Saturday, January 2, 2021

Happy New Year from Amazon Pueblo! On to our work in 2021...

Thank you to our friends for believing in our project during 2020 and beyond!


Thanks

Thank you to everyone who donated on Facebook, Chuffed, or directly to us by check or cash.  Facebook is less than transparent on the information of people who donate to us, especially by the "donate" button on our Amazon Pueblo page.  We would like to take this opportunity to recognize everyone who helped the indigenous youth of La Libertad, Leticia, Tabatinga, and Caballococha.  

Thank you, Olivia L(very much), Dianne and Dana, Debbie and Eric, Steven, David, Nancy, Marion, Maryann, Chuck, Hakki, Starsha, Barbara, Julie and Craig, Mark, Johanna, Trice, Randy, Hanna, Alina, Sandra, Barbie,  Gina, Stella, Mike, Janice, Santina, Patrick, Diane and Ian, Josh and Crystal (also very much), Rudy and Joan, Rose, Steven, Irene and Joe, Mia, Jessica and Rand, Janet, Corrine, Diane, and JoAnna!

Tax Information

Everyone should have received a receipt from either platform for tax purposes.  This year, the IRS offers a special deduction of up to $300 for people who do not itemize and take the standard deduction.  This is unchanged for people who itemize.  If you do not have a receipt and would like one, please contact us.


Our plans for 2021

  • Overall, during 2020 we have had a little under $14,000 in donations.  This was fantastic!  We now have over $10,000 in the bank and accounts receivable for January for our work in 2021.
  • We have a total of 29 scholarships for this year.  We hope to fill one more before returning to the Amazon this spring
  • We have added SSL security to the Amazon Pueblo website.  This will stop the "this site is not secure" warning when people visit us.  It is also one of the first steps to having an e-commerce page on our site.
  • This January we are planning to update the website to make it easier to understand the project, navigate, and to interface a bit better with Google AdWords.  We are also working on getting out our financial reports, which will be posted on the website.
  • During the past two years, we have received a little over $360 from Amazon Smile donations!  This represents over $52,000 of purchases on Amazon.  Please follow this link to support us with your purchases at Amazon.com.  Thank you to everyone who has signed up to help us through this program!

Our budget for 2021

  • Student scholarships 3200
  • Health care center 2500
  • Solar panels and electrical system 1000 (very important, as this will allow us to store anti-venom in 24-hour refrigeration for snake bites)
  • Building repairs and construction 1000
  • Education support program 500
  • Travel and transportation costs 500
  • Administrative costs 300
  • Emergency/Reserve fund 1000



Our recipe book fundraiser

  • We will publish a cookbook with the favorite recipes from our students' families, former volunteers, and the directors.
  • Each recipe will include a story about why they picked it.  We will also have pictures of the authors, the food, and the Amazon.
  • We will publish it on Amazon.com, in an electronic form, or by print-on-demand.
  • Our print price will probably be around $15 each, and we will sell them for $25.
  • We will be contacting people, gathering recipes, and putting everything together over the next one to two years.
  • So please be on the lookout for an email from us requesting a recipe!

Happy New Year!

Monday, November 30, 2020

Amazon Pueblo: Giving Tuesday 2020

This year has been marked by pain and loss.  But also with resiliency, generosity, and hope.  Please consider supporting our work on this Giving Tuesday.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us and followed our news updates over the past year.  You can make a difference in the lives of the students in the village of La Libertad, Leticia, Caballococha, and Tabatinga.

Donations

Below are the programs we are funding during 2021.  We have provided an option to use Facebook or Chuffed to place a donation.  Facebook charges no fees.

Student Scholarship Program Donations

Facebook Scholarship Link        Chuffed Scholarship Link

Health Care Center in La Libertad Donations

Facebook Health Center Link        Chuffed Health Center Link


Our work during 2020

Here are the links to our major blog posts for this year.  Please read them if you would like more information about our work.

Amazon Pueblo Winter/Spring update 2020: COVID-19, clones, scholarships, boats, and more!

Great news from the Amazon! Recovery in the jungle.

Amazon Pueblo: Should our work go on?

SOS in the Jungle: Save Our Students' teeth!

Fishing nets during Covid

Warning: Pirates Terrorizing the River Villages of the Colombian Amazon!

Covid food relief during the quarantine, June 2020


Mil gracias!

Ben Angulo 

Director, Amazon Pueblo


Thursday, November 26, 2020

Covid food relief during the quarantine, June 2020

Food for the Village 

After three months of strict quarantine in Leticia, we returned to the village with food relief.  The income of the villagers had been devastated by the Covid restrictions, which eliminated travel and tourism.  The thing that we found most shocking upon arrival was the weight loss experienced by the villagers, especially the children.

Thanks to the donations of the friends and supporters of Amazon Pueblo, we were able to deliver food when it was most needed.

The chief and two volunteers from La Libertad carried the food from the stores in the dock to the village's boat.

Thank you to Betty, the owner of the Piranita dock.  We keep our boat there when in Leticia.  She, and her staff, are always friendly and helpful.

After loading the food onto the boat we started the three-hour trip upriver.

We were greeted with a warm welcome when we arrived at the port of La Libertad.  The helpers quickly moved the food to the Maloka, a gigantic thatched hut used for village meetings.

We then organized the food into bags for each family.  The families received rice, pasta, sugar, chocolate, salt, flour, cooking oil, soap, and a chicken!

Over 80 heads of the family received the food distribution.

Everyone helps to give out the bags and to carry them home.

All of the families were very thankful for the food.  It really raised the morale and hopes of the village at a difficult time.  Thank you to all!

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Warning: Pirates Terrorizing the River Villages of the Colombian Amazon!

Pirates in the River

If you had told me 20 years ago that I would one day be starting a social media campaign to stop REAL pirates, I would not have believed it.  BUT HERE IT GOES...


When I arrived in the village seven months ago, there was talk of pirates in the river.  I didn't think much of it, as I knew that there were instances of people having things stolen by criminals in isolated parts of the Amazon.  As I had many other things to do, I didn't investigate further.

But the rumors I was hearing about the robberies were increasing.  Some of the villagers started to warn me to be careful, as I had weekly trips on the river.  Then, one month after the quarantine in Leticia was eased, the father of one of our students in the Amazon Pueblo scholarship program was robbed at gunpoint!  Days later in a second incident, one of our scholarship students and his brother were also robbed.

Going upriver in our boat.

At this point, we asked many questions to understand what was going on.  The remaining part of this post contains the information that we learned and the possible actions that we may take going forward.  We have not included the names of the people we spoke with in order to protect the identities of the people.


A bit of background

For the last two and a half years a criminal band has been living on Isla Corea (Korea Island), a large island close to Isla de Los Micos (Monkey Island).  This is about 3 miles downriver from the village where we work, La Libertad.  The band is composed of Peruvians (Isla Corea is located in Peruvian waters) and Brazilians.  Their island is about 25 miles upriver from the Brazilian border.  They have been periodically robbing people passing in small boats, the indigenous of the communities upriver from Isla Corea.  They are pirates.

The Colombian coast guard is very aware of the pirates.  The difficulty in stopping the criminals is because the coast guard is not allowed to enter and arrest anyone in waters outside of Colombia.  When the coast guard is patrolling, the pirates retreat to their island to go further upriver (a day's travel) to rob in another area.  That is why this problem has persisted for over two years.

One afternoon we passed a Coast Guard
patrol boat in front of Isla Corea.

Contact with the Colombian Coast Guard

After we learned a good amount of what was happening, we went to report it at the Coast Guard base in Leticia.  At times it is easier for a foreigner to talk with the police or other authorities.  The indigenous people do not always trust, or outright fear, the police or military.

The coast guard base of Leticia

At the base, we waited for about 30 minutes to speak with someone.  The person we spoke with was courteous and attentive.  He knew exactly what we were talking about.  He expressed his frustration with what was going on.  He said that they were working on a diplomatic process with the Peruvians to stop the pirates.  He asked us to send him our report using the cell phone application WhatsApp, which is common and one of the most reliable ways to communicate in the Amazon.  When I arrived in my apartment in Bogota I sent him the report.

Here is the modified version of the report:

Dear .......,

Thank you for speaking with me in Leticia.  At this moment I am in Bogota.  Here is the information I collected from the villagers of some of the affected communities:

On October 2nd six boats were robbed by the pirates.  I spoke with one person from Puerto Triunfo who was robbed that day at 10 am.  He said they had the following weapons: two mini-Uzis, one assault rifle, four pistols, a shotgun, and a machete.

Mini Uzi

It was reported to me that the criminal band consists of 4 Brazilians and 6 Peruvians from Puerto Alegre 2nd zone.  They include members of a specific family; four brothers.  They live in a group of 6 or 7 houses on the Island of Korea.  They have a 7-meter aluminum boat with a 40 hp motor.

Map of Isla Corea pirate base and surrounding communities

The pirate base of Isla Corea
They frequently leave to rob people from the top of the point of the Island of Korea.  When they are being pursued by the law they exit from the river at the bottom of the island.

They steal almost anything of value; motors, cell phones, watches, food, shoes.  They hit the people during the robberies.  On the island, they have a depository where they sell the boat motors and other goods.  For example, a stolen longtail 13hp motor (called a "peke peke" in the Amazon) may be bought for 100 to 150 dollars, 20% of its new value.

The everpresent peke-peke motor of the Colombian Amazon.

The people of the indigenous villages above the Island of Korea are afraid to pass the island or to fish in the area.  They tell me that the pirates have been operating in the area for the past two years, but the frequency of attacks has recently, and greatly, increased.

When the Colombian Coast Guard is patrolling the area, the villagers tell me that the pirates go upriver to steal from people further upriver in Tabocal on the Peruvian side of the border.

Peruvian flag

The villagers told me that the police of Santa Sofia are aware of the problem, but do not call for help when they see the pirates.

I was told that more than a year ago a group of people from Macedonia reported a robbery to the police in Leticia.  After they made the report, the pirates went to Macedonia and threatened the lives of anyone who reported them.  Since this time, the villagers are reluctant to make further reports, for fear of being killed.

The villagers told me that the police of the Puesta Yauma de PerĂº first zone are paid 2,500 Reales by the pirates every 15 days as a bribe to allow them to operate.

Please keep me updated on what is happening and the safety of the area.  If I can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Ben Angulo 

The result of the letter to the coast guard

I contacted a friend in Colombia who followed up with the letter I sent to the Coast Guard.  She said they are in the process of trying to stop the pirates.  She mentioned that a recommendation from our contact at the Coast Guard base was to have the villagers travel with guns.  I'm not sure if this would improve or complicate the problem.  So far, no one has been killed by the pirates.  Might the escalation of arms cause more problems?

A single-shot, 20 gauge shotgun from Peru.  These
are homemade and sell for around $100 each.  Many
villagers use these guns to hunt small game.

I have been attempting to contact others about the pirate problem, but communication is very difficult in the region.


Our Plan to Stop the Pirates

Gather information  We can document when attacks occur, look for patterns, and get a better idea of everything that is happening.  This will allow us to make more informed decisions

Photograph with telephoto lenses
from the Colombian side of the river?

Drone flights to take surveillance pictures/video of
activity on the island and river?

Organize the villages Meet with all of the villages being affected by the pirates.  Arrange times for the villagers to travel together in small boat "convoys", which are less of a desirable target.  Have all the villages contribute to the collection of information.

Report activity to the police and coast guard  We can periodically report on the action of the pirates to the authorities.  We may be able to more effectively coordinate the travel times of the villages to the patrol times of the coast guard boats.

Warn people and spread the word A reason that the pirates are able to continue to do what they do is that people are afraid to take action against them.  They are afraid to report to the authorities.  They are afraid to talk.  We can do this by making connections to the outside media, be it in Leticia, Bogota, Colombia, or the world.

One thing we DO NOT want to do

We do not want to make the problem worse.  As we mentioned earlier, so far no one has been killed.  Through the actions by Amazon Pueblo, we do not want to be responsible for the serious injury or death of the people of the river villages.  However, we do want to stop the piracy and the pirates continuing exploitation of the vulnerable people of the Amazon.  We want to help.


What do you think?  Please comment below with any ideas, and spread the word about our mission!


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Fishing nets during Covid

Fish to live
The first few months of the outbreak were the worst, food-wise, in the village.  Over three-quarters of the villagers' income was from tourism, which became nonexistent overnight.  They started to plant more crops to eat, but they would take months to grow.  One thing that we could do for more food was fish.  This is one benefit of living along the Amazon River!



While it is possible to fish with a hand line, it takes a lot of time and does not provide enough fish for a family.  Mostly the children fish by hand, which they truly enjoy.  But when they need to feed a family of eight or more, fishing nets are the answer!


At the start of the pandemic, we did not have enough nets to meet the increased food needs.  This is one area where we could easily, and quickly, make a difference.  Below are pictures that show the way nets are prepared and used.  

Preparing the net
The materials used were bought in the city of Tabatinga, Brazil.  In all, the cost was about $40 USD for one net.  The materials needed are: 150 of net, 150 feet of 1/8 inch cord, one pound of lead weights, 200 feet of heavy, black, nylon thread, and many small, empty, plastic bottles or small chunks of styrofoam.


To prepare a fishing net takes about three days of work.  It will make a net that is about 150 feet long.  Mainly adults and teenagers work to make a finished net.


First, the outer covering of the cord is removed.  This doubles the length of the cord.  The cord is then tied to the tops and bottom of the netting with the heavy thread.  This is the most tedious and time-consuming part of making the net.  The parents will usually teach their older children how to make the proper knots and spacing.  Lead weights are placed along the bottom of the net so that it will sink properly in the water.

Gabriel working on the net.  He was much faster and more
 accurate in his technique than I was.


A boring video of Ben preparing the net.


Fishing on the Amazon
Along the top of the net, at spaces between 10 feet, small plastic bottles, or chunks of styrofoam are secured.  These are not bought, they are saved or scavenged.  They then go onto the river in small wooden boats.  They may or may not have small, gasoline-powered motors.  Depending on the water level and the time of year, they may travel up to one-half hour to their fishing spot.  Then the net is lowered into the water.  After one hour or more in the water, the nets are pulled up, checked, and brought back to the village.



Bringing the catch home
When the fishers arriving at the village they are greeted by their family and friends.  They help to take the fish out of the net.  At times this is dangerous.  Piranha that has been caught in the net, while they are eaten, can also cause a serious bite to the fisher!



After sorting, the fish are ready to take home.  When a catch is very good, they will give some to their friends or neighbors, or sell them to others in their village or neighboring villages.




The best part
At home, the fish may be salted to eat at a later time.  More frequently it is fried in a pan with oil, grilled over an open fire, or cooked into a stew.  The villages eat fish for up to three meals a day!



At last, the fried fish and bread are ready to eat.  Delicious!



Please enjoy this video of the catch arriving and fish being cleaned.  Thank you for the video, Stephan!





Thursday, October 22, 2020

SOS in the Jungle: Save Our Students' teeth!

The story of our help with dental care in La Libertad
"Some tortures are physical and some are mental, but the one that is both Is dental."
Ogden Nash



Our first dental service to the community was in June 2015.  Part of our program included having volunteers visit and work in the village.  We had a dentist from Canada stay for three days.  She gave a brief dental exam to everyone who wanted it.  About 100 children and 20 adults were seen.  She made recommendations, and then pulled the teeth that were beyond saving from 10 people.


Most of the children had never been to a dentist.  If they had been, it was to remove a rotted tooth.  They waited until the pain became unbearable, at which point they travel downriver with their parents to find a dentist to pull the tooth.  I do not know any children who have received tooth restoration for cavities.


While the teachers in the village school encourage the students to brush their teeth, few do.  Most do not have toothbrushes or toothpaste.  They have never heard of dental floss.



Their diet is high in carbohydrates (plantain, cassava, and bread when available) and they often eat candy which is brought by many visiting tourists or by their parents after a trip to the city.  Cassava is also eaten in a course-ground, roasted form called farina.  This leads to problems of abrasion and damage to the teeth.




The most common problems are cavities and advanced tooth decay.  Most of the younger children lose many of their baby teeth to decay.  As teenagers, some have lost permanent teeth.  By the age of 50, many people have lost up to one-quarter of all teeth.


After we evaluated the villagers, the worst cases had their unsavable teeth pulled.  We did this in one of the cleanest places in the village, the kitchen of the volunteer guesthouse.


Which brings us to the present.  Other than the one-time dental care offered in 2015, we have not had a dental program.  During the past year, the need of the students in the scholarship program was so obvious that we had to do something.



We have always encouraged the buying of toothbrushes and paste with their yearly scholarships, but now we teach and strongly encourage them to brush.  By the time some of the kids come to us for help, the tooth that is bothering them had so much decay that it has to be removed.  Upon inspection, cavities are almost always present.  However, their parents do not seek treatment because of the cost, and they do not yet cause significant, constant pain.



Now we look for funds to treat the scholarship student in the city of Leticia.  This is about a seven-hour round trip from the village of La Libertad.  The students wait for a passing boat to pick them up between 4:30 and 5:30 in the morning.  They usually return, after receiving treatment, between 3:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon.



During the pandemic, health/dental care has been especially lacking.  Colombia has been one of the countries with the longest lock-down periods in the world.  This has caused extreme hardship to the vast majority of the indigenous people.  The public health system where they may have received treatment in extreme dental cases has been closed.  Due to corruption and mismanagement, the complete public health system of the Colombian Amazon collapsed one week after the virus arrived in force.

 


Would you like to help?

Donations for the dental care of individual students is greatly needed.  We appreciate help in any form.  The students always need toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss.

We recently found a low-priced, and mostly clean, dentist in the port of  Leticia.  We take the simpler cases there.  The cost of extraction is 15 dollars.  To treat and fill a cavity the price ranges from 15 to 20 dollars.  Teeth cleaning is 15 dollars.  Orthodontic treatments (at a different office) run from 250 to 350 per year.  (The boy in the last two pictures really needs braces.)

We accept donations through Chuffed.org.  They have worked well with us for three years.

https://chuffed.org/project/sos-in-the-jungle-save-our-students-teeth


Would you like to sponsor the education of a student?

Our main program provides $110 once a year scholarships for students in the Amazon.  This allows them to buy uniforms, shoes, personal hygiene items, notebooks, pens, and other school supplies.  Sometimes this help is all they need to encourage them to stay in school and to do well.

https://chuffed.org/project/scholarships-for-amazonian-indigenous-students-copy


Giving Tuesday

We will also be doing a fundraising drive for scholarships and our other programs on Giving Tuesday, December 1, 2020.  Most of that will be through Facebook, but I also expect to be sending a newsletter by email.

Here is the link to our Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/AmazonPueblo


Monday, October 12, 2020

Amazon Pueblo: Should our work go on?

An open letter from the director of Amazon Pueblo: Should we continue operations? 

This week I returned to civilization, and a good internet connection, in Bogota.  I write this letter to share the reality of our work. We, the board of directors, believe in the truth. We will not publicize only the "good news" and hide the difficulties that we face.


Dear Friends and Patrons of Amazon Pueblo,

Overview 

During the pandemic, things were, and continue to be, very difficult in the Amazon. The pressures of Covid-19 graphically exposed heinous corruption problems in the levels of the national, regional, and local governments and supporting organizations. During the past four years, Amazon Pueblo has received no financial or co-sponsored project help from any Colombian government organization. The health care system of the Colombian Amazon collapsed one week after the virus arrived in force. In the past, we have faced opposition to our work from some of the villagers. During the pandemic, over half of the village has been involved with the cultivation of coca to produce cocaine. The project's guest house and facilities were used to house narcotics workers. Alcohol abuse and domestic violence in the village have dramatically increased. One of the villagers, an uncle of one of the students in the scholarship program, was violently murdered four weeks ago. This was not reported to the police. His killer remains at large. 

What progress have we made in the village? Is the cost and effort of what we have been doing worth the results that we have seen? Should we continue operations? 


The history of our mission 

Amazon Pueblo's first mission was to encourage the development of sustainable business in the village.  The intent was to give the villagers more opportunities to work. This plan specifically included alternatives to working in the cocaine industry.

After problems in the community associated with a lack of education (90% illiteracy, severe math deficiencies, and lack of planning/implementation strategies) and diverse work experience, we revised our mission.  We elected to educate the youth of the Amazon. The younger generation is more open to learning and the changes which will help them to engage in sustainable business.  Three years ago, we made this decision.  

In August of 2017, we formally left the village. That is when we revised our mission.  Part of the reason we exited was due to narcotics traffickers living in La Libertad and using it as the main entry point in Colombia for their coca fields, which were a three-hour fast hike inland from our village.  They had permission to operate in the village from the majority of the villagers.  The traffickers were mainly Peruvian. 

Three months after we severed our official ties with the village, the Colombian National Police entered the jungle by boat and hiked to the fields.  They destroyed and burned everything.  They arrested seven of our villagers, but all of the Peruvians escaped. 

As mentioned, we formally ceased working in La Libertad and expanded our efforts to other areas of the Amazon in Leticia, Colombia, Tabatinga, Brazil, and Caballococha, Peru.  However, we continued to provide yearly scholarships for up to 14 students from La Libertad.  Over the past three years, we have slowly improved our relations with the people.  Last fall, after much discussion and clarification of expectations, we resumed formal operations in the village. 


Alcohol abuse and domestic violence 

As alcohol abuse is such a force within the lives of many families, it deserves its section of this letter. From its founding over 25 years ago, the village has had problems with alcohol. The pandemic has only amplified these problems. 

Even when the results of alcoholism are extreme domestic violence, it is difficult for others to intervene. Due to fear of retribution, neighbors and family members are reluctant to stop fights between spouses, including when their lives may be in jeopardy. Three years ago, one of our scholarship student's mothers would not give her intoxicated husband the household's money for food, which he demanded to buy alcohol to continue his drinking binge. He hit her in the throat, causing an injury that led to her passing three weeks later. She was taken to the local hospital, but due to the terrible standard of care available to indigenous people (in part due to corruption), the injury to her throat was not repaired, and she starved to death. 

The villagers respond very negatively to criticisms or suggestions that they drink less and work or give more attention to their families. In some ways, I don't blame them. Who wants to have someone from another country tell them what to do when the habits are life-long and enjoyable, however destructive? 


Narcotic industry 

We have dealt with narcotics issues for over three years.  It is a story that has many subtleties that are influenced by the pressures and realities of life in the Amazon.   

Narcotics workers during the quarantine  

During this winter, after two months of quarantine in Leticia, I received permission to provide humanitarian food-aid to the village.  We raised a little over $1,000 for this aid.  After we delivered the food, I arrived at the volunteer guesthouse.  When I arrived at the project's houses, I was surprised to find eight Peruvian drug workers living there.  On the first floor of the house, they had over 200 gallons of gasoline, cement, and other supplies.  I told them that I did not want any problems, but I could not associate with people in the drug trade. They told me they were loggers and in-route to cut lumber in the jungle and planned to leave soon.  I accepted their explanation.  Later that day, one of the students in the scholarship program (in a matter-of-fact way) told me they were narcotraficantes. He gave me details about who they were, where they were from, and what they were doing. 

Luckily, over the next two weeks after I delivered the food shipment during the quarantine, the drug workers gradually reduced their presence in La Libertad and left the guesthouse.  One week after they had left the guesthouse, the Colombian military was seen entering a tributary, which leads indirectly to their coca cultivation.  The field is a three-hour hike behind the village.  Three days later, the Colombian military entered the village with about ten soldiers.  They gave out food and visited the villagers.  At the same time, over 20 soldiers entered the tributary on coast guard boats.  They traveled up the waterway to destroy the crops, buildings, and equipment.  The Peruvians have not returned since the military arrived. 

I believe the Peruvian drug trade returned to La Libertad because the police and coast guard were no longer patrolling the river, resulting from the quarantine.  Virtually no aid or government presence was in La Libertad for two months.  No medical help arrived.  No face masks were worn in the village.  People freely traveled from the village to work in the coca fields.  Many of the villagers from La Libertad regularly traveled to work in the coca fields in Peru.  At one point, 70 people (1/4 of the total population) were working in Peru.  

The villagers needed and welcomed the work offered by the narcotraficantes.  Their primary source of income, tourism, was nonexistent.  The narcotics industry was stepping in to take advantage of the pandemic to expand their cultivation activities and to provide work and structure where the government was not.  When I returned after staying in the city of Leticia for two months, I noticed the people of La Libertad were visibly thinner. Some children were significantly malnourished. They were starving. 

Our approach to the narcotics industry 

Essential points to mention are the characteristics of the narcotics workers in the Amazon.  After being around and talking with them, they are nothing like what I previously thought.  They were ordinary people who desperately needed work.  They were not paid well, and their work was physically demanding.  They worked with toxic chemicals.  They were as young as ten years and as old as 60 years.  About 10% of the workforce was women.  Some of them traveled and stayed at the cultivation site with their spouse and children.  They were migrant workers.  Additionally, there were managers and AK-47 or shotgun carrying security at the cultivations.  At specific points along the trails to the cultivation were explosive traps. 

Telling the villagers that working in the drug trade is wrong and demeaning the parents because their 11-year-old son has been harvesting coca for money is not a productive approach. This approach may be dangerous to us. These people need food, clothing/shoes, and other necessities for living. Even without the pandemic, this is one of the only reliable options available for work. 

Amazon Pueblo seeks to provide alternatives to the illegal, dangerous, and poorly-paying (but paying) work. We believe that through education and guidance, we can bring about the cultural changes needed to support sustainable, legitimate businesses in the village. During the past eight years of being in La Libertad, we have seen the attitudes of the youth, and some adults, slowly change. 


Working with other entities 

Part of our original plan of helping the village was to connect them to outside services and agencies. During the past four years, Amazon Pueblo has not had success in working with any part of the Colombian government. We have been told that a significant reason for this lack of cooperation is because we are not willing to engage in grossly overinflated project budgets, with the excess money being siphoned to corrupt officials. 

A non-governmental organization in Leticia with which we have successfully partnered, Funmiroca, also has this problem. In 2015 they had one project approved to build a soccer field for 7000 US dollars. When the final papers arrived to sign, the cost had been increased to 21,000 US dollars. The director of Funmiroca refused to sign the paperwork, which resulted in the project being canceled. 


Health and educational systems 

The health and educational systems of the Amazon have been systematically robbed of funds.  This travesty has happened through years of government corruption. The adverse effects of the mismanagement and betrayal of public trust are in direct opposition to the goals we are trying to achieve. 

Waiting for this corruption to improve on its own is futile. Our programs are taking steps towards addressing these vital needs. 


Other considerations in our work with the villagers 

The villagers are not simple people. While the vast majority of them are illiterate, they are also intelligent. As do all people, they resent being told what is and is not suitable for them. 

Many of the villagers' experiences are limited. They do not readily see or understand the benefit of intangible things like education, good health care, or a robust and diverse work ethic. Some of the adults are very concrete in their thinking. If they cannot physically see something, it is not valuable to them. They more easily see the benefit of the physical "things" which they have. They do not always understand the many benefits of education or other programs. This is especially true when education or a plan or project does not directly benefit them. 

Influences of the modern world 

TV and movies are in the village. They see the illusions of what life is like in the outside world through videos, TV, and the tourism industry. They want what they see. Access to TV and movies has also placed a strain on relationships. They watch Spanish soap operas, with all of the accompanying drama and the mistreatment between spouses. Many times, the villagers have told me that interpersonal relationships in the village were better before TV. 

Electricity and TV are responsible for less work in the village. I have heard that it is more difficult for people to work in their fields, fish, or for the students to do homework when the call of entertainment is powerful. Some of the villagers prefer to watch the TV whenever they have electricity. 

Cultural shifts 

So what may be happening with the village culturally? Last year I spoke with a missionary who has been working for over 30 years in the Amazon. He told me that in many cases, their culture is caught between the old ways (10 years ago there was no electricity and 20 years ago some of the villagers wore clothing made of grass) and the new contact with the outside world. The villagers have experienced a shift from a communal way of living where everyone had equal access to the same resources (and work) to significant differences of wealth brought by contact with the outside world. People became envious of their neighbors, or even family members who had access to more wealth. 

No individual land rights 

The village of La Libertad is located on an indigenous reservation. There are no individual property rights. People are not allowed to own the land. Because of this, it is complicated for individuals to secure bank loans for business or other needs. No one has capital in their houses that they may use for loans. Additionally, as no one legally owns the land, the villagers may "vote out of the village" an individual or family they do not want. For example: If a group of envious people bands together, they may make life difficult for a person or family who does have a successful business of their own making but is seen as not "sharing" their wealth. 


Is what we are doing wanted or needed? 

Given all of the challenges that we face when trying to achieve our mission, why are we doing this? Is it our responsibility? Do the people of the village want and appreciate our help? 

There is a parable of a Mexican fisherman. It asks, "If I can fish for a short time each day to provide for my needs, then spend the majority of my day in a hammock, playing guitar with my friends and spending time with my family, why would I want to create a business and work hard for 15 - 20 years just to get back to the same place? 

At first thought, I thought, "Yes, that's right. Why would they want to work as hard as North Americans do, when they live a semi-retirement lifestyle now?". After thinking about it and getting to know their lives over the past eight years, I do not find the parable accurate. 

These people are impoverished. They can "fish" or grow plantain, or cassava, and have enough for the day. This does not allow them to save. As long as their health remains good, what they have will be adequate. But health problems always come up. Just making enough is not enough when they need to buy medicine or travel to the city for health care. They also want sturdy, and in some cases, fashionable clothing and shoes. The people watch what is on TV and in the movies. They want the things that they see. 

To achieve what they need for a good quality of life, they do need to work hard, and to plan, and to have a better education. But also, to do these things sustainably. Just waiting for the government or other organizations to give them something is not an option. They are starting to understand this. 


Appreciation from the village 

Since our return to the village one year ago, we are more welcomed by the villagers. A significant part of this improvement came about when they understood from where we received our funding.

A misconception that greatly complicated our work was that the villagers believed we received money from the Colombian government.  They thought that we were embezzling large sums of this and not providing adequate services for the village. They are accustomed to this form of corruption from many organizations in Colombia. When they understood that NOTHING came from the government (instead, it was from generous, private donors, mostly in the United States, Europe, and Colombia), they were much more appreciative.

I am now almost universally greeted with smiles and conversation when I walk through the village. 


Our influences on the community 

After eight years of working with the village of La Libertad, we have had a positive impact. 

  • The Student Scholarship Program gave twenty-five scholarships (14 to students in La Libertad) during 2020. All of the students and their families were very happy with and appreciative of the help. 
  • School Attendance The village school has noted an overall better attendance rate in school. 
  • Aluminum Boat Provided an aluminum boat for safe and fast transportation, especially for emergency medical trips. 
  • Bathrooms Many more bathrooms (five of the nine houses in our barrio have bathrooms, opposed to just one bathroom, the volunteers' guesthouse, four years ago) 
  • Water Treatment Fewer children with distended stomachs due to intestinal parasites (in part from a rainwater treatment plant provided by a United Nations program, in-part from our health education efforts). 
  • Wooden Building Preservation More houses being painted to preserve the wood (three of nine homes in our barrio) 
  • Responsible Trash Disposal There is noticeably less trash around the village. 
  • Agricultural Loans Provided We selectively gave microloans to support agriculture, mainly yucca cultivation, to families in La Libertad. 
  • Future Agricultural Opportunities We provided cloned fruit and cacao trees to La Libertad and our partners in Leticia. When they are of sufficient size, they may be used to produce additional clones. These trees will help with food security and business. 
  • Volunteers in the village Over 30 volunteers have provided work, educational, and enrichment
    activities to the children and adults. 
  • Student Dental Program Within the past year, we have informally provided dental treatment for students in the scholarship program and some of their family members. 
  • Health Care Center We are raising funds to build the first health care center in La Libertad. The center is truly needed. There is currently an outbreak of intestinal worms and scabies in La Libertad. These very treatable diseases make it difficult for students to do well in school. We hope to build the center in 2021. 


Should we continue our mission in the Amazon?  

I believe, emphatically, yes. Trying to solve all of the problems in the village is not possible. We should focus on supporting the education of the youth towards the goal of sustainable business. That also involves, to a limited extent, supporting the community that they live in to be healthy and sane. 


Serenity 

I recently came across the serenity prayer. I think it is an excellent approach to our work in the Amazon. 

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Sincerely,

Ben Angulo