Whitman Direct Action Central American Biodiesel Project

The Problem

Introduction After witnessing the impacts of petroleum dependence while working in Central America, I co-founded Whitman Direct Action (WDA), a student activist organization at Whitman College. Our mission is to aid marginalized communities by promoting opportunity via sustainable development.Our first project stemmed from a vision of the existence of a Central American biodiesel network that supports sustainable community-based growth and improvement. To this end, we coordinated two international biodiesel conferences, one in Honduras and one in Nicaragua and helped found Central American two biodiesel cooperatives and two resource centers. Through hands-on workshops we taught non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives, university students, farmers, welders, and small business owners how to build appropriately scaled biodiesel processors and how to safely manufacture biodiesel from locally grown crops. By putting this biodiesel technology directly into the hands of NGOs and community members we hope to have helped build the foundation for a viable biodiesel network supporting environmentally and economically sustainable community-based growth and development. Why Biodiesel? Biodiesel is a fuel produced from new or waste vegetable oil, or animal lard, and can be run in ANY diesel engine. In a process called transesterification, these oils are mixed with a base catalyst (usually Sodium Hydroxide) and an alcohol (methanol or ethanol). The resulting chemical reaction leaves biodiesel and the byproduct glycerol, which can be refined to make soap and other useful products. Because Central America is the perfect climate to grow oily crops and because many countries in Central America have a surplus of vegetable oil, biodiesel is an excellent alternative which can be used to diversity Central America’s energy portfolio while simultaneously building its own independence. Why appropriately scaled processors? The production of biodiesel requires a processor, and to bring biodiesel to the community level a certain type of processor is needed. To this end, WDA developed and adapted small-scale biodiesel technology appropriate to community production levels of 1 gallon to 500 gallons daily. The processors can also be modified to run without electricity for rural community needs. Project strategy: In light of the fact that we are students with limited capabilities and time commitments we developed the following three pronged strategy— 1. Long-term information availability: We wrote and published an A-Z biodiesel instruction manual in Spanish which is available for free download and is being distributed by an NGO specializing in community-based sustainable development information distribution. 2. Interactive transfer of information: By holding workshops focused on training those involved in sustainable community development in Central America we were able to work directly with people fighting for similar causes as ours. The conferences were thus a means for us to effectively educate the most people we could in order to generate the most structural change possible. 3. Infrastructure development: Helping to establish biodiesel cooperatives and resource centers through long-standing NGOs with community influence and respect biodiesel technology has become a real force in the regions we worked. Now there are organization with complete training that can serve as resources and examples for future biodiesel developments. The organizations we established cooperatives and resource centers with are Sustainable Harvest International in Sula, Honduras and the Center for Development in Central America in Managua, Nicaragua. Project Journey: After spending nine months developing biodiesel technology, we received a (bio)diesel bus from a generous man living in Guatemala. With the 500+ gallons of biodiesel we had produced from cafeteria waste oil and donations of biodiesel from Seattle and Portland breweres, we drove our bus from Walla Walla, WA to Managuau, Nicaragua holding conferences and establishing cooperatives and resource centers, and advising eco-villages along the way. I was a journey to remember. By building a team of responsible decision makers and independent thinkers, we were able to function as a coordinated and multifaceted unit that could accomplish many complicated tasks at once. Our creative adaptability allowed us to strategize and delegate responsibilities effectively to overcome a plethora of obstacles including finances, illness, and cultural disparities.

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