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A return to old practices could shape the future of the 40 percent of Bolivians who depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

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   The greenhouse is unfinished. There's no glass, just wood, soil and a few ornamental plants. But Ana Yesenia doesn't mind. She sits in the greenhouse and works on the plants. Her classmates play soccer nearby, but she doesn't join them. She'd rather work in the soil and talk with one of the    teachers.
Yesenia is 18 years old and one of five children. She wants to work in agronomy but left high school in Santa Cruz to help her mother work selling goods in Villamontes. A second chance to fulfill her dream, though, comes through the Alternative Agricultural Education Center, or CEAA, its acronym in Spanish, a small alternative school in Tarairi, just 30 minutes from Yesenia's home in Villamontes. At CEAA, students learn to be farmers and entrepreneurs.
   Yesenia also attends the regular high school in Tarairi. She attends classes there in the morning before going to CEAA in the afternoon. She doesn't mind the extra studies.
   "I would like to continue studying," she said in Spanish. She would like to work with plants the way veterinarians work with animals, she said.
When she finishes school and becomes an agronomist, Yesenia will join an industry undergoing a lot of change in Bolivia: agriculture. Four different groups drive the change: the government, small farmers, large landowners and alternative educators. Each group has its own needs, opinions and goals. Their ability and willingness to communicate will not only shape what Bolivian agriculture becomes, but their efforts will affect the 40 percent of Bolivia's population who rely on agriculture for their livelihood.
   "The plan is to develop areas of production and commerce," Antonia Rodríguez Medrano, Bolivia's minister of productive development and plural economy said in Spanish. "We are a multicultural government and economic production is for everyone's participation."

A destructive cycle
   However, for some farmers in Bolivia, participation in agriculture means constant loss. Many farmers in the northern tropics and eastern subtropics of Bolivia are caught in a never-ending cycle of investing in and losing land called slashand- burn agriculture.
   Farmers who slash and burn cut down and burn existing vegetation to make fields fertile for planting crops. However, tropical climates receive a lot of rain, and when the rain comes, the fertile topsoil washes away and farmers are left with subsoil incapable of producing quality crops. To survive, the farmers have to move, cut down more vegetation and start again.

A student of the Alternative Agriculture Education Center holds up his hands, covered in a cement mixture that he and other students learned to make at school. Children from the Villamontes area come to the school to learn different agricultural techniques. [patrick breen]

   >Daniel Mason-D'Croz, an international development specialist, spent three years in Bolivia as a member of the Peace Corps and witnessed the effects of slash-and-burn. He said slash-and-burn does more than erode the soil; the smoke produced during the burning process degrades the quality of the air and the lives of the people living in and around areas where slash-and-burn occurs.
   "People and the Bolivian economy suffer in a myriad ways from the high levels of smoke, which lead to increased cases of asthma, eye infections and upper respiratory infections, in addition to severe injuries and deaths due to fires that get out of hand and the costs of increased traffic accidents due to limited visibility," he wrote in an email.

Education, not legislation
   Rodríguez said the Bolivian government has no intention to outlaw slash-and-burn agriculture. Instead, the government plans to focus on educating farmers about better land-use practices and organic farming methods.
   "Since many years ago farmers have been using chemicals for production," Rodríguez said. "We will recover the natural sowing by sheep and llama [droppings]. We have to respect the Pachamama, the Mother Earth."
Rodríguez said the goal is to work toward the way agriculture used to be.
   "It does not mean that we are in reverse," she said. "It means that we will get an economic growing, but considering what our ancestors, grandmothers and grandfathers used to do. They did not use any chemicals."

Commodities to products
   Pamela Cartagena has spent more than 10 years helping Indigenous farmers develop sustainable farming practices. She works for the Center for Campesino Research and Promotion, or CIPCA, its Spanish acronym, which assists Indigenous farmers in seven different regions of Bolivia. CIPCA teaches regional representatives to focus on producing economically viable products for their communities and ways to make those commodities more valuable.
   Helping farmers turn commodities into commercial products is an important part of the economic proposal CIPCA develops for each region, Cartagena said.
   "In the [high plains], milk is a star product," she said in Spanish. "The process of transformation in the [high plains] is all pertaining to the production of milk. Then it is made into cheese and yogurt."

Changing minds
   It's a lesson in entrepreneurship. It's also a lesson similar to the one Yesenia is learning at CEAA.
   Charlotte Rooney works at Yesenia's school as a representative of its sponsor, a British organization called Teach a Man to Fish. A native of Canada, Rooney moved to London to complete graduate work on non-governmental organizations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She joined Teach a Man to Fish after graduation.
   Rooney said a majority of the people in small communities are farmers with a few acres of land. The problem isn't a lack of land, she said, but the lack of a business outlook and entrepreneurial training.

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  • Story by Carrie Brauer
  • Photos by Patrick Breen

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