach older, supposedly more “experienced” adults, which is quite rare in Central America.
So far, I have noted many key factors needed for the project’s progress and for future projects in general. First, it is important to agree upon a way for the group members to regularly communicate (via email and messenger for example) and thus avoid unnecessary confusion. Creating a document with the contact information of everyone involved in the project and making sure that everyone has access to it is a valuable undertaking. It is also important to keep a record of everyone’s duties and accomplishments. In addition, it is a good idea to have several back-up plans to try to account for various variables (such as false promises or lack of transportation) that surge. In my opinion, everything should be planned out at least one month ahead to minimize time constraints, lack of equipment, and stress. This was quite difficult in our case since most of the members involved in the project joined only one month before it started and partnership opportunities appeared and disappeared along the way, which gave the project an improvisatory nature. Finally, when traveling to unknown cities, it is helpful to get as much information about them beforehand (maps, means of transportation, bus routes, and means of communication) in order to save time, effort and money upon arriving to our destiny. Besides logistical information, doing some research related to the countries’ historical and economic background would help us adopt a more personal approach towards our targeted audience and our local partners.
Contributing to WDA´s biodiesel project to support self-sustainable communities in Central America has given me an insight into the dynamics of volunteer work and non profit organizations: the obstacles and successes in the path to achieving goals, and the space for improving activities. I had the opportunity to get hands-on experience on biodiesel technology and to face the world, acquiring important life skills such as working in groups, discipline, written and communication skills, and thinking innovatively and practically.