Day 26 – the wisdom of development.

Day 26 – the wisdom of development.

Driving back to Oruro from Curahuara, two hours away, I was able to have an open conversation with Carlos ___ Director of ___.  For 20 years he has been working in development.  He seems one of the biggest challenges being the rural people’s general conservatism and fear of change.  Though he hosted countless workshops teaching genetics and animal husbandry to llama herders, they continue to purchase lesser quality llamas in the markets to sell once they mature after a few years.  The farmers stay the same, repeating traditions they have had for centuries without incorporating new knowledge.  It reminded me of the farmers I had known 15 years ago, when working as a rural journalist.  In some ways this resistant to changes was good, it enabled farmers to avoid misdirected development schemes that ended up being costly in time and money and not working as they were proposed but at the same time they left behind things that could have been helpful.

In the quinoa fields there was a chemical fertilizer project offered by USAID years ago, an INIAF engineer explained to me, it left the soils burnt and unable to sustain life.  The dry, arid climate and low levels of organic matter, turned the fertilizers into poison instead of food.

Some development projects did not end so drastically but did end being different than what they started out to be.  Rural sanitation never fared well when latrines were offered – traditionally people in the altiplano would use the vast open plains as their fresh air bathroom.  The sun quickly drying their feces and the vastness of the area causing no real bacterial illnesses to accumulate.  However foreign development workers saw that as dirty and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building thousands of latrines across the countryside and teaching people about hygiene.  After a few months of use, explained APQUISA member and former development worker, Ecebio Calani, the latrines were dirty, smelly, filthy places to be.  So the families simply covered up the hole and used the structure as a storage shed.  Much more practical!

Calani explained there was another development project to help the challenge of finding drinking water in the desert by creating rainwater capture systems going from roofs to rain barrels like those used in Bermuda.  This was developed in Rodeo, a small rural town in the department of Oruro.  Because of the sparseness of rain and the prevalence of dust and wind, the water that did trickle down from the dirty roofs was dirty and undrinkable.  So the people of Rodeo instead turned the water capture systems into an irrigation system for greenhouses.  I visited those greenhouses and there were working very well.  Now large covered cement cisterns replace the small rain barrels.

On the theme of development, Carlos lamented on the backwardness of it all.  For example in the large commercial town of Challapata (were much of the inter-salar quinoa is sold – but not grown) people choose to have houses and live there full time – however their livelihood is in the rural countryside.  So they live in Challapata and send their children to school there.  At 8am they leave for their rural community – taking public transportation and walking.  Arriving at their small farms around 10am.  The spend the day doing farm chores, milking and grazing a handful of sheep and cows, tending crops such as potatoes, fava beans, wheat, processing harvested food for long term storage – for example making chuno potatoes, or cleaning quinoa, or irrigating fields with gravity fed water systems.  They return home around 6pm.  Meanwhile, the schoolchildren have been home alone in the town since school let out for lunch, ending around 1pm.  They sit around playing computer games and watching TV, or wandering around town with their friends waiting for their parents to come home.

Carlos’ question is why is it not reversed?  Why don’t the parents use the house in Challapata for selling products in town over the weekend and attending the market and live full time in the farmhouse, taking their children to school in the morning and having them come home to the farm in the afternoon.  That way the children are in the fresh air, learning to farm, helping the family and living a more healthy life.  This, living a dignified life in the country, with full access to all modern amenities such as electricity, transportation, and schools is what Carlos calls, “Vivir Bien.” He gets frustrated when he sees people living this in reverse.

It makes me think of my own rural community of Marlboro and how people choose to live in the mountains and forests often not out of need, but out of pleasure.  Many of us have AirBnB housing where people from the cities come to stay with us for the same reasons – to enjoy some nature and live simple and free in the countryside.  It seems this is part of what Bolivia is striving for in their Bien Vivir program, to get the recent city migrants to move back to the countryside using their city housing on occasions but having their home base being in the rural areas.  With the rural areas equipped with the modern amenities of the cities – good schools, electricity, roads, health care, cell service and wifi.  It does not sound very different from what we ask for in Vermont.  So far, the Vivir Bien program has not been so bold as to offer this “reverse migration” model.  But many of the development workers I talk to express hope that in time, and with better and more stable quinoa prices, people will begin to realize what they have left behind and make that choice to have the healthy country lifestyle once again.  As Ecebio pointed out, “the countryside is dirty, but the cities are contaminated,” – noting the difference in the quality of life in each place – with air and water pollution from unregulated industry and astronomical growth being real threats to the health of city dwellers.

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