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Friday, October 17, 2014

Amenity Migration

For decades, the retirement of the baby boom generation ( defined as post WW II babies born between 1946 and 1964 ) has been a looming economic threat. Now the unstoppable wave is well underway and every month over 2 million global citizens turn 65 years old. In 2010 there were 520 million folks worldwide aged 65 or over- in 16 years (2030) this number will surpass 1 billion ! 

Initially, this population bulge provided a tremendous boost to world economic growth.  As these folks, no longer contribute to the economy with  direct production, significantly reduce their spending, increase their dependance on others, their children, and government for entitlements and health care costs. This undisputable demographic wave has profound global economic consequences.

Within this tidal wave, global economic inequality has created a smaller trend known as  " amenity migration. "  Defined as - People living in a place, and altering it, without ever engaging in the new culture, or even considering how their choices affect people who already live there. Repeating previous colonial practices by visioning the new habitat as an empty place that migrants can inhabit, and alter at will, without having to concern themselves about the desires, aspirations or needs of those already living there. It is the northern perception of power and wealth  that continues to exploit a system that takes advantage of local poverty.  "I'm making a living on the U.S. economy and living on the Ecuadorian economy. It's a great formula" says one migrant.

This international migration ( emigration ), is characterized by retirees from the developed "North" moving to the developing "South" in search of preferred amenities. Lured by sun-dappled tropical paradise landscapes, lower living costs, and a gentler pace of life.  A lifestyle oriented to patterns of leisure and consumption,  in which work imperatives are minimal or non-existent. Who can resist the polished marketing fantasies of "living like a king in a tropical paradise" ?

Latin American governments are also luring retiring baby boomers with incentive programs. Panama's was among the first and most aggressive to target baby boomers.  Benefits such as duty exemptions on the importation of household goods, discounts on transportation, entertainment & admission fees, utility bills, medical services etc. However the newly transplanted folks are placing significant unrealistic expectations and strains on their new countries infrastructure systems, and with aging migrants on the health care systems. For example in the community hospital of Bahia de Caraquez we have no medical doctors working on weekends !

As the most educated, well-traveled, and adventurous generation in history, a growing number of retirement aged Americans & Europeans are voluntarily surrendering their rooted identities,  and physical ties to a stable home and community for a new beginning in a truly foreign and far away place. Leading first is Mexico, followed by Costa Rica, Central America (Belize, Honduras,
Nicaragua, Guatemala) Panama,  Europe, Thailand, Ecuador,  & Colombia.  Unfortunately they bring with them, wherever they go, the "unconscious privilege entitlement" from the Global North.

Cuenca a  UNESCO World Heritage City with a charming historic district, and a population of about 350,000 has seen the number of expats grow from about 300 six years ago to more than 3,500 today.

When traveling to these destinations, tourists are usually satisfied with their superficial experiences with the people and their destinations. However with relocation and residency the discrepancy between the exquisite scenery and landscapes, and the brutal living conditions, and poverty of their local surrounding neighbours becomes a stark reality. A lifestyle focused on consumption and leisure patterns does not fit. Obvious linguistic, racial, cultural, and socio-economic disparities quickly become problematic.

In Ecuador we are witnessing a proliferation, in both size and number, of foreign retirement-expatriate "gated communities ". These gated community developments are being constructed for the emerging rich class of international residential tourists alongside farming or fishing villages with indigenous who live in the harsh reality of poverty, institutionalized discrimination, and malnutrition.

These developments are isolated linguistically, have migrant dominated social activities, are physically separated by high walls, and have minimal engagement with the greater community. They are placing significant unrealistic expectations and strains on their new countries infrastructure systems, and with aging migrants on the health care systems. Western development should not be blindly imposing " modern improvements."   In fact industrialized nations could learn about building sustainable societies where a close relationship with nature can enrich human life far beyond that of material wealth or technology. These developments are controlled by no-one, yet propelled by the greed of many.

The " amenity migrants"  growing presence is dramatically altering the social, cultural, environmental and economic landscape of these areas. Most of these transplanted folks experience their new home as a " beautiful landscape "  void of its inhabitants. Assimilation with their new community is often superficial, with the majority of retired expatriates interacting primarily with other expatriates. By living in isolated gated communities and socializing almost exclusively with other migrants, they make themselves impermeable. Interaction with locals is limited to transactional exchanges for menial labour services,  groceries, or fruit & vegetables etc. Language barriers are usually cited as the main factor inhibiting their interaction with local populations. Without the language how can one reasonably expect to have any meaningful conversation or learn about their new country ?

After several years of turmoil, in October 2012 the small Andean community of Cotacachi, which hosts a foreign population with these unrealistic expectations and little understanding of what it means to live in a foreign country, outlawed new gated community developments.

The predatory real estate development practices have radically altered the rural community, and cultural insensitivity has created significant social tensions within the community. Commendably the municipal government seeks to effectively address infrastructure demands, and the escalating social unrest. The developers landscape erosion, lack of sufficient potable water for local community needs, disposing of raw sewage into natural mountain streams, escalating crime in the area, and cultural intolerances are just some examples of unrealistic expectations / demands.

There are over 182 proposed developments on the coast of Ecuador just between Manta and Esmeraldas. There are countless more along the Pacific coastline of Ecuador, Mexico, & Panama where little more exists than a faded sales promotional billboard, and perhaps some cleared land in anticipation of future sales. Faced with similar concerns of eroding landscapes, lack of sufficient potable water for local community needs, disposal of raw sewage, lack of electrical service and capacity, and escalating crime. Prudent caution is always required as sometimes an elaborate internet sales presence exists without any tangible physical development. Sometimes the project development does not yet even " own " the land for the proposed project.

These speculative developments rely on future sales to fund the land purchase & project infrastructure -effectively Ponzi schemes ! A residential development nearby, whose residents are now very alarmed about coastal erosion, was built closer to the ocean's edge than permitted by national law. Yet another purchasers have been waiting more than six years for their promised homes.

Real estate developers make claims of preserving natural resources, environmental sensitivity, and sustainable living which are fundamentally contradictory to the nature of their project -changing forest or agricultural land to the dense, infrastructured, resource intensive useage of the development !

This has become so problematic here that the government introduced legislation prohibiting developers to market their properties until infrastructure and all legal permitting is in place. While this may seem obvious from a North American perspective it is not here ! While the law is now in place there is little operational enforcement, and illegal sales continue. Buyer Beware ! 

From our experience, most developments that are successful are usually undertaken by local developers who have a solid understanding of their marketplace and the countries laws, not new foreigners swooping in seeking to make their fortune attracting naive and unwary gringos.

Retiring or living in a developing country certainly isn't for everyone – managing expectations is a simple yet major obstacle. Crime, drug violence, notoriously ineffective judicial systems, cultural differences, slower pace of life, and infrastructure / utilities expectations, notorious bureaucratic delays, poor signage, lack of lighting, uneven sidewalks, scheduled appointments that never happen, can be problematic. "MaƱana doesn't mean tomorrow, it just means not today."

New or future foreign residents should realize that levels of resentment towards them are continuing to grow as we are increasingly seen as ignorant, arrogant, and culturally disrespectful.  Do we foreigners who choose to retire in other countries realize the negative economic, social, and environmental impacts of our presence? Do we care?

The articles purpose is not to dissuade you from choosing to live in Ecuador but rather ensure you fully consider, and assume responsibility for all of the impacts your decision will have on others. Learning the native tongue and local customs of your new country will take time, but it is well worth the effort ! Taking time to listen ( requires an understanding of the local language ), walk and wonder, learn about the realities and hardships of living with limited resources, participate in festivals, and contribute to your community by volunteering. Ecuador is a beautiful country which we enjoy and our sincere desire is to see and help its people flourish ! Happiness is not related to money.

For those interested in a more detailed examination of this highly controversial subject :

"The Amenity Migrants of Cotacachi" by Anisa Kline B.A. M.A.

Peter Shear  a concerned, dual citizenship American living, working and raising his children in Cotacachi since 1999

  documented interviews and concerns : 

The laws of this country specifically prohibit naming or discrediting unscrupulous persons, businesses, or developers which further exasperates the issue for the unwary consumer.

We welcome your candid thoughts, comments, and opinions.

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