COB! A lesson in participatory development

Throughout our time in Cochabamba, Mario Morales spoke excitedly about the potential of cob to build community. As artists, we already knew that the process of creating, whether a mural or a wall, can bring people together in a unique way. However, the process of making cob is inherently participatory; as such, Mario believed the project could engage all the members of the Village of the Future.

It was one thing to hear Mario talk; it was quite another to see his vision come into fruition. When we arrived on Saturday morning, some of the older men were already working to lay the wall's foundation using giant rocks found around the site.

Mario invited Celeste and me to shovel dirt, sifting out the rocks in order to reach the desired smooth consistency. Before we knew it, we were joined by a few adults and teenagers from House of Hope. Gina joined a group off to the side, who were breaking pieces of straw in half. Soon, children, youth, and adults were working together to mix together the cob.

It is easy to see why cob-making would appeal to children; it's essentially all about playing in the mud. The process was simple enough that anyone could participate and meaningful enough for them to feel like their contribution mattered. As the day went on, curious children from the neighborhood wandered up and began throwing their own balls of mud onto the wall.

I even took a turn in the mud, mixing cob with my feet!

As the wall grew, there was plenty of time for play along the sidelines. The games and art projects did not take away from the effectiveness of the "real work," but instead enhanced it, building up a sense of community through laughter, friendships, and shared experiences.

Over the past few decades, the concepts of empowerment and participation have become significant in the discourse about development work. A project that involves the local people in every stage of the process may initially seem to be slower or less efficient, from an outsider's perspective. However, gaining buy-in from the community is essential for a project to enjoy long-term success.

Mario's model for the pilot cob project is an exemplary illustration of empowerment participation within sustainable development initiatives. He had first spent time researching the project and ensuring that the cob techniques would be effective in Cochabamba. He then collaborated with one of the House of Hope leaders, Pastor Emeterio Lovera, to plan the initial wall-building project in Lovera's community. Lovera, in turn, recognized that the children in the Village of the Future could be an important asset in the project and invited the children from his ministry to contribute their time and talents,

On Tuesday, Mario conducted a training in certain sustainable development techniques, including cob-building and hydroponics. The event not only informed House of Hope leaders about the process but also served as a catalyst to inspire other these leaders to take the techniques back to their communities. In fact, at least one participant is going on to create a business out of constructing hydroponic systems and solar panels, and another is working with Mario into the feasibility of building a house out of cob.

Hopefully the wall at Village of the Future will be the first of many such projects in Cochabamba and surrounding areas. With such a sound empowerment model, this cob initiative is well on its way to long-term success in all the communities reached by House of Hope.

For further reading
Participatory Development (Wikipedia)
When Do Participatory Development Projects Work? (The World Bank)
How to Avoid Pitfalls in Participatory Development (Anna Colom)
Development and Indigenous People: Creating Community-Owned Solutions (The Guardian)
Participatory Approaches to Rural Development and Rural Poverty Elimination (UNESCAP)
Paradigms, Poverty, and Adaptive Pluralism (Robert Chambers, Institute for Development Studies)
Development as Freedom (Amartya Sen)

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