Photo Story- RecrearParticipate – Palma Real, Ecuador

We have been quietly busy. I swear. Conference planning, 100 Voices wrap up, finishing our website… the list is endless. In the midst of this vortex of projects, we were offered an opportunity we could simply not pass: delivering RecrearParticipate in Palma Real.

Around a month after wrapping up 100 Voices in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, Recrear is back in the canton of San Lorenzo delivering RecrearParticipate. In Palma Real, a small fisherman community of 1300 people at the border with Colombia, our experience was (to say the least) fascinating. Here is a photo story of what we have been up to so you can get a taste of our work and adventures. Enjoy!

– Gioel

On Thursday, May 17th, we left Quito’s 3000m of altitude and headed north on a night bus; our first destination was San Lorenzo, the last community we visited during 100 Voices. Around 6 am the bus’ engine decided to stop working right outside San Lorenzo. We transformed the empty bus in our nap area until 8am, when the heat woke us up. And that is how it started.

RecrearParticipate was supported by UCOOPPANE, an association that works to increase the productivity and organization of fisherman in the north of Ecuador. We are very thankful to UCOOPPANE for covering our food expenses and providing workshop material. At our arrival to San Lorenzo, we met with Fabiola López, a strong and committed woman who is working as the president of the association. We went to see Fabiola at the elementary school she manages, that mostly hosts Colombian refugees and immigrants. During our meeting we were finally disclosed our final destination: Palma Real, one of the last islands right on the Colombian border. (It doesn’t even show up on the map.)

On Friday Morning I woke up with to the voice of Robert, our super and extravagant local coordinator, saying: ‘The fishermen have sold all the fish and are ready to go back, we have to go!’. We left for Palma Real at 7.30am on a boat and enjoyed a wonderful panorama of mangroves and blue sky.

We started our first workshop after lunch. We had a typical Esmeraldas meal with Patacones (fried plantains), rice and (of course very, very, very fresh) fried fish.

Ready for our first workshop, we had a full room with around 25 people, boys and girls of all ages (from 13- 30 +)! Before we get in details- Are you still wondering what RecrearParticipate is all about? Participate is a workshop that helps young people develop their ideas into community initiatives. The point is to work on small, tangible ideas that youth can manage and that will help their community. Our goal is to make a connection between what people like to do (e.g. play soccer) and what they think their community needs. We work with young people to transform this connection into initiatives they will be able to and inclined to carry out.

For our first session, our goals were to get to know each other, warm up the atmosphere, and get the participants to think critically about the dynamics in their community.

After a fun sharing session, we did a community mapping exercise. Divided in groups the participants were asked to draw their community (which they did with extraordinary detail) and indicate with ‘hearts’ and ‘x’s’ which places gave them joy, and which places where instead more problematic. When they presented their work, we started getting a sense of what themes effect Palma Real and how the group relates to them.

Next comes the Idea Wall, an epic collection of the participants’ thoughts on what should be the themes of our work together during the week. In this exercise participants are invited to write down their ideas and comments on others’. This helps us identify ‘clusters’ of ideas, embryos that will then be developed into community initiatives.

We ended out first day of workshop with three working groups formed. The first dealing with the problem of trash management in the island, the second working with the conservation of mangrove ecosystems, and the third concerned with drug consumption in the community.

Palma Real is one of the most Real places I have worked in. It is so real you have to be 100% in Palma Real at all times, No phone service, no internet, and outside communication only by boat. After our workshops that ran from 3 to 6 pm, we were left admiring stunning sunsets until the sun was completely down.

With the sun down, we had dinner and then were in the dark of our house (a municipal building above the doctor’s office). I took this picture chilling on the window of my dark room watching our neighbors’ share the little light available on the streets for cheerful chats and board games.

Now, let me tell you more about the projects we worked with in Palma Real.

Group 1: Trash Management- Palma Real is an island, and the community is literally built above water. Most of the houses are elevated. In between houses, on the street, everywhere in Palma Real is ruined by trash. For its inhabitants, throwing anything on the floor is the most natural thing.

A tragedy of the commons. Trash creates many problems in the community. It produces a terrible smell, causes health problems and spoils the environment. Plus, when the water rises, all the trash goes to the sea, which is Palma Real’s main economic resource. The local government is looking into doing something towards solving this problem- but people’s behaviors are key. Everybody does it, and there is no incentive in stopping. During our workshop all the group committed to not throwing trash on the floor at least for the week of the Participate workshop.

In light of all the stress we put on this commitment, and all the discussions we had during session, I was shocked to see one of our most dedicated participants throw a paper on the floor with no chalance while talking to me in the middle of the street. When I gave him a ‘death stare’ he looked at me very ashamed and picked up the paper. The point is that throwing things on the floor in Palma Real (as in most parts of Esmeraldas) is an instinct, something done mindlessly. This attitude is what the RecrearParticipate group is working to change.


Group 2: Mangrove Preservation- Palma Real’s economy is completely centered around fishing. The area hosts the tallest Mangrove trees in the world. There are real ecosystems where fish and shellfish reproduce. With deforestation and pollution the Mangrove ecosystem is in danger. Moreover, with the intensity of fishing increasing and the possibility of fish decreasing, people today are more likely to fish and eat small shellfish, which are instead supposed to grow and reproduce. This group was determined to create awareness about fishing, and limit the consumption of small shellfish. 

Group 3: Drugs- On the border with Colombia, drug trafficking and consumption are big deals. With the tensions in Colombia, the north of Esmeraldas is a sensitive zone for drug trafficking and the guerrillas spill over the Ecuadorian border. In December 2011, after several incidents in the border area, president Correa deployed more troops on the region. Since then, you can see strolling around Palma Real a team of fully equipped military. From our conversation, people seem to be relieved they are there. As the town’s doctor put it: ‘they are a necessary evil’. From what we saw, the military seemed pretty bored.

In the Problem Tree exercise for this group, boredom was identified as one of the root causes for the attraction of youths to drugs consumption. This group wants to work to prevent and limit drug consumption in the community by sensitizing people to drugs’ effects and by organizing more recreational activities (football tournaments, etc) to provide healthy alternatives to drugs.

In Palma Real we were never alone! Children accompanied us on our chats, workshops, and sunset watches like loyal and fun groupies.

Day after day, the three projects were taking form. We defined objectives, made SWOT analyses , brainstormed strategies, etc. In the process every group presented and we encouraged peer review after every exercise.

RecrearParticipate is driven by the groups’ passion and ambition. Our role, however, is to be a bit of a reality check. Great things start with little steps. For the final exercise, the groups built a 6 months action plan agreeing on the activities and programs they will be coordinating in this time-frame.

We wrapped up our work with a meeting with Robert and some of the groups’ leaders. In discussing follow up initiatives, Robert helped us identify several organizations that could be interested in providing support to the 3 groups.

Recrear will be providing a write up of each project proposal to be circulated by Robert and UCOOPPANE. We left Palma Real having discussed the groups’ next steps. They agreed on a weekly meeting point and time for presenting their plan to the community in two settings within the next month. With UCOOPPANE as a solid partner on the ground, we were ready to leave Palma Real.

Now, it’s time for the groups to mobilize! We will be in touch with Robert regularly eager to know what Participate in Palma Real has inspired.


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