Community projects fight poverty and promote human rights in Costa Rica and Panama
For many people, Costa Rica conjures images of ecotourism and coffee plantations. The Panama Canal is probably all most people know about Panama.
OPSEU Regional Vice-president Nancy Pridham, Social Justice Fund member Joanne Sheehan, representing the Provincial Human Rights Committee, and Senior Campaigns Officer Megan Park got a very different view when they toured the two countries with a group from Horizons of Friendship, February 2 -16.
As in Canada, the push by governments and corporations to cut taxes, privatize public services and drive down wages has deepened inequality in Costa Rica and Panama. About 20 per cent of Costa Ricans live under the poverty line. In Panama, 40 per cent are poor. The poorest people in both countries are the indigenous and afro-descendant populations. Two waves of afro-descendants were the slaves who laboured in the coffee and banana plantations of Costa Rica and the Caribbean workers who built the Panama Canal.
Horizons of Friendship is an international development organization based in Cobourg. It works with 22 local organizations in Central America to support self-help projects which promote public health, sustainable development, education and racial and gender equality. OPSEU’s Social Justice Fund provides funding to Horizons.
Tour participants heard moving testimonials about the efforts of local organizations to improve the lives of the people they work with.
“I had no life expectation when I got here. Then there came a moment when I felt accepted and I started to change,” said a resident of the Place of Hope, a home in San Jose, Costa Rica, for people living with HIV/AIDS, many struggling with drug addictions after years of living on the streets. The operator of the home, Humanitas, works with vulnerable, socially-excluded populations including transgendered people and sex trade workers. It runs outreach programs, researches the social and economic factors that contribute to the disease and monitors the human rights situation for people living with HIV/AIDs across Central America.
“Each number represents a loss for the families and to the larger society. When we have the knowledge, we have to do something,” said lawyer Ana Carcedo, during her presentation on a regional project to combat violence against women, lead by the Feminist Information and Action Centre (CEFEMINA). The number of women murdered in Central America doubled between 2000 and 2006. The group compiles data on femicide, the killing of women because they are women, and lobbies decision-makers to investigate and prosecute all killings of women.
“We have been able to motivate people. We have 60 per cent more volunteers – we need your help to make this a sustainable struggle,” said Laura Hill of the Caribbean Project Association (APC). Hill explained Costa Rica’s afro-descendant population faces discrimination in many aspects of public life, including access to education, health care, bank loans and jobs. APC works to make afro-descendants ‘visible’ through public awareness campaigns, political networking and support for community projects, including a weekly radio program for young people and the publication of an Afro-Caribbean businesses directory.
“The privatization of ports and roads elsewhere in Costa Rica has been a major failure,” said Winston Norman, the general secretary of a provincial trade union fighting the privatization of one of Costa Rica’s busiest ports. If the privatization goes ahead, jobs will be cut, working conditions will deteriorate and public services in Limòn province will lose a much-needed source of revenue.
The outlook for trade unions continues to deteriorate in Costa Rica, according to an annual survey by an international labour organization. There are few free trade unions in the private sector and the wages of public sector workers are being cut by the conservative national government.
“We suffer a great deal of poverty … We come from villages far away… we have to walk up to two days to come here to sell goods, milk and cheese,” said Nicolasa Juiminez, a leader of the indigenous Ngobe-Bugle people of Panama who govern a rugged and mountainous territory of 6,000 square kilometres. It’s a constant struggle for the Ngobe-Bugle to keep alive their language and culture and control access to their land. Young people migrate to the cities to find work and foreign companies, including Canadian firms, want to mine their land.
“The community takes responsibility for the education of children. We sow the seeds so the kids learn there can be a different way to do things,” said Flora Eugenia Villalobos, founder, of the Teaching Mothers Organization, (OMMA). OMMA has set up co-operative kindergartens in more than 250 poor, rural and indigenous communities in Panama for the past 40 years. The principle is that all parents, regardless of their level of formal education, are teachers of their children. Women, and some men, receive skills training and most importantly, a huge boost to their self esteem.
“Supporting social justice movements outside of Canada is about making connections,” said Nancy Pridham. “With privatization and public sector cuts we see the same corporate agenda at work and we see the same vulnerable groups paying the price. For example, the disappearance and deaths of aboriginal women both in Canada and Latin America go unnoticed.”
“OPSEU has to be involved in the fight for social justice outside of Canada because of what’s going on here at home,” said Joanne Sheehan. “Our government condones human right abuses in places like Columbia and ignores the destructive environmental practices of our mining companies.”