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Roads: Part Deux

In the "Cult of Escapism": Roads: Part Deux

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Roads: Part Deux

(Here is my friend David Johnson's counter argument about roads as development efforts. You'll notice that his article, unlike mine, has things like facts and statistics. This is because David has a master's degree in Development and is generally much smarter than I. You can find more of his well-written, typically hilarious and less statistically-laden blog posts at             
           Ten years ago, the Veraguas village where I live was only accessible by a multi-day hike through a national forest and over the cordillera. Six years ago, that foot trail was topped with gravel allowing 4x4 chivas to make the nauseating trip. One year from now, that gravel road will be expanded and paved with asphalt, thus incorporating this remote village into a growing Panamanian infrastructure. Surely this is a positive development for the subsistence farmers I live with, but they would tell you otherwise.
            The progression from transporting materials by horseback to rugged trucks greatly improved the lives of my village counterparts. In addition to the hauling of physical supplies used to build an expanded school and health post, new services arrived as well. Institutional support from MIDA, IPACOOP, MENSA and numerous other acronym-wielding do-gooders loaded the villagers up with projects, handouts and trainings.  
While the expected arrival of increased health and education services is appealing, my villagers fear what might leave the community on this new road. Namely, the loss of land, businesses and family members terrifies my community counterparts. Land loss is feared through the dissolution of insecure titles that give the villagers the informal right to farm the land. The livelihood of local businesses is threatened by the rapid exposure of a previously isolated market. Locally-owned businesses risk being replaced by traveling salesmen with megaphones. This well-known cycle of deterioration is proliferated by community members leaving the area to earn a living elsewhere. When the cycle reaches this point the government should start to be concerned
If we are to believe the radio propaganda, road building is a top priority for the current government. Yet concurrently, Panama has a housing deficit of 136,665 homes, according to the Housing Ministry’s (MIVI) 2010 Housing Indicators System. But what does this deficit have to do with road building? In a word, todo.
In his famously influential study of Peru’s “informal economy,” The Other Path, Hernando de Soto lays out the influences of unstable urbanization in Peru. Unsurprisingly, “the most visible one is the building of highways.”
The Ministry of Economy and Finance’s 2010 report on Internal Migration cited that 40.6% of Panamanians moving from one province to another are relocating in search of a job or better income. You probably can guess where these people are migrating to. The only province in the country with a positive net migration is the capital province of Panama, gaining 24 new inhabitants for every 1000 current residents. This influx is reflected in the fact that Panama City and its outlying neighborhoods make up 33% of the housing deficit in the country. To think that all of this problem could be tied to those persistent radio ads promoting the initiative for more road construction.
The task for the government should thus be to continue to broaden the health, economic and educations opportunities of rural Panamanians through road construction without forcing migrants to the broken-down door steps of Panama City. I believe the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” suits this situation well.
Extending roads to previously isolated communities must be preceded by the extension of legal and technical support that was previously denied to those communities. Land must be titled. Modern business practices should be employed. Communication between government agencies and communities must be increased. These requirements are not easily completed. Who is up to the task? Since Peace Corps Panama’s Community and Economic Development Program has been discontinued, someone else will have to lead the charge. 


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