Friday, June 6, 2014

Two paths

Two paths lie before communities we have visited in Bolivia and Cambodia.  The paths are both physical, having been laid stone by stone, as well as political, involving choices made by the governing bodies.  The paths have the same intended goal: to improve a particular area for tourism.  However, what makes us reflective is how the process of creating the paths reveals so much about people and place.

We first introduced our blog readers to Isla Taquile in Lake Titicaca almost two years ago with a story about 17 sheep.  Our homestay hosts were saving money to buy enough sheep for their island wedding celebration and were 17 sheep short of the total needed.  One element of the a Taquile society we did not write much about was the political structure.  Each of the small island districts was led by a senior married male, and there was one overall leader for the entire island. An individual's profession, where they were live, and when they were to marry were decisions made by the male leaders and the male villagers in weekly meetings.  Consensus among the married men was used to decide actions important to all.  A few years prior to our visit, the community decided to adopt tourism as a viable economic benefit for everyone, and, to assist in that endeavor, built a beautiful stone path from the beach to the highlands that would meander around homes, playgrounds, and small markets.  Each family was responsible for constructing and maintaining a 10 meter stretch.  These people who dressed with such impeccable pride in traditional hand woven clothes and knitted hats also laid each stone with artistic care.  One of the most amazing paths we have enjoyed in our travels, we encountered numerous villagers moving along its many fingers, tipping hats to each other and sharing bags of coca leaves in a formal dance of tradition and greeting.  Our host family showed great pride in the project and believed it helped provide for families in a variety of ways.  Few tourists have actually tread on the path.  We were two of only five for the two days we were there, but people greeted us with smiles and dignified grace as we traversed its stone steps.

In Cambodia we were, at first, delighted to find a stone walking path along a relatively undeveloped two mile
stretch of beach overlooking the Bay of Thailand.  However, the path precipitated questions, for us, about the repression and inequality in this country.  We had read the history of the vast depletion of the resources during and following the period of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam invasion in the 1970's and '80's.  Cambodia had been home to some of the most prized hardwood in the world, but selling the forest became a national pastime for whoever was the ruling authority during that time. Some estimate that, in three decades, 95% of all the native trees were removed.  Even when world pressure led to moratoriums, the current leadership would provide favored cronies with "concessions" to plant Eucalyptus trees and remove the native trees.  They argued that they were no longer logging, rather, farming trees.  If local villagers protested, the army was dispatched to guard the logging operations.

With a majority of the forest gone, the government turned to a new money making scheme, selling the cleared land to both foreign and domestic development corporations.  There was just one minor
complication.  People lived on the land.  So, for the past decade, the government has solved that small problem by simply removing the residents!  Initially, with military personnel acting as enforcers, residents were simply herded onto trucks and dumped elsewhere as heavy equipment bulldozed their small dwellings, usually in a single day or night.  During the past few years, however, given the howls of protest and the complexities of dealing with hundreds of thousands of landless refugees, the government has begun to offer small payments to those "displaced" or to build new villages.  The unfortunate dilemma is that the confiscated land was usually near resources such as lakes, the sea, or tourist areas, whereas the new village locations are usually the places no one has wanted to live.

We were, at first, delighted to have a quiet footpath to walk along the beach until we heard about the villages that were removed from it in the past year.  We drove by one of the places, a few kilometers away, where the people had picked up broken wood and tin from the bulldozers and tried to piece together their lives again.  The poverty was intense, the scene heart wrenching.

In both communities, leaders decided that a path would be built.  Each community had a political process foreign to us.  Yet, the outcomes felt so vastly different.  One place had the sense of living the saying "a rising tide lifts all the boats" and the other broadened an already enormous chasm between the ultra rich and the unimaginably poor.  For us, one lesson has been to more deeply understand what lies beneath our feet as we tread new ground in places so different from our own.

Images are of the path being built on  Isla Taquile in Lake Titicaca, the path along side Oteras Beach, Cambodia, and the "new houses" of those forced to make way for the progress along Oteras Beach. Posted in Bangkok, Thailand.

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