Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Bridge to Saint Peter

On 3/6/08, Dan and Hannah followed up on their November visit to San Pedro (see below). We went by moto, reducing the trip from 5 hours by mule to about 2 ½ hours. We left the bike at a pulperia (convenience store) about an hour’s walk from San Pedro and surveyed the trail as we went.

We met at Juan Quintero’s home, where we stayed in December, and met with several of his family members and the Alcaldito, or “Little Mayor,” of the town, who is San Pedro’s CPC representative at the Municipal Assembly. We discussed our ideas and expectations, and we were surprised to hear that many people expected us to build a highway- rumors are circulating that the Danish want to fund a real road between Jalapa and San Pedro. They assumed we were a part of this, as the first NGO people to visit San Pedro in 10 years or more. We clarified that we intend to focus only on what they reported as the “most grave” section of trail. We want to reduce the river crossings from 3 to 1, and construct a primitive mule-wide bridge that would clear the high water mark and make the trail passable during the rainy season. This disappointed them but they admitted it would be an improvement, since with the current trail they are cut off from Jalapa for several months during the rains.

They told us it’d be cheaper do the construction with machines from the mayor’s office, but we’d need 5 barrels of gas- at a cost of about $700. When asked where they’d get this money, they said they expected us to bring it. They were surprised when we told them that we don’t have that kind of funding, and we proposed doing raffles and other fundraisers, but they said they were “too poor.” We had assumed that the town would donate the labor (as all other communities have with FCP’s past projects) to build the bridge and gather raw materials (wood, stones, etc.), and when we proposed this, they again replied “we’re too poor;” they wanted us to give them money for gas or pay for their labor.

This was frustrating- whenever we proposed that the community share a stake in the investment, they responded, “we’re too poor.” I wanted to shake Don Juan- who we are relatively close with at this point- “are you telling me you’re too poor to donate a couple of work days from your nonexistant schedule build a bridge, so that your children won’t drown crossing the river; so you can bring your sick to the hospital; that will connect your town to commerce and provide (literally!) a road out of poverty?!” Instead, I took some deep breaths and explained this in calmer terms, adding that we chose this community only after they reached out to us, and so far, they have shown great organization, cohesiveness and motivation for progress. I also reminded myself that people here are used to receiving projects part and parcel, with no personal investment. Many orgs actually pay people to work on their own projects. This was the case in San Pedro when the the school was built 10 years ago, so they had reason to hope for it. We left town feeling disenheartened but as we thought through it, we realized how valuable FCP’s Huertos program is. Most communities are like San Pedro at first- completely disempowered by poverty, waiting for NGOs to bring them projects-- paying them to work . . . and feeding them. . . for 6 months while the project happens. We don’t experience this with new projects in the Huertos communities- they already understand that if they want something they’ll have to work for it- unpaid. We bring an initial investment of seeds and tools, and (with educational workshops) expect the beneficiaries to do the labor themselves. If they don’t follow through, their garden fails and we take the tools back. People learn that from a single seed, things can grow- this is the great metaphor of the Huertos. This seems to be very eye-opening whole communities, and facilitates work on future projects, as people understand that our role is to provide a seed that they will nurture and then reap. Not having gone through this in San Pedro, we are beginning well, at the beginning.

We scheduled another meeting for mid-April; we will invite all of the leaders and prominent families in town. We took names from Juan and we hope the ideas we planted on Friday will grow and that people will begin to think creatively about what they can contribute, enabling us to move forward with the project. At best, we were each certainly confronted with the realities of our conflicting assumptions, and all parties left the meeting realizing that some major reevaluation would have to take place to reach the compromises that will make this project happen.

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