The United States Peace Corps started in 1961 as a way of engaging you in services, spreading democracy(i.e. fighting communism) and battling the notions o “Yankee Imperialism.” Initially headed by President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, this group of well-intentioned do-gooders set out to the (then-called) Third World to bring its inhabitants the enlightenment and development of the industrialized and democratic world.
Since then the Peace Corps has been thought of as a successful–albeit “bleeding heart”–program, and one rarely ever hears anything bad about it, nor the people involved in it. As a way of filtering out anyone without the purest of intentions, I suppose, there are very few incentives that come along with volunteering in the program other than the warm feeling of helping others. So at its worst, the Peace Corps is comprised of misdirected individuals with good intentions and at its best, individuals with vision and purpose setting out to improve the quality of life in developing countries.
But that is where the wicket gets a little sticky. How does one judge what would improve life for a
developing country? When the Peace Corps began, the mindset was that the more like the United States a country was, the better it was–which may have been true, but not if you take it too literally. For instance, down here in Central America, the Peace Corps figured that the more the land looked like Indiana, the better off it would be: so they helped deforest the land for grazing pastures and farming crops, and in the deforested hill and mountainsides not suitable for either grazing or sharecropping, they planted good fast-growing North American-style pine trees (or the fast-growing eucalyptus trees).
Today, we can clearly see that the consequences of these do-gooders were unequivocally bad.
The pine and eucalyptus trees changed the Ph balance of the soil to be more acidic, preventing the possibility of the growth to native plants or trees in those areas. So now traveling through Costa Rica or Nicaragua, you will see peculiar stretches of alpine forests breaking up tracts tropical rainforests. The crops the Peace Corps used were of course U.S. inspired (wheat and barley) and quickly failed due to the dissimilar environment, which led to even more grazing pastures for cattle, and these cattle pastures are still here to this day. Much of the Central American rainforest–which we now know is integral to the entire global ecosystem–has been deforested, and even if all of the pastures were suddenly reforested, it would take at least two hundred years for it to become primary forest again. Meanwhile the proprietors of these pastures are barely eking out a living for their families with the sale of low-grade beef. You’re probably remembering what the road to Hell is paved with.
This story raises a lot of questions. Were these Peace Corps volunteers bad people? I would guess not. Did they do a bad thing, or was it a good thing with bad consequences? Could this situation have been avoided with a little critical thinking at the outset? It has to be said that Central American rainforests have been deforested for cattle grazing without the help of the Peace Corps, because of the lack of alternative sustainable sources of income; however, without the help of the Peace Corps in the beginning to ruin the land for this purpose, maybe the people would have found a better way to make a living on their own by now–or maybe the Peace Corps could have thought about the consequences of trying to make other countries be more like the United States and come up with a better solution to improving the countries instead jamming them into a cookie cutter shaped like the USA.
At the risk of being didactic, I am going to say what I have learned from this tale and what I plan to do differently. When helping someone, I think I’ll first talk to them and ask them how I can help instead of assuming what their problem is and solving it in my own way, because that may not be the answer. I also think that I will think about the broad and long-term consequences of the things I do today. We would all be better off if we think about the consequences of what car we buy, what restaurant we patronize , what charities we give to, etc., because even if our intentions are good, if we don’t critically think about the results of our actions, they could end up a lot of damage later on.
Alex White is a rafting guide and safety kayaker for Costa Rica Outward Bound
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org