Buenos Aires, the large, crowded capital city of Argentina, has many of the environmental problems that other large cities struggle with, such as toxic waste and air pollution. However, it also has significantly less green space per person than what the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. A 2014 policy to make Buenos Aires a greener, more environmentally friendly city states that the city has 5 m2 of green space per inhabitant rather than the 10-15 m2 per inhabitant which the WHO recommends. In terms of trees, the city has 1 tree per 7 inhabitants, compared to the WHO recommendation of 1 tree per 3 inhabitants (Plan Buenos Aires Verde, 2014).
For my fourth and final co-op at Antioch College, I had two main objectives: first, to immerse myself in the Spanish language in order to successfully complete my Spanish Language Focus and Spanish Capstone Project before graduation, and two, to do research to be used as the basis for my senior thesis. Additionally, I had enough credits to accommodate a six-month co-op, rather than the usual three-months. With all of this in mind, I decided to go to Buenos Aires, based on recommendations from peers and connections Antioch has in the city. In order to fund my co-op, I applied to two scholarships; the Lloyd Family Co-op Student Fellowship in Peace Studies and World Law and the Great Lakes Colleges’ Oral History in the Liberal Arts (OHLA) Undergraduate Fellowship, both of which I was awarded.
The OHLA Undergraduate Fellowship gave me the opportunity to seriously pursue oral history as a methodology for my research. As a student of anthropology with a focus on environmental issues, I already knew I wanted to study an environmental problem using qualitative research methods. Through online research I learned about the lack of green spaces in Buenos Aires and reached out to a contact in the city, Melina Scioli (founder of Club de Reparadores), who informed me of city policies and directed me to NGOs doing work to ameliorate this problem. When I arrived in the city a couple of months later, she introduced me to a non-profit organization called Un Arbol Para Mi Vereda (A Tree for My Sidewalk).
Un Arbol Para Mi Vereda is a non-profit organization with a mission to plant more trees in the City of Buenos Aires and the surrounding area. The organization was founded around the year 2012, with a project that involved planting trees in empty sidewalks and building interdependent relationships between neighbors and the trees. Five years later, they are involved with many environmental projects including helping maintain gardens in schools and neighborhoods, helping businesses with composting programs, organization tree planting events for businesses looking to offset their carbon footprint, and the project I was mostly involved with, a year-long undertaking with the city Agencia de Protección Ambiental (APrA or Environmental Protection Agency) to cultivate 8,000 of 20,000 trees the APrA plans to cultivate every year in order to eventually plant around the city.
Facebook for Un Arbol Para Mi Vereda: https://www.facebook.com/UnArbolParaMiVereda/
A couple weeks after I arrived in Buenos Aires in July, I started volunteering for Un Arbol Para Mi Vereda on Wednesdays and Fridays. My mornings were early, as we drove across the city for about an hour to arrive around 9am in the green house/growing area of the APrA in Villa Soldati, located in the southern part of Buenos Aires. At the green house, we shelled the seeds we gathered, mixed dirt, sowed the seeds, transplanted sprouts and saplings into larger containers, and watered the plants. A few months into my stay in Buenos Aires, I started volunteering more often, anywhere from three to four times a week. It was meaningful work, and fun work. We used our bodies, worked with plants, drank mate, shared conversation, and occasionally began the work day with stretching and yoga.
This project was particularly interesting for me because it combined many of my interests from socio-economic issues to relations between non-governmental organizations and governmental institutions. Villa Soldati, where the green house and the laboratory building for the APrA is located, is comprised of many poor neighborhoods with marginalized populations, many of whom are immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay, or Peru. The tree cultivation project I worked on also had a scholarship program which paid people from these neighborhoods to work in the green house and learn how to cultivate trees. I was also able to learn about a project by the APrA in a nearby neighborhood called Villa 20, in which residents and the APrA transformed an abandoned lot into a food garden, which gave residents access to fresh, local, chemical-free produce.
Through working with Un Arbol Para Mi Vereda, I met many other individuals and organizations working on projects to increase green spaces in Buenos Aires or to better the environment in general. Meeting these people significantly enhanced my oral history project for OHLA, and by the end of my time in Buenos Aires, I was able to complete over 20 interviews with distinct individuals.
My goal with the oral history project was to learn about what motivated people to work with plants (or with environmental issues), what significance people assigned to their work, especially in terms of framing their work within larger environmental issues, what challenges existed, and what they saw for the future of their work. Oral sources “help us question the boundary between what is of concern to history and what is not” said the famous oral historian Alessandro Portelli. I believe this is especially pertinent to my project as I engage with the past and the present. Since my research focuses on current issues and work that is being done in the present, my project is both part exploration of the past and part documentation of the present. However, this line between past and present is not definite and is constantly changing. When collected ethically and archived properly, I believe oral sources can be an invaluable resource for education and strategizing, which other communities can learn from now and in the future.
Over my approximately six months in Buenos Aires, I learned so much about many of the exciting projects that people are working on in the city, while simultaneously improving my Spanish. Many of the people I met shared an enthusiasm and energy for their work that was inspiring and captivating. Many also seemed to share a conviction that our environmental crisis is not only a physical, material issue, but a cultural one. I left Buenos Aires believing more strongly than ever that a cultural transformation is necessary in order to truly change our current destructive ways in which we interact with our environment.
Thank you to the Lloyd family for awarding me their co-op scholarship, the GLCA OHLA for awarding me their fellowship, Un Arbol Para Mi Vereda for letting me work with them and making me feel like I was part of the team, Meli Scioli for introducing me to Un Arbol Para Mi Vereda, the APrA, my Spanish professor Didier Franco, the co-op faculty for all of their guidance, and all of my friends and family for their friendship and support.