Community-based restoration, conservation, and environmental education

Protectors of Mother Earth: Onondaga Compost and Waste Remediation Project, 2014

Protectors of Mother Earth Project, Onondaga Nation, 2014

In 2014, the Onondaga Nation hired me to work on an integrated compost education, waste reduction, and waste remediation project with Greening Onondaga. We formed a committee that we named the Protectors of Mother Earth Committee, to undertake the integrated compost-waste management and remediation project at the Nation. Our goals were

•To reduce use of outside companies handling waste
•Reduce volume of waste
•Build “green” capacity to reduce & sustainably process waste at Nation through education, training
•Compost infrastructure: Transform organics, depleted soil into rich compost available to everyone for their gardens
•Remediate old dump and brownfields at the Nation

We conceived of the project as having three seeds or areas for growth: Community education; Capacity building through training Nation employees in environmental skills; and Creation of the compost, developing an economic and ecologically sustainable waste system at the Nation, while remediate existing waste.

Protectors of Mother Earth hired Jean Bonhotal and Mary Schwartz, Director and Associate Director of waste management at Cornell University, to teach us about waste and compost. They are known as being the most knowledgeable in their field. They brought Mark Lichenstein from the Syracuse Center of Excellence to talk with members of Onondaga Nation about trash, emphasizing that trash never goes “away” so there is no “throwing away.” Jean emphasized these community-based workshops, and learning by doing is how people learn about waste. There is NO degree programs in the United States in waste management. Jean gave workshop on how to build different composting systems, during which we learned how to make compost areas with chicken wire, pallettes, cinder blocks, the three-bin method, and vermiculture.

We organized three full days of compost and waste workshops for any member of Onondaga Nation to attend. The first was a full day of lecture about science of composting organics, mortality composting, and trash and sustainability. The second was a full day of touring waste, compost, recycling and incineration facilities in greater Syracuse area. We visited OCCRA compost sites, and America Recycles, Inc. The third was the build your own compost workshop. We also created a facebook page and newsletter with information about waste and recycling, and decided we would sew free shopping bags to give out to Onondaga Nation members, to reduce plastic bag waste. However, after spending several days sewing lined shopping bags by hand, we realized that it would be too time consuming given our other responsibilities to sew enough bags to give away to everyone at the Nation

Together we researched, visited, consulted plastics recyclers, hauling companies, hazmat companies, engineers, geologists, phytoremediation specialist, and the Onondaga Environmental Institute (OEI, an NGO). We identified steps for remediation, and scheduled Hazwopper training all employees of transfer station. Our goal was to obtain training for Nation employees to remediate the dump and brownfields. But before remediation, we needed to test for gas pockets, contaminants in soil. We needed to obtain funding for remediation & equipment, but people from Cornell volunteered free testing. We also began to set up a large compost system at the Onondaga Nation transfer station. We planned to create wind rows (long paralell rows of compost), and began to set up a system for pick-up of compost from the larger community organizations. During the whole process, the Nation guided every step. Onondaga Nation does not accept EPA money or any federal money; rather, we worked with the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force for endorsement and guidance. Here are some ways we saw this project being shaped by Haudenosaunee environmental values, and Onondaga Land Rights Action goals:

•To restore the natural world for those yet to be born.
•To heal the soil where past generations have lived, and future generations will come from
•To invest in cleaning soil to support planting, health of environment, life sustainers.
•To invest in education to support everyone’s ability to take care of Mother Earth.
•To support the ecological health of the connected soil and water systems that flow through the nation; cleaning waste supports revitalization of watersheds that flow to Onondaga Lake.
•To enhance the capacity of Onondaga Nation to steward Mother Earth, supporting its autonomy & the sovereignty of Confederacy

The project was animated by the greater values of decolonizing Mother Earth from social systems of global colonialism and domination.  We regarded the destruction of soil and water part of the results of the capitalist military-industrial global economy.  We wanted to support decolonization by working together with love and purpose to clean up land and water. The Onondaga Nation is concerned with cleaning up the soil and watersheds that flow to Onondaga Lake; we felt that contributing to this was part of our responsibility and purpose. Nyawenha, Onondaga Nation, for giving me the opportunity to learn by doing while working for you!!