By Inés Benítez
Tons of artisanal soaps made from recycled olive oil are regularly shipped from Spain to Peru, where their sale and use helps finance local development and education for children in poor communities.
When poured down the drain, a liter of used cooking oil pollutes 1,000 liters of water and causes serious harm to the environment, according to the Spanish non-governmental organization (NGO) behind the initiative, Madre Coraje (Mother Courage). The group collects the oil and uses it to make soap at its workshop in the southwestern Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera.
Since 1992, some 770 tons of the soap have been sent to Peru. It comes in rectangular bars that resemble a piece of cheese, and according to Alid Ala, 15, it “helps heal wounds and also cures fungal infections.” Alid is originally from the southern Peruvian region of Cusco, but is now one of 800 children and teens living at the Comunidad de Niños Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Community of Children), an orphanage in the marginalized district of Ventanilla on the outskirts of Lima.
Half of the assistance received by the orphanage comes from Madre Coraje, which also sends donations of clothing, non-perishable food, medicine, wheelchairs, sewing machines and other goods along with the soap, explained the founder of Sagrada Familia, Miguel Rodríguez, 52.
As well as food, shelter and schooling, the youngsters are also provided with training in trades like baking, sewing, carpentry and soldering, Rodríguez told Tierramérica.
“We can’t live asking for charity. We have to transform what is given to us into something productive,” he stressed. For more than two decades, Rodríguez has devoted himself to providing a home for children who have been orphaned or abandoned by their parents or have been forced to leave home and live on the streets because of abuse or extreme poverty.
Every year, in addition to producing and shipping off an average of 80,000 kilos of soap, Madre Coraje sells around 500,000 liters of used cooking oil to Spanish companies that use it to produce biofuel. The profits they earn make it possible to send more humanitarian aid and finance development projects in Peru.
The oil is collected from 300 containers scattered across six provinces of Spain, where people are asked to take their used cooking oil instead of dumping it down the drain or in the trash. Madre Coraje also promotes the reuse and recycling of textiles, batteries, mobile phones, sewing machines, X-ray machines and computer equipment.
According to the Spanish Association of Renewable Energy Producers, 196,000 tons of biofuel were industrially produced from used cooking oil in 2010, which represents almost 20 percent of all the biofuel produced in Spain.
“Respect for the environment is an integral part all of the activities, initiatives and projects we undertake,” Antonio Gómez, the president of Madre Coraje, told Tierramérica.
In Spain there are now numerous development organizations that carry out cooperation initiatives with an environmental focus.
In 2008, Spanish non-governmental development organizations (NGDOs) executed 6,233 cooperation projects in 127 countries, primarily in South America and sub-Saharan Africa, in sectors such as education, health, gender, water and sanitation, and nutrition. The total investment in these projects was more than 792 million dollars, according to a 2009 report on the NGDO sector.
The soaps made by Madre Coraje can be used both for washing clothes and as bath soap, and they are distributed “throughout the length and breadth of Peru,” to shelters for at-risk children, old age homes, and organizations of people with disabilities and women seeking to improve their living conditions, said Manuel Conde, a Peruvian who coordinates the organization’s humanitarian aid work in Lima.
Soap is almost a luxury item in poor communities, and “a bar of soap like the ones sent by Madre Coraje can cost up to half a dollar,” he told Tierramérica.
Conde emphasized the soap’s medicinal qualities – it helps prevent skin diseases, for example – and explained that it is used as part of an educational strategy to teach beneficiaries, mainly children, about the importance of good personal hygiene.
In the courtyard of the Sagrada Familia orphanage, Tierramérica talked with a group of teenagers who were using the recycled soap to wash the clothes of “the littlest members of the community,” according to Claudia Consamollo, 16, who is originally from Cusco.
The soap is made from oil, water and sodium hydroxide (also known as lye or caustic soda), which are mixed together in what were once bread kneading machines, explained Madre Coraje president Gómez.
The same ships that transport the soap to Peru also bring food, school supplies, new clothing, medicine and various types of equipment and parts, he said, adding that each container carries 20 tons of materials valued at between 130,000 and 218,000 dollars.
“The recycled soap accounts for a quarter of a container with 20 tons of donations,” estimated Sagrada Familia founder Rodríguez. The humanitarian aid provided by Madre Coraje directly reaches 11 of Peru’s 24 departments.
Several years ago, it was suggested that Peruvian institutions could produce their own soap, but the proposal was not feasible, said Conde, because olive oil is not as heavily consumed in Peru as it is in Spain, and it is this particular type of cooking oil that makes the soap “special”.
Like the NGO sector, the Spanish government has also begun to focus on the environment in its official development assistance.
The Spanish Agency for International Cooperation Development (AECID) “has integrated respect for environmental sustainability as a cross-cutting priority in all of its policies,” said the agency’s communications director, Virginia Castrejana.
According to the most recent figures from the AECID on official development assistance, Spain provided 126 million dollars in aid to Peru in 2010.
* * Additional reporting by Milagros Salazar (Lima).