There Are No Slaves Here

Ngobe girls playing in the cafetal (and spying on visiting gringos)
Ngobe girls playing in the cafetal (and spying on visiting gringos)

The last night of my most recent trip to Panama I had a conversation that left me very perturbed. It was a friend’s birthday and we were having a homemade pizza party in the communal dining room of a hostel. As I went into the kitchen to wash the plates, two hostel guests leaning against the counter sipping Balboa beers started making small talk. They learned I was “the coffee girl” of the coffee book sitting on the table in the lobby.

The guy asked me, “So what do you think of the indigenous people? Of how they’re treated here? We drove around the town yesterday and saw how they live. It’s just terrible. They’re like slaves.”

I told him, “Well, actually, no, they’re not like slaves. Not at all. The indigenous people you see here in Boquete are Ngöbe, and almost all of them have land and live year round in the Comarca, which is basically a reservation—land that legally belongs to them, not the Panamanian government. So they’re not at all slaves. They’re here voluntarily.”

He responded, “So you think this is good? You think this is, like, a positive situation? First Chiquita Banana and now this with coffee. These people are being exploited and held here and forced to work off their homes and food.”

I tried not to get frustrated. I tried to figure out how to explain everything I had absorbed during the two months I’d spent in Panama the year before, how to synthesize all the conversations and experiences that had been packed into that short—but deep and dense—time.

“No, I don’t think this is the best case scenario. But it’s also not the worst. The indigenous people you see here, in Boquete, are most definitely NOT being forced to do anything. They come here because the farms here pay better prices for harvesting than most other ones in the country. They have complete and total free will to go to whatever farm they want to, and the people who are here choose to come here. Of course there’s been exploitation in the past, and of course they’re paid much less than they should be, but they’re being paid more than most other coffee pickers in the region.”

He challenged, “but why are they paid so little? The farm owners are exploiting them. Do you think this is fair?”

I thought of the past year of late nights and long bus rides reading trade documents, market reports, and newspaper articles, of falling asleep listening to recordings of different people explaining pricing from different perspectives. I thought of standing in hallways outside the closed door sessions at the coffee conferences I’d attended and the 500some pages of Mark Pendergrast’s Uncommon Grounds: History of Coffee and How It Transformed the World, much of it discussing the itchy coffee legacy of quotas, floor and ceiling prices, and the collapse of international coffee agreements, which ushered in the era of a wild and free market for coffee. I thought of the knots of men in suits representing international commodity trading firms, of reading official “About” pages on company websites of importers and roasters, outlining an intertwined history of who bought whom when, who merged, and who vertically integrated. I thought of Froilan’s few hectares harvested by family in Costa Rica and the miles and miles of coffee—harvested by droves of seasonal employees—drying along the dusty Panamerican highway through Nicaragua.

I took a deep breath, “the price the pickers are paid is derived directly from the market price of coffee, which is determined by futures trading. Pickers aren’t making much money, but neither are the landowners.”

His girlfriend chimed in, “I’m from Peru. Have you been to Peru? Have you seen how indigenous people are treated?” The guy added that they’d come from Peru through Ecuador and Colombia and just arrived to Panama.

I told them, “No, I haven’t been to Peru. I’ve been here. In Panama. In total this is only my third month in the country, but I have been to the Comarca where the Ngöbe live when they’re not here harvesting. They have their own homes and their own land and the freedom to go where they want to, when they want to. There are families who’ve been coming to the harvest at the same farms in Boquete for generations. They all know each other. It’s summer and schools are out. There’s a tradition to it.”

The guy continued, “So you think this is ok, this is good? You think they have equal opportunities? That they have a chance for something better? What about education?”

I thought of the charred classrooms of the school where I’d stayed in the Comarca, burned during a (most likely accidental) fire started by mis-aimed fireworks. I thought of the worry on the mothers’ faces that the teachers would refuse to come back (or the government would refuse to send them back). I thought of the conversations between Peace Corps volunteers about how they’d seen teachers sabotaged, their homes filled with rats or trash, by Ngöbes who resented government-issued teachers as an invasion and degradation of their culture.

I thought of petty community gossip that turned neighbors against each other in refusal to bury the water pipes that kept breaking, of grudges that prevented the construction of a better fresh water collection tank. I thought of the meetings of the coffee co-op, where members had wondered at the suspicious disappearance of the former co-op president, and the simultaneous disappearance of all last year’s membership fees. I thought of the day the Peace Corps volunteer had organized for construction of a new coffee seedling nursery, and the vehement refusal of several coffee co-op members to participate because the nursery was too close to the drying beds they’d helped build earlier in the year, all of which were close to certain co-op members’ houses, and they simply would not work on another “communal” project until one was located closer to their houses.

I told the couple, “It’s just not that simple. There is huge history of exploitation of all indigenous people in the Americas, but there are opportunities for Ngöbes to move beyond where they are.”

I thought of Felipe (p. 246) who’d worked his way up to beneficio manager at Finca Elida and knows more about coffee processing than most people in the country. I thought of Federico (p. 189), who animated his entire community to attend the Peace Corps Improvements in Coffee Farm Maintenance workshop (on a Saturday!) and took notes about everything from pruning to composting. I thought of the beneficio manager at Finca Santa Teresa, whom the farm manager explained had started as a picker and demonstrated the best work ethic and learning curve he’d ever seen. I thought of the cupper, who I didn’t get to meet, at the infamous Finca Lerida, a young Ngöbe man who’d worked his way from seasonal employee to Q-Grader. I thought of Cati, the 12-year-old daughter of the family I’d stayed with during my 9 days in the Comarca, who had sat on the floor with me, promising to teach me words in the Ngöbe language of Ngabere if I’d teach her the same words in English. I remembered the way she’d laughed at my handwriting and asked me to dictate each word, letter by letter, as she copied them into her notebook.

The guy in the kitchen said, raising his voice a little, “So this is all fine? These people aren’t being treated like slaves?”

I thought of the knots of Ngöbe children I’d seen weeks before at the big town fair, counting out their quarters (yes, Panama uses USD) to buy ice cream and hot dogs on sticks. I thought of the girls with earrings in their ears and barrettes in their hair. I thought of the mothers carrying babies in one arm and a stuffed animal in the other. I thought of the groups of teenage boys in their crisp Demo t-shirts and wide leg slacks waiting in lines for the “throw the baseball to knock stuff down” fair games.

I thought of all the women I’d seen in town just that morning, dressed in brilliant nagua dresses. Naguas are the traditional garb of Ngöbe women, and not all naguas are created equal. They can be made with minimal pleating and decorated with simple ribbon piping, easily sewn on with one thread by hand. But naguas can also be made with layers of complicated pleats, ironed to crisp creases, and decorated with two or three colors of layered dientes, teeth-like triangular patterns sewn one on top of the other to create geometric designs reminiscent of layers of mountains. To sew naguas like these takes time, or money to pay someone else for their time.  When you hand wash all your clothes in the damp mountains, they can take days to dry, leaving everything covered in tiny gray mildew spots. When you’re really broke you don’t have any clothes that are new enough to have escaped the mildew of the years. When you’re doing alright you can afford to buy yards of bright new fabric in multiple colors for the complicated diente designs.

Women of Bahia Ballena in their best naguas. Natalie (yellow, right) was my host) and Patricia (pink) sewed me my nagua, detail below.
Women of Bahia Ballena in their best naguas. Natalie (yellow, right) was my host) and Patricia (pink) sewed me my nagua, detail below.
WCS still life: Panamanian nagua- with dientes- as backdrop, Costa Rican tin cup, and Colombian "hat belt"
WCS still life: Panamanian nagua- with dientes- as backdrop, Costa Rican tin cup, and Colombian “hat belt”

I thought of the women who’d been on the bus with me on all the rides I’d taken around town during the past month. As I sat behind them I noticed the detailed, even pleating of the sleeves, the three—or even four—colors of the elaborate decorative dientes. These were not naguas thrown together with few resources, these were naguas sewn with time and care, either costing the wearer some money, or some serious time. Either way, it means that their family has money to spend or is not so hard up that all the women and grandmothers have to be out working.

I see the point of having conversations where I feel the other converser is not listening to a word I’m saying (maybe they’d had a few Balboas before the ones in their hands), so I finished washing the plates and walked away. But the guy’s refrain bothered me. Hearing someone drop the word “slaves” in conversation so casually left me feeling angry. He was right that people harvesting coffee often get a bum deal and that they’re stuck getting this bum deal because they don’t have many other options for employment. He was on the money that the Ngöbes don’t have it easy in terms of bettering their situation. But what exactly is their situation; how does he know what it is, and how does he know it needs to be bettered? How do I know what it is, and if it needs to be bettered?

He was right that there is injustice present, but he was wrong to liken it to slavery. I know less about any kind of slavery than I do about Ngöbe coffee harvesters, but I do know that there are no slaves here. I’ve spoken to farm owner after farm owner who’s said things like, “Well, this year the harvest started slow, so we had to raise the price per pound just to get anyone to come pick! If we hadn’t, the first third of the harvest would have fallen off the trees, but man, it’s seriously raised our costs of production.” That is not something you say of your slaves. You also don’t say, “Yeah, the whole family of pickers just left last night. The Ngöbes are very nomadic.”

The costs of room and board are often deducted from pickers’ pay in ways that are far from fair or just. In Costa Rica a picker who’d just arrived to a farm I was visiting stood in the doorway of the bunkroom and pointed to the light switch, asking “How much for the electricity?” The manager of that farm said, “Here, there’s no charge,” but obviously that’s not always the case. Charging workers inflated prices for electricity and meals is not fair and it is not just, but it is also not slavery. Probably a full hundred percent of coffee harvesters in Panama are indigenous Ngöbe, but none of them are slaves. They might not get paid a lot, but they get paid, and they can do with their money as they please. In the Comarca they might live in platform huts with palm roofs and no walls or in shacks made from pieces of tin and plastic tarps, but those homes are theirs, and they can come and go to and from them whenever they choose.

Ngöbe men, women, and families work the harvest as long as they deem profitable, and then they leave. They go back to the Comarca. When they’re there they can sit in a hammock and stare at the sea or the jungle all day if they choose. The guy with the Balboa was right that it’s not an ideal situation; I spoke with too many Ngöbe people who told me they ate one meal a day and hadn’t been able to afford cooking oil for weeks. Is that fair? Is that right? Of course not. But it’s not the product of slavery.

Attributing the problems of the current situation to something as drastic as slavery seems like the most in effective (and offensive) approach to reality and a massive dismissal of what’s actually going on. To see the situation and cry, “Slaves! Wrong! Overt injustice of slavery!” is not accurate and it is certainly not helpful. There are lots of complicated factors that contribute to the reasons why most Ngöbe children receive little to no healthcare, why many don’t receive education necessary to prepare them for higher paying jobs, and why lots of families can’t serve dinner. The factors contributing to these situations are wrapped up in legacies of government and private corporate policies that did look a lot like slavery, and there is no shortage of underhanded advantage-taking done by everyone from public service departments to foreign companies (like Chiquita Banana), and in much more subtle social dynamics, like the jealousy that ferments in communities where people have similar—but varying—degrees of very little.

To really understand the situation you would probably have to be either Ngöbe (which I’m not), Panamanian (which I’m not), a Peace Corps volunteer who’s been throw into the middle of the thing by a foreign government with its own history of involvement in the situation—and not a particularly innocent involvement at that—(which I’m not), or an employee at a company involved in purchasing Ngöbe-harvested Panamanian products (which I’m also not). To start to understand the thing—understanding something always being the first step in improving it—you would also have to be observant, which I am, and if you’re at all observant you see that this is not slavery.

This might be some form of modern indentured servitude (maybe even not so unlike the kind that tethers North Americans to credit cards with 20% interest rates or students from low income communities to private education loans with aggressive fine print), but it is not the same thing as one person being the property of another. Slavery is violent and visible, and these contemporary forms of servitude might actually be harder to untangle because they’re harder to see. And because they’re harder to trace, they’re harder to find a cause of, a culprit for.

When the bank repossesses people’s homes, who’s to blame? The people who couldn’t make the payments? The company that laid people off, leaving them suddenly without income? The company that gave people loans they knew they could never repay? The government for giving banks the right to leave people instantly homeless? It’s complicated.

Who’s to blame for Ngöbe children fighting tuberculosis on empty stomachs? Their parents for not making enough money to take care of them? Businesses for not hiring their parents? The government for not giving their parents the education to get hired? Spiteful neighbors for pushing out potential government aid projects? Their parents’ current bosses for not paying them enough? European and North American businesses for not paying enough for coffee so that employers have the ability to pay employees more? It’s complicated.

I was frustrated with the guy for not listening, but I can also understand his determination to cling to the idea that slavery is to blame for the injustice of the situation. There are no slaves here, but that means there is also no slave owner, which leaves no clear, gratifying target for fiery indignation and stubborn outrage, and that makes the thing much more difficult and complicated to be angry about.


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