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May 17
Comunidad de Ponta Da Terra, Amazonas, Brazil

In Amazonas, it’s impossible to study economic development without spending significant time away from the city of Manaus. Manaus is responsible for over 90 percent of Amazonas’ economic strength, so continued development in the city is a priority. But in the rural areas of Amazonas, where half the population lives, you begin to realize that 50 percent of the population is subsisting on 10 percent of the state’s income.

There are two seemingly distinct types of rural living in Amazonas. There are those areas connected to Manaus by road, and those connected by the Rio Negro. They seem distinct for multiple reasons; prior studies have taught us that road construction and deforestation were significantly related. On the four-hour bus ride to Balbina, the effects of deforestation are obvious. Although we usually think of deforestation on a rather industrial scale, deforestation in Amazonas often just looks like the more productive utilization of land by small localities (I am assuming anywhere from 100-200 people). The quality of living appeared much higher on this side of Manaus; I once saw a pool and houses looked like they were much better constructed. I think there’s something about being near a road—whether it’s easier for people to transport goods to Manaus or to gain access to agricultural tools—that has allowed these individuals to flourish relative to those living in the rural Rio Negro region.

On the other hand, we spent five days on a boat in the Rio Negro (a total of 17 hours from Manaus) and visited two different rural communities for a day a piece, exploring their paths through the rainforest, their agricultural patches, and their facilities, which included one-room schools, homes, small pharmacies, and of course, soccer fields. We played a few games of soccer (the Americans went 2-0 against our hosts’ best players, thanks to the fact that we had two varsity athletes and another three high school soccer players in our group). Along the way, we asked lots of questions, learning as much as we could about what it means to exist in rural Amazonas.

The Comunidad de Ponta Da Terra (The Community at the Tip of the Earth) has 100 people, 18 families, seven boats, six kayaks, two soccer fields, one volleyball court and a single one-room school. Each family has its own small home. The homes aren’t well constructed and they have no windows. I saw only three young men (aged 18-25), as many have joined the military. The community educates its residents until the fourth grade when formal education stops. They receive negligible wages from middle men who bring their products to Manaus; a monopoly allows these merchants to offer literal pennies for agricultural products that they can sell after transport at margins well over 30 times (and up to 60 times) the price paid for each commodity. The communities suffer from a lack of education and few resources. Community members possess an impressive knowledge of plants, passed down over thousands of years. So I was surprised that their agricultural pursuits were not more streamlined. Today, there is a vast amount of scientific information and data available that can help people improve their farming practices. Accessing that information is difficult, however.

The Comunidad de Frederico Muchado was similar to the Comunidad de Ponta Da Terra but slightly larger, with a population of 180 people. The community appeared to enjoy an improved standard of living. With better houses, more deforestation, and more comprehensive agricultural projects, this community offered a classroom education to students until the fourth grade, and through the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM) was able to offer Internet access to teachers to help educate students through the eighth grade. Even with these improvements, the community’s conditions were far worse than those of the communities connected to Manaus via road.

These communities suffer from limited human capital, but especially from a lack of competition in goods transfer. We learned about ancient communities like the Maghribi Traders who are organizing and unionizing to fight the evils of collective action and the fundamental problems of trade. I believe this is the first step to enhancing the welfare of the Amazonian people residing in the rainforest. If people can receive a fair price for their goods, there will be more capacity to support education.


Early Observations

May 9
Manaus, Brazil

Blogging has been difficult. We just got back from a five-day tour on the Amazon River, with no cell service and no Wi-Fi access for hundreds of kilometers. But there are lots of stories to share.

Our first week was largely spent touring Manaus, attending lectures at local universities, namely the Federal University of Amazonas in Manaus (UFAM), and getting to know some of the locals our age.

Manaus is the spinal city in the state of Amazonas (the largest of the 26 states in Brazil, geographically). Making up 90 percent of the state’s GDP and over half of its population, Manaus is the beneficiary of a free trade agreement intended to open up commerce in poor Northeastern Brazil while similarly enhancing the usefulness of Amazon resources.

Most people are surprised we have come to Manaus. It’s not a tourist destination like Rio de Janeiro. The streets are in general disrepair and graffiti dominates all corners of the city. Public transit thrives, roads are crowded, and there’s very little law enforcement. Trash is everywhere and trash cans are nowhere. Stray dogs roam all over. The city is physically falling apart, although the people appear to be fairing somewhat better.

A combination of poverty, corruption and fraud are to blame for the city’s disrepair. There are large, crumbling apartment complexes without occupants, merchants who are struggling to maintain their storefronts and failing infrastructure—people walk on uneven and broken sidewalks and drive on roads with potholes that are eight feet in circumference and almost three feet deep. But the city 20 years ago? Fifty years ago? I bet it was really something to see.

Lectures have been informal but have added to my understanding of the state’s history and policies. Understanding the urban rainforest dynamic takes time; it’s a complicated issue. Rainforest sustainability goals have been reached; studies are still in the observational stages, but it looks as if policy recommendations have been effective, deforestation goals have been achieved with ease, and the environment is well cared for. It’s development that needs much work, and I plan on addressing that in my next post.

As for the people? I have traveled very little but would have assumed there would be big differences between American and Brazilian culture. I figured Brazil and America would have some similarities but some fundamental differences. I was surprised to find so many English-speaking young adults throwing up peace signs, using selfie sticks, posting Instagram photos with more hashtags than there are people in the picture. Having met many young Brazilians, I’ve come to realize that we’re pretty similar. Beyond the language differences, I feel no divide.

Many of the people I’m living with are also studying abroad; our house has six people from four continents living under one roof. One of my housemates (Worth Smith) had sent a quote he found in a Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, which I think is fitting to share:

“The Professor explained how the coffee was made very different from anywhere else, and I realized, ‘So ******* what?’ Which kids in Turkey even give a shit about Turkish coffee? All day I had looked at young people in Istanbul. They were all drinking what everyone in the world drinks, and they were wearing clothes that look like they were bought at the Gap, and they were all using cell phones. They were like kids everywhere else. It hit me that, for young people, this whole world is the same now… We’re just one world now.”

It’s not that I want to belittle the experience and the joys of meeting and indulging in a new culture. But as globalization and development continues, we won’t just share a common humanity—we’ll also share a common experience and language. Ultimately, I think there will be a new global culture. In this future global society, it’s possible that national boundaries will matter less.

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About Lee Buchanan

Lee Buchanan is a junior from Potsdam, New York. He’s majoring in economics and minoring in mathematics and philosophy. Lee is an assistant to Washington and Lee University’s men’s basketball team coaches and enjoys participating in athletics and training in his free time. He is involved in Greek life and is a member of the Junior Leadership Committee. Lee is interested in national economic development and global poverty and is particularly excited to study the ways in which Brazil has struggled to balance economic growth with environmental responsibility.

“As an Economics major, I find national economic development to be one of the most fascinating questions facing our time. Investigating the Brazilian narrative of development through an interdisciplinary lens will equip us with a comprehensive understanding beyond the concepts and vernacular required to dissect problems facing the need to balance economic growth with environmental responsibility. The trip may also shed light on the foundations of global poverty, all while allowing us to experience an entirely new people and culture. I couldn’t be more excited to begin our journey.”

  • Class Year: 2016
  • Major: Economics
  • Minors: Mathematics and Philosophy
  • Hometown: Potsdam, N.Y.
ECON 259 Course Description
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Digging for Answers
May 252015

May 19
Accra, Ghana

The third and final week of our spring term trip to Ghana was spent touring rural areas and visiting several major cities. We saw the Cape Coast Castle, fed monkeys bananas in the Volta Region, learned how Kente cloth is made in Kumasi, and swam in the Vli Waterfalls near Ho. It was nice to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Accra and explore some rural areas.

This trip has marked my first visit to a developing country. Throughout my time here, I have meditated heavily on the relationship between developed and developing nations. Specifically, as a U.S. citizen, what is my role in this setting? Especially as the course comes to a close, my classmates and I have all been wondering how we will take what we’ve learned here and use it when we get home. We’ve had a fulfilling cultural immersion—scheduling plans around daily power outages, bargaining with taxi drivers, and washing our own clothes by hand—but at the end of the day, we will all return to the United States where we drive our own cars, have consistent electricity, and throw our dirty clothes in the washing machine. As I work to internalize this experience, I’d like to share some of my thoughts.

Last week, we were scheduled to complete a community service project in Krofu, an isolated rural village in the central region. We arrived at 9 a.m., a bus full of foreigners, ready to help with the construction of a library. We spent about an hour waiting for the chief elders to arrive, and while we were playing soccer and talking to the village kids, the majority of us felt uncomfortable. What were we doing here? What did these kids think of us? Were we right to be there? Yes, we were doing a community service project but we were also there to see what a rural Ghanaian village was like. Once we met with the elders, we set to work digging the foundation of what will become a library for the village’s school children. As we were digging, I couldn’t help but think: What impact are we really making? Is this the best use of our skills and resources? Is a library the most effective way to improve this village? When we quit digging about 45 minutes later, we left behind slightly deeper holes than the ones that were originally there.

The next day, while we were on the bus on our way to visit Kumasi, we had a full debrief with Professor Dickovick. The conversation helped many of us work through our feelings about the Krofu visit. As a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years in a village in Togo, Prof. Dickovick could relate to our frustration. He talked about how it can be difficult to prescribe development solutions, and he made one point, in particular, that stayed with me. Our experience in Krofu serves as a micro-scale metaphor for development as a whole. The World Bank, for instance, is such a large organization that its projects can sometimes be unproductive; it’s hard to know exactly what a country needs in order to thrive. Just as we had arrived, dug holes for an hour, and left—feeling good about ourselves and yet questioning whether we’d helped the village, NGOs and development organizations oftentimes get stuck in the same cycle. It’s very possible to provide unproductive aid. This realization, brought on by the experience in Krofu, is one that I will keep in mind as I continue to study development and other countries.

And such is the beauty of Spring Term. This course could have been taught in Lexington during a regular 12-week term but the benefit of studying in Ghana is that I’ve been immersed in the course content. The experience has made a lasting impression on me.


Honk If You Can Read This

May 11
Accra, Ghana

The past week in Ghana has been packed with lectures, site visits, and plenty of cultural immersion. As a poverty studies minor, I’ve been able to draw some connections between lectures on foreign development and my studies of domestic poverty.

On Thursday, we listened to Dr. Akosua Darkwah, of the sociology department at the University of Ghana, speak about women and rural development. She discussed how rural workers, mainly women, have been pigeonholed into roles as cash crop farmers, and as such, are subject to the control of corporations in outside countries. Last semester, I finished my poverty capstone on the structural isolation of the urban poor in the U.S., and I came across many of the same types of barriers. These barriers can leave people powerless. Though there are differences when it comes to scale and the types of problems each population faces, I found it interesting to be able to make cross-cultural comparisons.

The adjustments I’ve had to make to my daily life in Ghana have made me reconsider how much waste I produce, even on a weekly basis. On Wednesday, I woke up to find that all our water had run out. This has never happened to me at home or at school; our plumbing delivers a continuous supply of water. Later in the day, as the workmen came to refill the tank at my home stay, I was very aware that every time I ran the sink, some water from that limited tank was expensed. Even brushing my teeth with bottled water every night, I’m more conscious of how much water I use, as I watch a third of a bottle disappear.

I’ve also been thinking about excessive consumption in terms of data. I read an article praising Facebook for being one of the most efficient smart phone apps, in terms of information delivered per megabyte. With frequent access to WiFi and a large data plan at home, I had never considered my consumption of data. Now that I have to buy credit for my Ghanaian SIM card and monitor my data usage, it’s on my mind a good bit.

In other immersion news, I did my own laundry by hand for the first time this week. I had three buckets, for washing and rinsing, and in order to make the clothes clean, it’s necessary to scrub them together hard until the dirt comes out. We spent the better part of an hour doing this, before hanging all our clothing on a line to dry in the Ghanaian heat.

Washington and Lee laundry on the line

My roommate Lucy and I also experienced Accra’s public transportation for the first time this week. The system consists of unmarked minibuses called Tro Tros, which are distinguished by a man hanging out the side window, yelling the route with accompanying hand signals to passerbys on the road. With directions from our host mother, we were able to take two Tro Tros to the tourist spot, Labadi Beach, on our free day this week.

When we’re not walking or taking a Tro Tro, Accra’s taxi service is most convenient. Driving in Ghana should be left to Ghanaians—traffic is dense and scooters dart in between cars, everyone trying to outpace each other. Honking is a necessary part of driving, done more to announce that you’re proceeding through an intersection or passing another car than to indicate frustration. If you were to do a study of honks per minute, I would bet that there’s a positive correlation with efficiency of travel. Perhaps this is something to look into on any future economics trips to Ghana!

Our Girl Friday

May 3
Accra, Ghana

Hello from Accra, the capital city of Ghana! After spending a couple days in Lexington, preparing to study Ghanaian politics and economic development, we’ve finally arrived and settled into our home stays, enjoying the sights, sounds, tastes and newness that comes with exploring a place for the first time. During our three days in the city so far, we’ve tried local cuisine, toured the Masoleum of Kwame Nkrumah, driven through the coastal markets and neighborhoods downtown, and attempted to bargain for souvenirs at the Cultural Arts Center.

The home stays have been an integral part of our course, and I’ve already learned so much about Ghanaian life and history from my host family. Upon our arrival on Thursday night, the lights in our house were off because the power had been shut down. Ghana is currently having an energy crisis, called Dumsor, caused by insufficient rainfall to power the hydroelectric energy converters. Households are on a timed schedule, with 12 hours of power followed by 24 hours without power (though we haven’t been experiencing this pattern regularly). Since we don’t have a generator, this has affected the heat in the house — we can’t turn the fans on — and our access to WiFi.

Today, my roommate, Lucy Ortiz, and I went to an Evangelical Presbyterian church with our host mother. Ghana has 10 regions, which contain over 63 distinct ethnic groups. Our parents are both from the Volta Region of Ghana, where Ewe is spoken. (I’ll note that in Accra, the most common language is Twi). My host mother explained that the Germans colonized the Volta Region, bringing the Evangelical Presbyterian faith with them, and many of the Volta natives who live in Accra continue to worship in this religion.

The service was unlike any other church service I’ve ever attended. We arrived at 9 a.m. to sit with our host mother’s choral group, and spent the next four hours singing, dancing, and listening to men and women read scripture. Most of the service was in Ewe, but our host mother translated the main points for us. The community was lively, using trumpets, drums and clapping to go along with each song. And everyone was incredibly friendly! The W&L Speaking Tradition is alive and well in Accra, Ghana.

There were two collections of tithes, and everyone formed a line to dance up to the front and place the offerings into the basket. The second collection was a special one, done on the first Sunday of each month. In Ghanaian culture, each person has a name that identifies the day of the week on which they were born. For instance, I was born on a Friday, so I am called Afia. (If you want to find out your own Ghanaian name, there’s a great summary on Wikipedia.) This collection, then, was a competition between the names, and the winner was announced at the end of the service. It was a great experience, and I was glad to be able to partake in local culture at such a close level.

Tomorrow is our first guest lecture, and we will be hearing from a professor at the University of Ghana. After finally getting somewhat acclimated to the weather and time zone difference, I’m excited to start connecting my cultural observations and daily experiences with economic models.

About Ellen Wiencek

Ellen is a senior mathematics and economics major from Medina, Ohio. During her time at Washington and Lee, Ellen has studied abroad in Paris, Oxford and now Ghana. On campus, she has been involved on the Campus Kitchen Leadership Team for four years, and she is an active member of the Nabors Service League and Pi Beta Phi sorority. She also loves to go hiking in the Shenandoah Valley and enjoys going on Outing Club trips. After graduation, Ellen will be working as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Board in D.C.

  • Class Year: 2015
  • Major: Mathematics and Economics
  • Hometown: Medina, OH
POL 288 Course Description
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May 23
Pushkar, Rajasthan

As I sit here without power in my hotel in Pushkar, Rajasthan, a dust storm blows outside my window. The desert wind howls ferociously with all of its might. Regardless of social position, the storm sends all in its path running for shelter. The natural disaster reminds me of the chaos in Nepal that is not so distant from where I sit now. Nature does not discriminate in the way society does. That is to say, with both the dust storm and the Nepali earthquakes, all in the area of impact are affected. But the extent of the damage is often determined by social  structure. In Pushkar, my thick hotel walls seal out the particles of sand flying at high speed. Down the street, locals are not as fortunate as their carts of fruit and hot chapati flip over. In Nepal, the earthquakes damaged older buildings rather severely — those which house the poorest and least politically powerful. Caste then becomes a defining element in the recovery process of Kathmandu and surrounding areas.

In light of the horrific natural disaster, our spring term class becomes particularly relevant. Professors Lubin and Silwal guided our class through research and literature on the current political and economic state of Nepal. More recently, we discussed affirmative action policies and their potential for remedying inequities caused by the caste system. Like most other countries, Nepal faces under-representation of minority groups — most notably the lower castes, women, and non-Hindus — in the political sphere. Reasons for under-representation are diverse. One of interest is the stigmatization of lower castes, a direct result from the lesser purity associated with them. Because lower castes are considered “impure” to some degree, upper castes have traditionally refused to associate with them, either by dining or marriage, in order to retain their purity. A side effect of this discrimination is an internalized understanding of impurity. That is, the lower castes in Nepal may guard the caste system’s boundaries to the same extent as the more advantaged castes. This past week, I saw an example of this as a musician of a lower caste refused to dine with me and my traveling partners. It wasn’t until I realized there was a Brahmin joining us that I understood why the musician refused.

Though the musician seemed content with his decision, the implications of such a decision are far greater than just one dinner. How are minority groups going to be accepted and feel accepted into political and social bodies filled with upper castes? That is where reservation systems, or affirmative action, may help. Such a system ensures representation of oppressed groups in political office and other institutions, such as universities. Reservation systems are often critiqued for a variety of problems. For example, often the most advantaged within a disadvantaged group is able to access reserved seats. Yet despite their possible problems, reservation systems provide a place in society for those identifying with a particular group to voice their concerns. Systems will, over time, naturalize lower castes and other disadvantaged groups in positions of power, so that they may influence policy to alleviate the inequities their group faces. In the case of the Nepalese earthquakes, such a system would allow lower castes living in the dilapidated villages outside of Kathmandu to have a voice in the restructuring process. Though it is hard to tell whether Nepal will implement reservations, issues of caste discrimination and under-representation are of concern, suggesting a more egalitarian future in on the way.

May 10
Lexington, VA

I wake slowly. My eyes blink, resisting the sunlight that streams through my windows. The social network addict in me reaches instinctively for my phone that is lost beneath the covers. Clicking to unlock the screen, I am greeted with text messages and calls from friends. Alarm bells sound as I read the over the concerned words, “Where are you?” and “I’m so sorry. Please tell me you haven’t left yet.” A CNN alert confirms what my professor’s emails say: this morning, there was an earthquake in Nepal and the Spring Term trip has been postponed. My mind runs through a list of expletives as I start to process what this means, laughing out loud unintentionally as I think of how preposterous this is. How could an earthquake hit Nepal the morning of my departure? I cringe at my own selfishness as I look at the pictures of utter terror and debris, a national crisis unfolding on my phone’s screen. My mother walks in as I talk on the phone to my roommate and classmate, Sierra. Our minds scramble as we tackle questions without answers: what would happen to our class?

At that time, we had no idea of how bad the earthquake was. I eagerly packed my bag, thinking our travels would proceed within the week or so. Lexington was just a mere pit stop in our journey to Kathmandu. Yet as the death toll increased and aftershocks took further lives and resources, it became apparent the trip was officially off. The course was to be taught in Lexington. Though our entire class, students and professors included, were indescribably disappointed, we understood the gravity of the situation. Grateful for our own safety and the safety of our Nepalese peers’ families, we began our class and our transition back into Lexington. Our professors worked swiftly and professionally to revamp the syllabus. Guest lecturers and small field trips now bring some of the vibrancy of Nepal to us. For example, Professor Melissa Kerin of the Art History Department at W&L gave us a presentation about the Kathmandu-based Buddhist nuns that we would have visited; her pictures capture the beautiful sand mandalas they create. Further pictures on PowerPoint and descriptions from assigned readings allude to the beautiful Hindu temple in D.C. that we will visit on May 16th. Following an hour in the classroom each day, we spend time outside. Professor Lubin of the Religion Department and Professor Silwal of the Economics Department pick our brains about the readings of the day. Slowly, but surely, we began to dive into the complicated caste system, a world filled with identity politics, economics, and religious tradition.

About Elena Diller

Elena Diller is a rising junior from Rome, Georgia. She’s majoring in sociology and anthropology and is also pre-med. When she’s not studying, Elena is a peer counselor and travels to Richmond as a volunteer venture leader. In her free time, you can find her taste-testing gelato at Pronto and volunteering at Project Horizon.

  • Class Year: 2017
  • Major: Sociology and Anthropology
  • Hometown: Rome, GA
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