Two hours into a seven hour boat ride up the Rio Platano to Las Marias, the minimal traces of Western development that existed in Belem had all but disappeared. To get to Belem I had already spent ten hours in the bed of a Toyota 4×4 with 15 other people, rice, beans and building supplies followed by two hours in a motorized dugout canoe. All but the first hour or so had been on poor dirt roads or improvised beach roads. I had stepped directly into a scene from Paul Theroux’s 1982 novel The Mosquito Coast.
Dugout canoes loaded with plantains, bananas, and oil palm fruits passed down river as we motored our way up, passing dozens of other dugouts powered only by oars.
Las Marias is THE tourist spot on the Rio Platano, but to be honest that is not saying too much. Other than the two people I traveled up the river with, there were no other tourists the entire 15 days spent in La Mosquitia. Despite being remote and void of mass tourism, the primary source of income for many of the people in Las Marias is actually tourism. Upon arrival we were taken directly to a locally elected official that was charged with managing the entire tourist industry for the community. Nearly every male in the community was a guide and it was this guys responsibility to manage the equitable distribution of work.
Our two guides, only one of which spoke Spanish, told us how their only source of monetary income was taking tourists around the area and they were generally only enough tourists to supply them with work twice a year. What Was most interesting though was how the community managed the tourist trade. They elected a new tourist manager every year. We paid him directly for the services, but he explained where every cent of the money was going and documented all payments in a publicly reviewed ledger. A small percentage went to him, another percentage to the community and then the rest split between our two guides.
My experience in La Mosquitia offers some interesting insight into the administration of eco-tourism and the changing of cultures as a result of cash economies. I constantly oscillate between the benefits and negative aspects of eco-tourism, particularly for such remote areas. On one hand it offers a way to make money and if administered fairly can raise the local economy but on the other hand, the influx of cash helps some more than others. For example the guest house we stayed at was owned by one family, the one shop in the community was owned by another. Most money in the community was spent in one of those two locations therefore creating a few wealthier individuals and as a result creating a class system based on wealth where none existed a decade or two ago. This increased wealth does allow some children to be sent to cities for an education, but in a depressed economies like Honduras where poverty affects 60% of the population, is it better for remote communities to maintain isolation at the expense of educating their youth. Or is it better to send children to cities where they can receive an education but more than likely contribute to the urbanization of poverty. Yikes, this post kind of got away from me! This is an issue that I have been thinking over since I first visited La Mosquitia and will require several more posts in the future.
My last field visit in Mozambique was to a small community a few miles southwest of Macia in the Gaza Province. ORAM had helped them obtain a DUAT –official recognition of land rights– and was working with them to improve agricultural processes. We were sat in a circle; ORAM staff, the community leader and myself in plastic chairs and six women with children sat on reed mats. The community members only spoke Changana, a southern African Bantu language, which was translated to Portuguese by a member of ORAM’s Gaza delegation staff and then my colleague from the Maputo office helped me with the Portuguese I did not understand.
All the women would talk and answer questions but a woman of 82 led the discussion. The community had been named after her grandfather and as his oldest living descendant, she was the community leader. Towards the end of the conversation when the subject of land conflict was broached she went inside her home and after a few moments returned with about forty pages of jumbled documents.
Through the translators it was explained that a couple South Africans had come with what appeared to be cell phones –but were more likely GPSs– and walked all over a tract of community land near the river. At some point they approached the community to share their intention to ‘lease’ some land from them. Although resistant at first they were persuaded when the South Africans returned with a government official who explained the contract and insisted it was a good deal.
I began to thumb through the stack. The documents were written entirely in English. There was a project overview which; outlined their intention to grow sugarcane, and included soil and water quality reports as well as the projects budget. There also was a lease and profit sharing contract. The lease was for 50 years and stipulated that the investors had unregulated access and use of the river and were not responsible for any environmental damage that might result from their activities –including soil and downriver water pollution–. On top of that it clearly stated that the contract was being administered under South African courts who would also arbitrate over any future disputes. The profit sharing agreement was slightly more complicated but they appeared to be getting hosed on that end too.
Here lies the problem as I see it… There will always be people willing to take advantage of others, trying to get the most for the least. The most vulnerable, in this case illiterate camponês, are in a position where they must rely on civil society to advocate for them. When the demand for civil society exceeds the capacity of civil society we have a problem; individual people, communities, genders, minority groups, income levels, etc all begin to slip through the cracks. Despite the fact that they were working with ORAM, a very technically capable organization that achieves results, the community was still caught unaware and signed away a piece of their livelihoods, a piece of their heritage.
Demand side solutions are necessary, but their results can be somewhat disperse and unfocused. Building the capacity of civil society empowers local communities to advocate for themselves and achieves tangible focused results.
The following is an excerpt from the first entry into my field diary during the first day of an internship at an NGO in Mozambique:
I was introduced around [the office] and to be honest I did not catch anyones names. No one thus far speaks English but to the best of my understanding there will be someone later today who does. I did not bring my computer today which seems to have been a mistake. I asked what they wanted me to do and there seemed to be no plan for me so it is a good thing i brought readings today…”
So that was my first entry for the day. And no, no one that spoke English showed up. About halfway through the day the director of the organization came in and told me about a day trip to the Gaza province north of Maputo. I assumed we would be visiting a community and was excited to get ‘into the field’.
The director came in at 4pm to tell me it was time to go home and remind me to wait at the street corner outside my house at 5am. I confirmed the plan but for some reason I asked if I should bring a toothbrush, this is what I wrote before heading off to bed:
“I think this might be an overnight trip, cant remember where we are going, will have to fill that in later.”
So yes it was an overnight trip. First thing I wrote the following day:
“Well today was a surprise…”
This is where they brought me:
This is what I thought I was going to be doing:
This is what we actually did:
Notice the lack of sun, sand, sandals, sun, I know I said sun 2x but I had just gotten there from England.
I think I got a grad total of 47 mins of beach time, did not even get the top part of my shins wet. You better believe I implied otherwise as I bragged to friends about my beach vacay.
But that is just fine. Turned out it was a meeting for ORAM head office staff and the organization’s leadership to come together to address organizational issues, discuss strategies and analyze results. It was all in Portuguese and at times difficult to follow but by making notes in my journal and recording much of the discussion I was able to learn a great deal about the organization.
Field work has difficulties and can be very challenging. It is not always exciting and adventurous but opportunities present themselves at a moments notice and it is good to always keep a toothbrush handy.•