Graduate students work to improve lives in Santo Domingo ‘informal’ settlement

Miles Hutson

Graduate students from UT have established a pilot project for processing organic waste in a poor settlement in the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo, establishing four composting sites.

The community, known as Los Platanitos, has been the subject of Community and Regional Program Coordinator and associate professor Bjørn Sletto’s biyearly course, Latin American Planning Studio, since 2008. Most recently, the program instituted a pilot program for disposing organic waste. If the pilot program is successful, Sletto plans to expand composting and begin work on plastic recycling in 2014.

The course received an EPA award for $15,000 for its work. A new batch of students will return in 2014.

In 2008 the class found that trash was one of the biggest impediments to quality of life. The community, built on top of a thinly covered landfill, disposes its waste by dumping it into ‘la cañada’, a creek that runs through the upper and lower parts of the settlement. However, la cañada has been narrowed as the community developed, and flows at a slow pace. During rains lasting more than an hour, the trash blocks the flow of water through it, causing the houses and narrow alleyways in the lower half of the community to be inundated by contaminated water. Similar communities around Santo Domingo also face problems resulting from improper waste disposal.

Sletto said the long-term strategy is to address solid waste disposal in the community.

To evaluate and solve the community’s biggest problem, Sletto’s class prepared a report on the community’s challenges in 2008, honed in on trash in a report in 2010 and worked on a pilot composting project in 2012.

Solange Munoz, a member of Sletto’s first course in 2008, said to study the community’s problems, students had to foster a relationship.

“You have these so-called experts that go in and say what’s wrong with a community,” Munoz said. “The insight and the experience of these communities is often overlooked and forgotten.”

Munoz said rejecting the top-down model many researchers use turned out to be critical to their approach.

More recent 2012 class member Matthew Clifton agreed and said the community was instrumental in implementing the test composting project. Processed material from the four vermicomposting sites, which use worms to speed up the process, is useful for small gardens scattered across the community. As fertilizer, the material is also a potential source of income for the community. Day-to-day maintenance of the project is overseen by Fundacion Unitaria Los Platanitos, which the group helped connect with a larger NGO in the Dominican Republic. Women in the community, whose social responsibilities include waste management, also help take care of the composing sites.

Clifton said he was happy his class and the community’s knowledge could come together to start solving Los Platanitos’ waste problem.

“Just approaching a situation with just a vague idea of what you’re going to do and realizing you can have a wonderful output was just a lesson for me,” Clifton said. “The community organization can capitalize and serve as a model for other communities.”

Published on March 4, 2013 as "Organic waste project aids Dominican Republic".