Search OCA:
Get Local!

Find Local News, Events & Green Businesses on OCA's State Pages:

OCA News Sections

Organic Consumers Association

Via Organica Participates in Sustainability Workshops

  • By Doug Weatherbee
    Center for Appropriate Technology and Indigenous Sustainability, Posted May 5, 2011
    Straight to the Source

"To a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail."

In many development aid projects around the world, not-for-profits (NFPs) are doing valuable work solving problems for communities and regions.  Many of us who have done some sort of development aid work come to these communities with the NFP's focus area (for example, clean drinking water, sanitation, or agricultural projects) and a set of NFP aid workers who are trained in the NFP focus area. However, when we land on the ground, in real communities and regions, the problems don't necessarily stay contained within the narrow box of the NFP's focus or the expertise of it's workers.  "The real world of people living, eating and growing food, having shelters, dealing with sanitation, having clean drinking water, staying warm or cool, creating families and communities, all of this is a rich mixture, and its problems and solutions don't often fit into tiny neat boxes," says Jim Hallock, of Tierra Y Cal, who has experience building sustainable shettlers in Haiti, South and Central America, and Africa. "When I show up in Haiti to help build a school or a clinic I'm asked about how to grow a food garden or deal with drinking water contamination."

The conundrum so often experienced is that NFP workers are unprepared to deal with aspects of the larger community or regional problems outside the scope of their skills or the not-for-profit's focus.  Sometimes aid workers need a screwdriver, and all they have is a hammer.

It was a little over a year and half ago when a diverse group of people working in development aid, each with expertise in a varied set of skill from sustainable building, energy, water and agriculture, met in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  They came in part because some had experienced their limitations in development aid work just as Jim Hallock expressed. They came to talk about what each was doing and about collaboration.  What they discovered was that their whole was emerging into something that was greater than each of their individual parts.  They found that the "waste" from one person's work was often a very useful input or resource for someone else's. Take Dr. Robert Marquez for instance, a clay chemist and inventor, whose MK Kiln is transforming the unsustainable traditional firing method of clay bricks into a more profitable, fuel efficient, less atmospherically polluting activity.  "The 'waste' heat from the MK Kilns can be channeled into systems designed to harvest thermal energy and convert it to electricity, used locally within the brick makers' communities or fed and sold back into the grid," Dr. Marquez explains.  

"The heat, further 'degraded' to lower temperatures after electrical generation, could now be fed into farmers' greenhouses, potentially expanding their growing season into the colder winter months," added Doug Weatherbee, of, who works with regenerative microbiology farming techniques.  In an ecological system, there is no waste.  The product of one process is the input of energy and materials for another, and so on.

The group recognized the potential to solve a major problem in development aid work.  Compartmentalization-silos of specialized skills and knowledge and experts that don't have ways to learn from one another and work collaboratively in development aid projects that require expertise in a wide variety of areas.  From this discussion and realization arose the Center for Appropriate Technologies and Indigenous Sustainability (CATIS).  CATIS is an organization that sees collaboration and sustainability as its focus; collaboration between experts in sustainable building, sanitation, agroecology, water, and energy; collaboration between the skills of aid workers and local people and organizations; identifying and promoting sustainable solutions that make sense, whether they are local or "from away."  

CATIS has a education and research Institute near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico called CATIS-Mexico.  This June several members of the CATIS team are teaching a wide range of sustainable building and agroecology workshops. "Building Systems for the Developing World" is a series of workshops will provide attendees with a deep understanding of sustainable earth block buildings and construction, from foundation to roof top.  The "Argo-ecology for the Developing World" series will provide attendees with a holistic set of regenerative agricultural skills for farming and ranching.  The two series are being held simultaneously over four weeks beginning June 6, 2011.  "The goal of having 4 weeks of two streams of building and agroecology workshops is two create collaborative dialogs between the all the instructors and students in both streams," states Jeff Rottler, CATIS Instructor of Sustainable Building techniques.  "Folks within either stream will be taught some incredible skills in sustainable aid work," says Biointensive Gardening instructor Jennifer Ungemach, of Via Organica.  "And, they'll be introduced to the other learning stream through evening presentations and onsite discussions throughout the weeks."  CATIS-Mexico is building a educational environment that is addressing the problem of compartmentalized knowledge in development work.

Attendees of the workshops can camp onsite at the CATIS-Mexico Institute which is a few minutes outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico or in nearby San Miguel de Allende.   San Miguel is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, a stunningly beautiful 400 year old Spanish colonial town, and a world renowned expat artist colony that is emerging as a center for sustainability in Mexico.

Please go to for more information and details on registration.

For more information on this topic or related issues you can search the thousands of archived articles on the OCA website using keywords: