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October 13, 2000 Issue
Local News

Reality of life in diocesan missions is poverty

Cost of groceries is similar to the United States, but the average income is far less

Editor's note: In June, Compass editor Tony Staley was part of a group from the Green Bay Diocese that visited the diocesan mission in Elias Piña, Dominican Republic.

Third in a five-week World Mission Month series

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

ELIAS PIÑA, Dominican Republic - When talking about Elias Piña, the word "poverty" is a given.

While the poverty is not at the level of famine stricken areas of Africa, the average person lives in much more impoverished conditions than the poorest people in northeast Wisconsin.

To get some sort of mental picture of Elias Piña, think of the stereotype of the most run-down southern town you can imagine. As for the campos, the small rural settlements sprinkled throughout the countryside, think of a migrant farm workers' camp in the U.S.

Neither gives a completely accurate picture of life in Elias Piña, but it comes closer to reality than thinking of it as tropical version of a small Wisconsin city or suburb.

Just how bad is the poverty?

Juan Secundino, an official in the Dominican Republic government, said that 13% of children in Elias Piña die before reaching the age of five. Some 92% of households in Elias Piña are in poverty and 60% of them are under the poverty rate.

Frs. Bill Hoffman and Mike Seis, priests from the Green Bay Diocese working in the San Juan Diocese - which includes Elias Piña - said a typical Dominican family of four or five children needs an income of 4,000-5,000 pesos (about $250-312) a month just to be at the poverty level. Many people, the priests said said, have incomes of 1,000-1,500 pesos a month.

The part-time parish cook, for example, earns 1,200 pesos a month - meaning it takes her two days to make as much as I spent just for mosquito repellent for our one-week stay.

And food prices are often similar to those in the United States. While bread from the parish bakery is a bargain at 10 pesos (60) for 12 brat-bun size rolls, a chicken sells for 80 to 100 pesos ($4.80-6). A pound of Dominican coffee went for 45 pesos and a five-ounce bag of sandwich cookies was 13 pesos. A popsicle at a stand costs 5 pesos (30) and a Dove-type ice cream bar goes for 25 pesos.

The people are able to get by only through subsistence farming on little plots by their houses or out in the country (the average family has one-sixth of an acre), Fr. Seis said.

There are few job opportunities in Elias Piña and even fewer for those with college degrees. The nicest looking commercial building in Elias Piña is the bank.

The others include small drug stores - Farmacia Lourdes and Farmacia Fatima - food markets, a hardware store, a few bars, gas stations, some small food stands much like those at a Packer game or a parish picnic. But there's only one chain restaurant - Pollo Rey (Chicken King), similar to KFC - and a small shop that sells Nestle ice cream bars.

The price of gas is government subsidized and costs about $2 a gallon. Interestingly, while the Dominican Republic uses the metric system, gas is sold by the gallon and coffee by the pound. Elias Piña has no Younkers, Penney's, ShopKo, Fleet Farm - or anything similar.

Some enterprising merchants set up shops on blankets along the curb or on vacant lots between buildings. A block away from St. Therese Church a young man butchers chickens on a street corner and sells them. He'll even cook them on an open grill.

Twice a week - Monday and Friday - Elias Piña booms when Haitians are allowed to cross the nearby border to sell clothing, produce, shoes, knives and numerous other items at the market that takes over the several blocks that comprise downtown Elias Piña.

Some residents survive by selling at the market or by working there. Others get by using their motorcycles - motocicletas - as cabs. It's not unusual to see two to four people riding on one of these motorcycles - often while clutching some item.

To improve economic opportunities for the Dominicans, the government is beginning to establish free trading zones where clothing could be manufactured at a low cost for sale in the United States and other overseas markets.

But there are problems with that, Secundino warned. The first is the risk of environmental damage made possible by lax laws.

The second is the fear that some of the best students will leave school to accept these low-paying manufacturing jobs. If the factories close and move to another country where wages are even lower - always a strong possibility - the employees will lose their jobs, plus they will have passed up an opportunity for an education and even better jobs, Secundino said.

The duty-free zones also present challenges to the church, Fr. Hoffman said. As people leave rural areas and move to the cities, where the duty-free zones are, the church must meet the needs of a growing population in one place while continuing to serve a shrinking population in others.

Secundino argued instead for a balance between manufacturing and agriculture. Developing the agriculture will require buying equipment to improve production, improved cooperation in regions and between regions, development of a national plan to determine what is grown in an area and a way to get it to market, Secundino said.

When asked if he was concerned that large agribusinesses would drive out family farms as they have been doing in the U.S., Secundino said the government would have to make certain that didn't happen.

Fr. Hoffman also spoke of the need for reforestation projects in the country. The loss of trees affects water levels in rivers and streams and makes flooding more likely.

There also is a need for water projects to increase agricultural production, he said.

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