A group of mestizo and Emberá farmers have convened at an organic demonstration farm in San Fernando, Centro de Capacitación de Agricultura Sostenible “San Fernando” established through cooperative efforts of the Government of Panama and a La Agencia EspaĖola de Cooperación Internacional an NGO from Spain. Even though it is the middle of growing season, a very labor-intensive period, these rural farmers have traveled from their farms to attend a ten-day seminar for those involved in TechnoServe’s two projects situated in the Panama Canal watershed. Both projects are related to reforestation and agroforestry, which center on organic agricultural implementation strategies.
The attendees have been having lunch in an adjacent room. A few have begun to gather again in the classroom for the afternoon session, a number of mestizo campesinos already seated while all the Emberá farmers are still lounging on the veranda outside the room. The campesinos are making jokes about the Emberá and their stupidity. Everyone is laughing, including the Panamanian tecnicos from the demonstration farm and from TechnoServe. Their jokes focus on one Emberá man in particular, Chamu, who lives in the Emberá village, La Bonga. Through TechnoServe, USAID paid him, along with others enrolled in AID’s CLASP program, nearly $2,000. (approximately ten times the average annual income of an Emberá man), to go to the US for two months to take a course in tropical agriculture at an learning center located in the desert of Arizona. Chamu remains on program salary as the in-town representative for TechnoServe in La Bonga.
Soon the Emberá enter the room and the seminar begins again. The topic turns to the raising and slaughtering of pigs. Immediately, Chamu asks a question about the timing of slaughter. “Isn’t this something that we should do during the new moon?” All the campesinos in the room laugh at this. Then the Panamanian campesino instructor who works at the demonstration farm says to Chamu, “Of course not. Look, what we are teaching here is science! The truth is that you can slaughter a pig at any time, the phase of the moon is inconsequential.” Chamu puts his hand down and does not ask another question during the rest of the seminar (Fieldnotes of 10.28.98).
Within two months, I am sitting in a three-day seminar at the Fundación ProniĖos de Darién agroecology demonstration farm owned and run by two mestizos and several local Emberá tecnicos. The farm is no more than a four-hour trip for each participant, a mix of campesinos, Kuna (indigenous) and Emberá (indigenous). The seminar, geared towards principles of agroecology, is for those who have decided to enter into a seed and animal lending contract with ProniĖos. As if by some sort of magic of ethnographic inquiry, at the point in the seminar focused on slaughtering pigs, an Emberá man asks, “Isn’t this something we should do only during the new moon?” The instructor, Pipong, an Emberá tecnico from a village in the region answers, “We are trying to establish which practices work. That is something we are doing by trying different things, things we have been doing for many years, and new things we are learning from talking to other farmers using other systems. We want you to tell us what is working well for you” (Fieldnotes of 1.13.99)
Later it was Chamu who told me that TechnoServe was withholding coffee seeds from the Emberá in La Bonga because the technicians didn’t like the reforestation work the Emberá had accomplished. “They think we are lazy.” When I asked him if he remembered the response to his question about the pig, he smiled and said, “Yes, I remember it very well.” He then asked me if I could help him find other NGOs for the people of La Bonga to work with in lieu of TechnoServe. When travelling to several campesino villages in the watershed with TechnoServe tecnico Luis Pinto, he mentioned to me that TechnoServe had had a terrible time getting viable coffee seeds this year and so had not been able to deliver all the seeds they had promised. I recognized that even though the lack of seed was legitimate, based on his experience, Chamu assumed the worst of TechnoServe when they failed to deliver the promised coffee seed supply (Fieldnotes of 2.2-4.99).
NGOs constitute one of the primary groups of actors implementing environmental development projects in Panama, as elsewhere. There is a standard discourse that NGOs are well positioned to impact the growth of civil society, based on the supposed inherent nature of NGOs of altruism and political liberalism which leads them to be inherently more responsible and accountable. The assumption is that NGOs are vital conduits to democracy for the rural poor and for government agencies spearheading rural development. They are the expert implementers, with the local know-how to carry out the work of development and democracy building. They are better able to read the pulse of the people and to speak their language. In fact, the discourse suggests, based on the assistance of NGOs, it is within the rural ranks in developing countries that the greatest potential for the development of civil society lies.
In reality, political, economic and social conditions often constrain NGOs in whatever potential they do have for responding to the needs of the rural poor, peasants and lower classes. In this age of participatory development ideals, liberal development discourse suggests that NGOs are more accountable to the public as well as more attuned to local needs and local ways of being and doing. At the same time, international and national GO and NGOs are increasingly employing other NGOs as project implementers, particularly as states are downsized and former state responsibilities are farmed out to NGOs and private enterprises. This often ties NGOs to larger organizations in powerful economic alliances, effectively undercutting the influence that NGOs might have to build participatory alliances amongst other organizations.
Creating a similar problematic, the notion that civil society can be grown by concentrating on the rural poor contradicts the competing discourse that civil society must be grounded in diversity. For entrenched power structures to be challenged and changed without armed revolution, a slow process of change necessitates the coming together of a wide variety of class interests and the leveraging power inherent to them. The rural poor, while featured prominently in the advertisements of NGOs and international aid organizations alike as the primary ingredients for civil participatory action, are only one facet vital to the restructuring of conditions that lead to environmental degradation and political disenfranchisement. If NGOs are to be players in this restructuring, their impact on a variety of national and international subjects is necessary. In this context, economic relations must be overtly linked to political relations and environmental action.
The need for widespread impact combined with the difficulties inherent in mobilizing diverse agendas, capabilities and knowledge sets brings many challenges to the work of environmental NGOs in Panama, as exemplified by the case of Fundación NATURA in chapter three. There are numerous NGOs funded through Fundación NATURA that ostensibly seek to impact changes in the economic, political and social structures leading to better management of the environment. Two such NGOs are TechnoServe and Fundación ProniĖos de Darién. Examining the case of each NGO provides a window into the various forms of knowledge and expertise employed to create pockets of political activity among various classes. It also further demonstrates the structural challenges to and limitations of NGOs in Panama in general, and these two NGOs in particular. The questions related to slaughtering pigs asked during each of the two seminars exemplifies that, while both NGOs are addressing concerns over deforestation and organic agriculture in the two areas of Panama identified by the government and other international NGOs as the most ecologically sensitive, the methods and the attitude of expertise vary greatly, as well as the scale of impact.
This chapter addresses the specific nature of formalized scientific knowledge as it is combined or pitted against more informal, local knowledge. Environmental NGOs in Panama are participating in the formation of a culture of civil participatory action. NGOs are heavily implicated in establishing what are acceptable forms of knowledge applicable to environmental action in the realm of civil organization and are a key part of the process of cultural and hegemonic norms.