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THAT’S Development

April 24, 2011

Success stories of community members practicing skills to improve their lives.

The term development can mean many different things. For example, infrastructure development, such as building roads, schools, and health clinics is one way. Here in the Comarca, roads to reach across the mountain range are being built at a fast rate. My town got road access two years ago when a bridge over the largest river was completed. Within the last few months the highway has been extended two and half hours (driving time) further to communities higher in the mountains. Prior to this, people in these communities had to walk 4-6 hours to reach Chichica. Now, goods and information reaches them a lot faster and is helping to quicken economic development. At the national level, governments often stress over how to promote economic development, aka creating a business environment that increases employment, per capita incomes, and national GDP. While infrastructure development helps communities have initial access and economic development helps promote conditions to generate income, it is human development (aka quality education, skills and knowledge, being healthy, and civic participation) that concerns achieving a higher quality of life.

Here in the Peace Corps, we work on one of the slowest kinds of human development: capacity building. The good ol’ adage, “helping people help themselves.” Specifically, the goal of my program is to help community members identify and take advantage of economic opportunities to improve their quality of life. The idea is to assist a community and its members to develop the capacity to prioritize and resolve their own needs. We work on the organizational level, with cooperatives, growers associations, and other civic organizations (schools, water committees, health committees, PTA’s), on the individual level with small business owners, and on the community level. Here are some examples of people in my community taking steps to improve their groups, businesses, and communities. Sometimes, the smallest action makes the biggest difference and gives hope that the future will be better than the present.

Photo Caption: At a training with the corn producing group. Left, drawing a calendar of crops and their growing season. Right, the group, called SURUSA. 

#1 During a meeting with a corn-producing group, we are conducting a feasibility study to decide which type of new project the group wants to pursue. They’ve been growing corn together for ten years and explained that they are ready to take on a new venture. I’m thinking that they will have a bunch of ideas for agriculture projects (growing beans or root vegetables to sell, for example). However, they are thinking big, and come prepared with ideas for large projects with high start-up costs and require a lot of time – like a large scale pig project, an internet café and copier, or buying a car for transport. I was nervous about their ideas because they don’t utilize their strength in agricultural production (accept for the pig project – which is difficult to make profitable). Then they tell me that they’ve saved $5,000 over the past ten years, effectively not spending a dime of what they’ve earned from selling corn. It made me realize that they are capable of taking on more difficult projects. In a world where cash often disappears under the supposedly watchful eye of a group treasurer, managing to save that much money to reinvest in the group – THAT’S development.

Photo: Me with all of the participants in the Seed Capital seminar.

#2 The national small business agency did a week-long seminar in Chichica in March. New and existing business owners attended to write a business plan and solicit funding from the agency’s Seed Capital program, which gives $500 to improve or start a business. While talking to Daniel, a store owner in Chichica who participated in the program, he explained to me that his dream is to have a refrigerator to sell cold goods. He was disappointed when he figured out that the Seed Capital would not be enough to buy a fridge (since we don’t have electricity, refrigerators are run on gas and cost about $800). Credit is not possible since the Comarca has collective land rights that cannot be used for collateral and there are currently no microfinance programs in the region. To overcome these obstacles, Daniel explained that he is making a savings plan in order to purchase on. He realized that he needed to track daily sales in order to decide how much he can afford to save each month to buy the fridge. He figured out on his own a simple system to keep daily sales separate from accumulated sales and writes down the total at the end of each day. He proudly stated his average daily earnings and said that he didn’t realize how well the store was doing. Coming up with an accounting system in order to reach a defined goal – THAT’S development.

Photos: Antanasio and his beautiful farm. From him, I’ve learned how to best plant tomatoes so that they don’t take in too much water during the rainy season. 

#3 When visiting the farm of one of my favorite old campesinos, Antanasio, I immediately notice that it is one of the most well kept farms that I have been to with tomatoes planted in rows, corn planted alongside beans, and vine plants and root vegetables planted throughout. The soil is black and fertile and he installed an irrigation system in order to produce in the dry summer months. He says that he figured out that integrating corn and beans in the same patch produces better results (because corn benefits from nitrogen in the soil generated from the beans). He also said that he makes organic fertilizer using the techniques that the agriculture volunteer taught him when she lived here ten years ago. She would be so proud! Making organic fertilizer to increase soil nutrients and implementing integrated farming techniques to increase production – THAT’S development.

Photo: Agro-Tourism Fair in Chichica, April 2011.

#4 After a long day at the town fair (Like a farmer’s market in Seattle or courthouse fair in Prescott), I started picking up all the trash laying around the field. Most people are just staring at me and going about their way. They view it as a dirty thing and don’t want to lose face by bending over to pick it up off the ground. They are right, it is gross, but this trash isn’t going to pick up itself! Suddenly, 7-year old Elieser looks at me and says in this sweet little voice, “Yesi, I’ll help you pick up the trash.” I gladly accepted and nearly cried at the thoughtfulness of this young child. Litter may be the norm now, but it is changing as each generation recognizes the negative impact it has on the environment – THAT’S development.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle permalink
    May 3, 2011 8:51 pm

    hey “yesi” i loved this post! your experience there sounds incredible. love the traditional panama dresses!

    • May 6, 2011 5:28 pm

      Thanks Michelle.. I figured i should write something positive for a change! i hope you are doing well in ecuador. probably should visit each other before our time is up 🙂

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