Jorge, affectionately known as Payaso (clown), was born in Esmeraldas but currently lives in Estero De Platano (about 2 hours away). Esmeraldas is the largest city in the province of Esmeraldas and has a quite large oil refinery. Payaso is the same age as Alagra, Sarah and I. In the past he has volunteered with the children in Estero after school. He lives here because he likes to surf and enjoys the tranquil lifestyle. He has lived here for more than three years. He has many good insights about the culture of the area and specifically the way of life in Estero.
One day Payaso and I were talking about a conundrum that I am constantly puzzling over. The topic is the poverty of Estero. I don’t understand the poverty that exists in this place. It seems that every person in the community has a piece of farmland that is extremely abundant. There is a huge amount of agriculture and people grow a good portion of the food that they eat. Esmeraldas is known as the green province. Fish, octopus, crabs, lobster, clams and other sorts of seafood are also abundant and mostly close to shore. Some of these items fetch a good amount of money of the market; octopus sells for $3.00/pound, in Estero (it is caught a short walk from the beach). The tourism industry is booming in Estero with Sunday being the big day, but many people visit on Friday and Saturday as well. The conundrum confronts these seemingly conflicting ideas, the abundance of the land mixed with the poverty of the people.
Although food seems to be plentiful, poverty still exists. I am not naive, there are certainly hungry people in Estero, but most people in the village have problems with being overweight, rather than malnourished. The poverty of Estero is more complex than a shortage of necessities. Payaso shared with me a cultural insight that has helped me to understand this conundrum. He said that the people in Estero are accustomed to living rather than producing. When it comes time to plant, he said, they plant enough for their family, even though the farm is much larger. When a person goes octopus hunting, they bring enough for their families to eat, rather than working a little bit longer to get an extra pound or so to sell. Payaso described this way of life very succinctly. He said that people of Estero live, but do not produce. The amazing thing about Estero, is that this subsistence lifestyle provides almost everything that a person needs in life. This lifestyle does not provide however, for healthcare, education, or pleasurable things. It is only enough to live.
Of course, producing the surplus is the hard part. Payaso thinks it is part of the culture. People only work as hard as they need to get by and live a very quiet and tranquil life other than that. I think this is for the most part true in Estero. What is lacking from this summation of the local attitude toward work is that people here desire more. They want things. Some want education for their children. Others can’t afford to take an ailing loved one to a good doctor (in Esmeraldas, ~$4.00/person each way and a 2 hour journey). Many people want DirectTV, electricity, water in their house (rather than a spigot outside), a sit down toilet (instead of one that doesn’t have a seat), a shower (that doesn’t require buckets) and a fridge. These are all luxuries in Estero that only a few can afford.
The reason that people in Estero live a subsistence lifestyle rather than produce a surplus is not simply because they do not want to. It is because there is not enough knowledge about how to create the surplus. Obviously, this is a key goal for Minerva Fellows. We are here to bridge the education gap. One of our goals is to leave the people of Estero a few new tools for gaining money.
Education is the first step. The school system does not encourage any amount of creative thinking. The students very frequently will have homework to copy letters, words, paragraphs, questions and answers, from their textbook to their notebook. This creates a sort of mindset that I am sure overtime has become entrenched in the culture. I see this problem in the Women’s Group. Very few of the women can think outside of the box to create new projects or products. I am working on giving them a formula for presenting new money making ideas at meetings that hopefully will get the wheels turning. We are combating this lack of creativity by having art supplies available in the library that children can use whenever they would like. We also have transformed our English classes with the primary school students into English/Art classes. These are great things for the youth of Estero, but this doesn’t address the problem for many years.
I am currently thinking about ways to become more knowledgable about the industries of Estero. I know that there are stores, fishing boats, agriculture, small restaurants, tourism and artistry. Almost everyone in Estero lives by some combination of these things. I would like to learn about the impediments in each of these industries that are stopping people at subsistence rather than surplus. I think it is partly a cultural mindset, and partly a question of ability. The question of ability, we are here to try and improve. The cultural mindset, so long as it perpetuates poverty, will need shift slightly in the process. Over time, I hope that it does.