After spending six months traveling through Mexico and Central America, it appears the only thing most Latin Americans need to know about sustainability is not to follow the white man's lead.
Before the influence of the Western world's technological "advances" and new modern "conveniences" of a disposable culture, life near the equator was quite simple. Living off the land was second nature, and there was no such thing as "trash" and the resultant need for an ever-expanding dump site.
Before, large tropical leaves were used to carry food and were tossed on the ground when their use was complete. Now glittering plastic wrappers in every size and color prey on our preponderance for shiny things. These wrappers have become the "leaves" of a consumer culture, blowing in the wind on the roadside, washing with the rains straight into our precious ocean--only to be gobbled up by hungry fish.
Being two white Westerners, it is kind of ironic that we are promoting ideas and practices that are contrary to the modern, "progressive" society from which we have come. We have had the privilege and perspective to experience the effects of a consumer culture on the planet and humanity. In effect, we are trying to save the world from ourselves--from the poor design of our own civilization.
We decided that we could turn problems into solutions and have fun connecting with locals while doing it. We chose to create projects that promote clean drinking water, decrease human pollution, and reduce plastic waste.
The "Water Bottle Refill Program" was created to reduce the amount of plastic used. Local merchants sell water in bulk from large refillable containers to anyone with their own bottle. It costs less for the consumer, the merchant makes more money, and there is less plastic used. It's a Win-Win-Win.
We also built a Slow Sand Filter and Composting Toilets near selected surf spots. The Slow Sand Filter is a drum full of sand that purifies water for drinking as it trickles through the grains. This cuts out single-use plastic altogether, and the chemicals that leach from the bottles into the water and then our bodies.
The Compost Toilet uses no water, and confines human waste to the same ubiquitous 55-gallon drum. No septic tanks needed, no pollution of the ocean, no cholera in our hospitals. "Waste" becomes a resource, as your sewage becomes soil through the aerobic decomposition of humanure.
Finding motivated people who are willing to change has been the most challenging part. It is true that you can't teach an old dog new tricks--the children are the best candidates for adapting to these new ideas.
Visiting as many local schools as we could, we shared with the kids the children's book All the Way to the Ocean by Joel Harper, a story that explains the hazards of plastic and pollution when it reaches our oceans. We then ran through the streets picking up "jellyfish"; plastic bags.
The truth is, we all have something to learn from each other. There is no right or wrong way to live, and if we find a way that works better we can use it. This sharing of ideas across cultures opens many doors to new opportunities that we can all benefit from.
Editor's Note: Aubrey Falk is a professional surfer, artist, and environmentalist from Carpinteria, CA, who is currently traveling through Central America with her boyfriend and Surfers Without Borders partner, Loren Luyendyk. Surfers Without Borders is a non-profit organization aimed at teaching environmental awareness, reducing ocean pollution, promoting sustainable environments, and fostering positive relationships between surfers and local communities.