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,
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.