Land dispute and water rights issue

May 8, 2010

Lito’s confrontation

One of the problems facing Panamanians is the lack of land deeds. Most plots have conveyed within families but these days more are being conveyed outside the familiy. Therefore precise plots are necessary and are often lacking. The lack of registration also applies to easements, and this factored into a confrontation just the other day.

Our village, like many, obtain drinking water from sources originating at a higher elevation to take advantage of gravity to produce water pressure. There are very few holding tanks filled with electric pumps, an excellent choice in a country where electricity supplies are too often interrupted. When visitors from the Biological Corridor, part of ANAM, the enviromental agency, came to visit the other day they wanted to see the water font. To get there they need ingress through the land of the Aguilar family.

The visitors were refused entrance. There was a document signed in the 1970’s allowing the water committee to use the land but apparently there was never an easement granted. Thus the owners have to be forced to allow any access to the property until an easment is granted. This could take some time, and if there are any broken pipes or other problems, Santa Clara’s water supply is at risk.

Apparently the conflict turned ugly. Lito is very civic minded and energetic and perhaps is not always diplomatic. He seemed very upset when he told all this to Peg.

The mayor supported the landowner, for reasons I could not understand. But ANAM apparently has lawyers who work on these sorts of problems.

Presenting a training course near Penonome Panaman

May 4, 2010

One of the main tasks of CED (Community Economic Development, the part of Peace Corps Panama of which we are a part) is to provide training programs. The main offering is called PML, Program Management and Leadership. Volunteers sometimes offer this training in their communities. Peg and I responded to a request for training from a volunteer named Angela. She lives in a community near Penonome, about 7 1/2 hours from our community. I think she is perfectly capable of doing the training on her own but it is easier when you have help. In addition can present us as the ‘experts from afar.’

angleas place

We left on Sunday May 2 from our community with another volunteer whose boyfriend has a car. They gave us a ride to David, then we took the bus to Penonome and another to Angela’s community, the latter a small van about 20 years old with many non-essential parts missing, such as a muffler and door handles.

Angela’s is a community of about 700 people. It’s at an approximate altitude of 1200 meters, about the same as our community, and so it is much cooler than Penonome at sea level or thereabouts. Farming is the primary occupation. Angela works with the school teaching computer use, and has several English classes outside of school. She also works with a cooperative whose members are the focus of the training program.

Angela had already made some beautiful charts. She, Kate and Karen are famous among the volunteers for their ability to whip out some very nice presentations. Mostly we use newsprint but their’s are worthy of better material, perhaps some kind of board.

We went through her charts in preparation for the next day. I was doing my section for the first time, and to complicate matters further I missed a training where the whole course was presented, so I had to rely upon what I learned during pres-service training, now some six months in the past. Angela’s charts helped me prepare better. Peg had already done most of her presentation in our own community so she did not need to prepare as much.

The next morning we walked to the lower part of town where we were to meet. We got there early and no one was there. The president of the coop arrived around 9 with chairs, tables and a tripod for holding charts. We did not get started until around 10, chatting with the farmers as they arrived, neatly dressed wearing the typical straw hats of rural Panama, their smiles revealing worn and missing teeth, women in inexpensive but neat, very clean clothes and big, welcoming smiles. One elderly woman walked on the blacktop without shoes, her feet as strong looking as I have seen. I was soon very charmed by these simple appearing and friendly people. Not long after we began I realized the humble appearances and limited education masked significant levels of intelligence and experience. That would be the most striking thing of the day for me, other than how well Angela managed the event.
gary teaching at angelas
My bit took the first three, er, two hours since we did not start until 10. I talked about what they valued most, got some replies, then gave them a list and asked them to pick the top four. Amistad, friendship, got the most votes, but learning was right up there. I wondered whether they were saying that because they were attending a workshop and wanted to be complimentary of us. Latin Americans go out of their way to be kind and welcoming, sometimes stretching or even ignoring the truth to do so. But the topic came up in a different context later and the elderly woman without shoes talked about how she wanted to improve her life and the best way was to learn, so maybe I was being a bit too cynical.

campesinos at angelas

The part of the training we delivered is on the personal level versus the organizational or community level, so we did not talk much about their cooperative, which is an effort to bring down food costs by allowing members to take advantage of bulk prices. They are seeking funding for a larger building. As things stand, it is too tiny to do any good.

Peg and Angela were very helpful keeping me in order, as sometimes I lost the logical flow of the topics one from the next. Angela was very well prepared not only with the charts but also the handouts, not to mention all the meals.

At the end I decided to see if we could get them to arrive on time the next day. I told them if they were going to come at 10 then we would too. Peg noted that respect was an important value to them, and was it respectful of the people who came on time to arrive so late?

The next day we started at 9:20. I doubt they will continue to arrive on time for other events, but we will find out. More volunteers are coming next week to finish the training.

Some other observations:

The members live in the same area of the lower part of town. A school teacher is annoying Angela, being rather seductive. Angela’s house is very attractive. Unlike many here, it has a ceiling, so the metal roof does not show from inside and it stays cooler. Her kitchen is not accessible from the rest of the house. The house is in an orange orchard, a picturesque setting that costs her all of $50 a month. There are mango trees nearby, the fruit dropping to the ground. The people can not get enough for them to make harvesting worthwhile. There is supposedly a nearby location where you can see both oceans at once.

Medical translations

April 27, 2010

A team of Army Reserve (Southern Command) doctors, dentists, nurses and support staff flew to Panama last week to conduct free clinics in the Cocle Province, about 8 hours by bus from our house. Two weeks ago 4 or 5 other volunteers assisted in the translations. This past week there were fewer so I went then instead.

I worked with the optometrist and the dentists. The former needed assistance with the distance exams. The biggest challenge was hearing the people talk, as many of them spoke in very soft voices, mumble, or both. Some of them tried to tell me about their vision problems, thinking I needed to know, but the test told us what we were looking for.

Working with the dentists gave me a close up view of the dental problems here. As there are relatively few dentists and the vast majority of the people do not have the money to pay, most people do not get preventative care. On this trip the dentists could only do exams and extractions since they did not have a complete set-up so cleanings and fillings were out of the question.

I interviewed people as they came in to find out what the problems were. I looked in a lot of scary mouths. Decay is common, caused by a high sugar diet (causing type 2 diabetes as well) and lack of care, leading to large cavities, pain, and the loss of teeth.

There were many with serious bone loss for lack of brushing and regular cleanings, and no one here uses floss, all leading to plaque and the development of dental pockets where bacteria grow, eating away at the bone. This gum loss produces snaggly teeth that decay, break and just plain fall out for lack of anything to hold onto. I know all this because I inherited a proclivity for all of these problems.

On the last evening the mayor of Penonome gave a party for the soldiers, to which they invited us. A Panamanian woman invited me to dance with her, which was a lot of fun. We did a salsa of sorts, and then I danced with another woman and we did the merengue. They were both good dancers.

Appasac withdraws from the enviromental association.

April 22nd, 2010

Further developments have complicated the situation regarding our local agro-environmental group, APAASAC. Last week representatives of ADATA visited just after a meeting with EISA (Electron Investment SA), a company building one of the hydro-electric projects in the province.

Representatives from EISA, whose project is called the Pando-Monte-Lirio, were there to talk about the donations they are considering for projects in Santa Clara. These projects, proposed by the community, are submitted in writing and then reviewed by the company. Many local communities are participating.

The largest among those submitted in Santa Clara include a sum for replacing the water pipes. The regional government paid for a portion of the project, now completed, and this donation would finish the job. There is also a request for money to buy prizes for a raffle to support the newly reconstituted health committee, and a request to purchase some trash cans for locations where people congregate, two bus stops, a small shopping area and the central park. They also talked about the training programs they will be offering in self-esteem and various health topics, including sexuality. These donations are not a requirement of their contract but it is common for projects such as these to offer them.

Without much doubt the companies figure they will enjoy more support from the community. Especially In a charged environment like this one, they have to be thinking this way.

EISA was there also to talk about reforestation. They are legally required to plant 12 trees for every 1 they remove. Therefore they are looking for sources of trees to reforest the areas they clear to install the 10 foot diameter pipes to channel the river into the turbines. The reforestation is still under study to determine the number of trees and other aspects of the plan, they explained. Our group is interested in the project for the income and to insure the job is done properly.

ADATA representatives arrived just as the other meeting was ending. It was an icy moment – Adata parked their truck so as to prevent the EISA truck from leaving so I feared a confrontation. Adata and EISA had all met weeks before when EISA learned, if had not already, that at least some members of Adata opposed the projects. What I did not know at that point is that Demaris and Jorge were already working on getting written commitments from ADATA members.

After asking Jorge to move the truck, which he did in a tongue in cheek sort of way, EISA departed. Demaris and Jorge came in. They said that they were not opposed to hydroelectric projects but they were opposed to the lack of an environmental impact study of all 12 or so projects on the river and the 90-10 rule which allows the company to take up to 90% of the water. This includes not just the river but the water basin, they explained. What might the impact be on water supplies for the human population, and the fauna and flora? This is unknown, but in an area highly dependent on agriculture, it is important to find out, they argued.

They then read the letter that all members of ADATA except APPASAC
had already signed.

Lito then said that he for one felt they had to accept the donations that benefited the community. His brother Anel said that they were all opposed to the mining projects, and remained committed to the environment. After all, he noted, they are one of few organic farmers in the area. He explained that they were not negotiating with EISA, just conversing with them, although that made it clear they would consider negotiating with them.

Demaris then read the letter of withdrawal from Adata they had prepared for APPASAC. She explained that they could not appear to be working against the hydroelectric projects and then having a member who is negotiating with them.

Much to my surprise Anel signed right then and there. As far as I knew there had been no meeting with APAASAC members, no vote taken and no notice of the pending event.

It was a sad moment, the consequences not considered with care as far as I can tell, with no moment given to questions of procedure. The moment gave me the feeling that had I done my job, it would have made a difference if not in the outcome, which is their’s to choose, but in the method.

Subsequently I discussed the situation with our sector director and as I thought, we must not participate in anything anyone is doing on any level with the hydro-electric projects now that the situation here is politicized. At our next meeting I will inform APPASAC.

My current projects

One main project is the importation of 200 refurbished computers into Panama. There are at least two non-profit organizations in the U.S. that accept donations and then ship to sites in the US and abroad. Both have worked with the Peace Corps before. Nephew Nic in fact worked with some of the computers one of the organizations sent to el Salvador. There are three of us working on the project together with our sector director. I investigated the organizations and wrote the proposal, which eventually became a one page proposal to several potential funders after the sector director worked it over. He did a very good job on his end.

Then another volunteer, who is an experienced fund raiser, will work on the proposal in greater detail and she and I will hash is out and present it to the sector director. A third volunteer will arrange whatever training we are going to provide to end users. This is a $25,000-30,000 project.

Here’s a bit of the proposal, which is still being developed:

“While rural Panamanians have increasing access to cellular technology, poverty greatly limits their access to computers. The Peace Corps proposes to help reduce the disparity between those who can take advantage of the benefits of the information age and those who cannot, by providing computers and training to the economically disadvantaged in third world countries.

While the Panamanian government has made scattered efforts to help youth enter the information age by providing computers and even satellite internet access in some schools, they do not support community groups. These are very important organizations in Panama, recognized by the national government and international organizations that fund projects in Panama.

Peace Corps has supported its declared computer initiative by importing computers to Latin American countries such as Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as many other nations. Now, Peace Corps volunteers living in the most under-served small communities in Panama have the opportunity to do the same, by providing refurbished computers to groups in up to 200 communities, with beneficiaries numbering into the thousands. As important as providing computers, Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) will train recipients in computer use.

Given the rapid progress of wireless technology in Panama, members of these groups may be able to afford access to the services the internet has made available. An additional important benefit will be overcoming the extremely limited postal service in Panama. Communicating via email will replace long bus trips and hand-delivery of paperwork.”

This wording may not end up in the final proposal but it gives you one view of the project. Peg greatly assisted in writing the proposal. We are on draft 6.

My second major project is helping Adata develop a web page. Adata is the network of environmental groups in the Tierras Altas of Chiriqui, Panama. You can see the pages now but the site is not nearly complete. It is in English and Spanish. The goal is to educate English and Spanish speaking public and funding agencies about the highly sensitive and important ecological zone.

ADATA as well as this site are published using WordPress. I had to learn how to use this program, which was difficult. I am working with a local on the ADATA site, so the project can sustain itself.

My third major project is a two weekend training program for area environmental groups. I plan to see funding from the Panamanian government. I am working with a local group to plan the program.

Side projects are working on agro-eco tourism in our host community, helping get the computers running for the school, attending meetings of our local agro-environmental group hoping to find a way to help them organizationally and I will be doing medical translations in mid-April. There will be more such projects as time goes on.

What a $100 a month means

He is somehow rather distinguished looking despite his weathered face, or maybe because of it, and certainly despite his clothing, clean but beat up. He comes around from time to time looking for something to eat. Our hostess always brings him something, or maybe gives him a cup of coffee. She has hired him to work on her small finca (farm). He finds work from other farmers too. Where he lives, I have no idea, nor how he gets food most days.

Until the government started monthly pensions just a few months ago, his income was unsteady at best and always low, earning at best the minimum wage of $9 a day. Now, at $100 per month, he will, as he puts it, never be poor again!

December 24, 2009

December 24, 2009

So – Christmas in Panama……

From what we hear, Christmas Eve here is bigger than Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, beginning at about 8:00 pm, people “pasear”. Pasearing is something all Peace Corps volunteers should be good at – it can be defined as strolling through your community, creating opportunities to know the residents better and to increase their comfort levels with the Peace Corps volunteer. This is one of the major ways a volunteer creates “confianza” within his community. Creating a strong personal relationship among the people the volunteer works with is the major way the volunteer learns how to be most useful and successful in his work.

In our community, and probably in most communities volunteers work in, if you pasear near mealtime, you will always be offered something to eat. Unless you can come up with a good excuse, you should accept it, even if you know the people offering it don’t have enough food to feed their own family. Many PC volunteers, particularly young men, almost never prepare their own food, even in the poorest communities. Of course, they must be willing to live on whatever the locals eat – in this case, large servings of plain white rice. Many people we work with are less poor, so there is usually a pot of chicken soup on the stove as well. I usually get a small bowl of chicken soup and add some rice to it. Their chicken soup is delicious, and usually has carrots, yucca, potatoes or other tubers in it.

On Christmas Eve, people prepare lots of good food for passersby. I am offering Apple Brown Betty and really terrific cheese straws Neal and Susan taught me to make a few years ago. We will probably hang out and divide these goodies among two of the families whose homes we’ve been invited to, as they will receive more visitors than we would, as we are still new to the community. The hard part will be staying awake until midnight, the most festive part of the evening.

Christmas and New Year’s Eves are one of the few times people who are not considered drunkards can actually drink alcohol openly. Don’t know if that will help us to stay awake… No one has cars here, so the likelihood of being run over is pretty minimal.

I really want to tell you about three inspirational meetings we went to last week. The first was the annual party of the environmental organizations near our community. They decided to get together because they’ve not seen each other very much this year and felt they needed to catch up on what each group is doing. We met in the high mountains for a day of accordian music, rice and beans, and fried pork skins. A representative of each group said a few words, but mostly everybody just hung around, ate and chatted.

This group is very concerned about the recent concession granted to canalize and dam up a couple of the rivers in our province in order to generate electricity. If you saw these rivers, you’d laugh. We’d call them streams – I can’t imagine how their water will be sufficient to generate the electricity to power a light bulb. The folks here are very concerned because according to the concession, up to 90% of the water flow can be directed through pipes to the turbines. Environmental studies indicate that local impact will be minimal. However, all the studies are company-funded. And by the way, concessions to build the 14 dams have been given to 14 different companies..

The second meeting was an organizational meeting of environmental groups in our province, specifically called to initiate a program whereby they will all work together politically, with a common agenda, to combat the invasive anti-environmental activities being supported by the national government. The latest and most alarming to this area is a concession request by a gold mining company to put an open pit mine on 36000 acres in the middle of the International Amistad Park. This park is located on the continental divide and is part of the Biological Corridor linking North and South America. It is supported by European and US environmental organizations, and has tremendous environmental significance. The government has already granted a major concession to a copper mining company on the nearby Ngobe-Bugle reservation, a semi-autonomous province populated by a very poor tribe who earn their living by subsistence farming and depend on the local rivers for their water. How much sulfuric acid does it take to leech copper (or gold) from a pulverized mountain? And where do you put it afterwards?

What is inspirational about these groups is their level of environmental awareness and their work to combat environmentally destructive practices. Many sponsor organic farming practices, reforestation, environmental cleanup, bird sanctuaries, student environmental groups, community trash collection, recycling projects and other such activities. Many have been following closely the Copenhagen talks. The believe that the government grants concessions for land development, mining, public works and other projects on the basis of which international company offers the most money.

Peace Corps volunteers cannot participate in any political activism, so we will remain in the background. On the other hand, we are supposed to develop leadership, organizational, computing and presentation skills, business plans, etc. How groups choose to use this training is up to them.

The third meeting was actually a training program for coffee growers, sponsored by the local governmental agency that supports them. Among others, we listened to a session on the European Best Farming Practices Act, which the growers will eventually have to conform to if they wish to export their coffee; a session on how to combat the “broca”, an insect that drills into the coffee bean to lay its eggs, and a session on why and how to implement record-keeping systems (part of the Farming Best Practices requirements.) What was interesting about the day was the emphasis on organic farming practices.

Moving on, let me say that christmas decorations are much in evidence here – the same Currier and Ives ones we see in the States. The relevance of snow and reindeer in this climate escapes me! Commercialization of Christmas is rampant – many, many commercials on TV, lots of store floor space devoted to cheap decorations and even cheaper plastic toys. But the frantic rush to buy stuff is absent out here in the campo, where there are no stores.
I must go bake some apples. Cooking will be a pain, as the water is not running this morning!

Lastly, Gary and I wish you all a very happy holiday season and a very Happy New Year.

Cheers, Peg

November 23, 2009

Nov 23, 2009

So –

we’ve been in our community for a month now, and are beginning to get the hang of it. The Peace Corps prefers that one stay with a host family for the first three months the volunteer is in his community, but we did not expect to, as there are two of us, which is twice the burden on a host family. Also, we are older and more likely to be finicky guests. So, we began to look for a place of our own right away. Ironically, we will probably end up staying in the home we originally moved into with the intention of staying only one month. We plan to continue to live with “La Profe”, a woman of 50 whose youngest son is moving out of the house in January to go to university. She will be living alone in a four-bedroom, two-storey house. She is very involved in the community. Everybody knows her and thinks very highly of her – exactly the kind of friend every Peace Corps volunteer needs. For many reasons, this is politically a very good place for us to live. In addition, the house is super-comfortable, she can help me with my Spanish, she is super-energetic and she is quite happy for us to be here as she moves into this new, childless phase of her life. She is the only member of the community we know who has a car, and loves to tootle around showing us cool stuff. Also, we can go grocery shopping with her, which will avoid our schlepping food 45 minutes on a bus, followed by a 15-minute walk from the main road to the house.

She goes into David every weekend. David is our provincial capital. It takes 2 1/2 hours to get there on a bus, and it is only 30 miles away! She can do it in 1 1/2 hours. We’ve spent the last week buying stuff for our room. We’ve also had satellite internet installed at the house. Hurrah!

The house is so fancy that we are embarrassed to talk to our volunteer friends about it. Living in this house will certainly shield us from the “Peace Corps experience” of living in difficult circumstances. About 70% of PC Panama volunteers go into indigenous communities, many without electricity or water, where the folks live in huts with dirt floors. We do not mind missing this part! On the other hand, we hope not to be part of the other extreme, the “Peace Corps lifestyle”, where the volunteer doesn’t really become involved with his community because he spends too much time away from it, hanging out with expats or just reading and isolating himself.

The group that invited us to this beautiful part of Panama is called APASAAC. They are a group of coffee growers who have decided to make this tiny town a model ecological community. Many of them are converting their coffee fincas into organic. At the same time, they are reforesting their part of this province, training other farmers and coffee growers in the use of organic fertilizers and bug repellents, etc.

We are learning their operation in detail before trying to give them any advice. They would like to accomplish many projects and hope to use our help in prioritizing these. They are quite well informed about many aspects of environmental awareness and improvement, and we do not yet fully understand how we can help them. But they seem to think we can.

The mission of the Peace Corps has three parts: 1) to meet a country’s expressed needs for technical assistance, 2) to share the culture of the United States with the host country, and 3) to share the culture of the host country with the people of our own country. Within this culture, family and friends are everything. Right now, we’re trying to build trust within the community so that the people will speak to us frankly. Eventually, they will let us know what they need and ask for our help in achieving an objective. By understanding them, we hope that we will know how to do that successfully.

Two of the important members of APAASAC are brothers, members of an extended family of 13 kids. Their father came here in the early 1940s and bought many acres of land. The land was divided up among all the children, and all but two still live here and grow coffee and various foods. Each of these children have children, many of whom are grown and have children of their own. Many live on our road, and I am still figuring out the family tree! Everybody seems to be everybody else’s cousin. There are several such large families in the community.

Right now, I am picking coffee a couple of mornings a week, which I really like to do. You get points for being a good worker, and I’m known as a good coffee picker because I only pick the ripest beans. The professional pickers pick EVERYTHING – green, immature beans, twigs, bugs, whatever. That is because they get paid by the basket. I don’t get paid at all, so there is no advantage to me to fill my basket indiscriminately!

Also, I’ve begun working one afternoon a week at the school, with the students who want to practice English. It is important to remember that in this culture, you learn stuff accidentally – for example, Gary and I were thinking about organizing a Panama Verde group at the school. Panama Verde is a student organization that works on environmental awareness and improvement, so we thought it would be a good adjunct for our APAASAC group. However, in one of our chat sessions, one of the students just happened to mention that there is an environmental student organization already in existence, just waiting for a new coordinator. If we had just jumped in with our brilliant idea of organizing a Panama Verde group, because that is what we already knew about, it would have been the wrong thing to do.

We’ve already met several members of that group. Many of the same kids who want to practice English are members. They belong to the most progressive families in the community and participate in many student activities. These are the kids who will be the next generation’s leaders, and the ones we want to spend time with.

One of the big projects APAASAC wants to do is community-wide recycling. Panama has no garbage pickup to speak of, and garbage disposal here is a really serious issue. This is a huge, multi-faceted project that will take much organizing. Gary is working a lot on it. The directiva of APAASAC would like to present the project framework to the other members of the organization at their General Assembly in January. So they’d better get busy!

There’s also a group that wants to learn how to make pizza and sell it at community events. This is a great project – it brings income to the group and will be perfectly sustainable. However, they have to get organized pretty quickly, as their first big even occurs on December 20. We’ll see how it goes!

Cheers, Peg

October 10, 2009

October 10, 2009


Gary has written a bit about our culture week and tech week experiences, but here are a few more facts. Culture week is designed to give each volunteer a peek into the province he will serve in. Chiriqui is Panama’s richest and most proud province. It was the first province to have its own flag and is known as The Province of Workers. Indeed, this province seems to be more dynamic and innovative than the others. It is known as Panama’s breadbasket. The varied topography permits many different types of agricultural production, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, dairy and beef farming, and lots of coffee and plantains in the northern mountains, where we we will serve. In addition, there are beautiful beaches on the Pacific side.

Four new volunteers from our group are moving into this province, but our jobs and locations will be so different that we will have virtually no common experiences! Another telling fact that no EH volunteers serve in Chiriqui – the Environmental Health volunteers are the Marines of the Peace Corps. They are the first to go into villages, and their primary responsibilities are sanitation and health. They build latrines and aqueducts, which bring potable water into communities for the first time.

The volunteers that work in Chiriqui are members of the following Peace Corps sectors, whose names will tell you what they do: Community Environmental Conservation (including sea turtle projects, reforestation, environmental education), Sustainable Agriculture (good farming practices), Teaching English and Tourism (yep, you guessed it) and our group, Community Economic Development. The major goal of CED is to increase family income via teaching people how to plan for and manage projects and groups, how to evaluate ideas for new businesses, and finance management and accounting skills. We also assist communities to develop new activities such as recycling. We find local community leaders and teach them how to do what we do. Sometimes we work with governmental agencies to find funding for community projects. Finally, we create and maintain youth groups such as Junior Achievement, artisan groups, sports leagues and Panama Verde (a youth group concerned with environmental conservation.) We teach leadership skills to everyone we can, as another goal is sustainability – we want these activities to continue after we leave.

Anyhow, to get back to the new volunteers who will serve in Chiriqui: H., a 30-year old entrepreneur who has his own production company in Chicago, will live in a port town of 30,000 people where Chiquita Banana pulled out recently, leaving the town’s unemployment at about 55%. B., a 24-year old Afro-American who grew up in Dutch Curacao and urban New Jersey and who has Dutch citizenship (!), will be working in a ghetto in David (Panama’s second-largest city) with disadvantaged youth. Gary and I are going into a small town in the beautiful Chiriqui highlands where coffee production and organic farming are the employment mainstays and where the folks we will work with are energetic, motivated, and busily reforesting their land, doing their part to ameliorate the effects of climate change.

Our Chiriqui culture week was organized by a CEC volunteer who lives in a tiny beach community. H., B., Gary and I dug clams with machetes along the beach, rode horses, drank coconut milk from freshly harvested coconuts, trekked thru mangrove forests, participated in a baby turtle release, ate fried fish at a beach cantina, watched a culture presentation by the junior high school students, and attended talks on topics such as presenting yourself appropriately to agencies, the indirectness of Panamanians, body language and nonverbal communication. We also walked a lot. Our host family lived about 2 miles from the beach. Our sessions were either at the beach or in the tiny community’s outdoor restaurant between our house and the beach, so sometimes we walked back and forth twice a day. It was HOT.

The very next week, we reconvened with our entire CED group of 18 volunteers in the mountainous community of Hato Chami. This village is in the Comarga of the Ngobe Bugle – a semi-autonomous province where one of the three major tribes is concentrated. During tech week, we practiced various techniques we’ve been training on, most having to do with community organization, business planning, financial management and other activities that make up our bag of tricks. The community is at coffee-growing level, in the cloud forest. It is cool. We lived in Ngobe-Bugle homes, where whole families live in one room, albeit often a large room, and divide their sleeping areas by cardboard or hanging clothes. The rooms are usually of boards with corrugated metal roofs. They have no windows, only a space about 8 inches wide between the topmost board and the eaves. They have no doors, either. Sometimes a curtain serves as an exterior door. They cook on outdoor fires and eat lots of fried bananas and boiled rice or yucca. Most are subsistence farmers. Our family’s farm was about 2 hours from their home, so the husband and son often stayed in a hut on the farm for several days at a time, rather than hiking home. We were lucky, as our family grows vegetables as well as yucca and plantains. We ate onions, potatoes, chayote, carrots.

The Ngobe fry or boil everything over wood fires. They use LOTS of oil. One of the fun things I did was to show Melida how to cook pancakes in a large pot and biscuits in a Peace Corps oven. The PC oven is a large pot inside another large pot, separated by an empty tuna can and placed over a wood fire. It bakes pretty well! We used a deep-sided pot for the pancakes, as those are the only kinds she owns. We turned the pancakes with the handle of a ladle. The Ngobe are POOR!!! Melida was bowled over when she saw that you could make biscuits and pancakes with only a tiny bit of oil, and immediately declared that with the money she would save on three bottles of oil, she could buy a skillet! She did not know how to cook anything with wheat other than ojaldras, which are basically Indian fry bread. Ojaldras are really good, but super fattening. If you’ve never had Indian fry bread, it’s like beignets or donuts, only less fluffy and without confectioner’s sugar.

The Ngobe could be living in the 1700s, except that the dresses are different and some of the utensils are plastic. All the women wear naguas, beautiful floor-length dresses with appliqued fabric designs. You’ll see some on our website if I ever get the photos organized. The problem with living as they did 200 years ago is that their land is full of gold, copper, good water, teak and other valuable resources. Mining companies are coming in, and these people are not ready. This can put Peace Corps volunteers between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the PC policy of staying out of politics, the hard place is that we are supposed to provide these people the skills to improve their lives. Many of us feel that greed will prevail, especially when the locals have no idea how to read, let alone negotiate contracts. There is a strong instinct among the Ngobe that big industry will pollute their environment, however, and they have already completed one march to Panama City about this issue.

When it can cost a ship up to $360,000 to transit the Panama Canal, there is no excuse that entire village populations still walk over a mile to collect water. Without the sophistication of political pros and good lawyers to protect their interests, I would not be surprised to see the Ngobe land severely damaged or ruined.

Putting CED volunteers into the primitive conditions of the Comarga was an experiment. It was widely thought (particularly by the EH staff and EH volunteers) that we would freak out at the primitiveness of the situation and not be able to handle the latrines, cold water outdoor showers, board beds and primitive sanitation in this poor village. EH needs to stop believing the stereotypes! We all did well, nobody cried or wanted to go home. Among ourselves, however, many of us we whispered that we were happy to be there for only six nights. About half of the CED volunteers are indeed going into primitive sites, but they have requested this type of Peace Corps experience. Every year, a significant percentage of PC volunteers do not complete their two years of service, often because they just get tired of that lifestyle. So far, we have not lost anyone in our group of 36.

Hugs to all, Peg