Tag Archives: Chiquitania

Gooood Evening San Antonio

From the very beginning of this volunteer experience with CUSO, I?ve felt like a bit of a fraud, for one simple reason.? I knew that I was going to spend a relatively short period of time in Bolivia and wouldn?t have the opportunity to completely integrate myself into the local habits and rhythms.? I was non-the-less, reassured that my contribution is very important, and if I am to accept that everyone?s role, how ever small, is important, then I must learn to be more generous with myself too.? Difficult to do, sometimes, when one is made to feel insignificant unless earning a certain income or attaining a ?respectable? job title.

Not to take away from others I?ve met here, but we recently visited a Spanish volunteer, Jesus Torrero Bustos, in San Antonio de Lomerio and his story most closely matches my pre-conceptions of the experience.? Jesus recently completed his first of a two year posting in San Antonio, a small rural community that gained access to the electric grid only six short months ago.? Previously, only the Municipal Buildings, Community Radio and Church, had diesel generators to provide limited hours of electricity.? There are no telephone land-lines or cellular service, internet goes with out saying is a dream, and although there are a few municipally installed public-access hand-pumps scattered around the town, those who can afford to do so, have small water towers in the court yards behind their homes.? A water truck periodically visits San Antonio and those who can afford it, pay to have their cisterns topped up.

Jesus arrived here with a mandate to provide training to existing Cooperatives and guidance to others wanting to organize and take advantage of financial assistance provided by the various levels of government.? By offering workshops through his position with the Municipal Government, ranging from basic Administrative and Organizational skills to developing Marketing Strategies, he early on recognized an even more fundamental need; a Financial Education.? Having most of their needs met, Jesus observed that there was very little long term thinking in the Chiquitanian tradition or educational experience.? The issue is far more complex than I have space for here, to elaborate on, however, in a nutshell, when finding themselves with a bit of extra cash, the towns people are most likely to spend in quickly, rather than consider saving it to repair the roof next year or reinvesting it in their side businesses.? See, we are more alike than different.

Drawing on his undergrad degree in Pedagogy Psychology and Masters in Human Resources, Jesus quickly came to the conclusion that guiding adults in the community through the process of registering businesses and offering workshops was all, well and good, but targeting school children is the only way to make long term, attitudinal changes.? Coincidentally, this past year, the Bolivian Ministry of Education tabled legislation to implement changes to the curriculum and Jesus was approached, through his employer the village of San Antonio, to research teaching methods that could be used to introduce that new curriculum.

A year later, a series of workbooks, one for each of twelve school grades has been written, designed and published.? The material deals with everything from Money Management, to developing a Social Conscience with an emphasis on empathy and the environment.? Until the Ministry of Education, passes their legislation and obliges School Boards to adopt the new curriculum, whether or not to adopt the new material rests with the individual Principals and Teachers, which isn?t a given.? Fortunately for Jesus, the Secondary School Principal in San Antonio is eager to use the material.? The final and perhaps most difficult challenge for each school Principal, will be securing the funds to purchase one workbook for each and every student, each year.

Because of it?s isolated location, San Antonio is the one community where we spent the most time.? One day to travel each way, from and to Santa Cruz, on a Micro, a small bus seating approximately 40, and standing, who ever was willing to do so for the bumpy five hour ride, and two full days in and around the town.? On the agenda was to accompany Jesus to the nearby community of Palmeria and that is a story worth telling.? He secured one of the vehicles owned by the Town Hall, for use by employees, and requisitioned the diesel fuel that would get us there and back.? Only thing missing was a driver.? There were five of us making the forty kilometre round trip and, not surprisingly, the 4 X 4 had a standard transmission.? A quick show of hands left me as the only one experienced to drive the vehicle.? Eeee Gats!!

It wasn?t the first time in my life that I?ve had to manoeuvre around tight corners or dodge pot holes, but it was the first time that I had to do it behind the wheel of a vehicle held together with twist ties.? Worst of all, once at the other end of the trip, we discovered that we were without lights, and would have to cut short our visit.? I already knew that their were no mirrors and that the shocks were toast, but a quick inventory confirmed that we had windshield wipers but no way to activate them, no door windows, I just thought they were cranked down until I discovered that? you got it, there were no cranks and no horn, important for driving along a narrow, one and half lane, dirt road.? We made it back to San Antonio stirred but not shaken and with a slight glow in the sky, as well as our faces.

The next day was taken up sitting in on a Marketing Workshop and visiting small businesses.? However, the highlight for us came later that evening when Anouk and I were asked to be interviewed on the Community Radio.? Good or bad, we were up against a televised Football Game, so it?s difficult to say how large our listening audience was.

Unlike our arrival in San Antonio, which was under the cover of a star filled sky, the return trip to Santa Cruz, was in full daylight.? There?s an interesting Canadian connection to the department of Santa Cruz.? Over the past twenty-five years, there has been a very large migration of Mennonites from Saskatchewan to La Chiquitania.? Go figure.? It?s like the last untamed frontier, or something.? However, I?m making it sound far more romantic than I should.? That?s because, as farming communities, the Mennonites are largely responsible for the disappearance of much of the natural ground cover between Santa Cruz and Robore, near the border with Brazil, a distance of approximately 450 km.? It works something like this.? They purchase huge tracks of land, as flat as our western prairies, clear them to grow every crop imaginable, and because this area experiences very low rainfall, once they?ve exhausted these organically poor soils, they move along to the next parcel of land.? There?s no doubt that they are producing great quantities of food, but because there are no controls on land use practices, the price, in the long term, will be left for others to pay.? Returning to Santa Cruz, from our trip to Puerto Suarez, the previous week, one could see clouds of smoke rising in the distance, and the acrid smell, at times became quite thick, indicating that large areas of scrub land were being cut, burned and prepared for tilling or pasture land.

Casi me he puesto al d?a, aunque si quisiera, tampoco se trata de que cuente cada detallito, hay que dejar algo por contar en persona.? Lo cual en las palabras del gran Filosofo Arnold Schwarzenegger ?Hasta ma?ana baby.?

Today Santiago, Tomorrow Yorkville

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 Santiague’as, 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 deberia 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 basicas, 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 comparacion a lo que tengo yo, que ya me parece bien poco. Tiendo a mirar mas a las necesidades y menos a los deseos, mas a la alegria en las vidas cotidianas y menos al aislamiento fisico, mas a las formas de poder ayudar, que en los obstaculos.

Si es verdad que en Canada tengo electricidad y acceso al Internet en cualquier lugar, y tambien tengo acceso a servicios medicos y agua potable, pero esta gente tiene sus familias y amigos cerca. Tambien tienen muchas menos preocupaciones economicas. Sus necesidades basicas 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 seguire dando le vueltas a este tema por mucho tiempo, tanto durante lo que queda de mi estancia en Bolivia como en los meses y anos que vienen.

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.


From Maple Syrup to Copaibo Oil

Socrates made the observation that we don’t know what we don’t know.I’m paraphrasing. In our western culture, we reward ingenuity and encourage creativity that reaches beyond the arts, to business, by using phrases like “think outside the box”, to help spark the imagination. But, when dealing with traditional cultures where outside influences usually come in the form of undermining long held values and beliefs, and where scepticism follows hollow promises and false starts, the notion of fixing that which isn’t broken, takes a great deal more convincing than the use of a cute phrase. A leap of faith is never easy.

Eighteen years ago, I spent four months working for the Ministry of Natural Resources, along the James and Hudson Bay coastlines. I was stationed in Moosonee and in the middle of the Moose River is Moose Factory, a First Nations Reserve. As you might imagine, life along the Moose River doesn’t change much from year to year, or certainly it didn’t at the time. Access to the outside world, was either by rail to Cochrane or by air, which was very expensive, to Timmins. During the summer months, shipments of large bulky supplies would arrive by boat, otherwise a trip to the grocery store, meant a two day trip on the Polar Bear Express to Cochrane and back.

When I arrived in Moosonee, in early May, the ice was still on the river and I discovered that old habits die hard. It had long been common practice to take refuse on to the ice, in the middle of the river, throughout the winter, and wait for the ice break-up in the spring to carry away the accumulated debris. To my horror, what had once been a practice that would have been reasonable, when all refuse consisted of organic matter, was still being practised with old cars, appliances and other bulky items.

In La Chiquitania, one long held practice was to harvest oil from the Copaibo Tree. However, to do so involved hacking a huge notch in to the side of the tree, which pretty well reached the heart wood. The oil would seep out and the tree would eventually succumb to the injury. For what might seem like obvious reasons to us, the practice of collecting the oil and selling the product at market, was the furthest thing from the minds of the local people.

Then one day, along came an ingenious volunteer from CUSO, who suggested a less invasive method to collect the oil. Drawing on his experience, Ulysse suggested a method by which a small hole could be drilled into the tree, a tube inserted and the sap collected. Sound familiar?

Now, I don’t have to strike my finger with a hammer to know it’ll hurt, but unless someone shows me a better way, I may just abandon the whole notion of using a hammer all together. When first suggested, the local people were sceptical about the practicality and even the motivation for harvesting the Copaibo Oil but after methodically testing various depths of hole, best placement on the tree and diameter of tubing to use, together, they found the optimum technique and they were off to the races.

The next challenge was to identify a sufficiently large concentration of Copaibo trees, to maximize the effort. With the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) as well as ground surveys, Xiomara another CUSO volunteer identified such an area. The regional government was then petitioned to declare a large area, north of San Ignacio de Velasco as a forest reserve, where the formalized Association of Copaibo Oil Producers of the Chiquitania will be guaranteed access to a sustainable supply of Copaibo oil, free from the encroachment of Slash & Burn practices, by squatters, to extend cattle grazing pastures. In June of this year, 330,000 ha. were declared as protected, but what that means in practice, remains to be seen. There is no shortage of well intentioned legislation in Bolivia, but enforcement is non-existent, fines are minimal and a few Bolivianos can eliminate the paper work all together.

During our visit, it was wonderful to witness an excitement amongst the three men with which we spoke, well aware that they were participating in something new and exciting with a great potential to provide an additional source of income. Again they listed as their top priority, using the money to help with their children’s education. The reserve was declared a mere six months ago, and tapping the trees began late in the season. With all the ground work in place, they are well poised to produce a significant volume of oil in their first full year of production.

I can’t help but reflect on the obstacles that Bolivian’s in general have to overcome, some of their own making and others not. The infrastructure short fall is huge, the inexperience in transparent governance at all levels runs deep, and a mind set that recognizes the importance of a civil society is beyond the consciousness of many, if not most, Bolivian’s. On the other side of the ledger is the desire for advanced education and the potential to get it right the first time, by drawing on the lessons learned by their neighbours and the world at large.

After a fascinating day, spent with a group of men optimistic about the future for themselves and their families, we continued along the Jesuit Mission Route to San Ignacio. The contrast is so great, between the small villages and the larger towns, that it challenges me to describe them. One travels along, what we would struggle to call a road, and as if rising from the dust appear towns with a bustling main square, streets lined with shops and motorcycles, heading in every direction. The best I can do is to compare them to a movie set, in the middle of a dessert.

Next stop is Santiago de Chiquitos, where we visit the next chain in the production line.

One last comment before I close up here. November 11th is a significant day for me on two accounts. First, because it is my oldest daughter’s birthday, (imposible to forget) and secondly because it marks Remembrance Day in Canada. I honour the sacrifices that have been made by thousands of young men and woman on our behalf, by exercising my right to vote at every election and shudder with sadness when I dare imagine putting myself in the place of the families that have endured the loss of a loved one in defending our values and principles.

Lest we forget.



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.