Saturday, September 20, 2008

la brecha b

One of the highlights of my recent five-day trip to the innards of Bolivia was a visit to the Brecha B—one of many small communities on the outskirts of Palos Blancos.

While Palos Blancos is hands down one of the most unattractive little towns I’ve ever visited (it’s dry, dusty, and waterless), 10 minutes outside of town at the Velasquez homestead I discovered near-paradise conditions: oranges, pineapples, mangoes, lemons, papayas, bananas, and a variety of previously unknown-to-me fruits. They all grow abundantly on the land surrounding the family's very rustic, yet welcoming casita.

Jorge Gallardo, Don Ignacio, Ruth Velasquez (holding her daughter, Anita), Andres Florez, Fortunato Velasquez, and Sra. Velasquez

UAC-CP agronomy graduate, Fortunato Velasquez, and his sister, Ruth, a UAC-CP elementary education thesis student, have lived in the small wood-framed home on their family’s land their whole lives. Their father, Don Ignacio, laid claim to the land when he arrived from the Altiplano in 1963. Though he’s now retired, he worked for many years harvesting cacao (chocolate) and platano (banana). He talked about how he worked the land with his bare hands and his machete.

Today, 79-year-old Don Ignacio, a man who never learned to read or write, is proud that his children have returned to their home village to work as professionals and provide services to the local people. He's also pleased, he said, to welcome two other UAC-CP agronomy graduates, Andres Florez and Jorge Gallardo, living with the family ("These two young men are like sons to me.")

Together, Fortunato, Ruth, Andres, and Jorge have started their own business dedicated to research, production, and education in the rural area: SIEMPRE – FORJA (Integrated Systems of Research and Education through Ecological Production –Fortunato, Jorge, Andres).

Andres Florez talks about the honey production project--one of several of the group's initiatives

“We think that research is fundamental in order to grow…and Bolivia needs more research around conservation and sustainable development,” Fortunato explained. “And we hope to be a bridge between the bigger markets [in La Paz] and the local communities with small projects. What we want to achieve is for them [local producers] to recognize us as a center for advice about biodiversity and ecological production.”

Their company focuses on organic production—specifically the ecological management of pests. They hope people living in the area will learn to grow things with a bit of social conscience in the zone—a conscious, they believe, that will grow out of the environmental education they intend to provide.

Since last March, Jorge and Andres have rented a small place in Palos Blancos. One room serves as both their shared bedroom/office/kitchen and the two additional rooms are used as make-shift laboratory space where they’re currently working on a product that will help cacao farmers.

The label used on SIEMPRE - FORJA's products

“Local cacao producers lose approximately 30-40 percent of their crop to chinchis (a pest). What we want to do is to provide farmers with a solution that effectively allows them to combat the chinchis. Additionally, we need to make sure that the price of the product we sell is affordable,” Jorge said. The product they’ve developed to fight the plague sells for 20 Bolivianos (approximately U.S. $3) per bag—a price, they said, that is fair and affordable to local growers. The product, in fact, has drawn the attention of CEIBO, a well-known brand of chocolate in Bolivia, with which they’re negotiating a potential partnership.

They’ve also made contacts through their fellow UAC-CP graduates. FUNDACOM (see August blog), for example, is interested in buying honey from SIEMPRE – FORJA. Andres admitted there is plenty of demand for their product—their main concern for now is obtaining the capital needed to begin.

Fortunato, Jorge, and Andres agreed that while they are currently working as intermediaries between local farmers and larger markets in La Paz, in the future they hope to have their own brand for a variety of organically grown products. “We want to have a product from within this zone that is known for its good quality. In this way, the producers will benefit so that we can buy from them…and pay them just wages,” Fortunato said.

Fortunato’s sister, Ruth, recently joined the group. “Someone may wonder what an elementary education major is doing working with agronomists,” Ruth said. “But it’s important that we teach people about biodiversity—about how to care for the earth.” Ruth believes her training in teaching methodologies from the UAC-CP will allow her to effectively teach young people who come to their research and production center about how they can change their behavior to improve their living conditions and the overall environment in which they live.

They also hope the research center will be an educational tool for UAC-CP students. Three or four UAC-CP thesis students plan to come and work with SIEMPRE – FORJA this fall—an opportunity that will benefit both parties. The group’s research center will provide a simple place for thesis students to stay and live and SIEMPE – FORJA will benefit from the results of students’ research work.

“One of the characteristics of the College [UAC-CP] regarding the formation of young people is to be sensitive to the environment; to take care of what we have and to think of the future generations,” Jorge explained. “It’s not just about making money….to take advantage of the land to earn money in big quantities to live relatively well. We need to conserve the land.” That, they agreed, is the core of what they hope to do—improve the quality of life for people through research, production, and education.

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