Tales from abroad: El Cope

The team of Carnegie Mellon students poses for a picture while working for the Panama Project. (credit: Courtesy of Yong-Gyun Choi) The team of Carnegie Mellon students poses for a picture while working for the Panama Project. (credit: Courtesy of Yong-Gyun Choi)

¿Por qué?

That question — “Why?” — was posed to me by one of the architectural engineers, Nicolas Fernández Muñoz, from Patronato de Nutricion — a partner land-grant non-government organization with whom my teammates and I came to work. Nicolas had been working with rural communities filled with subsistence farmers in El Cope, Panama, to alleviate the income disparity between the modernized urban society and the lagging rural communities. He was our driver, as well as our guide for the community.

Stepping off the four-by-four Toyota pickup truck, I recollected how my teammates and I all first joined the Panama Project. As a first-year, in 2008, I interviewed to be part of Global Business Brigades, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower students in sustainable development, whose Carnegie Mellon chapter was started by Carnegie Mellon alumni Dhruv Mathur and Kate Edgar. As part of the Carnegie Mellon team that consisted of 10 undergraduate students and two graduate students, I felt anxious working with people I had never met before. But before I knew it, we had fundraised close to $21,000 to travel to Panama over spring break and assist a rural subsistence farmer, Don Alejandro, in starting an agricultural/eco-tourism enterprise.

In the mountainous region of El Cope, approximately 2,000 miles away from Pittsburgh and five hours away from Panama City, we arrived in a rural community located in the National Park Omar Torrijos, named after the late Major General Omar Torrijos Herrera. I soaked up the sights of the lush green serenity, whose magnificence left us all captivated. At this point, it was just my team members, the Panama Project, and me.

My first encounter with Alejandro proved to be more difficult than expected. Alejandro’s grey hair whispered years of knowledge. His enormous, brawny hands and bare feet sinking into the muddy earth represented scars of pride. We had seen pictures of the landscape and had been told what Alejandro was like, but reality was different. Our presence in a foreign environment — where almost no English is spoken and no electricity is used — and our portable bathroom all seemed difficult and unfamiliar. Nonetheless, our energetic team began the week with hopes to connect with the family.

The idea of empowering other people who were in need of help appealed to me. As a first-year, being part of a development project where we see real growth and change in the lives of others made me feel that I, too, had something to offer to the world. I tried pulling out all of my knowledge that I had gathered in Principles of Economics and other classes to contribute to creating a business plan. Yet the problem wasn’t that we were incapable of helping. It lay in the fact that we lacked trust from the family. Alejandro told us that other students came before us to help them, but made no real change and shortly left to never come back. He was afraid that we would do the same.

In the following days, we ran a series of workshops focusing on finance, operations, and marketing that would help increase the efficiency of the farm. Aside from the workshops, other members executed immediate deliverables by building pathways and signs in Spanish and English for tourists. These initiatives, ultimately, drew us closer to gaining the trust in the family. This cycle continued on until we arrived at another dilemma.

Once the community members heard about us coming into the region to assist Alejandro and his family, they, too, came with their hands open asking for help. In a matter of days, our project went from helping a single family to an entire community. Overwhelmed but optimistic, our team decided to help them too. But by the time we had finished surveying the other community members’ projects and attractions, it had already been a week. The team left, filled with excitement and high hopes on the future onset of the project. When we returned to Pittsburgh, we evaluated what we had done and explored what we needed to do — so we decided to go back.

In 2009–2010, six returning members and seven new members made up a 13-member team that went back to continue where we had left off. But when we arrived at the farm, we didn’t just say hello to Alejandro. We rushed over to give him a hug. And instead of referring to me as Corea (“Korea”) as he had previously called me, he referred to me as hijo (“son”).

“So, why?” asked Nicolas.

Why did we raise so much money, invest time and effort, to help these people in Panama?

I simply replied, ¿Por qué no? (“Why not?”)