Working Together to Make the Streets of San Jose Cleaner: Interview with Julieta Chan
Author: Fabrice Gernigon
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 04/06/2010
Despite the image of environmental haven that Costa Rica enjoys abroad, most of us have noticed that this image does not survive the test of reality. There is clearly a lot to be done in order to raise people’s awareness on environmental issues, and to create an efficient recycling policy. In this moment Costa Rica produces more that 11,000 metric tons of waste of which about 9,000 metric tons are recyclable.
With Laura Chinchilla’s ambitious ecological plan for Costa Rica, there is a great chance that the market of renewable energy will grow, leaving space for new initiatives that will hopefully help build a cleaner country. I decided to interview a 26 year-old Costa Rican woman who did not wait for Laura Chinchilla’s plan to try making the streets of San Jose a little cleaner. Julieta Chan pushed businesses established in the district where she is employed to work together for a more sustainable ecological policy.
Fabrice Gernigon: First of all, could you please present yourself, tell me what your educational and professional background is?
Julieta Chan: My name is Julieta Chan, I’m the marketing manager of the Hotel Presidente and I studied Hotel management at Universidad Interamericana. I am just about to graduate with a Master’s of international marketing at UIA (Universitad Internacional delas Americas) in San Jose.
FG: Can you tell me what the Q-adra project is? Its purposes and how did the idea of the project crossed your mind?
JC: It is based on a collaboration of many different businesses from different areas of San Jose, which are all united in an effort to improve their immediate environment by instituting good environmental practices such as the ‘3R’s’ (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle) and by making sure that the streets in which they work are cleaned. The goal is twofold: to improve the environment for their own employees, guests and clients, and to serve as a role model to their neighbors and fellow businessmen so that slowly, more and more businesses will join this effort and together turn San Jose into a prettier, cleaner and safer city for all to enjoy.
I used to be the housekeeping manager of the hotel. I was in charge of running the recycling project here. I had a lot of issues trying to have somebody pick up the waste materials for recycling. I was always being told that the amount of waste was too small to be recycled…so I was really worried…one morning I asked myself…I can’t believe that I am the only one having this problem… I bet that other people living around the block are facing the same situation… Why don’t we get together, gather all our waste and use the same provider? Why don’t we get together as a community and start taking actions to have a more sustainable management of our wastes? So I proposed the idea to my boss, and they agreed to support the project. The Hotel Presidente’s philosophy is all about being socially responsible, so it was really easy for them to accept the idea. Now we are 40 companies that work in different events (trainings in waste management, green brigades, special events etc…).
FG: Can you tell me more about the Green Brigade?
JC: Many times, as we walk through the city streets, we ask ourselves why there are bottles, cans and plastic scraps strewn on the pavement. How do we improve this situation when it seems to be somebody else’s problem?
Hotel Presidente’s staff members asked themselves how they could help improve the city’s appearance and how to reduce the waste that each day contributes to environmental degradation. Thus, the Q-adra project was born, and it symbolizes our commitment to environmentally-friendly practices that are sustainable, such as recycling programs designed to treat waste properly.
Staff at the Hotel Presidente proudly donned the Q-adra t-shirts to signify support for environmental protection and conservation, and took part in the first Green Brigade. The Green Brigade set out to collect waste in the area surrounding the hotel.
Through its actions, the Hotel Presidente’s staff hopes that it sets the example for other businesses to join in these types of environmental initiatives because keeping the city clean is everyone’s task.
FG: What interested the companies you gathered in the Q-adra project? How did you sell them the idea?
JC: It’s was definitely a need for these companies. For me it was way easier to convince them, especially those that were working in tourism, because all of us wanted to get an ‘eco certification’ (Certification of sustainable tourism). Other companies that already had an environmental policy also wanted to be part of the project because they were looking for an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) that would certify the quality of their services.
I also created partnerships with Costa Rican universities that are in the neighborhood. That helped a lot because students became part of the project and volunteered in some of the activities from the Q-adra project. Universidad del Turismo de Costa Rica (UTUR), Universidad Metropolitana Castro Carazo (UMCA), and Universidad San Marcos (U San Marcos) all agreed on working with us.
FG: What is the government policy in terms of recycling? Don’t you think it is the government’s role to clean up the streets of San Jose?
JC: We do need a national policy. That is the reason why the members of the Q-adra project support the Integrated Waste Management Bill (Ley sobre Gestion Integral de Residuos). The point of this bill is to require municipalities to create waste management plans. Because the main problem we have right now is that a lot of municipalities do not have any sort of environmental policies.
The goal is that we stop throwing any type garbage to the street, so that the municipalities can start investing the money they will get from the materials that can be recycled into other environmental projects. It is a lot of money that should not be wasted. The idea is that the responsibility would not only lie on municipalities, but also on people. We all have to take our own responsibilities on that matter and start taking actions. There is no point of waiting for someone else to help us… It is all about us, municipalities as well as civilians, adopting new attitudes in order to provoke a real cultural change in the country.
FG: Why do you think this is such a long process? Is it coming from a lack of financial means or is the problem tends to be difficult to deal with because there is not enough will to change things?
JC: The lack of financial means is no excuse. It is coming from a lack of will, but the problem is also that there is really not much of an awareness regarding the protection of our environment in Costa Rica. It is our responsibility to teach the different communities to raise people’s awareness.
FG: I read that your project is based on the responsible management of waste, the improvement of the city environment, and the third part, which I did not understand was something like, security and risk….can you explain more about this part?
JC: This part of our project is all about making our community (your community) a secure place, where we can prevent people from acts of criminality, by communicating and creating alliances with the tourist policy, local policy, and both public and private security.
The idea is to have a network of people trying to fight for a safer neighborhood. We train people in ‘secure commerce’ so we can learn how to react when something happens, and we train people to learn how to prevent violence from happening. If something happens in any of the companies participating in the Q-adra project, all the other companies within the network will know about it right away.
FG: Do you think there is an important gap between the vision foreigners have about Costa Rica (the country that protects its biodiversity) and the reality we find in a city like San Jose? And how do you explain that a lot of efforts are made to protect natural areas when disposal in certain streets of San Jose is neglected?
JC: Well, as a matter of fact, that’s one of the other reasons why we are working in this project, to create pressure, unity, strength…We do have a lot of beautiful places in Costa Rica, around and even in San Jose. San Jose Centro or downtown is another story. This place requires different and special efforts to make a real change. And we are working on that. We have so many people passing through this city every day. And not all of them feel a special attachment to the city, so that’s something that we are willing to change and we are working on a new project that involves art, culture and environment so we can modify this ‘feeling’ about the city. For me it is really hard to explain why, but what I can tell you is that if the project doesn’t come from the people to the local government, they won’t do much, so that’s why projects like this are so important: having a good relationship with the local government, putting a bit of ‘positive pressure’, work side by side… That is the only way we will get the opportunity to bring up solutions that will make a difference.
FG: Laura Chinchilla’s program for the presidential election had a very important part dedicated to ecology. Do you think that her mandate will change a lot in terms of environmental policy, and do you think it will increase people’s awareness in terms of protection of the environment?
JC: I Hope so! It is one thing to make promises, but the actions are much more efficient. Act local, think global… If they put more effort in environmental programs, in public education, if they support social responsibility programs, reduce taxes for the companies that work C-Neutral, if they pass the GIR law, I guess that we will see the progressive change in some years. But then again, I believe that if you want something to change, you’d better start with yourself… and motivate others to follow you.
FG: Is there any kind of environmental education for the kids in Costa Rica?
Yes we do, but it is not such a big thing. I think we should be stricter on this matter and spend more time on education. We should force public schools, universities and public institutes to encourage these kinds of programs. We need to teach more about recycling, and there should be classes about environment and ethics.
For more information see the Q-adra Project’s official website: http://proyectoqadra.com/principal.php
McDonald, Mike. 2009. Changing mind about trash in Costa Rica. Tico Times, April 24 2009 from http://programacyma.com/documentos/noticias/tico-times-04-24-09.jpg
Hotel Presidente. News and Updates. Official Site: Hotel Presidente from http://www.hotel-presidente.com/newsupdates.cfm
 Changing mind about trash in Costa Rica, by Mike McDonald, Tico Times, April 24 2009 http://programacyma.com/documentos/noticias/tico-times-04-24-09.jpg
Bio: Fabrice Gernigon is currently a Master’s Candidate in the Media, Peace and Conflict Studies programme at the University for Peace