Poverty or Potential?

Two portraits of development in Southern Chile

by | Aug 28, 2021

Santiago residents protest corruption. Photo courtesy El Mercurio.

Teresa stops me three blocks from Nueva Imperial’s main plaza on a quiet Wednesday morning, eager to chat. She is wearing a light blue sweater and a matching blue headband glowing slightly against her dark black hair. She leans against the handle-bars of her three-wheeled bicycle, un-sold heads of lettuce peaking out of the bag in the back. Teresa asks me about the Gente Expresa office, where I’ve been working as a volunteer for the past eight months. About how the November weather has been treating me. About how her two kids Gustavo and Daniela, whom I tutor in English, are advancing in their lessons. I respond enthusiastically about their progress. As we chat, I casually play with two coins in my hand, my bus fare home; they jingle slightly as they touch.

Partway through the conversation, Teresa pauses. She carefully reaches into her pocket, extracting the small handful of coins she has collected over the course of the morning. Lettuce and chard aren’t selling well this month-only 100 pesos a head. Meticulously counting, she wonders out loud whether she has earned the 500 pesos (about US$0.85) she needs to catch the bus back home, 18km up dusty dirt roads in the campo outside Nueva Imperial. The answer: just barely.

“Somos pobres,” “Somos un paí­s sub-desarrollado”—”We’re poor,” “We’re an underdeveloped country”—are resounding refrains in Chile today. Worried Chileans carefully count coins to make sure they have enough to cover food, rent, telephone, transportation—and electricity and running water, should they be so lucky. This is especially true in Nueva Imperial, acomuna of 40,000 located twenty minutes from Temuco, capital of Chile’s IX Región (la Araucaní­a), itself eight hours by bus south of Santiago. La Araucaní­a—home to Teresa, Gustavo, Daniela, and me for the past eight months—ranks as the poorest of Chile’s thirteen regions, in a country where 20% of the population qualifies as “poor” (“Indicadores Económicos y Sociales: (4.2) Medición de la Pobreza y la Indigencia,” Fuente: MIDEPLAN, Encuestas CASEN 1987-1998.http://www.mideplan.cl/estudios/pobreza.pdf ). Many of these “poor” are campesinos, of Mapuche descent, living in remote sectors with limited access to running water and sanitation, education, and healthcare.

I could go on. I could mention how cilantro isn’t selling this year. How Teresa walks with a permanent limp and permanent pain—hence the bicycle—because adequate treatment is both inaccessible and unaffordable. How education, especially English education, in the campo is so insufficient that her two children spend Monday through Friday in thepueblo with their aunt Luisa in order to study. How they have no running hot water inside their home in the campo. How until November 2003, Teresa and her neighbors had to light their homes with candles and gas lamps because electricity had not yet reached their sector. How in many ways Chile does live up to its “third world” stereotype.

But this paints only half the picture. What if I told you that for three consecutive years Nueva Imperial’s public library recognized Teresa as the comuna’s most avid reader? That by candle-light and the gas lamp in her kitchen, Teresa would strain her eyes to make out black letters on dark pages after spending a long day of baking tortillas and pan amasado, feeding chickens, tending crops and attending meetings. And that Teresa’s family and their neighbors in and around Saltapura can now watch the evening news after their favorite teleserie, read comfortably at night, and see their food at dinner without first fumbling for matches or worrying about exhausted batteries at just the wrong moment—all thanks to Teresa’s hard work.

Teresa Licanleo and her husband Luis, in just two small greenhouses and a few plots more, produce more vegetables than your salad could possibly hold: from tomatoes and cucumbers to green beans and broccoli, from potatoes and cilantro to quinoa and black raspberries. Teresa is one of the founding members of Falinche, an association of small-scale local farmers who sell their produce at a series of stalls they established near the centro of Nueva Imperial. She supports organic agriculture and the protection of native species, believes in the importance of preserving Mapuche language and culture, and is currently trying to create an identity for her region as the home of “huevos azules” (blue eggs)—known for their bigger, thicker yolks and richer flavor. With time and money she doesn’t have, she travels regularly from the campo into Nueva Imperial to negotiate with the municipio, and to participate in Comunidades Emprendedoras, an initiative of the Chilean non-governmental organization Gente Expresa, aimed at helping leaders in la Araucanía develop their skills as leaders and social entrepreneurs.

Teresa realized that electricity doesn’t just appear in the campo, passive light from an effortless hand. In 1998 Teresa, then president of the indigenous community of Saltapura, took over as president of the comité de electrificación—the electrification committee—jump-starting an initiative begun, but abandoned, five years earlier. Over the course of the following years, she knocked on door after door, registered each household in her community, sought municipal and regional support, invited two other communities to join the process, negotiated with electric companies, and oversaw the installation of the electric wires through to the inauguration of electricity in Saltapura and neighboring Bolonto, Millecoi and Huichahue on Monday, November 24, 2003. As we stood talking that Wednesday morning in mid-November, Teresa wasn’t telling me about how hard it is to live without electricity. She was describing her final negotiations with the municipio of Nueva Imperial and the Intendente of la Araucanía to make electricity in Saltapura a reality.

The United Nation Development Programme’s 2000 “Human Development Report” for Chile acknowledges this understated national portrait of civic action, noting that the country “seems to have a remarkable associative rate” of 83,386 registered social organizations, or 56 associations for every 10,000 individuals. La Araucanía, meanwhile, has an even higher rate of 74.4 organizations per 10,000 inhabitants dedicated to improving education, employment, health, and housing, among others, in their communities. In a 2002 speech at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, USAID director Andrew Natsios declared Chile, along with Costa Rica, as one of the two Latin American countries with the strongest civil society.

Yet after empty workshops and struggling attempts to promote civic participation in the region—part of my task here with Gente Expresa—many have told me that it’s Chilean “culture” to stick out one’s hand and wait for coins, food, water, homes, to fall into place. In other words, citizens will participate, but only insofar as necessary to receive concrete, tangible benefits for themselves and their families. The work of dedicated leaders such as Teresa—looking beyond herself to her community, her town, her region—certainly exists, but is rare. The lingering question is: Why? If Chile’s civil society is so active, with such demonstrated potential, where is the missing link?

Citizens and civil society organizations typically blame the Chilean government—local, regional, and national. They cite overspending and poorly managed budgets, promises without follow-through, and systems of political organization, support, and incentives that work against local interests, particularly those of Chile’s poor, rural, and indigenous populations. Why participate, they wonder, if they ultimately have no influence over the decisions and institutions that affect them and their communities?

Gente Expresa’s executive director Héctor Jorquera offers a more “cultural,” as opposed to “structural,” explanation. He argues that negative experiences have created a climate of bitterness and distrust. Those experiences, past and present, and sometimes just perceived, with governmental and non-governmental organizations—or even perceived negative experiences—have made citizen leaders skeptical, wary. They resign themselves to the impossibility of large-scale action and consequently turn inwards, focusing on very specific, very short-term individual projects or waiting passively for change to come to them. Héctor acknowledges that structural barriers exist, and might even be at the root of such distrust and resignation. However, suggests that this collective mal ánimo—negative attitude—unnecessarily reinforces these structural concerns.

As a response to this social concern, Héctor introduced Comunidades Emprendedoras through Gente Expresa. He aims to change participants’ “ser y hacer“—their way of thinking and doing—through intense individual “coaching” and strengthening collaborative teams of diverse community leaders. Community workshops and one-on-one conversations emphasize the importance of listening closely to others’ interests, critiques and concerns.

At the core of the work is an important attitudinal shift, a new focus on opportunity and possibility, rather than problems and failure. If Chile continues to focus on its poverty and underdevelopment, the country will remain poor and underdeveloped, drowning in its own distrust and resignation. Only if its leaders—social, public, and private—take on these problems as challenges, obstacles as opportunities, and begin to work together, will the country, and its citizens, move forwards. Only if Teresa and her neighbors see the lack of electricity as room for an improvement, not a sentence to failure, and take it upon themselves to build the bridges needed to make that change, will that change take place.

Fall 1999


Scott Rechler (Harvard FAS ’03) is currently working in Temuco, Chile with the non-governmental organization Gente Expresa, on a Trustman Fellowship administered by Harvard’s Office of Career Services. Scott wrote his social anthropology senior thesis on “social entrepreneurship, social capital, and social change in southern Chile.” For more on these topics, please e-mail him scottrec@fastmail.fm. He thanks Jennifer Mygatt (Dartmouth College ’04) and Sarah Beller (FAS ’03) for help with this article. Teresa Licanleo is one of 60 participants in Comunidades Emprendedoras, an initiative of Gente Expresa, aimed at helping grassroots leaders develop their leadership, social entrepreneurial and collaborative capacities. For more on Gente Expresa, please visit www.gentexpresa.cl or e-mail info@gentexpresa.cl.

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