Sean McDonald traveled to the jungles of Panama to plant trees, but the natives of the tiny, primitive village of Arimae didn’t want help planting trees – they wanted a Web site.
“I had my boots, was ready to get my machete and get out into the jungle. It sounded amazing -- a couple days of hard work,” he says. “But the president (of the village) basically said, ‘I have 400 Indian dudes who can’t do anything but plant trees. Build us a Web site.’ I thought he was joking. He was not.”
The former Golden Gate resident, son of Linda and James McDonald, is the co-founder of Jute Networks, a tool to manage a network of professional relationships. The company is best-known for its novel interface, which shows a "map" of relationships using visualization and social network analysis technology.
Last month, McDonald decided to combine vacation with volunteerism by working for a reforestation company called Planting Empowerment.
“The idea was pretty simple,” he says of the three-day adventure, “go to the jungle, plant some trees, stay with some of the indigenous people and come back refreshed and feeling like my vacation did some good for the earth.”
After arranging secure transport from Panama City into the jungle, McDonald arrived in the remote village of Arimae, population 700, where he stayed at a hostel, which he describes as a “fancy hut.”
“Most of the people of Arimae live in much less sophisticated huts,” he says of the accommodations. “They are poor -- very poor.”
Utilizing broken Spanish, McDonald got a crash course in the indigenous language of Arimae, a mixture of Wounaan and Embera cultures.
“They have lived in this jungle for as long as they can remember,” he says. “In the last few generations, things have changed a lot. The Panama Canal brought a lot of Western influence to Panama very quickly – as well as a lot of Americans, Chinese and European people.”
Despite the influx of Western culture, the natives still live in what most Americans would consider abject poverty, he says. There is no running water in most huts and latrines are poorly constructed and often unusable. There is electricity and a few families even have TVs. They eat food that they harvest and the average worker earns about $1 per hour.
“Panama is not as cheap as you’d think – the cost of living in Panama City is comparable to rural parts of the US,” McDonald says. “So it’s very hard to get ahead.”
Yet, he says there are some strange pieces to the puzzle of this tiny village that time seems to have forgotten. A great many, perhaps the majority, of Indians carry cell phones and use prepaid minutes, which are fairly affordable.
“Globalization strikes you when, in the middle of dinner, a 50-plus-year-old indigenous woman, who looks to be right out of a 1980’s National Geographic magazine, stops you mid-sentence because her phone is ringing and it’s her husband’s custom ringtone,” he says.
Despite such advances, McDonald maintains the natives struggle to feed and educate their children and secure access to decent healthcare.
But, they’re not without industry. He says the tribe has a long tradition of making intricate hand-woven baskets.
“They are beautiful, symbolic, rich with tradition and process and sturdy, surprisingly sturdy,” McDonald says.
The baskets sell for between $5 and $250, which surprised McDonald until he talked with the women who make them.
“It takes about one week per square inch and big baskets can take years,” he says. “Small baskets can take months.”
The baskets are sold through a woman’s group, which in English would translate to: the Association of Women Artisans.
“Selling a single basket can fund their operations – which include education, hygiene, and lots of other social services – for a week or even a month, if not longer,” McDonald says. “Selling a load of baskets can be an entire season of operations.”
Forestation aside, McDonald decided to help the group sell more baskets. They wanted a Web site and a Web site they would have. A computer had been donated to the tribal office by Planting Empowerment and the tribe had been able to get some sort of dial-up Internet access, albeit exceedingly slow, so the tools were at hand.
“I couldn’t say no,” McDonald says. “I didn’t want to build a website. I wanted an adventure. But, the important thing was to do what they needed, not what I wanted to do.”
Given an Internet connection that averaged two minutes to load a page, McDonald went to Wordpress.com and created Indegenapanama.wordpress The site will soon be available at indigenapanama.com, thanks to donations that funded the domain registration.
“It was painstaking,” he says of setting up the site. “Not only was I using a dial-up connection, I knew that it was important to teach them how to use the Wordpress CMS, not just do it myself. Empowerment is the only way to go. It took about 12 hours to get it up, but they are now exceedingly proud of their site.”
At the village president’s behest, the Web site was to focus on the Women’s Association and the baskets.
“They chose the content, seriously, they chose and wrote everything,” he says. “They need to sell the baskets.”
McDonald is hoping interior designers, gift store owners and other American outlets will take an interest in selling the baskets. To purchase the tribe’s current inventory of 20-30 baskets would cost about $1,000 to $1,500, including shipping and handling. An American friend in Panama City has agreed to deliver the baskets from the jungle if buyers are found.
“Let’s team up, prove what social media can do,” he says in an email to friends and relatives. “We can make a big, concrete difference in these people’s lives by buying a bunch of baskets.”
For more information, contact McDonald at email@example.com.