Hoover came to Bahía Málaga as a community organizer from Buenaventura to help organize the effort to gain title to the land on which the people of La Plata, Mangaña, Sierpe, and Miramar had lived for decades under the collective property rights granted to them by Ley 70. He fell in love with the people of the bay and decided to stay and now serves as the legal representative of the Consejo Comunitario de Bahía Málaga. Wearing his distinctive rasta-colored beanie, people would recognize and call out to him from hundreds of yards away. It was clear that he was a respected leader in the community.
In the first week of our stay in La Plata, Hoover was our main point of contact with the community. One night about a week into our stay, Rosángela – a fellow student from UniAndes – and I were up late taking to him. Rosangela, who was not one to mince words, asked pointedly about poverty in the four veredas (towns) of the bay. “No nos consideramos pobres (We don’t consider ourselves poor),” he responded poignantly.
In many ways life in the bay is rich. The people are happy and friendly. Malnutrition is nonexistent due to the ready supply of fish, piangua (a species of mollusk), and fruit (mostly plantain). The conflict between guerrillas and the government barely touched this region, largely because the bay is surrounded by military bases. Life here ebbs an flows with the rise and fall of tide. There is no 9-5 schedule, but the people are often up before dawn to do one of the four main economic activities (all four of which are extractive/not sustainable): fish, gather piangua, cut wood, and hunt forest animals. The organization I’m working for this summer is fostering ecotourism as an alternative to these traditional extractive industries, to preserve the distinct culture of the bay and to conserve the environment (more on this point later).
Below the surface, however, there are numerous weakness that reduce the quality of life in the bay and result in negative development indicators. Chief among these debilities is difficulty in transportation, which has cascading effects on all other aspects of development. The high cost of petroleum (propellors use a lot of gas) limits mobility between veredas and reduces access to markets outside the bay (primarily in Buenaventura).
Health is another concern. The four communities share one promotora (the Colombian equivalent of a community health worker) posted in La Plata who rarely makes the costly trips to visit the other three veredas. The nearest community health center is in Juanchaco – a nearly 45 minute boat ride away – and due to a lack of capacity, maintenance and supplies it is scarcely better than no health center at all. In an emergency, members of the community rely on the good graces of the naval base – a 30 minute boat ride away – but the relationship with the naval base has been strained lately due to a tightening of budgets that has limited the capacity of the base and the lack of a legal mandate for the naval base to attend all but the most severe medical emergencies.
While every vereda in Bahía Málaga has a school, education is another factor that has severely limited development in the bay. In most cases, there is only one teacher per school (only La Plata has two teachers) who must teach all grade levels at once. If students wish to finish secondary school they must take classes in La Plata, and if they wish to finish high school they must move to Buenaventura. Classes are only in session for four days a week (Mondays and Fridays are half days) and are frequently canceled due to inclement weather or other factors that inhibit the teachers’ ability to make the trip from Buenaventura every week.
Finally, most veredas in the bay lack basic sanitation. The only house in La Plata with a septic system is the tourist’s cabin. The negative impacts of a lack of sanitary systems are mitigated in the communities that lie at the water’s edge because twice a month the marea alta (high tide) inundates the ground underneath the stilted houses, washing away most of the disease-bearing refuse. Communities built on higher ground, like La Sierpe and Miramar, are less vulnerable to weather-related disasters, but are at greater risk sanitation-related problems. Miramar, the newest and most organized community, has attempted to solve this problem by installing latrines in every house. All three veredas have raised rainwater collection tanks, but because they depend on rain for drinking water they are vulnerable to drought.