Surrendering control, improving outcomes: Learning an engineering of accompaniment

By Riley Mulhern, the technical WASH advisor for a Bolivian NGO and Mennonite Central Committee volunteer addressing issues of contamination and water quality in rural indigenous communities in Oruro, Bolivia. This article was originally published in Engineering for Change on July 23, 2017. 

The meeting was held in the most impressive government building in town, in an upper room looking over the main plaza. Several different government researchers in a row stood and began reciting numbers from their slides packed edge to edge with data. The audience, many rural and indigenous community members and leaders, listened attentively, confused.

The numbers were water quality data from a government inspection of the waters of the Bolivian altiplano, a vulnerable watershed known by the acronym TDPS—Titicaca, Desaguadero, Poopó, and Salar de Coipasa. The watershed is endorheic: a closed system without an outlet to the sea, its high plains cupped like a bowl below the peaks of the East and West Cordilleras of the Andes. At an elevation above 12,000 feet, these mountain plains were once fruitful agricultural lands and productive fisheries. But ongoing drought, centuries of mining, and poor water management have left it dusty and barren. Streams of acidic mining waste crisscross the perimeter. The once vast Lake Poopó has been converted to a few inches of muddy water seeping across an expanse of salt. A water crisis with no end in sight.

Many rural communities in the altiplano have organized and denounced large-scale mining activities for the degradation of their water and fields. Community pressures and concerns for future water security in the region thus motivated the TDPS inspection and the event was held to present initial results to the public. Maps and spreadsheets flew across the screen, the presenters announcing pH, conductivity, turbidity, and dissolved oxygen levels in rapid monotone.

A large part of my job, since moving to Bolivia, has been trying to define what exactly my job is. It became clearer during the question and answer session of the TDPS presentation a few months ago.

“We need clearer explanations!” one frustrated man stood and said into the microphone. “What is pH? We don’t understand this.” Almost simultaneously, a coworker from the small environmental justice NGO I work with turned to me and asked, “What do they mean when they say ‘conductivity’?”

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A local, grassroots environmental advocacy group holds an organizational meeting in the Bolivian altiplano. Photo by Riley Mulhern

My wife and I arrived in Bolivia’s cold and dry high plains with an MBA and an Environmental Engineering Master’s, but without a job description. The idea was to surrender the oft-espoused justifications for international development work based on results and predefined metrics in favor of a posture of accompaniment. Our inspiration drew itself from the liberation theology thinking laid out by Latin American priests Oscar Romero and Gustavo Gutierrez. We set out to prioritize basic proximity and relationships with the poor, without an outside plan; to take a back seat in effecting change, to observe and yield our service to local efforts along the way.

Easier said than done. A stance of accompaniment may seem woefully inefficient to many engineers, even frivolous in its lack of direction. There have been times I have felt so myself, seemingly wasting months at a time by all standards of productivity I have learned, trying to discern how to best be of use. Building meaningful relationships of trust through which change can be creatively and collaboratively built is a task of patience anywhere, let alone across enormous cultural gaps. In attempting to ameliorate situations of pressing poverty and acute suffering, the slow work of relationships may at times seem merely ancillary or altogether unimportant.

But that impulse could not be more wrong. Too many foreigners come to Bolivia with too many ideas for projects to help the water crisis. I’ve seen projects and proposals for rainwater harvesting, reverse osmosis, solar distillation and others.  Their work seems urgent, but they leave the essential reality unchanged. The poor don’t just want someone to come drop off a piece of hardware. They want someone who comes as their friend, who asks what they are doing to improve their lives and the lives of their children, and who will walk with them in that work. The campesinos in the TDPS meeting would tell you that they are working to organize and make their voice heard. They’d say that they are not satisfied with the government’s half-hearted inspections and reports. They are moving the agenda of their local leaders for more just water services and environmental controls. As Father Gutierrez writes, “There is no true commitment to solidarity with the poor if one sees them merely as people passively waiting for help.”[i]

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A community installs gutters for a rainwater harvesting project. Photo by Riley Mulhern

The problem remains not in the lack of foreign projects, but in the gaps in local agency seen at the TDPS inspection event. How can these communities become fully engaged and capable owners of their own water resources if “pH” remains coded knowledge belonging solely to the government and foreign engineers? A recently published study looked at 13 communities in an active mining region of the altiplano and found that almost all were characterized by “a perception that they and/or their livestock have suffered ill health due to water contamination.” Yet they had little to no education or training on water issues and no autonomy in decision making despite some level of local social organization.[ii] In this context, rainwater tanks, although not unhelpful, still hang like black, plastic ornaments on the status quo as long as Bolivians are merely manpower for foreign ideas and not owners of the processes of change.

On a recent visit to a remote agricultural cooperative, I was handed a brochure that proudly read: Dueños de nuestro propio desarrollo. Owners of our own development. I was struck by the slogan since it is so rarely so. Too often, the poor lack freedoms even in the processes meant to improve their lives. When engineers and technical experts are expected to design, fix, and solve, to take care of the issue from a distance, not enter into it, it is too easy to monopolize and justify foreign or expert ownership. But the end doesn’t always justify the means in development. Even the smallest locally owned steps of change are better than sweeping efforts that neglect these freedoms. Engineers need to learn to accompany change, not control it. The question is how.

My coworkers and the communities we work with would say that the answer lies in helping people understand what pH and electrical conductivity mean, why dissolved oxygen is important and reported as a percentage, and the risks of fecal coliforms or heavy metals in drinking water. That is, whatever the field—earthquake-resistant building design or the principles of latrine construction, website development or data management, micro-irrigation or urban gardening—the answer should inherently include a transfer of knowledge. Knowledge enables the poor to enter the privileged spaces of decision makers with power in their hands.

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A dust storm rises over the altiplano. Photo by Riley Mulhern

This is more than “teaching a man to fish,” which still smacks of an outside savior parachuting in with a new idea. The Bolivian director of a local environmental advocacy network that we work with put it this way: “We need alternatives: proposals that emerge from the communities themselves. Someone from the outside can come and say, ‘Do this,’ but it will never happen.” Refocusing on knowledge transfer is not a license to define what knowledge needs to be transferred. Rather, what we may call an “engineering of accompaniment,” waits to understand where the gaps in agency are and collaboratively define what knowledge is required.

The longer I simply accompany this water crisis and the efforts to address it, the more I find I am asked to lead training sessions on water quality and treatment for groups of students or organizations. Despite often feeling deeply inadequate to receive these requests, I have come to realize that they reveal the self-defined needs of the people around me. Thus, my job description has slowly come into focus: to help Bolivian men and women tighten their own grip on change.

Those of us who are drawn to engineering as a response to poverty generally want to be doers, not teachers. The emerging field of “engineering for developing communities” attracts more and more eager, concerned engineering students every year. Many of them want to be the ones to design new technologies for the developing world, or build houses, hospitals or water systems. But such attention to the problems of poverty without the involvement of the poor is precisely what lures us into accumulating ownership and control. We must disabuse ourselves of this sense of ownership and reach toward accompaniment if we are to dig in to where change really occurs, where people are owners of their own development and our projects do not simply decorate the underlying injustices.

A good place to start is in the preposition. We should not aspire to engineer anything for anyone in communities confronting poverty. We need to think of our work as “with.” We need to start thinking of development work in terms of education, training, and knowledge transfer through basic relationships with the poor. Alongside literacy in their technical area, engineers ought to go into the field equipped with the skills of effective communication, participatory methods, and critical pedagogy. Our goals and metrics for success should prioritize the fullness of this transfer of knowledge—and thus transfer of power—over and above the completion of individual projects.

As any educator will also tell you, this is not a light or romantic undertaking. The work of education is often a slow, weary, anxious trudge and requires longstanding commitments to individual people. But accompaniment, walking with, is not to parachute in with quick fixes. It is, in the words of Wendell Berry, to “go down and down into the daunting, humbling, almost hopeless local presence of the problem—to face the great problem one small life at a time.”[iii]

Then, once we are down there a while and the problems are no longer faceless, we realize it is never truly hopeless and that work is being done; that there are coals and a bellows.

[i] Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 2013. “The Option for the Poor Arises from Faith in Christ.” In Michael Griffin & Jennie Weiss Block (Eds.), In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez. New York: Orbis Books.

[ii] French, Megan et al. 2017. “Community Exposure and Vulnerability to Water Quality and Availability : A Case Study in the Mining-Affected Pazña Municipality , Lake Poopó Basin , Bolivian Altiplano.” Environmental Management: 1–18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00267-017-0893-5.

[iii] Berry, Wendell. 1993. “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse.” Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. New York: Pantheon Books.

 

Donuts and mining: Canadian elections, trade and foreign policy

This week’s guest writer is Anna Vogt, MCC advocacy and policy analyst for the Latin America Caribbean region. She lives in Bogota, Colombia and is from Canada’s Yukon territory. This piece originally appeared on MCC’s Latin America Advocacy Blog.

I was in a grocery store in a small Colombian city the other day, hoping against hoping to find the elusive holy grail of imports: cheddar cheese. While I did not find any cheese, what I did come across was even more unlikely. There, in the middle of the bakery section, were stacks of boxed donuts, each one adorned with a maple leaf sticker proudly proclaiming the contents a Product of Canada.

Just like those donuts, we may not often expect to find Canada in Latin America, yet the longer I live in Latin America, the more I learn of Canadian presence in the region.

The Marlin Mine,  San Marcos, Guatemala.  Photo by Anna Vogt

The Marlin Mine, San Marcos, Guatemala. Photo by Anna Vogt

We are currently in the midst of an election campaign in Canada, but within all the rhetoric, there is not a lot of honest analysis about our policies outside of Canadian borders, especially in the Americas. Part of what it means to be part of an active citizenship, however, is being aware not only how Canada’s policies impact Canadians, but how our policies also impact those living in other parts of the world, such as Latin America.  What Canada does as a country in the rest of the world shapes who we are as Canadians? Elections are a strategic time to think critically about connections and possibilities.

The current government has three goals for its engagement in the American Hemisphere, first outlined in 2007 under the title The Americas: Our Neighbours, Our Priority:

  • Increasing Canadian and hemispheric economic opportunity;
  • Addressing insecurity and advancing freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law; and
  • Fostering lasting relationships.

In practice, these goals have been highly focused on trade and economic policy in the region, implemented through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Currently, Canada has Free Trade Agreements with seven countries in Latin America (Honduras, Colombia, Panamá, Perú, Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico) and is in negotiations for five more (Caribbean community, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic).

Guatemalan community displaced to build the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Guatemalan community displaced to build the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Trade can have a positive impact on a society, but if precautions are not taken, engaging in trade with few regulations in countries of conflict or with high levels of human rights violations can increase harm and cause negative social impacts. In the majority of Canadian FTA negotiations, local civil society has spoken out against the agreement because of fear of worsening conditions. Colombia, for example, is the most dangerous country in the world to be a union leader. Civil society worries that the current FTA, which does not adequately monitor its impact on human rights, provides implicit approval for impunity. Also in Colombia, the FTA has opened the doors for assault weapons export–weapons currently banned in Canada–to Colombia, a country that already has over six million internally displaced people because of violence.

Many of our FTAs facilitate Canadian company access to extractive sectors in Latin American countries. These corporations are viewed as the most important actors in generating economic growth, yet there is a concerning lack of accountability, amid accusations of human rights violations and irreparable environmental destruction. Currently, Canadian companies are only responsible for upholding voluntary corporate social responsibility standards. As a recent Globe and Mail article states “Canada is host to 75 per cent of the world’s largest exploration and mining companies, as well as more than 100 medium– to large-sized oil and gas companies, many of which operate in developing countries. Major and minor players in Canada’s extractive industry have been the subject of serious allegations of complicity in grave human rights abuses.”

Small farm near the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

Small farm near the Marlin Mine. Photo by Anna Vogt.

The Marlin Mine in Guatemala, owned by the Canadian company GoldCorp, is one of the most emblematic for concerns raised about human rights violations, environmental degradation and lack of prior consultation, but it is not unique. In Honduras, for example, Canadian mining has displaced Indigenous groups and contributed to violence, after an FTA was signed after a military-backed coup in 2009.

In fact, laws and regulations currently in place favour the activities of Canadian companies abroad above all other considerations.  A report entitled The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s Responsibility, outlines how Canadian companies are taking advantage of, and actively encouraging, weak legal frameworks around extraction in multiple Latin American countries.

It is important to keep in mind that previous governments, from other political parties, have also encouraged similar policies in the past, especially where extractive industries and free trade are concerned. We must hold all parties and candidates to account on these issues.

Let’s make sure, therefore, to ask questions to all parties about their foreign policy platforms when in office, including questions about economic policies. Is trade conditional on human rights standards being met by local governments, or does Canada engage in trade under any condition? How will different parties regulate Canadian companies working abroad accountable to respect human rights and uphold environmental protections?

As a Canadian living in Latin America, I would like Canada to be more known in the region for its donuts than for harmful foreign policy. Sadly, this has not been the case so far, but elections are a great opportunity to raise critical questions and demand change.

Centre for excellence?

ImageLast fall MCC Canada wrapped up our Mining Justice Campaign. Last month I resigned from the Executive Committee of the Centre for Excellence in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). These two actions were not related.

It’s true that MCC will not be able to devote as much attention to mining issues as we have over the past three years. However, given the global impact of Canadian mining companies—and the priority the Government of Canada has given this sector in its approach to foreign policy—our work for mining justice will continue.

The Centre for Excellence in CSR would seem to be a valuable tool for this work. Hosted by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM), the Centre aims to offer a forum where the extractive industry, government, and civil society can obtain timely access to high-quality CSR information and, in so doing, raise the bar for excellence in CSR-related practices.

Why then am I leaving it behind? As noted in a public statement released by a network of civil society organizations on February 14:

For the past three years several member organizations of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) have participated in the Executive Committee of the Centre for Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). These organizations were the United Steelworkers, MiningWatch Canada, Mennonite Central Committee Canada, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives and Amnesty International Canada.

In the last few weeks each of those organizations has ended their participation in the Centre. The Government of Canada’s termination of funding for the Centre at the end of March 2012 was a major factor in the decision of each organization to leave.

The Centre for Excellence was established as part of the Government of Canada’s “Building the Canadian Advantage” CSR strategy launched in 2009. Despite serious concerns about that strategy, several members of civil society decided to participate in the Centre for Excellence because we believed that the multi-stakeholder dialogue space might provide an important opportunity to move forward the debate on human rights and business in the extractive sector and to improve the practise of Canadian extractive companies.

The CNCA members previously involved in the Centre for Excellence remain committed to multi-stakeholder dialogue, and are receptive to other avenues that may provide for a more solid platform than that offered by the unfunded Centre for Excellence.

In short, this particular Centre for Excellence has failed to live up to its promise. Given that the mandate of the Ottawa Office is to relate to the federal government, our participation doesn’t make much sense if the government is not at the table in a meaningful way.

IMG_0410This is not to diminish the significance of opportunities to engage with mining industry representatives. And it is not to diminish the good intentions of government observers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canadian International Development Agency, and Natural Resources Canada. Indeed, I wish those intending to continue with this effort well.

I should also be clear that I find this outcome quite disappointing on a personal level. After all, I didn’t attend a dozen Executive Committee meetings and help plan a couple of workshops over the past few years for no reason.

I remain convinced that real progress can be made when the concerns of all stakeholders are considered.

I remain convinced that we should welcome opportunities to talk with the people we disagree with.

And I earnestly hope that the communities MCC and our coalition partners work with will one day associate the word “excellence” with Canadian mining companies. But that will require a long term commitment, not just a name.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

 

Being salt and light: advocacy with those risking their lives for peace

Adapted from Bonnie Klassen’s presentation to MCC Canada.

Will we be ready? Ready to back our sisters and brothers in Colombia as they lay their lives on the line for peace, justice and reconciliation?

Last Friday – the International Day of Peace – Anabaptist churches across Colombia gathered in public places to celebrate the annual Bread and Peace Campaign. Sharing both bread and their daily commitment to nonviolence, they sang and spoke in public, thus demonstrating the every-day implications of peace-building in contexts of violence and hunger.

This yearly campaign began in 2002 when the United Nations asked the Colombian Mennonite Church to lead a public celebration for the new International Day for Ceasefire and Nonviolence. The Church had already gained recognition for her commitment to nonviolence through campaigns for including conscientious objection to obligatory military service in the 1991 Constitution.

This was a time when the government was pressuring all Colombians to become active collaborators of the State Armed Forces, and those who refused were labeled traitors and guerrilla supporters. All three Anabaptist denominations in Colombia – Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite, and Brethren in Christ – felt significant pressures, and decided to make visible their position for nonviolence by publishing a bold statement in the national newspaper. They declared that

as followers of Christ … we affirm our biblical and historical commitment to walk the path of peace, nonviolence…. We refuse to participate in any armed group, and we refuse to pay so that others do so on our behalf….

They went on to declare that seeking peace with justice involved “conversations and actions with whomever is willing to consider non-violent, negotiated solutions,” thus rejecting the Government’s framing of who is friend and who is traitor. Indeed, they called on “the government, the armed groups and the media to give up their war like attitudes and begin genuine peace talks with real concessions towards the building of a new country…”

This and other public statements have played a fundamental role in protecting the lives of Anabaptist church leaders in Colombia.

Pastor Rutilio

For example, when heavily armed paramilitary groups pressured the Mennonite Brethren churches in Chocó to pay them a “war contribution” from the community rice-processing plant the church administered, church president Rutilio Rivas responded firmly:

“Mennonite churches have been committed to nonviolence and peace-building for centuries.  We will not support any armed groups, not even the State Armed Forces.… We will not support you, even if it costs us our lives.”

Surprised by this boldness, and aware that Mennonites in Colombia have held this position throughout time, the paramilitary commander promised to respect this position.

These church-based advocacy actions and positions arise out of years of prayer and discernment.

In the early 2000s, an increasing number of partners told MCC that advocacy work was a priority for them. As churches became increasingly involved in providing humanitarian assistance and accompaniment to internally displaced people (IDP), leaders began to realise that offering food baskets was not enough. With 5 million IPDs, Colombia desperately needed policies and practice that put an end to the blood-shedding.

Growing rice, not coca

Local churches have also become increasingly involved in community food security projects whose explicit purpose is to help families overcome hunger along with helping communities stop growing illicit crops used for cocaine. Yet these attempts at creating alternatives become almost impossible when the small-scale producers have to compete with highly-subsidized, imported products, or when the land and water they have to cultivate is contaminated by the ever-expanding mining business in Colombia.

Again, their “life projects” hit up against the wall of policies: Free Trade Agreements, the government’s focus on attracting foreign mining companies at all cost, and more. Thus, Mennonite churches find themselves forced to take positions in response to public policy.

Indeed, in 2006 80% of Anabaptist church leaders surveyed asked MCC to support their churches in advocacy work.

Subsequently, MCC organized two National Anabaptist Encounters on Advocacy, with around 50 church leaders from the three denominations participating each time. The participants affirmed three main conclusions:

  1. The church is called to impact society…. Simply affirming God’s Kingship has profound political implications.
  2. The churches’ advocacy comes of out radical obedience to Jesus,… not a political agenda. 
  3. Advocacy is inseparable from the churches’ actions to alleviate human suffering, to develop sustainable communities and to build peace.

Participants also located themselves in the following options for engagement in social-economic-political realities – where they thought the church could and should be involved:

The vast majority of Anabaptist church leaders stood in the outer-most circle, meaning that they believe all four levels of engagement and risk are important.

Last week MCC Colombia’s partners again highlighted the need for advocacy.  Responding to MCC’s strategic plan towards the future, they said very clearly:

“We don’t want a relationship with MCC that only revolves around money.  We want to know that when we take risks in advocating for life, for peace and for dignity, MCC and the Anabaptist churches in the North will back us.  We want your political support.” 

They believe that this kind of theological and political backing will not cost MCC much at all.  However, lack of our support can cost them everything, for they have experienced how the voices of North American churches can make a difference.

In 1997, the Colombia Mennonite Biblical Seminary was being threatened with closure due to its program of Peace studies that allowed many students to declare themselves as conscientious objectors to military service. North American churches sent hundreds of letters to top government authorities. The Seminary remained open.

And then in 2004, Colombian Mennonite church leader and human rights lawyer, Ricardo Esquivia was being threatened with detainment on serious but false charges. Again, the international Christian community responded with a thousand faxes and letters sent to the Colombia government. Then, when country’s Vice President called Ricardo in for a conversation, he greeted Ricardo with a huge stack of letters and the words “Mr. Esquivia, you have A LOT of friends.” Ricardo was not detained or imprisoned.

Colombia is at historical cross-roads right now, with possibilities for new peace dialogues, under the best conditions seen in decades for reaching a peace agreement. At the same time, there are profound obstacles, and there are also significant enemies of the peace process.

The Anabaptist churches in Colombia will lay their lives on the line for peace, justice and reconciliation.  When they ask for MCC’s support – when they ask the Anabaptist churches in Canada and the U.S. to weigh in with their voices – will we be ready?

Are we ready for full partnership?

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  — Jesus

By Bonnie Klassen, MCC Area Director for Latin America. Adapted from her presentation to MCC Canada’s annual delegate assembly and board meeting.

Generating prosperity or conflict?: Mining in Latin America

Over the summer we are occasionally re-posting material from MCC colleagues and partner organizations. Here’s one from the MCC Latin America Advocacy Blog.

Latin American Advocacy Blog

By Adrienne Wiebe, MCC Latin America Policy Analyst

Last week five indigenous people died in conflicts related to foreign mining operations in Latin America. One died in a protest in Bolivia related to a Canadian silver mine and four died in Peru in a protest against an American gold mine. Many more people were injured and some were detained by government security forces in these clashes.

Conflicts from Mexico to Argentina

There are currently 160 mining-related conflicts in Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, according to the Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de America Latina (Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America).

Canadian companies alone have been and continue to be involved in 85 socio-environmental conflicts in Latin America, according the McGill University Research Group Investigating Canadian Mining in Latin America, which maintains an interactive map documenting these conflicts.

Foreign companies are rarely directly involved in the abuses and the…

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