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Are gringos good news for Vilcabamba ?

by Pierre Wauters  (OPINION)

I came for the first time in Vilcabamba in October last year and boy things are moving fast here ! This month (June 2009) a real estate tour organised by a high profile expat living here will be visiting us and then another one in August. Recently a new real estate company with an ambitious and promising mission statement has been launched by an Australian expat. I sincerely wish that they succeed. That would be the first honest real estate company in the world! To my knowledge, Vilcabamba now sports 3 real estate companies plus a number of gringos and locals doing real estate on the side.

The property market here is undoubtedly getting hotter and we will soon see busses of gringos (1) touring the place looking for their own piece of this paradise that we call the valley of longevity. Most of these gringos will come to retire here. While the locals have 12 kids or more, the gringos have none, we need more families with children to keep the balance right. But I diverge.

Is a large influx of gringos good news? Yes and no. To make an analogy, if one wants to talk about the benefits of solar energy, one should not forget the zillion batteries that would need to be disposed somehow at the end of their short lifespan if we were to generate electricity on a large scale this way. While andean indigenous people can live of the sun, gringos need lots of batteries to function, so to speak. Gringos come here with baggage.

For a start, gringos have money, much much much more money than the local people here. I was harvesting coffee last week-end for the first time in my life and at the end of a long and hard day of picking berries on steep grounds, we had 3 bags (we were 5 people), I tried to calculate how much money we would actually get by selling our coffee harvest to a wholesale coffee producer who would take it from there. I am not sure if I understood exactly (it was all in Spanish) how many quintals we would get at the end of 2 more days of harvesting but it appeared that 2 or 3 was the number and that this would probably sell for USD 200 at most. Hmm.. 3 days of work for 5 people and you get $200?. Another example, is the wage of a typical worker around here which is around 10-12 dollars a day! At the end of a week, these guys bring $50-60 home, that's it. You see them everywhere, they are the majority of the population in Ecuador.

Now, what can a family afford with $60 per week of income? Do we believe that somehow they can buy this $50,000 block of land to build their home? Of course not. But with our fresh money straight from the US or elsewhere in the first world, we can! It is obvious to me that the first effect of an influx of people with financial means to a village like Vilcabamba is a surge in real estate prices. The internet is full of opportunities for real estate grabs in areas where prices have not yet but will soon go up. See for example the well known site www.internationalliving.com. Their primary focus is helping people retire better, helping wealthy westerners to grab some piece of property somewhere in the world at the right time and benefit from it financially. This has already happened here in Vilcabamba and it will get worse.

It should not take a rocket scientist to understand that an increase in real estate prices makes life harder for low income local people. A house that used to sell for say, $5,000 and which now is on the market for $25,000 has moved out of reach of most people.

Of course not everything is negative. Gringos also bring jobs. I was told that Hacienda San Joaquin employs 300 workers. This is great. I employ workers too for my own project. However, for good reasons, these workers are paid the normal wages with which they will never be able to buy the houses that they are building for the gringos, let alone the land they're building the houses on, their land.

Second, gringos, at least the kind that comes to live here have ideas, ideals, skills and other great qualities. This is good of course. Vilcabamba has great people involved in community projects, healing, growing organic food etc.. I watch them talk about all the wonderful things that we could do here to "develop" this region. However, what I do not see is many gringos talking about how the people here have been living just fine without us for so many years and analysing and understanding why that is. After all, Vilcabamba does not have traffic jams every morning at eight thirty. I have never seen a plane in the sky here (let alone chemtrails). The air is pure and everybody is smiling and says hello to everybody else. The police does not have much to do. On the other hand, in every town of New Zealand, which is where I was living before, no matter how small, there is trouble, traffic offenders, boy racing, violence. At Christmas or Easter we have police reinforcement, here they have processions and music.

In my opinion, the very first thing that gringos should do here is blend with the locals and try, if not to live like they do, at least to undertsand how it is that they live. I cannot live in a dark room with no running water, no floor, no bathroom, no light, beans and corn instead of cheese and chocolate. It would be hard for me. But what I can do and try doing every day is to get out there in the village, talk to the people as much as my limited Spanish permits and make friends, it is easy, we are welcome here, at least for now. Every time I am on the road, I see intriguing things and I think to myself that next time I will ask what it is. For example, my neighbour in Sacapo is an old lady, I think that she is in her late 70s but every single day I see her walking in a different place, far away from her home. This means that she must be walking kilometers every day. She always smiles at me, she's got no money but she looks happy. Then I see these donkeys carrying huge loads of sugar cane, going on the main road by themselves. Where are they going? What is this business exactly, how does it work? Then in the village, I see a boy passing by on a horse, I ask how old he is, they say 5. He does not have a saddle. he looks comfortable and he knows where he is going. What is his story? This society is functioning and functioning well, not perfect for sure, but good. We have to be very careful not to try to change that without understanding the side effects of what we are doing.

First piece of advice for newcomers: LAY LOW - LISTEN AND WATCH - DON'T TRY TO CHANGE EVERYTHING

To me, it is all about effects and side-effects. Bringing more gringos here brings money which gives jobs to people but also pushes real estate prices up (as well as the cost of rentals) and makes land and home unaffordable to the local people. What is the net combined effect of this? 

Another thing that I find interesting is the fact that gringos then set up foundations to help the local communities and put money into these foundations. Interestingly, these foundations are owned and run by their founders, the gringos, not by the locals. I think that it would be better to 1. try not to disturb the balance of things too much (once again, "lay low") and 2. help the people directly with simple gestures such as repairing a road or a playground or a community building for them at no cost. This does not require a foundation. People are very welcoming and appreciative of simple things and a small amount of money will often go a long way.

(1) I use the word "gringo" in a non derogatory way, just the way I believe the locals use it here. After all, I am one of them.