There have been a number of sincere concerned comments to my interviews of the three candidates for mayor of Boquete. One of those comments stuck a familiar chord one I have heard many times in Boquete.
“THEY (Panamanians) are the ones impacted by the costs and they place the blame directly on the “mochilas” (their term). How many expats are actually retired, i.e. not doing something to earn money? How many own more than one property for the purpose of renting it or selling it.
The push for tourism is a benefit to all the expat land speculators and those expats who depend on the new in-flow of expats to sustain their incomes. Converting Boquete to Aspen, Co. can be done if one is willing to destroy everything that made Boquete a good place to visit. Tourist traps are everywhere.
I agree with JimT, there are mountains, and beaches the length of the continent. If expats came to Boquete for a cheap, relaxed retirement, they are about to be very upset with the direction the mochilas promoting.”
Change is inevitable. In 1969 I arrived in Tucson Arizona, it was a small city of 250,000 and loved the magical environment of the Sonoran desert. When I left in 2006 it was almost four times as populated and all that drew me to Tucson was changing. I benefited from the changes and I packed my bags and left. I was an opportunist and good capitalist. The growth in Arizona allowed me to leave long before most could consider retiring. I did not retire in Boquete, I morphed my life and started writing. I am guilty of working on the Internet while in Panama, the changes in technology made my move possible.
Here in Boquete I have witnessed eight years of change. I came after Valle Escondido, I arrived and bought at the peak of real estate prices. I have visited many places, they all change. When I visit Tucson Arizona it is a trip to a familiar but different place; despite my thirty eight years there. Boquete is not unique in its evolution.
Of the estimated five thousand expats in Boquete most have probably not lived here full-time for eight years, some longer, most much less. Some of those new immigrants came to ride the tide of growth and made things happen. These people were not “mochileros”, they did not come with backpacks, they came with cash and invested their cash here. They did drive up land prices if they bought, they did build homes and often second properties for rentals. They paid their cash to the Panamanians who sold the land and paid cash to Panamanian contractors who built their houses. They did, by their very presence lure others who are still coming. Some are coming and staying, many are coming a leaving.
These same people provided jobs and invested capital. Some lost their investments and left. Those who did not fail in their endeavors are still here improving the entire community, for all the community.
It is true all prices have increased in Boquete. The biggest increase, that of land was driven by external capital. Not all external capital was from extranjeros, much is from Panama City. Some of the biggest projects being built now are financed and owned by Panamanians, who also smell opportunity.
Other increases in prices, fuel and food in particular, are not influenced by the five thousand immigrants to Boquete. Those prices are increasing world-wide due to inflation, currency fluctuations and climate change.
Boquete is also changing due to climate change. I am not going to debate whether the climate change is man-made or natural, the cause is not relevant. Boquete dryer now than when I arrived. Statistics on boqueteweather.com for Palmira are indicative of the change.
In interviewing the candidates for Alcalde none had any problem with new immigrants. They recognize 20% of the population in Boquete was not born in Panama. All three candidates understand to different degrees that Boquete is in transition and as it grows it will change. All recognize that planned change is better than the type of reactionary actions we have seen for the past ten years.
I remember a meeting about seven years ago with a local coffee grower where I and a group of expats were lambasted for increasing wages for local labor. We were blamed for the fact that they needed to pay their labor more. Coffee prices have tripled and then collapsed to almost double the cost in 2007. Should we blame the expats? Coffee is a world market and Panamanian coffee competes with coffee from many countries. Coffee from Panama is still competitive so it is hard to blame five thousand expat for a worldwide shift in coffee prices, yet people do.
The price of coffee has fluctuated worldwide, not because expats pay workers in Boquete more than the coffee farmers did in the past but because the world market for coffee has changed. Maybe those increased wages have kept up with inflation, maybe not, but either way the workers received more money, spent it and therefore increased the local economy.
As a member of a local water junta I have been in many houses in rural Jaramillo, Boquete. I have seen hovels with outhouses that have electricity, large screen televisions and satellite dishes. Whether this is progress or not is a subjective opinion, but these people had the money to make the purchases. I have been thanked by a local kiosk owner, she said “thank you, before you (meaning expats) came to Jaramillo no one had money to spend, now people have work”.
Remember the people who sold the land to the expats were Panamanians, many owners of tourist businesses and new urbanizations are Panamanian and all the employees working in those non agricultural jobs should be legal.
I am sitting now and watching two new houses being built across from my finca. They will cost $170,000 each on a slip of land. I do not know who will buy them, but they are being built by local labor, receiving wages locally and they will put their wages back into the local economy. Everyone can benefit economically from growth. Each of us will need to find our way to deal with change. Some will find it good and stay, others will pack their bags and leave.
The only constant in life is change and planning for change is smarter than trying to ignore or stop it. People who complain about change have their heads in the sand. In this human dominated world it is better to ride the wave and direct where the change will go because you cannot stop it.