Monday, January 11, 2016

Our first government grant (and the problems that go with it)!

The Dock/Pier Grant

We have received our first government grant from the Colombian department (state-level government) of Amazonas.   Amazonas is one of 32 Colombian departments.  The grant is being used to repair and improve the village's raft and to build a small cement pier with six steps.  While this may not seem like much, it is a start!

The dock is currently in great need of repair
The Grant

We first applied for the grant (only in the name of the village of La Libertad) in April of 2015.  The application then seemed to be lost in the system.

I resubmitted the paperwork in May, but this time in the name of our newly-registered Colombian Fundacion Amazon Pueblo.  This was much more effective.  Within two weeks I had a meeting with the office of International Relations, who have been very friendly and helpful with the grant.

Unfortunately due to paperwork, my five month return to the USA to earn money, and government elections, we received the supplies eight months later, on December 26.  By this time the dock had suffered significant structural rot and damage.

Properly constructed and painted walls help to provide much strength and to protect the dock's structure.  When the repairs and improvements are finished we hope to have a dock that, with minimal adequate ongoing maintenance, will last for at least the next three years before needing major reconstruction.


Loading the project's boat in Leticia
Transport

Problems Finding a Third Boat

In all we had a little under four metric tons of materials to transport upriver.  To do this we needed three boats.  Unfortunately we could only find two boats; one belonging to the project and the other belonging to the community of La Libertad.  Other people said that we could borrow their boat, but on a different day.

We were also faced with problems of finding other people to pilot the boat.  One woman, who refused to help when asked, said "Who wants to work for free?"  I briefly went into the explanation that this was to support the community, it was volunteer work, and that we would pay for the gasoline, oil, and for lunch for the volunteers.  I continued to explain that all the other volunteers who previously built the raft also worked for free.  She responded with silence.

Two days after our first trip we returned to Leticia with the community's boat for another load of materials.

Trip Number 2
During the second trip we carried mostly gravel, which is unavailable around the village of La Libertad.  The gravel is needed to make the concrete for the steps and a small pier/platform.  Currently the steps up the hill are cut from mud and clay, with wooden boards set at some locations.  These are difficult to use when the weather is dry.  After rain the steps are almost impossible to use without falling.


 

We are pulling out of the port of Leticia in route to La Libertad







Hector did not have his rain coat, but he did have a plastic bag!





The trip from Leticia to La Libertad normally takes a little over two hours in the project's boat.  However, the village's boat is larger, heavier, and has a 9 hp motor compared to the project's 13 hp motor.  Both boats were heavily loaded.  Because of this the trip upriver took a little over four hours.

The best time to travel on the river is during overcast days.  It is also enjoyable on a sunny day, but the heat can become exhausting, helps to cause dehydration, and sunburn is common.  We usually try to leave the village slightly before sunup.  And when traveling upriver from Leticia it is best to leave before noon. 

During the afternoon there is a greater chance of rain and thunder storms.





Many floating branches and trees make river travel hazardous
We entered the rainy season two month ago.  Since then the river has risen about 12 feet.  After major rain the branches and trees that have fallen by the river side are swept downstream.  Sometimes we had to avoid a 75 foot tree that is slowly making its way to the Atlantic.  If we hit one of the larger obstructions we risk breaking the propeller, or even worse, capsizing the boat.  When a boat capsizes the boat motor is frequently lost on the bottom of the slit-laden waters.

A former cocaine lab 10 kilometers downriver from La Libertad
Site-Seeing on the River 

While traveling on the river many interesting sites are passed.  Huge hotel resorts, new and old rafts, speed boats, and large oil tankers and barges or small one-person dugout canoes may be viewed.  One of my favorite landmarks is the ruins of a cocaine processing laboratory.  Some members of the village worked there when the drug trade was at its strongest, about 20 years ago.  Since then the Colombian side of the river has maintained greater lawfulness and has greatly reduce the presence of the illegal drug industry.

 
Paddling away!


We picked up travelers upriver.  They helped to pilot the boat.
20 gallons of gasoline.



















Workers and watchers
The Arrival

We arrived at the village of La Libertad a little after 4:30 pm.  We were greeted by the representatives of the governor's office of International Relations.  They had arrived earlier on the speed boat with additional supplies and food for a cookout to celebrate the start of the raft and steps construction.  After briefly talking with the representatives, their speed boat arrived and they returned to Leticia.

At the top of the river back a small crowd of children and men were onlooking.  The children quickly arrived and volunteered to help carry supplies to the project's storage house.  The men continued to look on.

Our First Major Problem in the Village

We are now in the phase of the raft and pier building were the village must do their part for the project.  It is Amazon Pueblo's responsibility to help the village chief and member to apply for and manage the grant and project.  It is the government's responsibility to supply the promised materials, and it is the villager's responsibility to supply the labor needed to use the materials to complete the project.

Rumors
There have been rumors in the village that the chief and the Amazon Pueblo project are stealing money from the government and splitting it.  It has been gossiped that we are receiving a large amount of money to complete the dock, pier, and stairs.  These rumors are being spread by people who are not helping with the work of the project.  If I may be so bold to say, they are actually working against the goals of the project.

I have addressed these rumors in the past, but they continue to be spoken.  I am now going to address the people who are spreading the rumors personally and bring them the copies of the grant request, along with the receipts from the government, and the project's accounting records of 2015 and the beginning of 2016.  As these people are accusing me of corruption (a crime) without proof, they are in violation of the Colombian slander laws.

These same types of problems relating to government grants, corruption, and mismanagement of funds has plagued previous leaders of the village.  This is one of the reasons the village has no water system, bathroom or sanitation system, and almost no improved walkways other than dirt path that turn to thick, stinking mud with the rain and hot, humid climate.

Solution
However, the difference between the chiefs of the past and the Amazon Pueblo project is that we have the accounting records and receipts to give proof that we are not embezzling the funds.  The current and past chiefs have not had adequate accounting systems to be able to dispel the rumors.

One of the changes that we hope to implement is to teach the chief and the leaders of the village to follow good accounting practice.  They must be able to keep accurate records, implement financial controls to reduce the temptation of embezzlement, and to be able to answer to the charges of stealing money with proof that is indisputable.

We also plan to help the village to determine when and how to report possible instances of theft, corruption, and other crimes, as well as how to avoid the charges of slander.  We basically need to help the village to develop civility, civil society, and social justice.

The Concrete Steps

These steps are being built in the port of Leticia.  Our plans are very similar, but with much fewer steps.
Example
The picture of the steps above is an example of what we want to build on the riverbank of La Libertad.  The wood is used as forms to pour the concrete.  After the concrete has had time to dry and cure (at least 28 days), the wood is removed.

The Work
These steps are going to take a lot of work, some of which may be difficult to complete, considering very few people in the village have experience with concrete.
  1. Find and bring 2 cubic meters of sand to the pier area
  2. Find and cut the wood to build the forms
  3. Build the forms
  4. Prepare and set the rebar
  5. Mix and pour the cement
  6. Remove the molds

Unloading the building materials at sunset.  Luckily we arrived before dark.

What We Have Learned from Our First Colombian Grant
  1. Plan for the grant to take many months to be realized.
  2. Determine exactly who, in a written document, will be doing the village's contribution of manual labor.  If no one is identified as village volunteer workers, the grant will not go forward.
  3. Have a better plan for communication with the office of the Colombian government.  Write out the expectations for both sides, the government's and Amazon Pueblo's, clearly in an official document.  Goals and strategies should be established.
  4. Have a meeting with all involved sides to work out the logistics of the grant at least two weeks before receiving money or materials.
  5. Have a clear system of signed receipts for goods or money received.
  6. Establish an evaluation program for the grant.  The evaluation should directly relate to the goals and strategies agreed upon previously.


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