Three years ago, I traveled to the community of Rincon in the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca of Panama to visit my friend Gillian, who was working there as a community mobilizer with the organization Health Empowering Humanity. The Comarca is inhabited by the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous tribe – one of the most historically marginalized tribes in Central America. The community members upon finding out about my work with Engineers Without Borders, asked me if we could help them build an educational resource center to improve the quality of education and provide access to information. While I didn’t make any promises, I pointed them to the EWB-USA website and the application to initiate a new project. Two months later, I found in my inbox a completed application and a letter, signed by the students in Rincon, requesting the support of Ingenieros Sin Fronteras. Thus started CREER – Centro de Recursos Educativos en Rincon, a partnership between the people of Rincon and Engineers Without Borders – Washington, DC.
Panama has one of the stronger economies in Central America; however, it also has the highest level of economic inequality in the region and the third highest in the Americas. In the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé, the indigenous state of the largest indigenous group in Panama, the satisfaction of basic needs is the lowest in the country. Within the Comarca, the maternal mortality rates skyrockets from Panama’s average of 70 deaths per 100,000 live births to a shocking 658 deaths per 100,000 live births—higher than that of Haiti. The resources to address these disparities exist within the country, but they are badly distributed and the residents of the Comarca often ill-equipped to demand and manage these improvements.
Historically marginalized, most Ngöbe-Buglé communities lack the most basic needs – clean water, sanitation, clinics and schools. Living in the Panamanian highlands, not only are they geographically isolated, they are also social excluded. Faced with this dire situation, their indigenous customs and way of life is threatened. The Ngöbe-Buglé students find it difficult to compete with other students in Panama, while the youth lack employment opportunities. This stark poverty has perpetuated over generations, relegating the community in a poverty trap. While struggling to make ends meet, the Ngöbe-Buglé are a resilient people, and want to progress their communities to the future, while maintaining their indigenous roots.
Rincon, or Jädeberi (ha-deh-berry) in the language of Ngäbere, is a set of remote mountain communities, with 1600 residents, located in the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca. The residents of Rincon are primarily subsistence farmers, although many leave the Comarca to work as laborers in other cities in Panama. While the people of Rincon lack most government services, they are extremely well organized and have built their own water system, latrines, communal buildings and fishponds. Much of this work was encouraged by the work of Health Empowering Humanity (HEH) who have been working in the community since 2009. HEH and the community mobilizers they posted to Rincon, strengthened local ability to evaluate, plan, and carry out health and development projects. HEH, and two of it’s community mobilizers, Monica Dyer and Gillian Locascio, introduced EWB to Rincon and have been instrumental in the establishment of the project.
This region of Panama has limited educational opportunities. Students graduating from local schools and starting high school outside of the area have often never used a computer. Nevertheless, they find themselves competing with students who have been using computers and the internet for years, and often their success rates at high school level and their chances of continuing education in universities are negatively impacted. Moreover, for the communities in the area, access to crucial information including best practices in sustainable development from other regions, national and international current events, modern science, and international funding sources and opportunities are restricted to what is aired on the radio. Even in the process of requesting government support for local projects, documents often must be typed and printed. This requires a prohibitively expensive and time intensive trip to the nearest computer center (5 hour journey) and knowledge of computers. For this reason, the people of Rincon has requested Engineers Without Borders to help them realize their dream of a local computer center and library.
CREER (Centro de Recursos Educativos en Rincon)
CREER (Believe in Spanish), is a partnership between the people of Rincon and EWB-DC, that seeks to improve the quality of education and provide access to information and communication technologies to the Ngöbe-Buglé. Together, we will construct a center that will house a computer lab and a library, while also serving as a community center. These computers will be powered by an alternative energy source (solar, wind, or hydroelectric) and connected to the internet via satellite.
CREER will allow the Ngöbe-Buglé students to augment their studies with computer training, and compete on a level playing field with others across Panama. The initial plan is for the center to be open to the public, charging a nominal fee for computer usage so the center can sustain itself. The community members have also expressed interest in telemedicine and documenting their indigenous folklore using the computer and the internet. One day we may even see the community using the resources to start an internet radio station, broadcasting for the first time in Ngäbere.
Rincon – EWB-DC Partnership
While Engineers Without Borders will provide the engineering oversight for the project, the community of Rincon will provide the manual labor, locally available skills and materials and will be in charge of the operation and maintenance of the infrastructure. Rincon will also contribute at least 5% of the construction cost, while the rest will be financed by EWB through grants and in-kind donations. The EWB CREER team is comprised of a dedicated group of engineers, public health and education specialists, architects, students and professionals from a wide range of backgrounds. The group meets every other week, and we are always looking for new members. So do join if you’re interested and happen to be in the DC area!
This project is very personal to me – not because I was there during its initiation, but because I believe in the power of such collaboration to make a lasting impact in the world. The citizens of Rincon are some of the warmest people I have met, and I stand to learn a lot from their perseverance in the face of adversity. I am so happy that there is now an entire team of passionate individuals working on this. At the nexus of the efforts of the team in DC and the community of Rincon, there will be CREER – an institution where dreams are turned into reality.