The Central Pacific town of Parrita does not appear to be bleeding poverty like so many communities on the government’s poverty watch list. The homes are well-cared for, the streets are clean, and the sight of palm trees and the smell of the ocean make it hard to see it as anything other than a sleepy tropical haven.
It’s what you don’t see that’s put Parrita on the government’s list for an overhaul during the next four years.
Under the banner “United, Secure and Healthy Communities,” the central government is plugging additional aid into 26 of the poorest rural towns and urban barrios in Costa Rica with the goal of lifting 20,000 families out of poverty before 2014.
The program should cost $10 million, but much of the initiative will draw on existing resources. President Laura Chinchilla is convinced that the funds are there, but that they aren’t arriving at the doorstep of those in need in an effective manner.
She said that Costa Rica is third in Latin America in its investment in social programs with 19.3 percent of its GDP directed toward education, health and welfare, among others. Her idea is to coordinate the dozens of aid organizations and government entities involved in addressing poverty in order to ensure that there is a concentrated effort to move Costa Ricans above the poverty line.
The Tico Times has selected three of the communities on Chinchilla’s list – a coastal one, an urban one and a rural one – to take a “before” snapshot, with the hope of following their progress over the next four years. Parrita – and more specifically, Pueblo Nuevo – was the first stop.
Parrita’s Lost Paradise
The people sitting on their porches on a lazy September morning said that if they could use anything, it would be more jobs. Parrita suffers one of the highest rates of economic inactivity in the country, ranking 74th out of 81 municipalities.
In Pueblo Nuevo, only 142 of the 1,165 residents have permanent, full-time work. The rest either find occasional work (170), are unemployed (27) or don’t work because they are in school or are retired. Only five have pursued higher education (See graph).
Neither the miles of oil palm fields nor the booming tourist destination of nearby Manuel Antonio have provided enough for the community to sustain itself. Thus, one in four people lives in a state of poverty, according to the Planning Ministry.
“The central problem is that there is no work,” 76-year-old Oscar Mena said. “Agriculture is seasonal and there are some stores in the center. But if people want [full time] work, they have to go to Manuel Antonio or Jacó.”
With nothing else to do, some residents of the historic barrio called Pueblo Nuevo have turned to drugs in recent years, both as a means to pass the time and as a way to pay the bills.
“It’s become a huge issue,” said one taxi driver as he made his way up the dirt road of the community.
Parrita was populated by farm workers of the United Fruit Company after the U.S.-based company established banana plantations in the zone in 1938. The company built an airport to transport its managers and executives to and from San José, as there were no roads connecting the newly-formed community to the Central Valley. They also built homes for the workers, a church and a school in today’s Pueblo Nuevo.
When the company pulled out of the region and the airport closed, the population shifted to the north across the Parrita River. Pueblo Nuevo filled in with squatters, many of them building on the runway of the old airport. New development or investment in Parrita was from that time on directed mostly to the northern bank, where the city’s center exists today.
One of the principal problems in Pueblo Nuevo has been its vulnerability to flooding, as the nearby Río Parrita sometimes spills over its banks and into people’s homes during the height of the rainy season. The government recently built a dike, but some homes continue to flood.
Another issue, and a high priority for the government, is that few in Pueblo Nuevo hold title to their property, denying residents legal recognition of their most valuable asset and making it impossible for them to use their homes as collateral for loans.
Parrita, and more specifically Pueblo Nuevo, was singled out in May to be part of Laura Chinchilla’s new poverty plan. Local government workers noted the vulnerability of the community based on statistics and first-hand experience.
“The difference between this and prior initiatives is that the community will be the principal actor,” said María Lidia Vargas, who has worked as a social worker in the area for the past 20 years. “In the past, a shipment of school supplies or a boost of scholarship money might have arrived in the community, but it wasn’t the biggest need.
“In my opinion, (community members) are the ones experiencing the problem and, therefore, they know best what they need,” she said.
Hand-in-hand with government workers, the community has spent the last few months drafting a plan to improve living conditions. According to Vargas, they have been very enthusiastic because they know “they are going to grow beyond poverty and that they have a greater purpose.”
Vargas sees the greatest challenge in the keystone of the government’s new approach: coordination. In the past, government workers often wouldn’t go beyond the four walls in their offices or the words in their mission statement. The National Training Institute (INA) was responsible for adult education, the National Institute for Housing and Urban Development (INVU) worked on housing, the health ministry focused on health, the schools were in the hands of the education ministry. There were programs dedicated to helping small farmers, and employment agencies helping people find jobs.
“Each institution was accustomed to acting as its own little world,” she said. “People used to only do what their badge required of them.”
Vargas said that the success of the project hinges on this ability to come together.
So far, they’ve discussed the construction of a healthcare center (or EBAIS) and a daycare center in the community, and, while “this would meet a need rather than generate work, it’s a lot because it will allow us to make other improvements,” Mena said
Though Parrita is only a ten-minute drive from the ocean, it hasn’t developed as a tourist destination because of flooding, an unprotected coastline and a lack of spectacular scenery.
“It’s always been a transit point,” said Mena, a retired farmer, who first came to the town in the 40s and returned to live in the 70s. “We want to find ways to incentivize development and save the community.”
And, while the community might not look like it’s suffering on the outside, it’s the internal problem of unemployment and lack of opportunity that is eating away at its insides.
“There [in the urban environments of the Central Valley] there are jobs, but homes are expensive. Here the homes might be nicer, but there are no jobs,” said Vargas. “It’s a different kind of poverty.”
Next week: A look at San Jose’s León XIII