San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Poverty in Buenos Aires: No Short-Term Fix

BUENOS AIRES, Puntarenas – The Southern Zone town of Buenos Aires, just off the Inter-American Highway, has always struggled to become more than just a rest stop for travelers heading south to Panama. A farming community near indigenous land, its dependence on subsistence agriculture has kept many of its residents living in poverty.

According to local aid workers, Buenos Aires ranks 78th out of 81 Costa Rican municipalities in number of residents living below the poverty line. There are few jobs, little educational opportunities and even less industry to promote growth.

Francisco Bustamante, who heads up the Buenos Aires Canton Agricultural Center, said proposals for projects to develop the community have gone ignored.

Pulling out a handful of thick, spiral-bound reports full of research on building tilapia farms or stimulating direct farmer-to-consumer sales, he said, “They ask for proposals and we spend one or two years putting them together. But then they say they don’t want to fund them.”

In the meantime, Buenos Aires residents wait.

President Laura Chinchilla announced shortly after taking office in May that her administration would focus on reducing poverty across the country. Working through a proposed Poverty Ministry – essentially giving the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) a cabinet position – Chinchilla is emphasizing grassroots development and the empowerment of local leaders.


Not Enough: Santana Jiménez agrees that Buenos Aires residents desperately need jobs.

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By focusing antipoverty efforts in 26 municipalities that historically have had the highest poverty rates in the country, Chinchilla hopes to move 20,000 families above the poverty line by 2014 (TT, Nov. 12, Oct. 29).

But on the ground in Buenos Aires, implementing the president’s goals is proving challenging. Local aid workers say they still have no action plan from the government.

“The Southern Zone, (including) Bue-nos Aires, Golfito, Coto Brus, Corredores and Osa, has been a little slow starting out,” said Catalina Peralta, who oversees the new program. “But these five municipalities are a priority for this program. We are working at giving them more support.”

The Downsides of Aid

Roger Campos has been working as a government aid worker in Buenos Aires for the past 14 years. Pointing toward a local welfare office, Campos complains that the people who need help most are not receiving it.

“The neediest people don’t have the means to get here,” he said. “They are out in the campo, and many of them are too ashamed to ask for help.”

Meanwhile, as has been the trend with past programs to fight poverty, aid comes as handouts, not job-creation initiatives, Campos said. The result is a snowball effect – more people show up for handouts.

While Campos stands in his office, crates full of chicks are carried in and set on the floor. The chicks are not given away but rather sold at a discounted price that local families can afford.

“This way, people have a way to support themselves and not rely on handouts,” he said.

Mayor Feliciano Alvarez agrees that past poverty programs have been ineffective. Families were given enough food to last three months, but when funds dried up – and they usually did – families were left hungry and helpless.

“What’s exciting about this new program is that it doesn’t focus on how much the government gives, but rather on teaching the people how to be successful in their own activities, [as well as] how to generate employment within their own homes, so that each house is self-sufficient,” Alvarez said.

With four different indigenous communities – the Teribe, Brunca, Guaymí and Bribrí – living near Buenos Aires, designing culturally relevant plans to alleviate poverty presents additional challenges.

Guillermo Elizondo, who grew up in the Bribrí community known as Salitre, said the concept of exchanging money for goods is foreign to many indigenous people. The result is often aid dependency.

“Many are just now getting used to the fact that money doesn’t just fall from the sky,” he said. “They are going out and getting jobs or finding some other way to make a living.”

Elizondo and his family operate a pulpería (corner store) and tourist center to provide for themselves and their neighbors.

“We recognize we all need money to live,” said Elizondo’s father, Zacarías Elizondo. “We don’t need to be millionaires, but we know we need to work. What we don’t want to do is lose our identity.”

But dependence on government aid remains strong in Buenos Aires’ indigenous community, which has led to tension between indigenous and nonindigenous residents. The latter feel that a disproportionate percentage of aid, government scholarships and food rations are distributed to indigenous residents. 

According to Mario Fernando Alvarado, regional director for the National Commission on Indigenous Affairs (CONAI), solutions should be tailored as much as possible to meet each family’s needs.

“A solution that worked for one family may not necessarily work for the next,” he said.

Some believe help will never arrive in Buenos Aires. It is far from San José, the Pacific coast and the Panamanian border, and there is little to offer potential investors. For now, those who can find work live as poorly paid laborers, harvesting produce for the world. The rest wait for change.

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