Project Fortaleza’s first community improvement wastewater drainage project was finally completed at the end of October. This project will benefit approximately 150 families, or 600 people, from 6 different streets in the San José Palmas neighborhood. The lack of basic wastewater services is one of the greatest detriments to public health is in slum communities such as Palmas. When a community doesn’t have an integrated sewage system, wastewater is often collected in poorly constructed septic tanks or simply drains onto the ground. When it is not properly disposed of, sewage filters through the groundwater and contaminates the aquifers, which are the primary water source for the local population. This contaminates the environment and causes serious health complications.
Unfortunately, slum residents are often victims of exploitation, which can make it more difficult for them to improve their living conditions. Local leaders or political parties take advantage of the lack of community organization to further their own agendas. In Palmas, several unscrupulous “strongmen” have been profiting from the desperate conditions in their community. These local “bosses” claim to be authorized to provide access to public services such as water, sewer connections or electricity for a fee, when in fact they have been pocketing the money themselves. In this case, one such corrupt community leader was charging neighbors a fee to connect their plumbing to a public wastewater tank, while others charged their own fees for material and labor.
Project Fortaleza‘s process began by helping neighbors in this community to organize into two citizen committees. New, non-partisan leaders emerged from these organizing processes, which allowed the community to bypass the old, corrupt leaders who were extorting them. Through the formation of the committees and their representatives, Project Fortaleza has been able to bring the community together. This wastewater project represents the first time that neighbors have come together without political partisan interests or profit motives. The community pitched in to help fund the project, which ended up costing each family an average of $1,100 pesos each ($84 U.S.) instead of the $5,500 pesos ($420 U.S.) they were being charged before. This represents a total community savings of over $700,000 pesos ($53,500 U.S.) in extortion fees. Project Fortaleza pitched in $15,000 pesos ($1,200 US) to buy the concrete pipe and accompanied the committees through the process. This technical assistance consisted of stepping in occasionally at crucial moments to negotiate agreements and resolve disputes. The entire process has been marked by financial transparency. Once the project was completed, the committee representatives held a general assembly where they invited the entire Palmas community and provided each street with an accounting of the expenditures.