In the lush countryside of the Panamanian province of Cocle lies the small community of Membrillo. The locals here are humble campesinos carrying on the labor-intensive traditions of rural subsistence living. By the standards of modernity and capitalist progress, people here are poor. And it is precisely for this reason that every day more and more people are fleeing the countryside in hopes of obtaining their piece of the pie of prosperity in the city. At nearly every turn of every winding country footpath, one can see the signs that read “Se Vende” — “For Sale.”
Yet, in the midst of this resignation, there is a beacon of hope. Demetrio Martinez, a 38-year-old campesino measuring just over five feet tall, is one of the towering figures in Panama’s campesino resistance movement. His goal and that of the movement — to stay on the land and cultivate it using sustainable and organic methods — may sound simple, but nothing can be more radical in the context of the frenetic rural exodus which is taking place in Membrillo and in the countryside all across the country.
“When I tell people not to sell their land and that they can instead use it to bring about the prosperity they seek, they think I am crazy,” says Demetrio with a smirk. To him, self-sustaining food production is the cornerstone of human satisfaction, liberty and progress. It was a theme I heard over and over again during my recent two-week stay at his five-hectare experiment in ecological resistance.
Poverty of perspective
From the earthen shelter he calls home, Demetrio, a father of seven children ranging in ages from 19 to 1, whose monthly income from the sale of his organic produce never exceeds $140, sheds a different light on the conventional understanding of poverty:
Many look at me and laugh and point their fingers and use me as an example to justify their decision to abandon their terrenos [lands] and the campesino way of life. They look at me and my family and see poverty. They do not understand our wealth. They do not understand that our situation is fruit of a conscious decision that I am making. This is where I want to be, on the land that my father first cultivated and settled on to establish his family of 12 children. We never go hungry. We have the ability to go to the field and harvest all of our meals and nourish ourselves with healthy food every day. The trees give us their fruits. We even have an abundance that we can store and provide to our guests. I do not depend on a paycheck to feed my household.
And quite a household it is. Apart from his wife and seven children, Demetrio’s parents, two sisters and their spouses, at least eight nieces and nephews, a cow, dozens of chickens, a handful of dogs, two families of ducks and two goats (one of them expecting), also reside on the property. All of them are well fed.
There are things that Demetrio and his family do not produce, however, which must be obtained with money. Demetrio’s eldest children, Pedro, 19, and Jose, 15, like their father, have not been able to pursue a formal education beyond the sixth grade. “I think that I would like to study agriculture at a university one day, but I always want to live in the campo,” said Pedro. “The work is harder here, but the life is better.”
All four dwellings on the property are made from wood and clay; the family built with their own hands. The floors are dirt and most of the roofs are thatched, fashioned from the property’s numerous palm trees. When asked why he chooses to build his houses from adobe and cobb, Demetrio is concise: “From earth we were made and to the earth we will return. In the meantime we can’t forget this.”
Cooking is done on a highly efficient word-burning stove, and there is no electricity whatsoever anywhere. When the sun sets, a few solar-powered lanterns, given as a gift to the family by a volunteer from Louisiana, make possible otherwise impossible activities such as putting away the dishes. When asked why he hasn’t brought electricity onto his land, he explains:
I am not against technology in itself. However, I am against the imposition and abuse of technology and the idea that certain things are necessary simply because they are marketed to us. There is a right way and wrong way to do things. For this reason, and as a matter of principle, we have not installed electricity on our property. It is not that electricity is bad, yet the idea that stability and happiness cannot be achieved without it is misguided. The business of energy is a very controversial topic right now here in Panama and all over the world. Big business is getting richer through the destruction of the environment, and we want to minimize our involvement in such enterprises as much as possible. There are alternatives out there, cleaner and more renewable options which I would like to investigate.
Solidarity near and far
The Martinez family’s success in sustainability has been facilitated by an organization known as Cosecha Sostenible Internacional, or Sustainable Harvest International. Founded in 1997 by former Peace Corps volunteer Florence Reed, the nonprofit has expanded its operations throughout other parts of Central America, including Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua. Cosecha — as it is known among the locals — seeks to assist farmers in overcoming poverty through their participation in the implementation of sustainable agricultural projects. Here in Panama, Cosecha’s team of seven technical experts work directly with nearly 150 families in projects ranging from small-scale organic crop production, reforestation, water conservation and filtration, composting toilets, raising animals and livestock, stove construction, traditional crafts, and more.
Local and international visitors and volunteers continue to frequent the Martinez land in hopes of catching a glimpse of and learning from the various projects being carried out.
Samantha Adelberg, a Fulbright Research Scholar currently studying sustainable agricultural practices in the nearby community of Pagua, praises the work being accomplished there after paying a visit during which she was able to assist Demetrio in planting rice. “I have been in Panama for almost three months, and today is the first time that I have seen anything like this,” she said. “Being here has opened a new window for me and has motivated me to learn more of the practices, techniques and struggle taking place here.”
Peace Corps volunteers such as Jorge Valdez continue to frequent the Martinez residence. “We have learned a great deal by being here,” said Valdez. “It is extremely impressive and inspirational what is being done, and we plan on using the knowledge that we have gained here in the future within the communities where we work.”
Greed and skepticism
Rodrigo Rodriguez, an agricultural and livestock engineer and director of Cosecha Sostenible Panama, elaborates on some of the challenges facing environmentalists in Panama:
Environmentalism is a very controversial theme here in Panama. All you have to do is read a newspaper or turn on the television and you can see examples, such as what is happening now in the community of Ancon. There is an alliance between government, private and university institutions that is promoting the methods of conventional, corporate-driven agriculture which relies heavily on the use of chemicals and other unsustainable, harmful products and practices which have had negative repercussions on regional biodiversity, the quality of soil, health of farmers and the culture of indigenous peoples. Alternative methods and models such as those that we promote, which go against conventional corporate and government practice, are interpreted as threats directed against the establishment.
But the opposition doesn’t always wear a suit and tie. As Cosecha technician Diomedes Arrocha explains:
One of the biggest obstacles is getting the families to accept and participate in projects of sustainability. They are used to doing things their own way, the conventional way, and they often times need a lot of convincing that the sustainable methods that we promote will be beneficial to them before they are willing to sign on. But we don’t force a project on anyone. We work with the families’ interests and limitations and respect their right to choose the type of project that best suits them. After all, if they aren’t interested and feel like they are obligated, the project is doomed to fail.
Demetrio considers it his duty to uphold the traditions, methods and practices of sustainable stewardship and to educate others by example. To this end, the doors of the Martinez residence are always open to receive guests wanting to learn, work or taste their way to a greater understanding of what is possible in the countryside. Like harvesting mustard greens and planting scallions, raising awareness is part of his job.
“I can go around all day telling people what I feel is right or wrong. But the real proof is in the living,” says Demetrio. “I want everyone to come and see what we are doing here and I want them to feel like they too can make their own contribution and grow their own sustenance. I want them to leave feeling empowered.”
As hard as it may be for some to understand how Demetrio and his family survive on less than $5 a day, it is perhaps even harder for him to fathom how one can seek to live in the polluted and food-insecure urban rat race. Demetrio has problems just like the rest of us. He often has to make difficult decisions, concessions and sacrifices.
Yet his smile is the flag of the resistance. Demetrio believes he is right where he belongs and he isn’t going anywhere. He is keeping hope alive, and for this we should all be grateful.