The Fisherman and the Gringo

People often ask about our work with small rural communities in the Amazon region and whether or not, as outsiders, we are concerned about having a negative impact. It is both my favorite and most painful question because no matter how many times I have answered, it always takes me into the deepest reflection. My response always starts by reminding the questioner that we only work with communities that are already experiencing significant interventions from the outside world. While these interventions are different in nature, they imply the need to adapt to a globalized world. Whether the oil industry, mining companies or simply the effects of the free market system convincing them to engage in monoculture, our community partners are struggling to adapt to new realities, whether they like it or not.

All that being said, I usually follow up with a very emphatic “yes,” that we are extremely concerned about the impacts of our interventions, but that all things considered, “doing nothing” is worse. I have tried to figure out easy ways of explaining our interventions, and lately, when asked the question, I start with the following story, which a friend told me. It has helped us reflect on “outside-in” impact.

The Fisherman and the Gringo (a term of endearment for an “American” in Ecuador)

A gringo tourist visiting a small beach town in Ecuador crosses by an Ecuadorian fisherman while walking on the beach.

Gringo: (In decent, but broken Spanish) Finishing a long day of fishing?

Fisherman: Not that long, like most days I fish for three hours and then come back home.

Gringo: And what else do you do during the work day, aside of the 3 hours?

Fisherman: What do you mean?

Gringo: Well, there are still at least 5 hours left.

Fisherman: I don’t get it.

Gringo: (Assuming that the conflict is a result of a language barrier) Just tell me what you do during a regular day.

Fisherman: Well, I wake up late and have breakfast with my family and then play with my kids for a while. Then I go out to fish and return 3 hours later. I take a nap with my wife, we have dinner, I spend time with my family and then I go out for a while with my friends. Finally, I come back home, watch some TV with my wife and we go to sleep.

The gringo is quite confused.

Gringo: But have you considered working more during your day?

Fisherman: What for?

Gringo: You could earn more money.

Fisherman: What for?

Gringo: You could get more things for your family. Almost everyone works 8 hours a day and if you were to just add on 3 more hours of fishing you could double your income.

Fisherman: What for?

Gringo: Or if you don’t want to fish more, you could maybe open a restaurant to maximize the profits of the fish you catch. That way, you and your family would have 2 businesses.

Fisherman: What for?

Gringo: (Really wanting to be of help.) Or if you don’t like the idea of the restaurant, I see lots of other potential in this town. What about putting a store right on the pier to sell products to the other fisherman?

Fisherman: What for?

Gringo: I just want to help you. There is so much more you can do.

Fisherman: What for?

The tourist starts to lose his patience

Gringo: To make more money! To have a better life! To prepare for your future!

Fisherman: What for?

Gringo: You must take advantage of all this extra time!!

Fisherman: What for?

Grngo: To be able to retire at a decent age!!!!

Fisherman: What for?

The tourist now loses all patience.

Gringo: Because that is the way life is!!!! That way, when you are 65, you can wake up late, always be able to eat with your family, have time to play with the grandchildren, take naps with your wife, and when you want, go out and spend time with friends.

We believe that this story reflects the common “outside-in” methodology of development. In its most basic application, it shows well intentioned interventionists teaching folk how to live according to the dominant cultural systems to “better their lives.” It is the tourist style of development, in which interventions are short and result-oriented, not allowing communities to adapt to the world at their own pace. By developing in this manner, communities become dependent on a global system and they separate themselves from their own ways of producing knowledge. To a certain degree, they become institutionalized into development, losing their autonomy and identity.

At Pachaysana, we believe that negative impact is minimized by engaging in long-term interventions in which we acknowledge that we have much more to learn from our community partners than we could ever teach them. For example, in the story, I assume most readers learn much more from the Fisherman than they do from the Gringo. Thus, all our interventions begin by living with and learning from the communities, in which we slowly and deliberately determine if our methods could benefit their vision for adaptation processes, yet without compromising their autonomy and identity. If we make suggestions along the road and hear a question similar to “what for,” we know it is time to reevaluate, for it should fit into their ongoing lifestyle and world vision.

Clearly, this is not a flawless method and negative impact is still very possible, but we also witness the many other interventions going on around the communities and feel that we must provide an alternative. For example, with the fisherman, we know that there are many intrusions he must now take into consideration: large ships are overfishing the catch, government regulations force him to upgrade his boat and equipment, and the nearby oil refinery has had several accidents causing contamination in his fishing area. Maintaining his lifestyle is becoming impossible, and he must adapt. We don’t ask him to change, nor do we encourage it. We aim to be the instigator of a dialogue, so that he can develop a robust understanding of what is going on around him and develop strategies for adaptation, if that becomes his choice.

So in the end, what does the story teach us? Clearly, we cannot call the gringo all bad and the fisherman all good, because the world is not that simple. What we can do is realize that our work can be misguided, and that by fighting to reach a specific destination, we might actually be cheating the very people we so desperately want to help.

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