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Back in Roberto Barrios to meet with the Health Promoters

Written on: Wednesday May 7th, 2008

A journal entry from: North America in our Camper Van!

The Roberto Barrios Caracol itself covers about 2 acres of fenced land with approx 15 to 20 buildings. The two buildings facing the road have beautiful painted murals on all sides. The murals tell stories of Zapatista struggles or show idols and heroes, i.e. Che Guevara, Emiliano Zapata, Subcomandante Marcos, etc.

At the small cantina you can get basic supplies, including food, water, and toilet paper. There is electricity on the site and each building seems to have a couple of lights and plugs? don?t look too closely at the wiring. Several years back, an NGO helped to install running water, and the Caracol now has a centrally-located faucet to provide water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. A large flock of chickens and turkeys forage the Caracol during the day, these supply continuous eggs and meat for very special occasions. Dogs are abundant, as is typical in Mexico. There is a dental lab that two European dentists helped to set up, a communal kitchen, a building supply room, several meeting buildings and about 10 wooden huts used as residences. The toilets are tucked away in the far corner, a 6-stall brick structure with black plastic bags for curtains. Bring your own toilet paper and use a plastic bucket full of water to flush!

The men here are constantly working on various projects. Monday they were building a small hut to house a few new pigs. Tuesday and Wednesday they were digging out the foundation for a new dental lab. A pile of gravel and a pile of cement brick indicate that there are more building projects to be undertaken. The people here are all volunteers and they come from their farms on a rotational basis to contribute to the work that the collective needs done.

There is a cement basketball court in the middle of the area. The Indigenous love basketball! I was surprised (as I had assumed that soccer would be the sport of choice), but pleased, reminiscing about my own love for the sport when I was back in high school. Although I haven?t touched a ball since I dislocated my knee six years ago, I felt inspired to shoot some hoops one evening and was then invited to play a little two-on-two. I surprised myself ("wow! that actually went in!"), and must have also surprised the Zapatistas, as there ended up being quite the audience. Bad for my competitiveness, but probably good for my knee, I ended up having to leave the game before it was finished to meet with the Health Representatives.

The meeting was held in the school that Schools for Chiapas funded and helped build in 1996. This 8 classroom building will also be used for the new secondary school in the fall. The health Promoters explained one of the primary reasons for setting up their own health system was because they felt that the quality and the service at the government run clinics was very poor and the cost was very high. Sometimes they need to use the government system but the Zapatista health program focuses on health and prevention of disease, rather than treatment only. By working directly with the community and involving the community they are more effective at providing health services to the indigenous communities. The health Promoters expressed that the biggest challenges that the system faces is essentially financial resources. First off, the health promoters are volunteers and therefore receive no pay for their services. Similar to the story we heard from the education Promoter, they rely on the community to cover food, clothing and shelter, but when they is not enough food to go around they can go hungry. The cost of travel for training for the Promoters in addition to accessing remote communities for vaccinations and treatment is challenging as well.

The Zapatista health system consists of decentralized "Casas de Salud", or Houses of Health, where basic medications, first aid, treatment of minor conditions and some diagnostic sevices are available from the local Promoter. The larger, and more centralized "Clinicas" or Health Clinics, are also run by Promoters and sometimes even have a doctor. Some Zapatista Clinicas can even perform minor surgery. However, Roberto Barrios, which is the poorest of the Zapatista regions, does not have a Clinica. The good news is that the Caracol recently received funding from an NGO to build a Health Clinic in the municipality near Santa Cruz. The grant covers all of the building materials but the labour is to be provided entirely on a volunteer basis by the community. We actually stopped in to visit the beginnings of the clinic and were impressed with the large work crew busy preparing the foundation. They hope to have the clinic operational in two years. I also later learnt that the autonomous clinics are open to, and used by non-Zapatistas. They are very cheap (and free for Zapatistas) and sometimes even the only option, especially in remotes areas. Also, unlike in government clinics, Health Promoters speak the indigenous language, rather than only Spanish.

In the meantime, the Health Promoters have ambitious plans to continue improving the health of their communities. A vaccination program has been underway in the past few years to vaccinate children under the age of 6. Education programs to teach preventive medical practices such as frequent washing of hands are on-going. They are also looking to provide and improve the basic first aid kits to each community in the region and showed us a document outlining the supplies and equipment required. The items required for the Casas de Salud caught my attention:

- Blood pressure band

- Weight machine

- Lamp

- Measuring tape

- Needles and thread

- Thermometer

- Alcohol, bandaids and gauze

- Liquid soap

- Adhesive tape

- Pregnancy test

- And a list of 36 common medications (Ibuprophen, Anti-histamine, ect)

Rob and I wouldn?t even think twice about opening our home first-aid kit and finding the above items, or just making a quick trip to the pharmacy to pick something up. But here, they are struggling to pull these items together for the Casas de Salud, often the only first aid kit in an entire community. We were certainly inspired to see about helping collect some of these items when we return to Canada and will be soliciting our friends and family for ideas and resources as well. If you know of any sources of surplus medical supplies or equipment, or willing to donate something yourself, let us know.