Our First Minga

As I mentioned last week, on Saturday we participated in a minga to clean up the local river which has, for the past 3 years, served as a dumping ground for thousands of plastic bottles. A longstanding Andean tradition, mingas began as a way to clear a farmer’s fields; since the job could not be undertaken by a single family, the entire community would come together and help clear and harvest different fields each week. The practice of mingas continues today, albeit with less frequency. Luke, who has been working within the community to identify areas where mingas could respond to a need, collaborated with a number of women living in San Francisco and Tena to organize this weekend’s project.

5:45am on Saturday found team Ecuador stumbling around our kitchen trying to find coffee and scramble eggs with our eyes half closed, laughing at how out of it everyone is before 8am, our usual kitchen meeting time. After dangerously passing 2 ladders from the roof down the front of our house by hanging out the second story windows and hoping they didn’t drop on the faces of those waiting to receive them on the front patio, we all piled into what was quite possibly the most beat up Mazda truck I have ever seen and headed over to the river.

(the Mazda, held together by scrap metal and reggaton beats)

Upon splitting into two teams, the ‘river people’ and the ‘cleaning people’, we got down to work. Serena, Luke, and I started out in the river with 5 Ecuadorians, all decked out in rainboots and rubber gloves, looking hesitantly at the enormous pile of bottles, while Seth, Jocelyn, Eliah and Dunc headed down to the ‘cleaning station’ at Aliñambi, which consisted of wash tubs and a cement patio to crush the bottles. Craig was our 'go between' guy, hauling the bags from the river down to the recycling center, and Mark set about constructing “NO Bota Basura!” signs to put at different points along the river's path.

(Serena and I with our first trash bag of the day)

Starting at 7:30am, we worked straight to 1:30pm, at which time we were all a little woozy from the amount of trash and fumes from the discarded paint cans, gasoline bottles, and fermenting plastic. Serena, Paulo (a community member who spent much of the time in the river balanced on one of the ladders pushing the bottles away from the deep middle) and I all ended up falling into the river at some point, filling our boots with sludge and soaking our jeans in awful ways. Despite having filled up 49 industrial sized trash bags, we were barely half way through the bottles, and the executive decision to split the minga into two days was made by Christina after we realized we had already overflowed the recycling center’s capacity for bottles 3 times over.

(Jocelyn, Eliah, Dunc and Seth handwashing each of the plastic bottles)

Overall, it was a day filled with sweat, trash, bilingual conversations, horrible smells, frustration, and laughter. It was hard to spend the entire morning waist deep in trash, thinking not only about the work of cleaning it up, but also the feasibility of changing the mentality that turned the river into a trash pit. But none of us came down to Ecuador with the intention of avoiding encounters with the difficult, rather we came to dive into the thick of it. This weekend was a study in that dive; and while we may have bellyflopped a few times, it’s good to be in the deep water together, even if that water is a contaminated river...