Date: Fri, 27 Aug 1999 23:59:17 -0500 (CDT)
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Peasants Gain New Hope for Better Life
By Silvio Hernandez, IPS, 26 August 1999
PANAMA CITY, Aug 26 (IPS) - A rural development project sponsored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has provided new hope for a better life for 100 peasant families in the central Panamanian province of Veraguas.
The project, designed by Panama's Ministry of Farming and Livestock Development (MIDA) and supported by FAO, covers five communities in the district of Atalaya, 240 kilometres west of the capital.
Maria Teresa Benavides, an engineer in charge of the project, told IPS that it is oriented toward community training with an emphasis on gender equality, production support and institutional development.
Total investment amounted to 397,000 dollars, of which FAO provided 272,000 dollars and MIDA 125,000 dollars.
"The idea is (to help) the communities understand the need to incorporate women into the development process," Benavides indicated.
Benavides and the head of Mida's Rural Youth Programme, Evercio Gonzalez - who also has been part of the project, says that one of the main objectives achieved has been the repair of the road that connects the community with the city of Atalaya.
In addition to wider participation for women and youth in decision-making and fund-raising activities to repair the highway, the five communities learned that unity is vital in achieving collective benefits, Gonzalez told IPS.
"During the development of the project, we saw changes in how families lived with each other. There was a change in the attitude of the men, who gave more latitude to their women and children in making decisions," Benavides said.
In addition to repairing the road agency experts taught people new farming techniques, joining forces with the peasants to create communal nurseries with seeds that are more resistant to pests that attack root vegetables, such as yuca, as well introducing the cultivation of fruit, like pineapples.
They also organised the raising of pigs and chickens and taught people the techniques of rice production.
Gonzalez noted that since the initial training sessions, the communities have taken over all the productive tasks and administration of revenues and benefits generated from their cooperative labor - among which are aqueducts and a processing plant for various export products.
Both officials said that the technicians and workers from the Mida Department of Rural Development "also gained experience" from this project.
"It opened a whole new world to me," said Maria del Rosario Gonzalez, from the community of Las Animas, in an interview with IPS about the benefits she received from the project, entitled Rural Development with Gender Equity.
Maria del Rosario recalled that as a result of the group meetings and other discussions initiated in the community by the project workers, "the women's opinions are taken into account and the husbands don't order us around, as they did before."
"I feel that we are the leaders, now," said Serafina Torres, a resident of the community of Charco Azul.
Torres told IPS that before the arrival of experts from MIDA and FAO, no one had ever used any special techniques for raising pigs or chickens, or for growing tubers and rice.
She cited the case of a plant called the "name diamante" introduced by the project workers, which allowed the community to increase its harvest volume from 15 quintales (one quintal equals 46 kilogrammes) to more than 32 quintales from the same land area planted.
The men, too, say they are in favor of greater participation by their wives and families in making decisions and joining in the field work, roles that have been traditionally reserved for men in the "macho" culture that predominates in Panama's rural areas.
Vicente Navarro, president of the Association of Producers of Valbuena, said that "we learned to prioritise the community's problems, to take care of our natural resources and give women (more) participation."
After saying that without technical training for the residents, the "resources don't serve anything," Navarro added that "another thing I learned was to produce quality products to compete in the marketplace."
Other peasants, like Evaristo Gonzalez, president of the Association of Producers of Las Animas, Leonidas Rodriguez, from the same area, and Amado Quintero, from La Carrilla, thought that their lives were better since the FAO/MIDA project came to their areas.
"Before, we didn't know how to raise swine, and now we do. We never got any help from anybody (in the past)," Quintero told IPS.
Rodriguez said that the discussion groups led by the experts "have helped to bring families much closer together."
However, he asked for more assistance to carry out other projects, including the organisation of trade associations to further penetrate the commercial market.
"The times we have directly sold our products in Santiago (the provincial capital of Veraguas), we made 50 percent more than we are paid by the middle man who comes here to buy (our goods)," Rodriguez stressed.
The lucky peasants of Las Animas, Valbuena, Charco Azul, Los Penales and La Carrillo are just the tip of the iceburg in Panama, however, as 1.1 million people still live below the poverty line or in extreme poverty - earning less than one dollar a day. (END/IPS/sh/mj/dv/ks/mk/99)
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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