The Making of Summer School in Tasajera

One and a half years ago the Tasajera Summer School Project had its beginning; it started with an idea. Now that we find ourselves executing the project, I can only think of the phrase “making dreams come true.”

The reality of this dream is not only for us (the project directors), but it’s equally a dream come true to the 45 students who are currently learning Computers and English through this project. As you can see in the video update  below, the students are learning a lot already and have the desire to learn much more.

At the moment, only Suzy Marselis and I (Daniel) are teaching classes in Tasajera, but very soon the Spanish volunteers form the University of Alcala de Henares are arriving to lead Reading and Writing, Nursing, and Organic Gardening classes.

Cooperacion Diagrama

If asked how did we make this project happen, I would say there is no definite recipe for it. I can surely say, however, that everything depends on good networking and being open to collaborate with others.

Key actors in the organization of this event are: Pastor Aristides Arce, a community leader who facilitates our communication with the local school; Glenda Olmedo, one of the local school teachers who represents the school for our project; Suzanne Marselis, a Dutch PhD student that wrote the project proposal and raised funds; Edgar Hita, a Spanish director of cooperation in Central America from the UAH in Spain who facilitates Spanish volunteers to Tasajera Island.

In addition, there are countless people who helped this project start, from those who provided research to those who contributed financially, and even those who gave much needed moral support or wise advice. We are eternally grateful to all, but the people in Tasajera Island are truly grateful!

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Step 3: Adopting “Local Language”

The Tasajera Summer School project remains in Phase 1 – Community Engagement phase, and will move to Phase 2 – Program Development – on January 14, 2016. In accordance with the project action plan, the selection of “Learning Areas” was carried out by the local Committee of Information and Development. This update is about the challenges faced during Phase 1.

One of the most important principles in community development is also one of the most difficult to implement: “adopting local language”.

I am not talking about learning the language of the community, or adopting local customs for oneself, or agreeing to its religious and daily life practices. Adopting local language is to translate your message into local terminology, and to develop an ear to interpret local needs without biased filters. We can say that adopting “local language” is really the leveling of the communication field between the expert (external) and the community. This is easier said than done.

The first, somewhat obvious, step to adopting the local language is to be willing to listen. We developed a process to interview and survey people from different sectors of Tasajera community (e.g. tourism coop, church leaders, school teachers, youth reps, student parents) to find out what are their educational priorities; in other words, what they want to learn.

Figure 1 displays the Summer School model including 5 priority “learning areas” that were chosen by community representatives, 1 additional local request, and 1 external consideration. The next phase will involve recruiting volunteers who wish to participate or contribute in any of these learning areas.

School model_community

figure 1. Tasajera Summer School model with 7 total learning areas.

Rationale for community selection

The second step of adopting local language is to process the information collected, and interpret the community’s selection. Why do the local community prioritize the need for such knowledge and education?

Computer Skills. Community members in Tasajera are aware of the rise of the internet age and they want to be part of the globalized world. The job market has also put pressure on people to have basic computer skills for jobs that previously didn’t required it. The challenge is that poor people in El Salvador lack even the most basic knowledge of computing and programs like Word processing tools. In addition, the rise of mobile internet users has opened up opportunities for mobile learning.
Language (English). Speaking English has become very desirable in El Salvador as it directly affects income; English-speaking call centers are one of the few growing industries, and are among the highest paid salaries. In addition, it has become government policy to encourage ecotourism development in Tasajera  Island and surrounding ecosystem. Tourism is a promising industry in El Salvador, its Pacific beaches host over 1 mil tourist every year from USA, Europe, and Latin America; most of which are English-speakers. Local community associate speaking English with better employment opportunities as tour guides, hotel managers, or development aid.
Reading and writing. As we have reported before, the local school system has been deficient in teaching kids how to properly read and write. We believe it is essential for a community to have higher levels of literacy as a foundation for educational development, which leads to overall community wellbeing.
Water (sanitation and filtration). Clean drinking water is certainly one of the biggest concerns of Tasajera community. During the course selection period, community representatives actively argued in favor of water education and filtration projects. Over the last 2 years, the tidal phenomenon has intensified in the Pacific coast, resulted in unprecedented salt water intrusion in groundwater wells in the region. More people now have to travel longer distances to collect drinking water for their families. This has cause great concern among the local population about their sustainability and survival.
Ecotourism. It is national policy since 2012 that the Jaltepeque Bay and its surrounding Mangrove forest will be developed as an ecotourism destination. The government seeks to harmonize the economic needs of the communities, including Tasajera, with the protection of the natural environment and the services it provides. Ecotourism can become a profitable industry for local communities. Therefore, the community wants to be more educated on the challenges and opportunities of ecotourism. This includes an entrepreneurial perspective.
Mechanics (engine repair) – ADDITIONAL. The community is very interested in learning mechanical skills related to engine repair. Being a fishing community, people in Tasajera mainly do business by boat (boats with a wide range of engine types). According to community members, there is only one person in the community who can repair engines. People are eager to learn this skill. This learning area, however, is considered an “additional” option by EMANA, because of the potential logistical challenges developing this course would bring. (open for discussion)

Analyzing the local development context

There is a clear relation between the development goals of Tasajera community and the protection of the natural resources. In fact, the safe and sustainable exploitation of the natural resources is assumed to be the only way local communities may achieve economic development and therefore improve their wellbeing.

Perhaps the most important example of this in Tasajera is the Turtle Conservation hatchery. Started in 2006 with the help of USAID and conservation NGOs the local community started buying sea turtle eggs from “egg collectors” to stop the illegal market of turtle eggs for consumption. Today, the Turtle Hatchery is seen as one of the most important income sources in Tasajera. More than 200 families get benefited from it every season. It is common  to see dozens of people walking at night on the beach searching for turtles laying their eggs.

Local leaders and NGOs are developing strategies to market the conservation and liberation of turtles as a tourism activity that builds awareness and facilitates capital into the community.

Step 2: Establish local organization

The progress in Tasajera Island has been consistent, but a bit slow. This is not something negative, because community engagement should not be rushed; enough time should be allocated to engage with all people in the community. It is important to understand their issues, needs, and priorities.

I’ve been in El Salvador for one month now, and I believe I’ve learned a lot about the cultural and social issues affecting Tasajera. It is important to know the way they operate and how they’re organized. I concluded there is a lack of organizational capacity and poor self-governance within the community. Therefore, a multisectoral committee, under the authority of the Association for Community Development (ADESCO), has been called for. There are a few organizational traits the new committee must overcome, including dependency, information deficiency, and incentives.

– Dependency –

Given the location of Tasajera Island at the lower Lempa River mangroves, there has been great interest in the protection and exploitation of the region. The lower Lempa River is a national protected area and a RAMSAR site. The protection of the biodiversity-rich mangroves has led many external actors to intervene with the small communities that inhabit the region. The relationship between the communities and outside funding sources has caused a side-effect of dependency. A culture of dependency has consequences on the organizational behavior of local actors; people expect to receive help with minimum effort on their side.

Some of the main external actors in the area are:

  1. FUNZEL (NGO – turtle conservation)
  2. CORDES (NGO – agricultural and fishing assistance)
  3. XUNTA de Galicia (Aid from Spain to fishing communities)
  4. Universidad de Alcala (student volunteers – Spain)
  5. American Churches & missionaries (humanitarian donations and constructions)
  6. Klosa & associates (external landowners of Tasajera Island)

– Information deficiency – 

Unfortunately, Salvadorans are not known for their excellent management skills. People often get things done “no matter what”, but fail to keep good records of what was done. Tasajera works very similarly, and people don’t have a mid- or long-term perspective. As a result, they lack the capacity to measure their performance over time. It’s understandable too, because they have lived off the ocean for generations and fish seemed never to run out… until today.

Since one of the principles employed here is to build on local and already existing information structures, I’ve noticed there is some information among local actors. However, the available information is mostly written down on paper and is not being analyzed over time. This information includes:

  • fish catch data (source: Fishing Cooperatives)
  • School attendance data (source: schools)
  • Children census of the community (source: ADESCO)
  • Groundwater sampling (source: CORDES)

In addition, there are some assessments of the community performed by universities and NGOs, but are focus-specific and not periodical. There is also Local Knowledge that may be recorded, like traditions and culture, and intriguing stories about young men and women who are migrating to the United States illegally.

– Incentives –

Community leaders seem frustrated with community members because they say it’s hard to get the people organized to accomplish something. People are not very interested in making an effort or commit to investing time in organizing something. This may be as a result of the previous points on dependency and lack of capacity. Therefore, incentivizing adequate organization and goal-oriented projects is essential to any intervention that is meant to be sustainable.

Communication may be a very important aspect of this, as the benefits of “owning their development” may be explained in a more comprehensive way. Other ways to encourage participation need to be explored as the process goes on.