Indigenous Calendar November, 2017: Long and Winding Roads

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Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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A year ago I was visiting indigenous Bribri communities in Costa Rica. The planned four-day tour had to be cut back to two days because of horrendous weather resulting from a hurricane. So bad was the rain that I was delayed at the very beginning by a landslide that had just happened and had caused a tree to block the gravel road.

Roads in the literal sense often don't exist for indigenous people. Their "roads" are forest, river, desert and mud trails. When real roads are built it is rarely done for their benefit. Instead it is done to allow access to their land and its resources; a striking example is happening right now in southeastern Peru. The roads can also serve as an exit, leading to the abandonment of traditional life in search of a modern life in the city; this has been happening for decades on an unprecedented scale in Mongolia where half of the population now lives in the capital, Ulaan Baatar.

Shan State lies in eastern Burma (Myanmar). It is populated by many indigenous communities and is rich in precious and semi-precious metals and gemstones. I don't know when the long and winding road pictured in this month's photo was built, but I do know it was built to transport those resources and not to improve the lives of the state's many indigenous people.

The road block at the beginning of my Bribri tour was cleared by local firefighters within a couple of hours. Possibly for the following reason. Grano de Oro lies in eastern Costa Rica. It is surrounded by many indigenous communities, some of which comprise Cabécar people. A few weeks before my own Costa Rican road block, thirty-five-year-old Isel Payán fell ill. Members of her Cabécar community carried her, by improvised stretcher, over the long and winding mud trail that led to the Grano de Oro health clinic. That clinic closes at 4pm due to underfunding. They then had to carry her a further twelve hours to the nearest hospital in Turrialba because the road was still blocked from a landslide six months previously.

Isel Payán died from appendicitis a few days later.

Appendicitis is not a difficult medical condition to overcome if it is treated early enough. So she actually died because the road was too long and winding. Or, as legislator Mario Redondo later commented, the cause of her death was neglect: "It is an injustice that this population has no access to transitable roads."

A few days before I was in Bribri territory I had been in Turrialba. The road block had been cleared a few days after Isel Payán's death. If this part of Costa Rica were richer in natural resources, she might still be alive today. If more politicians were like Mario Redondo — in bringing attention to the plight of people when it doesn't necessarily suit them politically — some roads might be shorter and straighter.

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