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Protecting the environment with a touch of coraje

By Sandra Milena Guinguer Pineda,
Universidad Nacional, Medellín, Colombia

Oil stains were a kind of emblem on the streets of Corazón de Jesús, a commercial neighborhood near downtown Medellín, Colombia. Sixty-five percent of the businesses there are dedicated to auto maintenance and repair, and periodic oil changes are a big part of every shop’s work.

Local residents liked the convenience of having these services available in a central location, but the oil stains were symptomatic of a problem that was more than aesthetic. The neighborhood’s business owners aren’t prosperous enough to afford technologies that would enable them to work more cleanly. Their workplaces tend to be ramshackle repair shops on tiny plots of land, and they frequently take over portions of public space in order to get things done.

As a result, used motor oil got dumped into street drains that emptied directly into the Medellín River. The oil would clog up the drainage system, create fire hazards because of gases accumulating in the pipes, and ultimately pollute the river, which runs through the city and the 10 municipalities in the Aburrá Valley. Corazón de Jesús produces 1,000 gallons a day of waste oil and gasoline mixed with oil and grease, and 57 percent of it was flowing into the river, according to a study conducted in 2000 and 2001 by the Business Owners Foundation of Corazón de Jesús (Known as “Fundación CORAJE,” or courage, because of its initials in Spanish). The now-defunct Instituto Mi Río (“My River Institute,” a government agency created to clean up the Medellín River, also participated in the study.

Though Medellín does have some systems for collecting, separating and marketing solid wastes, there is still no system for liquid wastes. As society grew more conscious of the urgency of the problem, the local community turned to the Fundación CORAJE, which has more than 15 years of experience spearheading educational and social projects that benefit the businesses and residents of Corazón de Jesus.

Not another drop. “Oil spilled on the streets gave the neighborhood a negative image, making it look dirty and rundown,” remembers Luz Stella Zea, the foundation’s executive director. “Back then we were worrying about pressure from the municipal government, which could have expelled some workers from the area if we hadn’t shown ourselves to be an organized community that was committed to the neighborhood.”

With the residents’ help, the Fundación CORAJE began to analyze the problem in detail. “We didn’t know what the environmental impact was until we started doing some research, and then we realized that aesthetics was the least of our problems,” Zea said.

After completing the study, the foundation designed the Comprehensive Liquid Waste Management program known as MIRL, for its acronym in Spanish, with the slogan “Not another drop of oil spilled.” The program began by purchasing oil drums to collect the oil from some of the neighborhood businesses. But as the oil kept accumulating, it became clear that a proper storage facility and a place to permanently dispose of the waste were going to be necessary for the program to succeed.

Just then, at the end of 2003, Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment, Housing and Land Development issued a decree requiring that anyone who wanted to build and operate hazardous-waste management facilities had to obtain an environmental license. The Fundación CORAJE decided to alter its physical plant in order to become a proper used-oil storage facility. It also reached an agreement with PRENECO Ltda., one of the two companies in Colombia that have the environmental license required for recycling used oil in a nonpolluting manner.

The business owners in Corazón de Jesús responded so enthusiastically to the used-oil collection program that three years later 82 percent of auto maintenance shops have implemented an environmental management policy, according to the foundation. A foundation survey in the first half of 2004 found that 75.9 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are familiar with the project and 80.1 percent think it is very important for the area.

As news about MIRL has spread, the Fundación CORAJE has received requests from outside companies and businesses that want to participate. To date, the foundation has entered into agreements to pick up oil from a number of businesses that produce waste oil, such as the Medellín metro, Almacenes Éxito, gas stations throughout the municipality of Medellín and the Medellín metropolitan area, and even cities as far away as Cartagena.

Used oil pickups are currently carried out by trained workers that collect the oil in drums and take it to the foundation’s headquarters for storage. The drums are subsequently delivered to PRENECO Ltda.’s plant in the municipality of Girardota, also in the Aburrá valley.

Social impact. The MIRL program has also taken on a social function, because the participants receive education and training in safe operating procedures and practices for hazardous wastes. The first to benefit were the residents of Corazón de Jesús, and after that the staff of each of the businesses that have signed agreements for waste oil pickup.

Fundación CORAJE’s liquid-waste management program began as a solution for a local problem, but today its influence is spreading throughout the country. As additional businesses implement similar programs, a citizen culture that understands the importance of safeguarding the environment in sustainable ways is taking root.

Yet despite the program’s environmental, social and cultural advantages, MIRL now faces the kinds of difficulties faced by any business in a competitive environment. The foundation’s agreements to pick up used oil have a maximum duration of three years, and they do not include the payment of fees for the service. (Instead, they are based on reciprocity: the Fundación CORAJE provides training in return for picking up the business’s liquid wastes). This has caused new businesses to spring up that do charge companies from which they collect waste oil, and these are now competing with Fundación CORAJE to provide the service.

Work to be done. For Corazón de Jesús, liquid waste management is just one improvement strategy of the many it must still implement. Despite the gains in used oil collection, not all businesses are practicing comprehensive environmental management, as shown in an April 2004 survey update conducted by the foundation. According to the survey, 55 percent of business owners did not separate their solid waste, and 78.1 percent did not have a solid waste disposal policy in place. Other issues that need to be addressed include the inappropriate use of public space, regularizing informal (“off-the-books”) work, and the persistence of poverty.

Fundación CORAJE is aware of the situation and is preparing a “Partial Urban Renewal Plan for the Corazón de Jesús Neighborhood,” which focuses on reorganizing the area’s land-use. The proposed urban renewal program is one of the lines of action in a broader Development Plan that the foundation is proposing to guarantee that Corazón de Jesús remains an integral part of the Medellín metropolitan area. The MIRL program therefore represents one more step in the cultural transformation of a 3-million-person metropolitan area that is trying to adapt to the needs of today’s world.

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