This is part 4 of an 8-part story sequence featuring Joaquín Reyes and his family. For two years, Sustainable Harvest International Field Trainer Mariano Navarro has worked with the Reyes, who are just about to enter the third phase of our program. To learn more about our phases and methodology, click here. Otherwise, read on!
Piedras Gordas, Panama – It’s midafternoon and people are sleepy. If you’ve spent time in Panama, you know exactly how the combination of heat and humidity can lead to sleepiness, especially at this time of day. We’ve chosen the stillness of the afternoon for a conversation with Eliaquim, Joaquín and Urita’s oldest son.
The rest of the family is spread out around the homestead. Under a corrugated metal roof that juts out into a veranda, Isabel, Eliaquim’s wife, swings gently on a hammock with their three-year-old son, Frederick Rafael.
Their daughter Nathalia (age five) runs around the yard, visiting her grandmother, Urita and making a game of throwing limes with her cousin, José. Several lime trees around the homestead are at their peak, producing enough fruit for both limeade and games.
For many youth in Panama, education is the key—the key to a better life, a better future, and increased opportunities. At age 28, Eliaquim is no longer a youth, but he still places massive importance on education. It wasn’t always this way, however.
THE RISK OF EDUCATION
Back in 2000, Eliaquim was 13-years-old and attending high school several towns away, as there was no high school in Piedras Gordas. During the week, he boarded with another family and came home on the weekends. Eliaquim was in his second year of high school when he failed an important test—by just two questions. Urita felt he wasn’t applying himself fully and the family decided that he should come home.
While that decision may seem harsh, it’s important to note the cost of Eliaquim’s education and the risks the family took in order to support him. Not only were Urita and Joaquín paying for Eliaquim’s travel to and from the school, they were also paying for his room and board, not to mention school supplies. Paying for Eliaquim’s education was a major strain on their pockets—a strain that became too much to bear. Most of their cash was being allocated toward Eliaquim’s education—not, for example, investing in building a new house made of durable materials like brick or cement. To date, they still live in the same quincha house (constructed from mud and natural fibers).
Thus, Eliaquim returned to Piedras Gordas.
“I spent my time playing soccer, hanging out with friends, and drinking…not doing much,” says Eliaquim (though we presume he was helping his father on the farm as well). “One day I said to myself, ‘what am I doing here?’ I wondered what my life would amount to if I kept living like that.”
He sat down and chatted with his mother, Urita, who reminded him of his potential.
“I’ve learned so much from her,” Eliaquim says, “About respect—both for others, and myself. She taught me to value who I am as a person, my values—not just my education. She also taught me about respect for women. Over the years, she’s helped me to grow both as a person and as a father.”
Since that low point, a new school popped up in Piedras Gordas—Ángel Guardia. To attend Ángel Guardia, students must be at least 15 years old. The school offers those who were otherwise unable to finish school the opportunity to graduate from high school. Eliaquim received a scholarship to Ángel Guardia and in just three years, earned a high school diploma.
Eliaquim notes that there are far more educational opportunities now than there were when his parents were growing up, particularly in rural communities, like Piedras Gordas. According to UNESCO, Panama spends about 3% of its GDP on education, which is low compared to the recommended 6% minimum. However, the Panamanian economy has experienced rapid GDP growth since 2000, which has expanded the nation’s investment in education. UNICEF reports that school enrollment at all levels (and especially upper levels) has dramatically increased.
TO BE A NURSE…OR NOT TO BE
After receiving his high school diploma, Eliaquim went on to work at a beach resort, and then as a security guard in the city. Using the money he saved, Eliaquim was able to pay his way through nursing school…up until about six months ago.
The cost of nursing school has remained constant: $100 a month. What’s changed is that Eliaquim is now married to Isabel, with whom he has two young children. Supporting the family has taken priority over finishing nursing school, at least for the time being.
For now, the four of them have moved back in with Urita and Joaquín in Piedras Gordas. Eliaquim has been helping Joaquín on the farm, assisting Urita with the sale of chickens, and trying to find work, but without a degree, it’s been difficult.
“I’m tired of living like this,” Eliaquim says, without self-pity or shame. He doesn’t sound destitute—he sounds frank.
“I want to be able to provide for my family. I want air conditioning and a beautiful house. When I tell all of this to my father, he says, ‘Okay, you are welcome to do all of that, but just remember, you can’t eat money.’ I know he’s right. I value the farm and the way I was raised, but it’s not all I want out of life.”
THE SEARCH FOR STABILITY
Nathalia comes running up to us and cups Eliaquim’s ear in her little hands, whispering. Two braids hang down her back. Eliaquim patiently listens, his thick eyebrows unmoving, his eyes expressing amusement at his daughter’s words. Nathalia turns her bright brown inquisitive eyes toward us as Eliaquim whispers back to her. She’s made up of equal parts shyness and curiosity—a bit at odds with each other. Her pink t-shirt reads, “Reach for the stars.” With one last glance in our direction, Nathalia heads back up to the kitchen to spy on us from afar.
“She wanted to know what we’re doing over here,” Eliaquim explains. “She’s so smart. I want to send her to private school. I want to save money, for my kids to learn English. I want to give her opportunities I didn’t have. Maybe she could even go abroad one day.”
As Eliaquim contemplates his options, he laments a conundrum so many young people face—the peace and quiet of rural areas coupled with the lack of well-paid job opportunities. The better jobs available in urban environments are coupled with confinement, danger, and lack of family support. Nostalgia for the pastoral life is coupled with the persistent lure of the city.
“In the city, you’re all locked up,” he says. “Everyone is inside. Here, everyone is outside, chatting and you can walk around in peace.”
Above all, what Eliaquim wants for his family is stability. He hopes to be able to finish nursing school and find work, but many things are unclear. What remains clear is Eliaquim and Isabel’s commitment to their children, despite their uncertainty.
RAPID GROWTH...AT A PRICE
Eliaquim is part of a generation that must determine how to cast for opportunities that both provide for their families while also balancing the effect of those opportunities on the environment. Many young people like Eliaquim end up working in the ever-growing tourism, construction, and service industries. These sectors create jobs, but these jobs don’t always have a positive impact on the environment.
The entire nation of Panama faces this decision as well, as rapid GDP growth has come with a heavy environmental cost. The drought this year caused the Chagres basin and the Panama Canal to start running out of water. Two cargo weight restrictions were applied, preventing certain classes of vessels from entering the canal, and subsequently, diverting millions of dollars that could have been earned from their passage. Without a reliable water supply, the Panama Canal is worthless, therefore protecting the river basins and the tropical forests ought to be a national priority. Nevertheless, land continues to be ravaged for conventional farming, cattle ranches, and development. Just west of Piedras Gordas a major mining operation has created a number of jobs while at the same time destroying a great many acres of wildlife habitat.
The question that people of Eliaquim’s generation need to find an answer to is how do they provide for their families AND protect the earth. We don’t have all the answers, but we do hope that some of the answers passed down to Eliaquim by Urita and Joaquín will help.
Joaquín and the family are only two years into our program. The first two years lay the foundation for what is to come. The majority of financial benefits pay off in the later years of our program. Many farmers who partner with us and graduate from our program report benefits like being able to pay for their children to go to school. It’s our hope that continuing with our program will help Joaquín be in a position to aid Eliaquim. In the meantime, we hope that Eliaquim can continue to learn and absorb as much as possible, while he meditates on what his next move will be.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
“Papa! Papa!” Nathalia calls to Eliaquim from up in the kitchen. He looks at her calmly, his face hardly changing. He puts one hand up, silently asking for her to be patient, to wait. She stops calling to him but continues to stare, with love, affection, and a bit of concern—it’s almost as if she knows he’s talking about her future. She wants him to stop worrying and come play.
Eliaquim’s own mother and father might feel the same way as Nathalia, wanting Eliaquim to stop worrying about an uncertain future and for him to invest himself in the family farm, which could sustain them for generations to come. Eliaquim, however, isn’t sure if that’s the path he wants to take. He loves the natural world he grew up in and has tasted the comfort of material wealth that many of us take for granted. The children of some of the families who have graduated from our program choose farming over other professions when they see how sustainable farming has allowed their parents to earn a decent living. Will Eliaquim? Time will tell.
“There are two kinds of people—people who destroy and people who protect,” Eliaquim says. He clearly associates himself with the latter. Nathalia waits for him in the shadows. His son and wife are still asleep on the hammock.
“We’ll just keep trying,” he says.
Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring an in-depth look at how climate change affects small farmers like the Reyes or, catch up on previous installments.