Riding in Land Cruisers

(the advising team and the land cruiser)

The classic image of third world development work often involves pale young enthusiasts bumping around rural communities in Land Cruisers and while I once judged this imagery, yesterday I came to embody it–a valuable lesson for any naïve idealist. Let me just say that no non-profit can operate without knowing their communities first hand, and for this a Land Cruiser is absolutely necessary when roads are no more than beaten down paths through a tropical rain forest. On the issue of who is inside those land cruisers and whether they are entitled to be so (given issues of global inequality/neo-imperial power imbalances/race and ethnicity/whathaveyou), I will refrain from comment at this point.

So we headed out from Panama City heading down the Corredor Sur of the Panamerican Highway. Leaving the city skyscrapers behind, the landscape was quickly replaced by dense vegetation with the inevitable swaths of deforestation for timber and large-scale farming.

We were driving through what is known as Comarca Embera, “Comarca” meaning indigenous land and Embera being the name of the dominant tribe, although the villages were interspersed with both Kuna (another tribe) and poor latino communities. We visited four communities, Quebrada Cali, Piriati Embera, Piriati Arriba, and Torti Abajo, with whom Global Brigades has established a relationship with and plans to work with in the future. The accessibility of potential communities is a major concern for GB which must take into considerations the logistics of transporting groups of 10 to 40 students, professionals, doctors, medicine, equipment, etc. to worksites, and the unfortunate reality is that many of the people in Panama who could most benefit from what GB has to offer are simply not able to realistically and consistently reach, even in a Land Cruiser.

The communities we did get to see were both what one might expect of rural poverty, and surprising in the discordance between modernity and tradition. The housing, for example, might reflect traditional indigenous construction, as in the case of the Embera who construct their straw roofed homes atop 4-5 foot tall stilts, a survival strategy of a culture generally located along rivers and subject to regular flooding. Or homes might reflect the square concrete/brick model introduced by modern Latinos which, incidentally, are poorly designed for the sweltering, humid weather of the tropics, pushing many Latino families to opt instead for the cool, open-air structures of the Kuna but with televisions and random electronics all the same. One community even had all three styles clustered alongside each other, with households exhibiting varying levels of poverty and well-being (at least from what we could see as foreign observers).

Another interesting glimpse into the complex world of a “developing” economy was our visit to the Bayano dam. Built by the company AES (a global power company) in 1976, the dam is currently Panama’s second largest power source, but of course little to none of this power stays in-country.

The specifics of to whom and at what cost this power is exported is unclear, but the important part of this is how the dam presents a textbook case of the many ways hydroelectric power development goes very wrong for the local people. In the case of the Bayano dam, its construction and accompanying creation of the artificial Lago Bayano (Lake Bayano) flooded huge areas of land in a largely poverty-stricken area, displacing hundreds of communities who will never receive the purported “trickle down” benefits of such a project. I’m sure the company’s side of the story is much different.

here’s the link to the full album:



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