Wow, just under an hour flight, east from La Paz and we’re in another world. Stepped out of the airport and walked smack into a wall of humidity and temperatures around 38’C. We arrived yesterday afternoon in Santa Cruz and this seems as good a time to share some basic geographical and political details concerning Bolivia, as any.
I mentioned earlier that Bolivia is landlocked and have made a point of describing that I would be, in both the High Andes and the headwaters of the Amazonian Basin. It is an amazing contrast between the jagged snow-capped Andes in the west and the endless flat expanses of the eastern bread basket. Bolivia covers 1,098,580 sq/km and just to give you a point of reference, the province of Ontario, in Canada, weights in at 1,076,395 and France covers 674,843 sq/km.
Unlike most countries, and describing the nitty-gritty would get too involved for this space, Bolivia has two Capitals. La Paz is the Administrative Capital and that is where you’ll find the seat of Government as well as all the Embassies from around the world. However, the Supreme Court is located in Sucre and is referred to as the Constitutional Capital of the Country.
The country is divided into three distinct regions: Los Andes, Los Sub-Andes and Los Llanos (the Flats) which divide up in a west to east arrangement. Rather than provinces or states, they refer to the internal political divisions as Departments.
Like many developing countries, there is a marked dichotomy between urban and rural life and in the case of Bolivia, furthermore, between the Andes, where the harsh living conditions present unique economic challenges, and the tropical Amazonian region that produces every crop imaginable.
Bolivia is statistically the poorest nation in South America, with over 60% of the population falling below the poverty line. Like Canada, Bolivia has long been an exporter of natural resources from its mines and from forest products. In many ways Bolivia is similar to Canada in its struggle to convert it’s natural resources into finished products for export, thereby, adding value to the economy and providing employment opportunities for its citizens. Most recently, Bolivia’s Natural Gas reserves have added another valuable commodity to its bag of tricks. However, along with the benefits have come political unrest with regard to an equitable distribution of that new found wealth.
Protecting the natural environment is also a huge concern in Bolivia, especially when one takes into account that a significant percentage of the population continues to live a traditional life, in the jungle, which depends on the bounty produced by the land. Bolivia boasts the largest percentage of indigenous people in its population, in the Americas. Bolivianos actively participate in the political process and exercise their democratic rights to be listened to and respected. Because of their activism, it is my assertion that Bolivianos are building a unique form of Democracy, that although in the short term produces instability that may be damaging the national economy, will in the future serve as an example to many other democracies, such as Canada, where striking a balance between native land claims, issues surrounding land use and exploitation of natural resources, and protecting the natural environment represent a significant a concern for its citizenry.
For over nine weeks, this fall, over 1000 Bolivians took to the road and marched over 600 km. from their homes in the Amazonian basin all the way to La Paz to protest the construction of a road that would cut through valuable jungle and displace indigenous populations that continue to depend on a traditional lifestyle of hunting, fishing and gathering. Furthermore, the road would have cut through the Territorio Indigena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS), a National Park. In the end, President Evo Moralis, cancelled the road construction project along it’s original route, however, there continues to be uncertainty and concern with regard to a new route.The
The Marchistas arrived in La Paz just days before our arrival, however, on several occasions we had the unique opportunity to speak with some of the organizers and gained access to the camp they set up in the square in front of the Parliament, while negotiations took place between all of the affected groups. This was a historic event in Bolivia’s democratic life and we were privileged to be witness to it.