By Milagros Salazar
JEPELACIO, Peru, Jul 2 2014 (IPS) – He may look like a rapper, but 33-year-old José Antonio Bardález is the mayor of Jepelacio, in the Peruvian Amazon. His ingenious innovations in the municipality include transforming waste management into a source of income and making spring water a source of drinking water.
“I’m a civil engineer, but people think I’m an environmental engineer,” the mayor told IPS, driving his pickup truck and stopping frequently to greet and joke with local people in the district, located in the department of San Martín, in the country’s northern Amazon region.
The eye-catching blue jerrycans of “Jepe water” are delivered free to schools and to 100 “healthy families” who have kept their houses and surroundings clean and have processed their waste appropriately.
Bardález wears torn denim jeans and dark glasses, and styles his hair with gel. His black pickup, with polarised windows, is part of his image, and he has changed the letters of its brand name around to “Jepe”, the brand of the town’s sustainable products.
Jepelacio, one of the principal districts in Mayobomba province, has over 20,000 people distributed in 70 villages. Most local people make their living from agriculture, mainly coffee growing. The district has lush biodiversity, but also suffers from serious deforestation.
Between 2006 and 2011, deforested areas in San Martín fell to an average of 36 percent, but the level of deforestation in the Gera valley, one of the main basins in Jepelacio, is still 65 percent, according to the Asociación Amazónicos por la Amazonia (AMPA – Amazonians for the Amazon), an NGO.
Half the population lives in poverty, and 26 percent of children under five were chronically malnourished in 2009, according to official figures.
When Bardález became mayor in late 2010, he decided to turn the disadvantages into an opportunity for change. His monthly budget was 93,000 dollars, or about four dollars a head.
He began to mobilise local people to collect garbage to be turned into cheap agricultural fertiliser. Local families keep the streets clean and separate organic from inorganic materials, putting them in plastic buckets, sacks, bags or any other suitable containers.
Small containers of classified rubbish can be seen outside the houses that line the dusty unpaved streets of Jepelacio. These are emptied by municipal personnel and the garbage is processed with the aid of efficient microorganisms, found in yeast mixture, molasses, milk whey or cow rumen.
One litre of this fermentation culture can decompose 100 tonnes of organic material, said the mayor. In five days, the waste material can reach a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius, and the residue is passed through a sieve until the final product is “Jepe fertiliser.” The process lasts a little over two weeks.
Every month the municipal district decomposes 30 tonnes of organic waste, at a cost of 3,500 dollars, which is covered by sales of the fertiliser at 143 dollars a tonne.
In Bardález’s view it is a win-win formula, because building a sanitary infill to dump rubbish would cost nearly one million dollars, equivalent to the municipality’s budget for a whole year and preventing it from undertaking any other works.
“The best thing of all is that the microorganisms do not generate bad odours, there is zero pollution, and people are learning to process waste in order to make an income from fertiliser sales,” he said.
To replicate the project, the municipality is organising a fertiliser mini-plant contest among 10 of its outlying villages. “This means I have gained 10 clean townships,” the mayor said.
In the upper years of the district’s secondary schools, students are being taught how to make the fertiliser as well as the basics of how to run a family business, in order to help improve the management of their family farms.
“This fertiliser has a value. It’s no good giving it away for free, if it costs people nothing they don’t value it,” Bardález said, explaining that some government programmes give sacks of fertiliser to farmers, and instead of using them they sell them on at half price in order to get cash in hand.
“It’s good that they’re making that fertiliser to sell to people more cheaply,” said Martina Díaz Vásquez, a 39-year-old mother of seven. She told IPS that she had come to Jepelacio from Cajamarca at the age of 11.
More than 80 percent of the district’s residents come from other departments, mainly in the Andean region, like Cajamarca and Piura. The challenge is to involve them in a project in an area other than their birthplace, AMPA director Karina Pinasco told IPS.
“It is highly innovative for an authority to transform a problem (like waste) into an opportunity. I have not seen anything like it elsewhere in San Martín,” Pinasco said.
Bardález’s ingenuity has been applied to other municipal projects related to the district’s natural resources.
The mayor saw the potential for making the clear water of a natural spring fit for human consumption, and so solve the problem of diarrhoeal diseases in the district. Now the water is filtered and processed with fine silver rods, which have a powerful bactericidal effect.
For the past two years, residents have been able to buy 20-litre containers of drinking water for less than 50 cents. “It’s good to drink, we don’t have to boil our water any more. We save time and money,” Margarita Delbado, who has three children, told IPS.
At present the eye-catching blue jerrycans of “Jepe water” are delivered free to schools and to 100 “healthy families” who have kept their houses and surroundings clean and have processed their waste appropriately.
In April 2013 the municipality of Jepelacio was recognised by the San Martín departmental government as a key ally in the implementation of a special programme for improving child nutrition.
In December, the Health ministry recognised it as one of the municipalities that has contributed to overcoming social problems that affect people’s health.
In addition to waste management and water treatment, a natural swimming pool has been created under a waterfall on the Rumi Yacu stream. A pool of water was simply dammed up and surrounded with rocks, creating a recreational space for children and their families.
“Innovation can happen in small stages. The next step is to provide more ‘Jepe water’ for the whole district, to improve waste treatment and to keep making progress,” said Bardález, who went into politics because in his technical job he was unable to realise the changes he wanted.
Early in his term of office he asked for a loan to buy heavy machinery. Criticism rained down on him: Why purchase an excavator, a tractor, a bulldozer or a dumpster? people asked.
But these voices faded away when people saw roads being built and stones being moved. Bardález is convinced that it is well worth taking risks. As indeed he has.
This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.