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Enthusiasm can be contagious and within minutes of arriving in Santiago de Chiquitos and meeting a small group of woman, members of a cooperative called La Asociacion de Medicina Natural, I was drawn in. Picture a little village, thirteen kilometers up a dirt road from a paved two lane highway. The village consists of the town square with a small church taking up the length of one side, and homes that also serve as business fronts, along the other three. Four or five streets run parallel to each side of the square and because of the heat, we see more dogs lying under the shade of some precious trees or sprawled on the covered sidewalks, than town folk.
It doesn’t take any more than a few minutes to cross the village and as we reach the far end, which leads to a protected conservation area with hiking trails up to El Mirador – La Antesala Del Cielo, a wonderful lookout high above the surrounding forest, we pull over next to a new, well kept, small brick building. We step out of our van to be greeted by half a dozen, friendly woman ranging in age from the mid twenties to late sixties. Emphasis on the latter years.
We’ve arrived at a small cooperative where both the Cusi and Copaibo Oil, which we saw harvested earlier in our trip, arrives to be processed, packaged and shipped out. It is really wonderful to witness how a simple chain of products and a group of people, who don’t even know each other, can coordinate their efforts to produce something of value, with minimal means yet with a wide vision.
Until recently, these women were producing a line of products ranging from medicinal remedies to personal care products, which were not all together unique. However, what is unique is that they were willing to consider that there is a better way to do it. That their traditional remedies and ways could benefit from a new approach. Another of CUSOs initiatives was to provide small groups of people, such as these woman, with training to improve the quality of their products, to develop long term planning and administrative skills, and to consider expanding their markets to reach beyond the communities in their local traveling circles.
Even for us, it is at times difficult to consider that how we’ve always done things, is not necessarily the best way. Times change, technologies change and as Einstein once said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. These women had been gathering in each others homes to process the raw materials and to prepare the final products, but that wasn’t going to cut it if they were to improve their production methods and increase the income they could generate. To reach new markets they would have to change, almost everything.
CUSO supplied experts on the ground who provided the practical training, while other NGOs provided some of the funding that was necessary for equipment (basic as it was), and with these two assets in hand, the woman were able to approach the municipal government for support. First on the list, to secure a new facility where they could set themselves up to produce a consistently high quality product using modern techniques for hygiene and where the quantities of raw material going into the process could be measured to more accurately, forecast their profits.
Not to in anyway minimize the “facilities”, but it was truly endearing the way they led us through the door to their LAB, and dawned their white lab coats, hair nets and masks. I should back up and say that their municipal representative negotiated on their behalf, with their small hospital, to obtain a two year, free of charge lease, on a small but new building that was not being used, in which they could establish their growing enterprise.
What they’ve accomplished in the few months since they moved into their new facilities, was quite impressive. Most of all their attitudes were in tune with the challenges they have ahead of them. Keenly aware of the importance that the distant ends of the production chain become acquainted with each other, CUSO is attempting to make arrangements for some of these women, pressing the Cusi Oil, and the men harvesting the Copaibo oil. While listening to the conversation regarding the costs involved in getting everyone together, the temptation to reach into my own pocket was incredibly strong. The cost for a two way bus ride, lodging for one night and meals would amount to roughly 120 Bolivianos each, which translates into approximately CDN $18.00. None-the-less, they would have to choose how many and who could attend, this significant meeting since the expenses would have to be drawn on the profits from everyone’s efforts.
I have described CUSOs philosophy as one of sending people not money, however, there is some funding provided, all be it minimal, for project support, and an effort is being made to find the financial assistance to send a few of these woman on the day-long bus ride to San Ignacio. If as you read this, you too find yourself wanting to reach for a $20.00 bill, remember that for every dollar donated to CUSO, CIDA kicks in another nine. That $20.00 instantly becomes $200.00. Go ahead, give in to the temptation.
Before saying goodbye to Las Santiagueñas, the name brand, we accompanied Sofia Frias to Puerto Suarez, a community next to the Bolivian Marshes. A large navigable expansive wetland on the border with Brazil. In addition to filling orders from retailers in Santa Cruz and nearby communities, Sofia will periodically travel, sometimes accompanied, to Puerto Suarez, to set up a display on a sidewalk in the market area, to sell her wares. Her enthusiasm for the products their cooperative produces, came through naturally in her ability to applaud the medicinal qualities and convince others of their benefits.
After spending the better part of the morning in the market, it was time to find something cold to drink and answer our hunger pains. Alberto, our driver, had been to Puerto Suarez often, and suggested a restaurant next to the water. After almost a week of rice, fried potatoes and tough beef, we were all looking forward to an alternative. The fish on the menu was from the waters of the marshlands and so was the… alligator. In my quest to try something different it was a toss up between two fish I’d never heard of and a third, Piranha. However, I opted for the alligator. Let me just say, I had no idea what to expect, and I would gladly have it again. The meat was white and tender and had no distinctly strong taste, rather taking on what ever it was prepared with.
Unas ultimas palabras. Desde que llevo en Bolivia, se me ha preguntado varias veces, siempre por otros voluntarios, si me choque la pobreza, como si debería de sentir remordimiento o estar avergonzado por tener tanto mas que otros. Ahora, no pretendo que en muchos aspectos, y no solo en los pueblecitos, no hay escasez de algunas cosas básicas, como agua potable, pero debo ver la pobreza de otra manera. No mido la pobreza por lo que uno tiene o deja de tener, y menos por comparación a lo que tengo yo, que ya me parece bien poco. Tiendo a mirar más a las necesidades y menos a los deseos, mas a la alegría en las vidas cotidianas y menos al aislamiento físico, mas a las formas de poder ayudar, que en los obstáculos.
Si es verdad que en Canada tengo electricidad y acceso al Internet en cualquier lugar, y también tengo acceso a servicios médicos y agua potable, pero esta gente tiene sus familias y amigos cerca. También tienen muchas menos preocupaciones económicas. Sus necesidades básicas las cubren sin dinero y no faltan por comida. Hay mucho que pudieran cambiar si quisiesen, pero o no le dan la importancia que le damos nosotros, ni se molestan en hacer nada de ello. A lo que voy es que a veces lo que nosotros vemos como pobreza es muy relativo.
Seguro que seguiré dando le vueltas a este tema por mucho tiempo, tanto durante lo que queda de mi estancia en Bolivia como en los meses y años que vienen.
Did I mention how rough the roads are? I know it’s all relative, because the people living in the Chiquitania, don’t think twice about it. Only when it rains and the wet, red clay becomes the closest they’re likely to see to a skating rink, do they take notice of the road conditions. Dodging pot-holes at 40km/hr. for a few hours isn’t exactly my idea of fun, but the scenery and bird watching, makes up for the churned innards.
Last Wednesday, we drove east out of Concepcion and headed north for Palmarito de la Frontera, a small village a few hundred kilometers into the forest, where CUSO is involved in developing alternative forestry practices, through a Canadian, international initiative referred to as the Model Forest, which attempts to set international standards for management practices that focus on bio-diversity, water quality and climate change. Many of you know that I, with the help of family and friends, have planted thousands of trees on a 50ha. property, north of Toronto, for over thirty years, so this subject is very dear to me.
Photographs and written descriptions don’t always provide an accurate picture of a place, and that was certainly the case for what I saw during our bumpy drive to Palmarito. Hollywood and Disney typically portray a romantic image of “exotic” locations and you may have noticed that I’ve described the landscape we traveled through as forest, not jungle. Were it not for the wide variety of palm trees, which in our northern climate would be replaced by conifers, the landscape looks much like the rural forests of eastern North America. Much of what we saw was low scrub, some regeneration and older forests as well. Nothing in this part of Bolivia is what we might call Old Growth, since the soils are thin, with relatively little rain, and natural forest fires, periodically reset the cycle back to zero.
The fruits and oils provided by these forests, have long been known to the local people, however, in many cases the younger generations regard them as something their grandparents pass the time with, or have lost all connection to. This is where Ulysse, the CUSO volunteer stepped in, not only to rediscover traditional uses, but to help educate the local people as to their commercial potential and, thereby, provide additional income sources.
In Palmarito, we met a small group of women that have formed a cooperative to harvest two locally found fruits: the Chiquitanian Almond, an indigenous nut similar to but in no way related to the Middle Eastern and European almond, and the Cusi. Harvesting either of these, has depended, until recently on gathering the naturally growing fruits as they fall to the forest floor. However in the case of the almond, although occasionally consumed locally, it was not regarded as having a commercial value. That is to say that it did not become part of the typical fare at the village market or road side stands.
Without getting into too much detail, and roughly speaking, Bolivia is divided into two major ethnic groups. The folk from the Andes, referred to as Coyas and those from the Amazonia, referred to as Cambas. This is not my description, but rather openly their own. The Coyas, perhaps because they come from a harsher climate and environment, are very focused on business, earning without spending, living miserably if necessary. It is said that a Coya will show up in La Chiquitania with 10 Bolivianos in their pocket, and five years later will have purchased land, so that they can produce more to sell, to purchase more land… Where as Cambas, perhaps because they live in a very, very warm climate where food is abundant and grows easily, are much more focused on having a good time.
A great challenge for Ulysse has been to convince the Chiquitano to seize the commercial opportunities that exist. Now one may react by thinking “so what’s wrong with being satisfied?” and it’s a fare question. However, as the world changes around them, their children, like it or not, are exposed to the outside world. The parents see the need for their children to receive a basic and higher education, and everyone we spoke with, who was participating in one of the projects we would visit, listed as their top motivation, sending their children to school. Although education is subsidized, sending a child to University in Santa Cruz, may cost as much as 450 Bolivianos per month. That may not sound like much when converted to $CDN, however, when the only income they have is generated from the selling of home baked goods or excess produce from their gardens, along the road to passersby, every centavo, is hard come by.
The almond has long been cracked open with a machete and the nut eaten as is. The challenge for CUSO via the FCBC, was to demonstrate that by harvesting the nuts in large quantities and sending them off to be processed (more on this later, since the entire chain is designed to remain within local hands) their was great potential to exploit the forest without the need to slash and burn it down, for grazing livestock and, thereby, provide for the education of their children. The soils in this region aren’t very good for large scale farming, however, as the almond is indigenous to the area, areas previously devoid of trees are being replanted with the nut.
The second fruit being harvested in this area of the Chiquitania is from the Cusi, a type of Palm tree which produces large bunches of hardball sized, nuts that when cracked open release a fragrant oil which has long been used, in the region, as a natural body oil. It is currently being sold as straight oil, however, once there are sufficient quantities, the plan is to market it as an additive for hair-care products.
The work being done by the volunteers here, is truly inspiring. Be it the forester sharing best practices for forest management, the food processing engineer that designed and manufactured hand-operated tools, fashioned from old car parts, to efficiently crack open rock-hard shells or the Marketing Consultant, helping to identify and develop outlets to sell their 100% Free Trade, Organic products.
I haven’t harped on this ‘till now, however, as I spent time with the people of the Chiquitania, I couldn’t help but see how little it takes to make such a huge difference. The potential is enormous to change lives in a profound way that respects their integrity and builds their autonomy. As you follow me over the next few days, I hope that you will consider making a donation, however small, to CUSO via the button to the right of the screen.
Next on the agenda, tapping into good old fashioned Canadian ingenuity.