Indigenous Migrant Workers Begin Literacy Classes

It’s coffee picking season in the lush green valley of San Marcos de Tarrazú. Although the rich smell of roasted coffee beans coming from the local cooperative is the olfactory sign that the coffee harvest has begun, the arrival of migrant workers is another sure sign.

Every year the estimated 12,000 men, women, and children of the indigenous Ngobe tribe who travel from Panama to Costa Rica start working the coffee harvests in southern Costa Rica around the month of August. They continue to Los Santos where the harvest takes place later in the year.

The Ngobe live on the farms in cement rooms, but the living conditions vary greatly – some have rows of sinks, showers and latrines, others provide one faucet and one outhouse for all of the workers.

Years ago the coffee was harvested by local residents, but in the past few years it is only migrants who are willing to do this difficult work. They know their hard work will allow them to take home some US$ 500 at the end of the season.

On a sunny Saturday in January, IOM joined representatives of the migrant population, the National University and two local coffee cooperatives (CoopeTarrazú and Coopedota), to celebrate a small effort to improve the lives of migrant workers through literacy.

IOM is providing support to the Building Bridges project, part of an ongoing program managed by the National University aimed at improving the health of temporary migrant workers in Los Santos.

At the inauguration, one of the migrants gave a very moving speech about how many of the Ngobe can’t even sign their name, and that after these classes, they will be able to do so.

Ngobe representatives lauded the literacy effort but said much more must be done. IOM recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Costa Rica’s National University to support this project and for future cooperation.

The classes include a handbook in Ngobe, created by a professor who has been working with the population for years. The class also includes information on health and human rights.

The classes will end in late February or early March, when the Ngobe head back to Panama.

IOM is lending it support, with funding from the US Department of State Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration.

According to Panama’s 2000 census, 110,080 Ngobe live in Panama, making up 63.6% of the national indigenous population

IOM has also met with potential partners in San Vito, in southern Costa Rica to learn more about the situation of these migrant workers and to build partnerships.