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.