Searching for Sustainability:
Habitat for Humanity in
Baja California, Mexico (transcript online below)

22 Minute VHS Video, $15.

Skip Fralick, a solar engineer and long-time worker for Habitat for Humanity, takes us to Tecate, Mexico to visit 40 homes built by local people with the help of Habitat for Humanity and the Mexican government.

But this successful project raised many challenging questions about sustainable building and living, and community development on both sides of the border that led Skip to develop a new vision for such projects which he calls WeCan University.

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Online Transcript:

Earth Day in San Diego. A wonderful and wacky blend of concern for the earth, making a dollar, and having a good time. It’s a good symbol, too, of American ingenuity and generosity.

But what happens when this kind of enthusiasm travels just a few miles south across the border into Mexico, and tried to do something about the poverty it finds there? To find out we talked with Skip Fralich, a solar engineer and long-time worker for Habitat for Humanity.

Skip: I’m Skip Fralich and we are at Tecate, Mexico on the border of the U.S. and Baja California, Mexico. This is a site where we’ve got 40 Habitat for Humanity families. The project started about 4 years ago in partnership with the Mexican government and Habitat for Humanity. This all started with a gesture from a Canadian person who had some lumber he wanted to donate for homes, and arranged to have it shipped here to build these 40 homes.

Habitat for Humanity and the Mexican branch of the government called Immobiliaria planned this project together and it was intended to be roughly a 50-50 partnership financially. Immobiliaria would provide the land, site preparations, and the utilities: electricity, water and sewer, and Habitat would provide the volunteers and the materials for the home building, along with the families, themselves.

Habitat for Humanity provided Immobiliaria with criteria for family selection along the lines we used in the United States and in other countries of the world, and Immobiliaria then selected the families. At the beginning it was designed so that nobody would know which lot was theirs so that everybody would be working together, helping each other out, build all the lots up equally – 40 lots total – and then at some point when the house was habitable, then there would be a lottery and the families would get a house based on that, then move in and do the interior work. The families were contracted. They would each sign an agreement to put in 750 hours of time, and they would pay $3,500 equivalent U.S. money to Immobiliaria for the land and the utilities, and $3,500 for the house. That $3,500 for the house would go to the Immobiliaria, but it would then be redistributed once they formed a Habitat chapter here locally, and it would go back to the Habitat chapter for building more homes. The families are paying roughly about $100 a month to pay off their debt with zero interest and zero profit over roughly a 5-year period.

Jim: The fundamental goal was reached: 40 families now live in their own homes, which is something that might have been difficult or impossible to achieve without this partnership between Habitat and the Mexican government. We talked to some of these families about how their lives had changed.

Man: Before living here I lived in Colonia Militar for 20 years and paid rent. When we started there were about 80 families, and from the 80 families only half would get houses. There were many families and few houses. When we started to work, those who stayed were really interested in a house. Many said, "A lot of time working and only a few houses," and they kept leaving until we were left with a group now living in the 40 houses. We had the idea we wanted to build the very best we could so that our house, no matter which one, would have no defects.

Lady: We lived in the dining room of a factory for 9 years, 5 children and 2 adults. My husband was a night watchman and also a factory worker.

Question: How did you feel when you got your house?

Lady: I felt freed and very good because this was going to be my own house.

Man: I felt very good, and it is very different from when I was paying rent. There were a lot of problems. It is very pleasant and quiet here.

Man: The problems came from the conditions created by the landlords. The service was very bad, and the rent was high. This house is the result of our labor. To have our own place is worth the sacrifice we made.

Woman: We plastered, we did the electricity, the bathroom, the plumbing, we made the floors, all this. We stuccoed the houses, painted, everything.

Question: Did you like it?

Woman: Yes, I liked it. It makes it more valuable.

Jim: Even now Habitat continues to work in Tecate in partnership with various American community and church groups.

Tell us your name and how old you are.

Girl: My name is Jule and I’m turning 16 today.

Jim: Great. Happy birthday.

Girl: Thank you.

Jim: Where are you from?

Girl: I’m from San Marino, California.

Jim: What are you doing here?

Girl: We are building a soccer field, like basketball court for the kids here, and right now we’re building a porch for this building.

Jim: Why did you come down here instead of just taking the week-end off?

Girl: I’m with my church, and we just came down to learn about God and to help the people more.

Jim: But with every project like this there comes a time for assessment, an assessment that can help future projects to be even more successful.

Skip: In retrospect in terms of sustainability there are some things that I would do differently, and hopefully we learned these lessons and will incorporate them into future activities. Number 1, the offer of the lumber donated from Canada was almost felt too good to be true. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. All we had to pay was customs and shipping, but that turned out to be a fair amount, and then there were delays in the Mexican customs getting the lumber approved to go across the border, and then there were the standard philosophical issue of Habitat for Humanity. Normally its policy is to use indigenous materials, and the lumber isn’t indigenous to this area, so people are not used to working with it. It is a fire risk, and so we had to do some extra costs to protect the homes from fire because fire response is very slow out here. Another environmental problem that emerged here is in regards to the sewage treatment system. The partnership with Immobiliaria was very well-intended, and I think it is still a good possibility, but there is some things that were not addressed as well as they could have been here. For one, the site selection. I don’t know if there was adequate engineering. Obviously there wasn’t as far as the water table here. During construction it was apparent that we are sitting on a high water table, the water table coming to within a foot of the surface during the high water seasons. The Immobiliaria’s plans to put in individual septic tanks that would percolate would not be adequate. It wouldn’t drain during the high water season.

The Jimmy Carter project in Tijuana in the summer of 1990 was quite amazing as phenomenally 100 homes were built, 80% complete in 5 days, and some interesting problems and situations developed there. I think, number one, the idea was benevolent to build 100 homes, but in a way paternalistic. We tend to move in and try to do grandiose things and do them fast in a Type A construction manner, where in the long run I think it is important to have a lot more careful planning, family selection, a family acculturation to the concept before you launch into the construction project. In the Jimmy Carter project we had over 1,000 volunteers in pitched tents, Jimmy and Rosalind Carter along with them for a week on a hillside, and it was quite exciting, very emotional, everybody worked hard, it was spiritually rewarding, the families were selected kind of late in the process, and some of them were even selected during the process of the construction blitz. They were given homes, told to go join the American volunteers, and build their home. They, of course, did that. In the aftermath there were some issues that were confusing among the families and caused some animosity among parts of the community. Sometimes they didn’t understand that this was their home. They sometimes saw Habitat for Humanity as a deep-pocket construction company, so some families did not make their payments which is important to the Habitat formula, and other families became bitter because they were making their payments, and they didn’t feel the ones who didn’t pay should be allowed to do that.

Jim: Diana Moyers, a student of the U.S. International University, devoted many hours to working as a volunteer with the community.

Diana: Until you build relationships with people you can’t expect them to become committed to you and the projects that you think are good for them. You need to have them be part of the planning process. You need to find out what their goals are, and if your goals are different because of maybe a different knowledge that you have, then you need to either educate them and work with them, or you need to go with what they want to do because who are we from our country and what we know works in our country to come and tell someone else in a different country how they should do things? That was my main point. I wanted the community to become part of the planning process because if they were to become part of the planning process, they would also become part of the doing process, and then in the end, the end result would be theirs.

Jim: Out of the problem of the high water table, Skip has developed an innovative and inexpensive wetlands water treatment that could find wider applications.

Skip: The entire sewage treatment system here consists of a collection system with 40 homes feeding a three compartment 15,000 gallon septic tank. The liquid from that enters this plastic-lined gravel filter bed, which is the constructed wetlands portion. It takes about a week to flow through. The bulrushes and cattails are helping to filter and bring oxygen down for aerobic digestion, and what comes out at the end of that process is comparable to secondary treated water in the U.S. with much more expensive plants.

That water can then be percolated into the ground, or, as we are trying to do here, reclaiming it for irrigating fruit trees now and a whole park later.

Jim: And he has helped form WeCan University to address the issues of more sustainable building and more community involvement.

Skip: The lesson from this, where do we go with the next project?, is to do a WeCan University, eco-university, where everybody plans a project together, including the families who will live in it, and they take a life and a responsibility and an ownership of that project.

We formed WeCan, which is World Eco Community Action Network, and we use the acronym WeCan for empowerment. That was formed primarily to help out with those goals, and its job is to combine the talents of the academic universities and organizations, whether government or non-government, and volunteer organizations like Habitat for Humanity, and bring them together in a synergistic way. We have forums for experts providing their help, and volunteers learning through experiential learning by getting their hands on, and coming out and working with the people, not only learning the technology, but learning the culture and reaching out.

I think the main lesson I learned was that the selection and education process is as important, if not more important, than the building process, itself. As we did in Tijuana, you can go build blitz homes and build them quickly and you’ll have structures and that’s all, no spirit, and no sense of ownership by the occupants. However, as we have learned a bit by the Tecate project, we hope to encompass in the WeCan University philosophy, the families have to be involved in the process as if they were owner-builders, and they are designing their homes with experts helping them, and they are learning technologies to help their community succeed.

Jim: A more ecologically sane and sustainable way of living is not just for the less developed nations of the world, but for all of us. Back at Earth Day Skip summed up the direction we need to go in.

Skip: Americans tend to be paternalistic and think that we have all the solutions for the rest of the world. I believe we can learn a lot from these people in the other worlds, our neighbors, if we learn to respect them and know them one on one. I think housing techniques, gardening techniques, their culture, the way they work together in community, those are things that we can learn, so in a way Tecate is a staging base and learning place for us, as well. The people who go down there come back with an appreciation for recycling, for preserving resources that are precious down there, and hopefully that lesson will be expanded and multiplied in the United States. We definitely need to downsize and live more simply and closer to the earth. We have some advantages that we should share. We have technology. We have photovoltaics, for example, solar electricity that we can share, and we are learning about strawbale building, although that’s an ancient technology, and we have a pretty strong movement in the western U.S. to develop that, and it looks wonderful for Mexico and other countries, as well.

Many people around the world view America as streets paved with gold, and they are striving to mimic us, and I think that’s a mistake. We need to tell them that we have made mistakes, and we are turning around to learn from them how to live more simply and basically. We need to not encourage mimicking our style of life.

I have two major goals with WeCan. One is to help other people in third world areas, and in our areas that need help with housing and community development, but the other, and maybe more subtle, is to effect our own lifestyle. As these students as the people who participate in this program participate in an experiential way, they learn we don’t need so much. They learn that they can empower themselves to do things for themselves, and to live perhaps the most simple lifestyle that is more beautiful.


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