Elsa Zaldívar has spent more than 20 years improving the lives of rural women in Paraguay. “Finding solutions to eliminate poverty, generating wealth and improving people’s quality of life in a sustainable way are what inspires me and brings me happiness in my professional life,” says Zaldívar. Born in 1960, her mother was an entertainer, while her father was a political leader fiercely opposed to Paraguay’s military dictatorship. She was chosen as a Laureate of the 2008 Rolex Awards for her innovative project – mixing leftover pieces of a vegetable sponge, loofah, with other vegetable matter and recycled plastic to form strong, lightweight panels that can easily be assembled into simple structures, including houses. Like all of Zaldívar’s ingenious ideas, the loofah panels solve several problems at once – eliminating waste, providing income and shelter, and taking pressure off Paraguay’s dwindling forests, the traditional source of material for housing. She is now establishing new alliances between rural organizations and government to improve the lives of the poor.
Published in 2008
In the time of [Alfredo] Stroessner [president of Paraguay from 1954 until 1989], it was very difficult to work freely. We had to do everything while in hiding or wearing disguises. Any kind of social action was considered subversive.
My father was a politician and my mother was an entertainer. Their seven children were born at a time when creativity and freedom of expression were not permitted. They taught us to challenge these restrictions by fighting for democracy and freedom in Paraguay. At the age of 18, I had an opportunity to be part of the Christian Youth Association and begin to learn about development work. It’s there that I began to work with needy and impoverished communities.
To have a decent home liberates people. They realize they can live in another manner, more freely, and move forward in other parts of their lives.
This project has many different kinds of impact on the environment. Most significantly, we’ll recycle the mountain of garbage generated by plastics. And because we’re using fibres that are completely renewable, we create jobs and stop using lumber for construction. That’s very important in Paraguay because we’ve already reduced our original forest to less than ten per cent of the national territory. Four whole trees are destroyed to bake 10,000 bricks to build houses. We’re running out of forest.