Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Biggest Challenge, and My Biggest Success (Thus Far)

Outwardly, my small, tribally-run community appears simplistic and idyllic. Yet at the heart lies a microcosm of the larger issues a country or government faces: division, miscommunication, fraud and deception.

This past March I met with consultants from Impulso Panama, a World Bank-backed consulting firm that analyzes and advises Panamanian businesses. Fortunately, the organization is very supportive of the indigenous plight; consulting services are 100% subsidized for indigenous-run businesses. I saw the organization as an incredible opportunity for our community-based tourism group to receive professional business guidance.

Our community consists of two principal families, therefore I asked several individuals, and members of both families, to attend our first meeting with Impulso Panama in Panama City. The meeting went incredibly well; afterwards, myself and community leaders began to work up a proposal outlining the support we’d seek from the organization.

However, much to my surprise, the members of one family decided they had other plans. Having learned in our meeting that Impulso Panama supports both individual and community-owned businesses, they created and submitted a second proposal for a separate family-owned business, almost identical in nature to the community’s tourism group. This arrangement was made without the rest of the community's knowledge or consent.

Within a few weeks time the rest of the community pieced together their separatist plan. During a follow-up visit to Impulso Panama, consultants informed us that the seceding family had made numerous visits to the office on their own, misleadingly representing their family as the only members of the community.

I was devastated. How could half of my village have done such a selfish, underhanded thing to the other half? And as the point person for the community proposal, this transgression had perpetrated behind MY back, as well. I felt personally betrayed.

This was the single most trying moment for me yet as a volunteer. Fighting back the waves of emotion, when I arrived back to the community I met privately with the succeeding family, which included the community chief. I tried my best to gently explain to the family the conflict created by these two nearly identical projects. They insisted on the succession. I had to tell the chief that I admired his family's entrepreneurial spirit and that I wished him the best of luck. Yet I also had to tactfully assert that, as a Peace Corps volunteer, my allegiance would always lie with the community-based group.

Ultimately, Impulso Panama recognized the deep community division and refused to move forward with either project until the community reached an agreement, mediated by the regional Embera cacique (head chief). My community, with both families furious at one another, has refused to discuss this. Embera Drua has great ambition and also great internal division; this has turned the community into its own worst enemy. As a result, we've missed an incredible opportunity. This has pained me every day for the past few months.

However, this experience has taught me the most impactful lesson I've learned thus far in grassroots development: I can only push my community so far. The things that I want for them are not necessarily what they want for themselves. And change can only happen when they decide to band together and initiate it. I remind myself that I'm the catalyst for change; I can't BE the change.


After a very trying March and April, on May 15th our tourism group was finally approved as a cooperative! The community is thrilled. And I was too! My months of service were spent in meetings with IPACOOP and working on the feasibility study for the cooperative. And this is such a sucess for Embera Drua. For years they had been working informally in tourism, and now they really have their own business, legal and recognized by the government.

We had a wonderful ceremony on May 15th. The director and head honchos of IPACOOP in Panama City came to the village, and we had a beautiful ceremony where they handed us our "personería jurídica" (legal recognition). They also donated a new outboard motor to the group. It was a wonderful day. And I wore a chaquira for the first time in the ceremony! I felt like a REAL Embera wera (Embera woman).

The cooperative is a huge step in setting up infrastructure for the community. Yet my biggest fear as we move forward is that the community expects the cooperative to be "the answer to all their problems." IPACOOP brings excellent trainings and pushes the need to work more organized and formally, but I'm worried that the community will quickly become discouraged if they don't see changes overnight. IPACOOP will give us some good framework. But at the same time the community needs to stay unified and work together- hard(!) and in the same direction- if they want to see a difference. I can see that this coming year will be a real challenge.

Below are some other pictures of what I've been up to:

Computer classes: our leaders typing up their own letters in Microsoft Word!

Girl's Night: I had an arts and crafts and cookie bake night night in my hut with some supplies Momma Snyder sent down to Panama.

White Water Rafting Trip, and trip to a BEAUTIFUL waterfall, on the Chiriqui River with Peace Corps friends