Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Solidarity Village": an interview with Fr. Jaime Álvarez Benjumea

By Isabel Sánchez Benito (English translation by Rebel Girl)

When asked where he is from, he always answers: "I'm Colombian, I have been living thirty years in Ecuador and I have roots in Extremadura," as if it would be hard for him to give up any part of his identity. Jaime Álvarez Benjumea, "Father Jaime" as everyone calls him, came to Penipe (Ecuador) at 26. Now, at 56, he looks at the place where he landed as a youth and that now is nothing like it was then. The town of Penipe, which used to be sick, poor and punished by the Tungurahua volcano, has become, thanks to the efforts of Father Jaime to restore dignity to its people, a model of human development. Dubbed "Solidarity Village", Penipe serves today as an example for other communities and neighboring countries.

All these achievements have been recognized with awards and accolades that have been draped on the figure of Father Jaime, like the 2005 Reina Sofia Award for Rehabilitation and Integration, the Grand Knight Order of Merit conferred by Ecuador, and the title of Commander of the National Order of Merit with which the Colombian government recognized him. "Sometimes I feel like a retired general," he jokes. "Have you noticed how they keep placing medals on generals, when they are old and have been sent back home?" He laughs a little, but then turns serious to clarify: "The truth is that they are awards that I value, I value them a lot."

You came to Penipe…

On May 4, 1980.

You remember the date.

(Laughs) Yes, very well. Truthfully, I already knew Penipe. I had been there six years earlier, but that is the day I came to stay.

As pastor.

Yes. I was the fourth priest they had proposed for Penipe parish.

Why the fourth one?

The others said no.


Well, the truth is that the outlook was rather bleak: nearly half of the population sick with goiter, whole families of disabled people and a high migration of the healthy population... It was something to think about.

But you didn't think about it.

If they had told to me, up front, "Pastor of Penipe for thirty years?", I would have said, "No thanks." But I had the opportunity to experience it as a process, discovering it, moving forward and achieving small successes gradually.

How did you do it?

See, judge, and act: those were the first three steps. Then came evaluation and celebration. Evaluation in order to improve, and celebration in order to have the pleasure of showing what we had achieved.

Tell me about it.

When I came to Penipe, I met an anthropology team from Catholic University. I decided to live with them. And together, we directed all of our efforts towards social research about the village. But in a simple way, without technical complexities, no curves, graphs, or such stuff. We observed the people, their customs, their routine, their life...And then we analyzed all that information to try to discover what the problem of the area was.

And what was it?


Which is...

An increase in the size of the thyroid gland. One of the visible consequences of this disease is disability. Physical and mental. Doctors call it "cretinism", but I don't like that word at all, I find it very harsh, almost insulting.

What is the role of the disabled person in this population of disabled people?

Well, interestingly, the mentally disabled person, who was fit to work, was considered a blessing from God. He fetched the water, tended the animals, worked in agriculture ... wihout wriggling out of obligations. And the woman with mental disabilities, because of the painful habit of rape, regenerated the family.


Once we filed a complaint for 72 women who had been raped, with 174 children born as fruit of that violence. 174!

And what happened with that complaint?

We were able to get 20 men imprisoned. The problem was that at that time DNA tests or the other advances of today didn't exist, so that, without proof, all of them were found not guilty. It was a really difficult moment, very tense...

I imagine so. But is all this the job of a pastor?

It's not like there was any line to follow, nobody told you "you have to do this and that", but I came from the cradle of liberation theology, I couldn't be indifferent to certain issues.

You talked about visible consequences. What about invisible ones?

There is a terrible one: apathy...I think that the apathetic ones have suffered most. It is difficult for them to relate to others and they don't like being moved out of their routine...

So this was the scene you found when you arrived.

It was. Forty-five percent of the people with goiter due to iodine deficiency in nutrition.

And what did you do?

Well, the damage that was done, was done. Now what we had to do was make sure that no more children would be born with goiter. Prevention. So we started to organize marches and campaigns, very simple, using funny slogans such as "el bocio malvado muere yodado" ("the evil goiter dies iodized"). The kids loved it. And the grownups too! (Laughs). We published brochures, calendars ... Anyway, we started to fight against that.

Did it work?

The problem was that rock salt, not iodized salt, was still being sold in the market. We needed to bring in good, hygienic and iodized salt. And we got it through an agreement we signed with companies from the coast, that brought us salt in industrial quantities. Then came getting the families used to using the new salt.

How did you do that?

Since the people there are very religious, we started to give out sacks of salt after Mass. So, the families were accumulating bags and bags of iodized salt in their homes, so why go to the market to buy more? The next step was getting the people to pay for that salt. So we worked with the authorities, the non-iodized salt being sold in the markets was seized and health controls were imposed.

What happened with the people who were already sick?

That's why CEBYCAM, the Centre for Eradication of Goiter and Training for the Disabled, was created. Then we had to rename the center, when we had eliminated goiter and the word "disability" stopped being useful to us. It was a center we created together. The Church provided the land, the state got funding for us, and the people worked on constructing it. That was crucial! The community involvement had very important added value: the feeling of "I worked here, I made this, this is my center."

Was it a medical center?

Yes, a rehabilitation center. We also had to create a group of health promoters. That was the first objective, before prevention, to provide a service to the community through the work of the community itself.

So you were creating jobs as well, weren't you?

And not only in the health center, because we gradually introduced other productive activities (a shoe factory, a printing plant, a steel mill...). All of this was important. You can spend your whole life in a center doing therapy, moving the arm up and down, but if you don't end up being an independent person, with work or some sort of productive activity, the rehabilitation is useless. Rehabilitation ends in a job.

And training?

That was also part of the process. We gave classes in baking, mechanics, administration, agriculture...Training is fundamental for all this to be sustainable. We cannot just do welfare things. Besides, I don't go along with that. When the volcano erupted, for example, the government gave houses. We train people. A house doesn't solve the problem, but it seems more satisfactory to say "I built these houses" rather than "I trained these people so that they could adapt their agriculture to the conditions of the area." The houses are visible; the other isn't.

Tell me about the volcano.

Imagine that it's raining. But instead of water falling, earth falls. The eruption of the volcano was a problem. The village was buried in ash. Luckily, we had learned to convert problems into opportunities. Every problem must be seen as, and converted into this: a new opportunity to grow. A volcano! We never had any experience with volcanoes, however now people from other villages and other countries come to us to ask for help and advice on eruptions.

What kind of advice?

I always say the same thing to them: "Rush to end the shelters." A shelter can't become habitual, it must be temporary. Instead, build centers of village recovery, which is what gives people dignity. It's about generating small initiatives where people can cope by themselves, without having to always depend on humanitarian aid. But I speak from what I know, which are volcanoes. Floods would be something else, earthquakes would be something else ... I speak from this field, in which we have become ...

Somewhat expert.

Well, I wouldn't say just "somewhat". I have to brag; I know the topic. I prepared, studied it, participated...and I lived it.

After all you had done, what did you do with a village buried in ash?"

We started with the issue of health. Since we already had a base, thanks to the promoters of the center, what we did was to seek an endorsement by the Ministry to send them to the university to be trained in medicine. We are talking about people at the primary level, peasants. We also wanted to get into the area of economic development, and we did it with microcredit. With little money, about $300 per household, people have been making their own little capital gain. They buy two or three pigs, chickens ... But the big dream is that one day they will say to me "we don't need more." Although I know it will take time, that it's a long process and it takes time.

They call Penipe "solidarity village".

It is! When we had been working there for some time, physically and mentally disabled people from other communities started to come, seniors who were not ours either ... We started to realize that this was more universal than we had thought. Penipe has become a model village because its development proposal has been different. It's been integral.

You talked earlier about CEBYCAM's name change.

It was renamed CEBYCAM-CES. We stayed with CEBYCAM because it was already known by that name. But its acronym now stands for "Center for Human Development, Culture, and Solidarity Economics." I like to highlight "culture". Solidarity economics takes place in specific cultures, and culture has its concrete expressions of solidarity. Don't come to me with the argument that there are prefabricated economic rules that must be imposed on the cultures.

Prefabricated rules...of the system?

Yes, the system is aimed at the reduction of the individual. It makes us pro-consumerist: you have to buy this apartment, that cellphone, this computer, that car ... And next year, the same thing: change the cellphone, the apartment, the computer ... It's like being trapped in a spider web. But people are already exhausted. Where is my freedom? Where is my life? We have been leaving values behind to stay locked in consumption. We must learn to free ourselves from this society ... filth. This filth. [Translator's note: In this final sentence, Fr. Jaime is playing on the words "sociedad" (society) and "suciedad" (filth)]

Photos: Fr. Jaime with a campesina in his community (top) and receiving the Reina Sofia award from the queen herself (bottom).

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