08/14/2013 11:52 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

Poverty and the Metaphor of the Turtle

In rural Kentucky where I grew up, one of the more exhilarating after-school activities that my childhood friends and I engaged in was turtle-flipping contests. This unusual sport involved racing down to the local creek, finding a couple unsuspecting turtles meandering through the brush washed up by the last flood, and flipping the turtles on their backs to see whose would turn over fastest. Usually a coin left over from lunch money was the going bet. Almost always there would be one turtle whose fluttering legs would quickly find ground and flip over within a minute while the other wretchedly strained and squirmed and shifted unsuccessfully. After a few minutes, our childlike attention spans would wander off to the next innocent creature of the creek to torture and we'd leave the poor thing on his back clawing at the sky.

The next day however, and much to our chagrin, the "loser" turtle would eventually be gone. We were always amazed at how even turtles with the shortest legs, despite the seemingly impossibility of the feat, could turn over and find solid ground without any outside help. But our childhood conniving was not to be outdone. One afternoon, we engineered our own turtle trap by positioning a few big rocks in a circle roughly the size of our new victim's shell and left him (or her) strategically balanced between the rocks. Suspended in mid-air without any way to find solid ground, we eventually "beat" nature as that un-lucky turtle spent a whole night staring at the stars. Nearly twenty years later I find myself still reflecting on the meaning and imagery behind that malicious childhood game and how it relates to something I've have been wrestling with for years: the issue of poverty.

After nearly a decade of living and moving in the world of international development organizations, it has been drilled into my brain that the key word around which all our work revolves is "sustainability." That word, especially when added as an adjective to the concept of "development," has been tossed around and used and abused and confused in so many ways that it sometimes loses any meaning or credibility. Nonetheless, as an international development worker I've taken it to heart that all my work must be focused towards creating "sustainability." Our ambitious objective is to help the poor find the path towards a sustainable lifestyle that will lift them out of their poverty and away from dependency on us; hence the cliché of development workers of "working one's self out of a job." We aim to accomplish this noble goal of ours by helping the poor become better farmers, better entrepreneurs, or better "whatever-our-project-is-focused-on" this year. Through our projects, we want the poor to gain enough resources, or make enough income to supply their basic needs.

Though there is a scale of credibility and merit amongst development organizations ranging from the most ridiculously paternalistic who rampantly stimulate dependency in order to enhance their "savior-of-the-poor" complex, to those who sincerely seek to understand and engage the complexity of the multi-faceted causes of poverty, there is something that unsettles me about the very nature of our work. What if our obsession with "sustainability" is in itself unfounded and mistaken? What if, despite all our indicators and baseline studies and contextual investigations, the poor, without our projects and interventions, were already living sustainable lives?

I understand that many will accuse me of romanticizing the poor and I'll admit that Franciscan spirituality and it's reverence for "sister poverty" has influenced me. Nonetheless, I contend that many of those whom official statistics will declare to be living "under the poverty line" in fact live lives that are, or at least have the ability to be, very sustainable. Since sustainability says so much without saying anything at all, in this essay I will take it to mean the basic ability of families to fashion a lifestyle that meets their most essential needs. In a nutshell, I believe that the "developed" world's conception of poverty is heavily influenced by our affluence which blurs the line between austerity and misery and does not distinguish between frugality and scarcity.

Having said that, I recognize that it would be foolish to deny the widespread and often overwhelming poverty that does affect so many families and individuals in the "developing" world. There are indeed many cases of poverty where external forces combine with a defeatist mentality that characterizes so many poor people. That mentality, coupled with the abundance of relief and development organizations all to eager to play the savior through their free hand-outs, has created a sickening dependency that affects countless people around the world. That mentality is obviously not sustainable.

But what I wish to dispute is not related to individual cases of despondency or particularized attitudes of dependency, but rather the unfounded and widespread assertion that the concrete, culturally-defined lifestyles of so many allegedly "poor" people are in themselves unsustainable and incapable of providing a decent, dignified lifestyle. This affirmation of the unsustainable nature of the lifestyle of the poor is most intensely echoed when directed towards the lifestyle of rural, peasant populations around the world.

In the history of the United States, we see this intolerance for rural, agrarian lifestyles arising after World War II with the Committee for Economic Development. The purpose of this committee, according to agrarian writer Wes Jackson was to "get two million people off the farm and keep farmers' sons from staying on the farm." The stated objective for such a plan was to avoid unemployment for the young men coming back from the war, but it may have just as well been a ploy to assure a cheap workforce for the growing industrial centers of the country. For a country such as the United States after World War II who emerged as the world's sole superpower, having much of your population as rural farmers must have been considered by policymakers as backwards, unsustainable, and inescapably leading to poverty and thus the need to forcefully change the demographics by getting people off the farm.

In more recent years as the United States and much of the developed world has largely abandoned its agrarian past for modern, industrial, and urban lifestyles, the focus on the war against poverty has turned to the global South. In Guatemala, USAID, the US-based development organization Save the Children, and Green Mountain Coffee Roaster have teamed up with a Guatemala organization called FUNDA AGROS to confront the issue of poverty in the indigenous highlands of the Mayan Ixil region of Guatemala.

A costly, multi-year goat-raising project has been implemented in the Ixil region by the above-mentioned organizations. The project, which donates one goat per family and gives technical assistance on how to best raise the animal, aims to improve the breed of goats and then industrialize the production of goat milk in order to generate more income for families participating in the project. Families sell the milk from the improved-breed goat back to FUNDA AGROS who runs a business commercializing added-value products such as yogurt and gourmet cheeses. When the center is fully operational up to a thousand liters of milk could be processed daily into high quality dairy products.

In a recent visit to the project, it was unclear how the income from the added-value products would be distributed. However, FUNDA AGROS has gained a reputation in the Ixil region for promoting export agriculture with local farmers through such products as coffee and snow peas. In these arrangements, the small, Mayan-Ixil farmer puts forth their land and manual labor while FUNDA AGROS offers technical support and inputs. The small farmer is then forced to sell their harvest back to FUNDA AGROS who separately determines the price and then exports the crops to foreign markets without revealing their profit margin to the farmers they work with nor sharing any of the supposed profits. This form of contract agriculture also leaves many small farmers in a vulnerable situation as any losses due to diminished production or crop damage is assumed solely by the small farmer.

The project run by FUNDA AGROS and financed by USAID has been reported in the Guatemalan media as an overwhelming success and a sure path to defeating poverty in the Ixil region of Guatemala. Hiding behind the project's design, however, is the same fundamental assumption that the poor are incapable of solving their own problems and that the ancestral lifestyle of the Ixil people is, in itself, unsustainable and flawed.

The president of FUNDA AGROS, Alfred Kaltschmitt, recently wrote an editorial in the Guatemalan newspaper La Prensa Libre stating that "it is our carry the weakest in our society because they simply cannot do so themselves (my emphasis)."

In other opinion pieces Kaltschmitt affirms that poverty in Guatemala is "the product of ignorance and impoverishing customs." He is especially emphatic that traditional agricultural practices focused on raising corn, beans and squash together with other local herbs and vegetables is not a sustainable livelihood option despite the fact that the Mayan-Ixil people have survived as subsistence farmers for 2500 years thriving on such a diet. He resolutely avows that "subsistence farming is equal to underdevelopment and rural poverty" and that this is proven by irrefutable economic theories.

To justify his steadfast certainty that the poor are incapable of creating a dignified lifestyle or overcoming poverty through their ancestral livelihoods, Kaltschmitt refers to the problem of malnutrition. He states that the poor "are limited from the moment of conception in the womb of their mother; victims of having lived those first thousand days malnourished and then growing up in an atmosphere lacking access to the most basic aspects that permit human development."

Less sophistically stated (or less hidden behind technical jargon), Katschmitt is saying that the rural poor who have suffered brain damage from malnutrition are basically stupid; that they cling to a backwards, out-dated lifestyle that condemns them to an inescapable life of poverty and that the only path for them to overcome that poverty is through programs and projects led by enlightened outsiders such as FUNDA AGROS, Save the Children, USAID, etc. It is clear that the goat-raising project is founded on such an assumption.

Many Mayan Ixil people, however, have quite a different opinion regarding their capabilities and potential as small farmers. When I asked local farmers in the Ixil village of Salquil about the FUNDA AGROS goat raising project, Gaspar Cobo Corio responded: "Why do we need FUNDA AGROS to teach us how to raise goats? Our people have been raising goats for hundreds of years in these mountains and we know what we're doing."

The notion held by FUNDA AGROS that the basic lifestyle of the poor as subsistence farmers is unavoidably unsound is also held by the majority of international development organizations and by governments alike. The Guatemala government, following this assumptions that the agrarian livelihoods of the majority Mayan population is not only bad for individuals but bad for the country as well, has developed a plan called Katun 2032 (a Katun is a 20 year period in the Mayan Calendar). In this 20 year strategic development plan, the goal is to convert Guatemala into an "urban, industrialized, and service-oriented country." Rural, subsistence agriculture is to be replaced by modernized, formal and innovative agricultural methods most likely meaning export oriented agriculture.

The government has also taken the liberty to carve up the rural areas of the country to determine what economic activity led by transnational investment is to replace subsistence, small-scale farming. In some regions it is mining, in others it is intensive monoculture forestry for bio-fuels. In the Ixil region it is mega-hydroelectric development to export energy to the regional market and to fulfill the growing energy demand in the urban, industrial centers which will replace rural areas as the center of demographic growth. The current government of Otto Perez Molina in its Policy Framework for the Promotion of Private Investment in Rural Areas "recognizes the need for private investment, both domestic and foreign, in order to achieve holistic, integrated rural development."

Following this national development paradigm, it becomes apparent that "development" projects such as the one led by FUNDA AGROS functions in strict collaboration with the nationally designed plan to redesign the rural areas of the country. This development plan, besides seeking to open up the resource-rich rural areas of the country to transnational foreign investment, is also attempting to forcefully transform the paradigm of rural economies away from subsistence and towards rural agro-business where the global market determines what is to be grown and sold. In many ways, projects such as the one led by FUNDA AGROS resemble a sort of modern feudalism where poor vassals must depend on the goodwill of a philanthropic and benign lord while all the while losing a lifestyle of relative autonomy.

This issue of how rural areas should confront the issue of poverty returns us to the question raised by the turtle that my childhood friends and I tortured so often during our youth. Are the poor, like a turtle trapped on its back, inherently able to find ways to get their feet back on the ground, or must they depend on the goodwill of a passerby? Moreover, is the traditional, agrarian, subsistence-farming lifestyle of rural people like the Mayan-Ixil sufficient enough to deal with the reality of poverty and create the conditions for a life of dignity?

I insist that people are not stupid even despite perhaps suffering from malnutrition during their childhood. Rather, people will always search for ways to survive and be happy and meet their basic needs. I suppose that's a bit of a genetic trait of all forms of life. Traditional lifestyles, especially of rural and indigenous peoples, are ways of survival that have been crafted over thousands of years where a specific lifestyle and culture have been molded to fit the demands and opportunities of a specific place. The predicament is that these traditional lifestyles have not adequately responded to the new challenges that our global society imposes. Nonetheless, far from being the cause of poverty, I believe that it is these traditional lifestyles that could be rescued, re-valued and better adapted respond to the challenges, such as poverty, that are created by a rapidly changing society. Poverty thus, is not necessarily a sign of an unsustainable lifestyle or culture, but rather, in the majority of cases, the result of external forces that do not permit a certain lifestyle to be put into practice.

The problem of poverty, I believe, is more related to the turtle who shell we balanced between two rocks so that its poor legs were suspended in mid-air and unable to find the ground it needed to turn over and get back on its feet. Stuck in this position obviously leaves the turtle in a position of great vulnerability where a passing hawk could easily gather it into its claws for an evening meal.

In today's society ruled by a global, competitive economy and where sinister government plans like the Guatemalan "Katun 2032" seek to actively undermine, weaken and forcefully replace traditional agrarian lifestyles, the poor, like our proverbial turtle, are left in vulnerable situations where poverty and oppression make it impossible to "get back on their feet" and effectively respond to the poverty they face. Like the turtle, so many landless peasants are unable to confront the poverty they face, not because of "ignorance and impoverishing customs", but because they have no land (or insufficient land) under their feet to live out or put into practice traditional lifestyles.

To end with, perhaps it is necessary to question why organizations such as FUNDA AGROS or the Guatemalan government are so biased against the traditional, agrarian lifestyles of rural populations and why they so actively seek to replace them. And what better way to do so than with a final turtle analogy.

Like the turtle, the poor or rural populations in general, usually move slowly. That slowness is often interpreted by outsiders as an inherent weakness and inability to "get out" or "get beyond" the situation of poverty that they face. We live in a society that is afraid of and actively punishes slowness. We prize rapidity and always seek to be moving on to the next horizon; to something supposedly better, superior, and more promising. We are rarely happy with where we are at.

That is precisely why many landed, rooted peasant and indigenous populations move so slowly -- because they're not necessarily on the move to anywhere. They're content where they are and with what they're doing. That doesn't mean that they don't have any meaning or vision, but rather that they're vision is grounded beneath their feet. And when vision is grounded beneath one's feet, then there is no need to hurry off to any distant horizon.

The features of a life lived slowly and close to land and to community, might seem to many to be backwards and archaic, but it is high time that we begin to doubt and question the assumption that it is unsustainable and inherently poverty-stricken as well.