Oscar Romo

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2014
This description of Oscar Romo's work was prepared when Oscar Romo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014 .


Oscar Romo, through his organization Alter Terra, has developed a way for vulnerable communities in precarious ecosystems in Mexico to protect and restore their environment, increase economic opportunities, and organize to demand their rights. By using the waste around them to develop innovative infrastructure solutions, the resulting production creates jobs, changes consumption habits, and encourages community ownership over improved wellbeing.

The New Idea

Oscar Romo is enabling marginalized communities in rural Mexico to take ownership of the land they inhabit, protect their ecosystem, and improve their economic conditions by reutilizing trash and other unwanted resources around them. Facing intensive population growth and scanty infrastructure, the living conditions in these communities, compounded by environmental degradation, are poor and declining. Oscar and his organization Alter Terra find building solutions that generate no waste -- meaning they require no foreign materials for construction and no outputs go unused -- and that can be implemented by the community themselves. Furthermore, these solutions simultaneously provide new jobs and improve the environmental conditions within the communities.

Oscar works intensively with local residents on different fronts: he raises awareness of the damages of current waste management, construction, and general living practices, then works with the community to source and produce appropriate solutions. These solutions allow people to transform waste from an unwanted byproduct of daily life into a resource for solving infrastructural and economic issues. To do this, Alter Terra trains community members in diverse options for waste reutilization. Also, Alter Terra makes community leaders aware of their rights and shows them how to petition the government in order to receive them.

To ensure that these measures work permanently, Oscar has set up a Science Center to share the solutions tested in the communities and to conduct research on ecosystem damages resulting from waste and the changes that occur through instead reusing it. He then uses this data to work with municipal, state, and federal governments to create policies that protect the environment and reinforce community action. Through proven success in Mexico and now with the Center for housing open source solutions and research, Oscar and Alter Terra are poised to spread their method and translate appropriate solutions to vulnerable communities and endangered ecosystems in other parts of the world.

The Problem

In densely inhabited ecosystems such as the canyons of Tijuana, Mexico, industrialization and population expansion over the past ten years have proceeded unchecked and without consideration for the social and environmental costs of unplanned development. Migrant families from all over Mexico and South America have relocated in search of economic opportunities offered by maquiladoras -- giant manufacturing factories infamous for poor working conditions and labor practices. As maquiladoras drew more immigrants, rapid urbanization of the canyons followed. Now, these areas face various social, economic, and environmental problems.

During this period of rapid urbanization, the canyons became home to approximately 80,000 migrants and 100 uncontrolled open dump sites containing multiple classes of solid urban waste. 2,725 tons of trash is collected in the state of Baja California on a daily basis, and 43% of that trash is collected in the city of Tijuana. Unfortunately, 33% of all solid municipal waste in Tijuana is disposed of in uncontrolled open dump sites.

With this swift population growth, institutions and government agencies charged with providing infrastructure and public services for maquila workers and their families are reactionary rather than pro-active, and environmental problems are bargained for rather than regulated. The results of environmental bargaining can be observed in sub-standard building practices, lack of services, and inadequate infrastructure throughout the canyons. Streets are dangerously dark without street lights, and many neighborhoods still lack water and sanitation services. Insufficient waste management has resulted in toxic conditions: children even play outside in all types of waste. During heavy rains, unpaved roads leave families stranded, unable to navigate washed out dirt roads to attend work or school, shop for essentials, or seek medical attention, for weeks at a time.

Exacerbating these issues is the general lack of knowledge communities have about their rights as well as a lack of organization among residents. As a result, they are not prepared to demand the services that the government agencies are responsible for providing. Furthermore, economic opportunities are very limited; the population continues to grow, but maquilas cannot offer enough work to meet demand. The dearth of resources pushes people into even worse living conditions.

Subsequently, in less than a decade, these conditions have already caused marked degradation of the landscape. The environment has been stripped of native species, the local water supply is too contaminated for human consumption, and downstream wetland ecosystems are threatened with extinction.

Regardless of where vulnerable communities are located, trash is always an issue. Worldwide, trash management and other public services are commonly ignored in informal settlements. The trash issue is geographically and politically boundary-less, and implementing sustainable best management practices for pollution control is critical to the protection and preservation of ecological resources

The Strategy

Oscar Romo and his organization Alter Terra are enabling disenfranchised communities to reutilize trash as a way to build residential and social infrastructure, improve their living and economic conditions, and care for their environment using the idea of Natural Systems Design. Natural Systems Design is an architectural and design concept meaning that no foreign input and no unused output are involved in a project. Oscar started his work in the Tijuana canyons of Mexico, where he has developed a strong model that is starting to be replicated abroad. This model is community-oriented but includes work with many different levels of government, which helps ensure the continuity of the solution.

The core of Alter Terra´s strategy is to train the community to see the value that lies within the waste that is both considered a problem and is readily available. Oscar sees in trash a way to improve living standards and increase community engagement. As a starting point, Alter Terra leads research of local environmental challenges and waste availability. The data and new solutions found through this work are then used to design the best locally-specific interventions for each community and each issue that needs to be tackled. For example, in Los Laureles Canyon, Mexican and Central American migrants have made their homes in informal settlements. The climate is very dry, but wind from the coast and sporadic heavy rains cause erosion; rapid population growth has only exacerbated the situation. To address the (now severe) erosion, Alter Terra partnered with the community in Los Laureles to help look for the most appropriate and easily executed solutions. As a result, the community has begun to develop and implement erosion control systems, such as pervious pavers and pervious concrete, that control urban runoff and sediment flows while also storing water and accumulating nutrients to produce healthy new top soil. These solutions are especially appropriate because they are easy to use in roads and walkways that were not paved before, simultaneously solving the erosion problem and building new and better infrastructure in the community.

Alter Terra finds communities like Los Laureles because of its trusted presence in the region. Their work is well known, so communities come to them with their needs. Partnering with Alter Terra means the community receives training, and sometimes the organization and community together lobby for better services with the government.

Oscar and Alter Terra not only address community-specific issues and solutions, but also regularly incorporate building infrastructure made entirely from discarded resources such as tires, cars, and plastic and glass bottles into their work with a community. To do this, Alter Terra gives workshops where residents can learn building techniques and gain skills to equip them to improve their own housing and community infrastructure as well as open new possibilities for income. In Los Laureles, the community members have also built eco – bricks, water harvesting systems, and endemic plant nurseries that use trash as the primary construction material. Due to the demand for these products, Alter Terra has helped the community to set up a cooperative to manufacture and commercialize the products on their own. All members of the community have been involved in this processes, and 90% of participants are women. Furthermore, residents have started to change their practices around waste, now recycling and reusing instead of throwing away, and children have learned to recognize valuable trash and collect it.

Oscar understands that the training of a community is not enough to solve the problem, since much of it is related to public services not being delivered and public policies not responding to local needs. To address this, Alter Terra also helps its partner communities leverage their activities in order to get better services and support from the government. First, Oscar identifies community leaders and works with them so that they can learn about their rights and what government agencies have the obligation to provide them. These leaders, as well as other community members, are able to learn the importance of framing their projects on the basis of public law and to proactively demand change from the government in a peaceful and organized way. Involving the government directly with the communities ensures long lasting support and decreases dependency on Alter Terra. So far, the government has responded positively; the results presented by the community have led to their collaboration and involvement.

As a final step, Oscar is continuously conducting research that provides hard data about the damage that bad practices, especially those related to waste management, have in the ecosystem and how the reutilization of trash and community involvement are reversing the situation. Oscar uses this data to impact public policies and incentivize governments to think strategically about conservation, considering the needs of the communities that inhabit valuable ecosystems. Alter Terra also publishes handbooks and training manuals that serve two purposes: first, to raise awareness about the importance of a healthy ecosystem and second, to compile all their methodologies so that the work can be replicated even where they have no reach. All of Alter Terra´s designs are open source, and any person around the world can build and use them.

Educating residents, stakeholders, and decision makers on the process and science behind trash revalorization is the key solution to solve the problems at hand. Using trash as a resource to heal the environment and provide social solutions is a far more sustainable and cost-effective alternative to traditional cleanup projects that do not address the problem at its source. Meanwhile, designs based on natural systems promote the wellbeing of species and residents and conserve the environmental health of the ecosystem.

After 6 years of working in the Canyons of Tijuana setting up and strengthening his model, Oscar has begun putting in place a sustainable way to spread these solutions across the globe. Alter Terra opened a Science Center, right alongside the Tijuana communities where they work, to continue the research and development of solutions based on trash reutilization, but more importantly to serve as a training center for anyone who wants to replicate Alter Terra´s solution in any location. Despite being in nascent stages, the Center is already receiving national and international scientists, CSOs, and government and community representatives that want to be trained in Alter Terra´s methodologies and have the opportunity to join in hands-on learning activities that they can replicate in their own communities. Alter Terra also receives more than 300 requests per week seeking advice and asking how to participate in projects.

Since its foundation in 2008, Alter Terra has directly trained more than 6,000 residents of Tijuana canyons on natural building design using waste. The residents have, in turn, produced more than 30,000 pervious pavers, 25,000 eco-bricks, have removed 150 tons of trash from the area, and poured more than 4,500 square meters of pervious concrete for local walkways. Also, the organization backed the building of a multi-purpose structure that serves as a playground, soccer field, church, amphitheater, and water harvesting structure that supports native plants and controls erosion. The structure was built using only revalorized trash, including 40,000 waste tires, junk car hoods, and thousands of plastic bottles, all of which were locally available in nearby dumpsites. This structure is also bringing back community ties, helping to rebuild damaged social fiber by providing a common meeting point for all age groups.

Alter Terra has strong partnerships with public institutions, such as SEMARNAT (Agency for Natural Resources, Mexico), SEDESOL (Agency for Social Development, Mexico), and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency, USA). Through his research and public policy efforts, Oscar has played an instrumental role in policy change, working with Senator Denise Ducheny to create a Waste Tire Bill (SB167) and Senator Ben Hueso to create a Tijuana River Valley Restoration Resolution (SCR-90). He has also lobbied for the successful drafting of multiple public laws in Tijuana and Baja California, including one requiring conservation easements at the border and another issuing a public land-use law (Master Plan) for Los Laureles Canyon, which drains directly into San Diego County wetlands. For the City of Tijuana, Oscar developed pollution prevention practices for small business, soil conservation codes for developers, and re-forestation programs implemented by the city.

Since its start, Alter Terra has secured funding through services provided to government institutions and through grants from national and international organizations and universities. The strategy to ensure long-term sustainability and revenue flow is to continue working with public and private institutions that require Alter Terra´s expertise and to evolve the Science Center into a well-known resource to further develop and teach their model to visiting urban planners, scholars, CSO´s, and public agencies from around the world, and to charge for the training.

The possibility for replicating the success and maximizing the impact of this project nationally and internationally is based on the fact that vulnerable communities share similar traits, so no matter what the latitude, longitude, political system, or level of development, shared ecosystems and the communities that live in them face similar challenges. In this sense, Oscar´s goals include expansion to other regions and other countries for the purpose of developing science-based products, the ability to repurpose diverse forms of waste, and the opportunity to create additional educational materials that will allow others to use Alter Terra´s model to develop locally-specific solutions based on natural systems design principles and techniques. Currently, Oscar is working in the Tijuana area, and in Mixco, Guatemala, where he started recently by invitation of local universities and government agencies, and is working under a USAID grant.

The Person

Oscar was raised on a ranch in rural Mexico and from an early age learned to appreciate the value of conserving natural resources from an anthropological perspective. Later, in college Oscar joined the Jesuit Order and as a seminarian was able to launch and lead various programs utilizing very limited resources to improve conditions in areas that lacked basic services. At this young age, he was put in challenging situations, living by himself in remote communities with no support or communication, where he needed to implement community solutions by empowering the community. It was during this period that he first explored the opportunity of trash revalorization by utilizing discarded products in the construction of water supply and sewer systems to bring potable drinking water to impoverished villagers. Oscar also worked on similar projects in Africa and the Caribbean during this time.

After earning degrees in Architecture and Urban Planning, from La Salle University in Mexico and Complutense University in Madrid, Oscar launched an IT company, where he understood the importance of involving diverse stakeholders in every process. Oscar worked for the United Nations and later the Border Environmental Commission (BECC), and in between, earned a doctorate degree in Environmental Sciences from La Salle University in Louisiana. Afterwards, he served as a delegate to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and worked as a researcher at Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF). After working with government and multinational organizations for many years, Oscar decided it was time to take efforts into his own hands, and he founded Alter Terra. He is now fully committed to the development of the organization and teaches Sustainable Development and Urban World Systems courses at the University of California San Diego.

Oscar has been recognized for his work through many awards, such as the California State Parks “Managers Award” 2006; the City of Tijuana “Environmental Conservation Award” 2007; the NOAA, “Wetlands Conservation Award” 2007; U.S. EPA, “Environmental Hero” 2007; Urban Land Institute, “Smart Growth Award” 2008; Urban Land Institute, “Visionary Award” 2009, Urban Land Institute, “Best of the Decade, Smart Growth Award” 2010, the San Diego Coastkeeper, “Coastal Champion Award” 2012, and the Mexican Consulate Award for "Remarkable Mexican-Americans who have made a difference in San Diego,” for his work to conserve the Tijuana River Valley, 2012.