Helping a forgotten village
by Carolyn Oxlee
remote sub-tropical village in Ecuador has been “adopted”
by local Red Cross volunteers, who give up their weekends to
provide the health and social care that until recently has been
most notable by its absence.
San Gerardo is a peaceful village; the only noise is that
of dogs barking and distorted Latin music coming from old
cassette players. Chickens wander freely in and out of the
wooden houses, while the new church lies half built due to
lack of money. Rich in green foliage and colourful pink and
red flowers, the village survives from agriculture: coffee
and cocoa, bananas and passion fruit, rice and maize.
Not long ago, the 79 families living in San Gerardo had no
clean water, no electricity, inadequate sanitation and no
health services. People did not wash their hands, boil their
water or burn their rubbish. Thanks to
the efforts of the Ecuadorian Red Cross Society (ERCS), how-ever,
all that is changing.
The Bolivar branch of the ERCS runs a community develop-ment
project that has facilitated the supply of clean water and
electricity and provided necessary materials for building
latrines. It organises weekend visits of professionals and
specialists; loans money for villagers to expand their crops
and animals; and encourages initiative and mutual support
within the community.
Of the many facets of this project, it is the community
action weekends that really capture the spirit of voluntarism
at its best. Professional doctors, dentists and laboratory
technicians bring their own equipment and devote a weekend
to the village, accompanied by relief and social workers.
On a given Saturday, two dentists spend the day cleaning,
filling and even extracting teeth. The general state of teeth
in the village is poor, and several of their 20 patients need
up to three fillings each. Seventeen people, the majority
of whom are elderly, may queue up to see the doctor. But the
busiest person all weekend is a laboratory technician who
has a total of 77 urine, stool and blood tests to carry out.
The tests prove that most of the villagers suffer from parasites.
A token charge of 2,000 sucres (US$ 0.65) is made for consultations,
and 5,000 for treatment. Likewise, a small charge is levied
for drugs dispensed, as one of the key elements of the programme
is encouraging the villagers to participate in their own self-improvement.
“We want to avoid paternalism,” says Marcela Suarez,
the director of the programme. “People don’t really
achieve anything if everything is handed out free.”
Teams of up to 20 people including general relief workers
visit San Gerardo every two months. Smaller teams of up to
five volunteers go every other weekend. The improvements to
the village as a result of the programme are obvious, and
are not only the physical ones such as latrines. “The
Red Cross is making us more united as a community. Before
it was each to his own. Now we talk to each other and share
knowledge,” explains chicken farmer Mesias Guevara.
In order to provide continuity to the programme, the Red
Cross has placed three full-time advisors in the village:
one to provide agricultural advice, one to take care of social
and welfare matters and one for health.
Investment that pays
Another aspect of the development programme is its credit
scheme through which the ERCS loans the villagers sums of
US$ 150-300 to expand their crops or to take up livestock
farming. As well as giving them the chance to increase their
earnings, it has also been a key factor in gaining the confidence
of the people in San Gerardo who were initially sceptical
about the whole programme, having been disappointed by false
promises of other organizations in the past.
One family loan has enabled brothers Balter and William Muñoz
to rent and plant more ground. By 7 a.m., they are already
at work in the fields, cutting down the weeds that are growing
around their rice clumps. Once the rice is harvested, they
will plant maize, then another rice crop later in the year.
Because the climate is favourable — plenty of sunshine
and rain — they can harvest three short-cycle crops
a year. “The loan is good, because before we didn’t
have enough land to keep us busy,” says Balter, 25.
The ERCS volunteers first came to San Gerardo in 1982, but
the programme only took on its current form two years ago
when the Finnish and Spanish Red Cross Societies started funding
it. So far, assistance has totalled US$ 61,000. But although
the volunteers are enthusiastic and devoted, there is a limit
to what can be achieved with only goodwill, little money and
But the ERCS acknowledges that pouring in external aid would
not be waving a magic wand, as the Society does not have the
infrastructure to use it. “Before we can expand, we
need an adequate administration system, the right people and
some good project ideas,” says Dr Tito Cabezas, ERCS’s
Dr Cabezas, who has been taking steps to remedy the inadequacies
since he stepped into the job two years ago, has great expectations
for the expansion of the community development idea. This
is already under way, with two more due to start in Indian
communities in the Andes mountains with funding offered by
the Spanish Red Cross, and Cabezas hopes that such projects
will eventually serve as a new focus for the National Society
whose main activity has long been blood banks. “More
than two-thirds of Ecuadorians live in poverty, and community
development projects to help them will be one of the most
important areas of work for the ERCS over the next few years,”
Dr Cabezas says.
There are lessons to be drawn from the scheme. Ten families
originally took out loans for chickens, but the small market
became saturated because they all bought at once. Another
problem encountered was the branch’s lack of experience
at how to approach a community and identify problems.
“We thought we knew what was best for them, but this
approach is wrong, and the ideas have to come from the community,”
says Dr Guillermo Lombeyda, president of the Bolivar branch
of ERCS. “Next time, we would get to know the community
better before we start,” he adds. He also feels the
use of volunteers is a limitation of the project, as he cannot
ask them to give up too much of their time.
Most important is the lesson that the project does not benefit
the village alone. “It’s just as good for the
Red Cross as it is for the community. If we don’t have
projects with results, then our volunteers will become demotivated,
and lose their raison d’être. In addition, our
volunteers come away enriched by the experience,” says
Dr Cabezas. In this sense, the success of this first project
bodes well for future development of the National Society.
Carolyn Oxlee is a freelance journalist who has worked as
an information delegate for the Federation.
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