Business as the solution for Ecological Regeneration and Social Change in Panama – part 2

This morning I thoroughly cleaned the Casa Cultural in Arimae, the place I´m staying. I was in Panama City for the week (I only intended to be gone a couple of days, but was unfortunately held up at gunpoint and lost my passport and my debit card, among other things, so getting cash was a bit of a headache), and while I was gone the collection of fruit I´d bought had all gone totally rank, was breeding a lovely collection of insects, and was releasing a weird brown discharge. Additionally, all the bats living in my roof had deposited countless bowel movements all over my bed, books, and clothing. So after breakfast today, which was coffee, rice, and salted fish left over from dinner, I went on a rampage with my broom, after which I felt much better.

A couple of corrections from my last blog post: Arimae is slightly further from Colombia than I originally though, perhaps a total of 200 kilometers including the gap, as opposed to 100. Also, people here are about half Catholic, and half Evangelical. I´ve attended a couple of services, which consist of some singing, drum playing, and lots of intense praying. There´s lots of repetition of the phrase ¨Gracias Señor Jesus,¨ and there´s quite a bit of arm-waving as well. Teenagers seem to sit in the back and text-message (or they don´t attend), and kids roam free until they´re reprimanded by their respective guardians. The building all of this occurs in is a semi-enclosed cement structure implanted by the Panamanian government, and since most of the services take place at night, the june bugs literally swarm. They coat the floor, and your clothing if you don´t bat them off – I was the only person that bothered to, so I guess I´m a wimp.
One afternoon a troupe of Panamanian evangelists came by and performed a variety of songs over a loudspeaker. A couple of days later, some aged evangelical volunteers from some southern part of the United States cruised in to provide a free health clinic, and a copious number of free bibles. It was quite the spectacle.
Overall, being in Arimae again after a brief hiatus in Panama City is entirely different than being here the first time. When I first got here, my observations were based primarily in all the similarities I noticed, rather than the differences. In fact, the poverty around me didn´t really strike me at all when I was first here – the socioeconomic situation was more or less meshed with the new traditions and ways of doing things I was learning – I wasn´t yet able to necessarily differentiate one from the other. I was preoccupied by the methods of cooking I was witnessing, by learning to bathe and do laundry in the river with the other women, by learning how to wear a poluma (the brightly-colored wraps the women wear as skirts), by watching the kids walk to school in their clean, pressed uniforms at 7am, by listening to their conversations and remembering the identical conversations I had at their age. Ultimately, the first time I visited Arimae, I was aware that people were struggling, but I wasn´t necessarily able to identify specifically how, except with regard to the big things, like the lack of clean water (or enough water), the minimal electricity, the sick, skinny dogs lying in the street, the fact that you really cannot expect to break a $20 unless you´re in Santa Fe down the road. This time around it´s smaller things, things that I initially didn´t miss, but now stand out, like not having butter for bread, understanding that for people here, there´s no point in buying vegetables if you can fill up on rice for free, that liking milk in your coffee is not enough reason to spend 40 cents on a box, that there´s no point in owning a can-opener if you can open a can with a knife. There´s also an informal economy around the sale of wildlife; people catch and selling tiny monkeys and parakeets.
As far as my questions in regard to Planting Empowerment go, they´re slowly but surely being answered. Like I expected, it´s not a solution, but the reasons why are more complicated than I could initially have understood (and I´m sure I still have much more I need to understand before haviong near enough for a remotely thorough assessment). Basically, it does provide some assistance, but not necessarily in a way that´s terribly self-sustaining. To sum up the vision: Planting Empowerment leases small plots of exhausted land off of farmers engaging in subsistence agriculture in Arimae. This means peasants do not have to sell their land off to cattle ranchers or teak plantations owned by multinationals when it´s exhausted and needs fallow time, because they´re being paid for their land in an ongoing way. Ideally, this outweighs the need to deforest more land. Planting Empowerment then plants mixed-species tree farms on the land to encourage the return of biodiversity to the area.
The reality of the situation as I see it thus far is this: People live hand to mouth in Arimae. When I asked Cervante whether he liked farming, he said ¨Yes, because without it we can´t eat.¨ Whether you like something or not is not really a point of consideration. If it makes you money, you like it.
There is no money here. People grow about nine different crops, most for consumption, and some for sale. Pretty much the only liquid money they have is from selling crops, and it´s not much; Cervante´s family makes around $800/year off the corn they sell, for example. Men come by in trucks to buy harvests directly from the farmers and then drive it into Panama City to sell. Cervante also earns wages from working the tree plantations with a machete for Planting Empowerment about 30-60 days out of the year, for $10/day. So yes, having that money is a big help, and it´s obviously better than not having that money, but Cervante works under a university student named Liriano who responds to directly to Planting Empowerment, so there´s not necessarily a huge amount of agency garnered by peasants through the organization, at least on a day-to-day basis. I asked Cervante what he thought of Planting Empowerment, and he said he really didn´t know, that it was just work. One other problem is that there just isn´t enough land being used for tree plantations to provide significant sustaining income for people. It´s also unclear to me how Liriano chooses who works, or if he does – who has the chance to make this extra money? Additionally, although Arimae is an indigenous village (it is run by a cacique who oversees the entire comarca, or reservation, and more immediately it´s lokked after by a dirigente), and holds its land collectively, the land is actually parceled off to individuals in the village for personal use, so it´s unclear to me what exactly it means that the land is held collectively. Further, individuals continue to go out into the forest to clear more land; the more land you have, the more crops you can grow, the more money you can make. And people literally need to make money wherever they can. One night (awkwardly), I was the only person who got served a proper meal; everyone else ate bread and mangoes. And as far as the environmental claims of Planting Empowerment, I´m confused as to how a tree farm, mixed species or not, can actually improve biodiversity to an area, because they are routinely cleaned with machetes, chasing away anything that may have found a home there, and they´ll ultimately be felled for lumbar anyway.
On a less abstract note, the last few days here have been out of the twilight zone. Yesterday I woke up at 5am (pretty standard) to the bizarre bellows of what I later learned was a drunk (not that standard) right near the Casa Cultural. Later in the morning I went to Santa Fe to buy some water, some pens, and try to find a doorknob (don´t ask), and when I returned to Arimae Cervante came by and told me that while I´d been gone a man and his two children had somehow managed to be accidentally brutalized by a kitchen knife and had been rushed to the hospital in critical condition. I can´t even picture how that might have happened. Then, at breakfast this morning, Rucila and Cervante told me some guy had bashed some other guy over the head earlier, and sent him to the hospital, supposedly over an argument concerning the first guy´s sister. And there was evidently a car crash last night by Arimae, I think on the Interamericana.
Anyway, that´s about it for now. Oh! except yesterday I ate armadillo for breakfast! I was actually pretty delicious and reminiscent of bacon. Rucila smoked it for an hour or so the night before we ate it, and then fried it right before she served it. I´d definitely eat it again. Apparently it´s a bit of a rarity though, because you need a dog to hunt it, and they´re found out in the virgin forest, which is a good hour walk from the village. More in 2 weeks.
Rachel Brooks-Ames, MA Candidate, CLACS

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