Monday, July 07, 2008

Joni Mitchell in my head

How does the song go, “Going to camp out on the land, going to try to get my soul free . . . got to get ourselves back to the garden”?
Today I went with friends to look at a piece of ‘the garden’ they want to buy. We drove into the hills over rutted dirt roads, pulled off eventually and walked the rest of the way. It’s beautiful back there, a different microclimate, hotter, stiller. The noise is different: the birds are louder than the insects. A keel billed toucan flew across our path, a 6 foot black and yellow snake disappeared before us. We passed the shack where the cat man lives. The shack is maybe 12 foot square and made of recycled scraps of wood, pieced together like a linear jigsaw puzzle, some had been painted long before in previous incarnations and so the house looked mottled in pinks, blues, yellows, greens. The sides we could see from the path were hung with plastic crates, bicycle baskets, little fishing net hammocks. There were cats in every available space. Kittens of various ages were scampering or staggering on the ground. Before the house was a structure with a tin roof and walls made of sewn together rice bags, more cats sat inside. The smell of cat shit was strong. The cat man appeared from behind the shack. He knows my friends by now and was full of smiles. Did we want a cat? No. But we had brought him some bread. He is old, early 80s, thin and wiry. His wide smile reveals one tooth and his eyes are a pale brown. The knuckles on his hands are huge. He’s worked all his life and clearly continues to do so, his shack was surrounded by banana, cacao, coffee, cassava and malanga.
Further on we came to the farm. We went to see Don Ulysses the farmer. Ulysses isn’t quite as old as the cat man. He is thin and wiry, with short shaven hair and a strong curved nose. His pants, like the cat man’s are held up with bailing twine. He has several teeth. He’s smoking a roll up cigarette and hacking. He has no cats but chickens everywhere. His house is a stronger shack made with posts. The lower level is storage, he lives above. Most of the space upstairs is open with a room at the back. His kitchen is outside under a tin roof. There’s no electricity, his stove is clay with a space for fire and a metal grate for pots – a barbeque. There are chicken sheds made of sticks and bailing twine. Around the house are cacao, banana, breadfruit and citrus trees.
Don Ulysses is angry and frustrated. He wants to sell his farm and has a contract with a woman we know. His farm is 14 hectares and he wants it bought in one piece. The deal is that he will be paid in installments until the end of the year. He wants $80,000 for the farm. My friends want to buy 2 hectares and have the cash ready. (They are paying $8,000 per hectare, the woman is making a nice easy profit for being in the middle.) But there are complications, she’s stalling and doesn’t have the money for the installments, he’s tied into a contract and can’t sell off a smaller parcel and two sets of lawyers are involved. It’s officially ‘frontier land’ being only 2 kilometers from Panama and that makes it all harder. As a simple farmer he doesn’t understand why it’s so complicated. Selling it is clearly difficult for him – it’s been his family’s land for over a century, but he’s getting sick and can no longer work it.
We walked out through cow pastures to the parcel my friends want. It is beautiful. Open pasture land with frequent graceful kapok and almendra shade trees. Natural springs feeding clear pools full of fish and frogs. The land is bordered by indigenous reserve – virgin rainforest for miles and miles. Looking into it was looking into darkness, dense vegetation all the way to the canopy. Their parcel is an irregular shaped field sitting on a small hill backed by jungle. There is a natural spring and a low marshy spot filled with malanga. Sitting where the house would be we looked out to forest, to the east was another pasture, to the west flatter grazing land, neighbours would be hidden from view. The sun was behind us, the house would be in shadow in the afternoon. There was plenty of room for growing a garden. Not enough for goats. It is beautiful. I was surprised at how familiar it looked – a green cow pasture with a wire strand fence surrounded by big trees. It didn’t look tropical. It looked a bit like Guanacaste, and a bit like home.

So many people here have the same dream: buy a piece of land, retreat. More and more people are arriving. Ulysses is selling his farm for a lot of money, it’s completely and absolutely unaffordable to a native. And he is frustrated because these white folks, who obviously drove and who have cell phones and whos’ pants are held up with belts won’t give him this money, which for white folks is so little. Via Campesina is a peasant organization which campaigns for land for peasants to work sustainably. I completely support it. And yet here I am supporting my friends in their purchase of this part of the ‘garden’ which will give Ulysses and his family comfort and ease for the rest of their lives but take away another piece of land from native Costa Ricans. It’ll never return to working farmland, it’ll never again be owned by Costa Ricans. Things are changing here rapidly. Ulysses has worked hard all his life, it’s his land. He can do whatever he wants with it. The world is changing, if borders are to become meaningless then land should be owned by whoever will respect and care for it. It’s grazing land, the cattle are for meat. My friends will build a house (and a cabin for guests), they will put in a garden, it will all be very green, very eco-friendly. They will drive 40 minutes to school each way.

There’s a billboard in the horse field next to the school. It wasn’t there yesterday. It advertises a development of 12 luxury villas with security and beach access and “Italian Standards”. The architects drawing shows an ugly two story blue structure with a deck, one can just make out that the car in the garage is a mercedes.
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot.” Sing it Joni.
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone . . . “