Tag Archives: Almonds

Chocolate Covered Alligators

I discovered that some of you may not have been receiving the automated messages informing you of my Blog Posts.? I?ve discovered the problem and believe I?ve corrected the issue.? Since you?re reading this now, I encourage you to scroll back and visit those older postings you may have missed.? I promise it?ll be worth the effort.

While in Ottawa, during our Pre-departure training at the CUSO offices, one of the volunteers offered to set up a Facebook Group so that we could follow each other?s adventures.? As has been the case for me, internet isn?t always available and when it is, it isn?t always stable.? Nothing more frustrating than being in the middle of an upload of images and loosing all the work.? Still, I can?t or shouldn?t complain.? The fraternity of Brigadiers has been posting and uploading and it?s great to hear from disparate parts of the world.? It?s been fun to read final messages from departure points, first impressions and cold realities.? From reading the challenges faced elsewhere, I?ve come to realize how different our assignment in Bolivia has been from those elsewhere.

Right off the top, the projects we?ve been documenting don?t involve schools, hospitals or extreme poverty.? We?ve visited with people who maybe struggling to improve their lots in life, but no one is going hungry.? Hope is, none-the-less, very important and providing people with the tools necessary to make wise decisions, may prevent them from sliding into the dire situations faced somewhere else.? Our projects have focused on improving management of natural resource, on a small scale, empowering small communities and helping young people to be less reliant on hand outs.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the harvest of Almonds, Cusi & Copaibo Oil was just the beginning of the chain and that the entire process was designed to stay within the hands of the local communities.? Enter stage left, San Ignacio de Velasco.

A rather large town, San Ignacio is another of the Jesuit Missions and it too could easily double as a movie set.? Fact is that not far from here, in El Parque Nacional – Noel Kempff Mercado, were filmed scenes from The Mission, with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, specifically the dramatic water falls.? Road was too rough to take a quick look see.

Located in San Ignacio is Minga, which closely translates into English as Cooperative.? Minga is where the almonds collected in Palmerito end up, to be sorted, roasted, salted and packaged.? A relatively unknown product for many Bolivians, marketing the almonds is still largely by word of mouth.? Supply is keeping ahead of demand and to insure their availability, the raw almonds are stored in large sealed, steel hoppers and process only on an order-by-order arrangement.

Not to suggest that all Canadians are marketing wizards, however, there is a certain lack of sophistication, here, when it comes to self promotion and using existing outlets for spreading the word.? This once again, is one of the areas that CUSO is very involved in.? By providing volunteers with an expertise in the areas of identifying markets, developing strategies and managing workflows, CUSO, through their local counterparts, is helping to build self-confidence in the local people, so that agencies like CUSO can move on to other projects.

As for the almonds, the packaging is well designed and would look right at home in any Canadian specialty shop, the almonds taste great salted, unsalted and yes even covered in a wonderful, bitter, dark-chocolate.? Did I mention that these are larger than the almonds we?re familiar with.? I know, I already had you with the chocolate, didn?t I?? How many boxes would you like to order at only CDN $3.00 each?? Sorry, no chocolate covered Alligators.

Next stop on our tour lies 270 km. and an eight hour drive to the south, in Santiago.? Enough said about the roads, however, the highlight of the trip, which we started as the sun was setting around six thirty, was a small wooden bridge, four hours into the drive, on which we stopped.? Alberto, our driver, got out his flashlight and I mine and we rolled down our windows.? He said to point the light along the water surface of the slow moving river and against the charcoal-black water we could see dozens of pairs of small white reflectors staring back at us.? It was my first encounter with wild alligators and was both fascinating and a bit eerie all at once.

For the rest of the trip the winding road continued through very hilly terrain, which was a shame since the night sky prevented us from enjoying the landscape.? By contrast, there was no way to ignore the chorus of night critters that was at times deafening, incredibly loud.? We reached Robore, just short of Santiago, where we stopped for the night, around two thirty in the morning, and met up with Christian, another CUSO volunteer and our guide for this last leg of the tour.

Bueno, os tengo descuidados.? Promet? escribir algo en Castellano, pero llevo unos cuantos ?reportajes? sin una sola palabra.? Reconozco que el llegar hasta aqu? no es f?cil, por cuesti?n de la distancia, y sinceramente el viajar por la Chiquitania es duro por la condici?n de las carreteras, pero no dej?is que eso os desanime de considerar lo.? Los pueblecitos tienen su encanto, y la historia de los Jesuitas es muy interesante.

Algo que aprend? por ver la pel?cula La Misi?n, fue la importancia que pusieron los Jesuitas en utilizar la m?sica, aunque eso si, Europea, como manera de crear una conexi?n con las ind?genas.? El legado es que hoy en d?a, hay se celebra un Festival de Musica Baroca cada a?o, que atrae m?sicos de por todo el mundo.? El estudio de m?sica cl?sica sigue siendo algo muy apreciado y hace unos a?os, un grupo de m?sicos Franceses, al descubrir ese inter?s, especialmente entre los j?venes, investigaron las fuentes locales para los instrumentos de cuerda.? Se les dirigi? a un pueblo casi frontera con el departamento de Beni, cuyo nombre se me ha olvidado.? Al llegar all?, se quedaron tan impresionados con un grupo de artesanos fabricando instrumentos que juntaron los fondos para proporcionar les equipo moderno y mandar les luteros de Francia.? El prop?sito era mejorar la calidad de sus instrumentos, y hoy en d?a, el Boliviano, que anteriormente no tenia acceso mas que a instrumentos baratos, de la China, desean, aunque son m?s caros, los que se fabrican en el departamento de Santa Cruz, por la calidad y por que con la compra esta incluido cualquier reparaci?n o ajuste.

Bueno, hay lo ten?is, una exclusiva en Espa?ol.


Almonds & Cusi


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 50 ha. 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 fair 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.