Balamani Ambaiah Mergu, a beedi worker (right), at her house in Kumbhari. Image: Subin Dennis.

Across three continents, citizens are working with their local communities to build more sustainable futures for themselves.


In Solapur, India, housing cooperatives have come together to build more than 15,000 affordable homes since 2001, relocating thousands of workers from slums.

The Solapur Housing Initiative, led by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, began construction of another 30,000 homes in January 2018, and recently took out the housing category of the Transformative City award.

Many of these homes – typically around 50 square metres in size – are for beedi workers, poorly paid cigarette-rolling women who are often the sole breadwinners for their families. These women previously rented tiny shanties in slums.

The land purchase cost was shared equally by the worker, the central government and the state government, but the workers struggled for a long time to win their demand and have previous debts cancelled.

The award proves that the sheer strength of workers’ sustained efforts, with the cooperation of governments, can deliver results.

On the other side of the world, in Bolivia, the residents of San Pedro Magisterio village used to have to fetch water from springs near their polluted river daily.

Then the San Pedro Magisterio grassroots community organisation founded a water cooperative. They drilled wells and built the basic infrastructure to bring water to their homes. The funding to solve all these problems came from contributions made by community members, who did all the work themselves.

They followed this with a long campaign to build a wastewater treatment plant to clean up the highly polluted river. The community set up a reed bed ecological sewage treatment system serving 4000 people.

Resident Doña Magui says they are now trying to replace the reeds with arum lilies because they perform the same function and will help keep the treatment plant going in the long-term, because residents will sell the lilies and put the profits back into maintenance.

“As far as the state is concerned, we don’t exist,” Magui says, adding that it was the residents themselves who built the first school, the church and the first roads. This community was awarded the water category of the Transformative City award.

The third and final energy category was given to the Spanish city of Cadiz for its action plan against energy poverty.

The campaign featured active cooperation between local government leaders and ordinary citizens. A group of unemployed citizens were trained as energy advisers and given an eight-month contract by the city council to tackle unemployment, energy poverty and climate change simultaneously.

The team gives families in Cádiz advice on how to optimise their energy contracts so they pay as little as possible. In just three months, the team ran 60 workshops, gave 640 people training on energy issues, and advised 70 families in their homes, reducing their electricity bills by 20-50 per cent.

There have been 224 households that have changed their contracts to a time-of-day tariff, another sign of the knowledge gained by workshop participants. Power to the people!

David Thorpe’s two new books are Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Solar Energy Pocket Reference.  He’s also the author of Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

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