Tuesday, July 21, 2009

la asunta: parte uno

Two weeks ago, I journeyed to La Asunta--a mid-sized pueblo, remotely tucked away in the South Yungas that is best known (even featured in last Sunday's newspaper) for growing coca. Coca is the traditional Andean plant that is a central part of indigenous culture and custom. It's also the same plant that sits at the forefront of international debate because it is the base ingredient for cocaine.  

Streets in La Asunta are literally draped during the day with coca sitting out in nets to be dried in the sun. The drying process is the final step before coca is bagged and taken to market in La Paz.

It seems that people from all over Bolivia (particularly the East), have come to La Asunta in search of a better life. This means they have come to claim their stake to land and cultivate coca--one of the most lucrative ways for people to etch out a living in the rural Yungas.  The people I talked with explained that, really, they come to La Asunta out of necessity. "If I didn't grow coca," one farmer told me, "I don't know how I would be able to provide daily bread to my family."

Coca. It can be a pretty sensitive topic...especially when it comes to the word "erradicacion." Eradicating coca, people feel, is a direct threat to their livelihood. "I would be very happy to do something else for a living," Don Eliodoro, the father of UAC-CP student Alvero Alejo told me when I visited their home in La Asunta. "I know that in years from now, my land is going to be ruined from the coca.  But what other option do I have? I'd really like to have a chicken farm, but that takes an investment and I don't have money to do that." He looked at his son, a first-year Agronomy student, and said he has hope his college degree will open up new doors for the family once he graduates.

Porfirio Apata meets with an area farmer to talk with him about the potential of developing a business plan for coffee.

As part of an effort to provide a viable economic alternative to coca in a region where it's still legally grown, yet (supposedly) "controlled," USAID programs ARCo and ACDI/VOCA have set up offices in La Asunta and are working with farmers in the countryside. ARCo, in particular, works to help farmers develop lucrative business plans and find markets to sell sustainable products...other than coca.  Several of our UAC-CP students work, both as full-time employees and as interns, with these two separate USAID programs to help organize farmers and provide technical farming and production assistance. 

In La Asunta, I met with UAC-CP students Janneth Mamani and Sixto Quispe who are doing 5-month internships with ARCo and Porfirio Apata, who was recently hired full-time by the project. They are working as rural technicians, offering agriculture expertise and advice to farmers who want to organize themselves into associations and grow crops (i.e. pineapple, bananas, stevia, coffee, honey, fish, etc.,) to sell. Janneth specifically works with stevia (a sugar substitute), Sixto works with plantains and pineapple, and Poririo works with coffee. 

Sixto Quispe, a UAC-CP thesis student, has a paid internship with ARCo in La Asunta.

I tagged along with Sixto and Porfirio one afternoon. We drove two hours outside of La Asunta to the community of 10 de Febrero where, taking advantage of the weekly feria (market day) when all people from the surrounding villages come to town to buy and exchange goods, they set up a table to register people interested in developing business plans.

Sixto explained that after an initial study in which they asked farmers what they would like to grow and studying potential markets to determine whether or not the viability of growing, producing, and selling those products was feasible, they are now helping farmers execute their business plans. "Essentially, we support groups of people to start businesses," Janneth explained. "We [ARCo] don't fund everything though; we expect farmers to contribute something--whether its land or physical labor. By asking them to contribute to the project, they are investing themselves and there is a greater chance of success."

This may just look like a black square, but in this picture are about 20 farmers piled into the back of a pickup truck. On this night, I was out visiting rural communities with Porfirio Apata and Sixto Quispe until 9:30 pm.

They all laughed when I asked what hours they work. In the campo, they said, there are no "hours." "We often leave around 6 or 7 in the morning and get home at about 9 or 10 pm at night," Sixto explained. This proved to be true as our driver navigated us around the rural mountain roads in the dark.  With no street signs or maps, I marveled at how they knew their way around the back roads.  Lots of time spent on the road, they admitted, has made them experts on the area. This was obvious as I listened to them talk about particular people or communities as if they had known them for years.

It was also obvious that the three love their work. "It feels good!" Porfirio shined. "Helping people with my knowledge, sharing my experience of extension work and supporting and motivating farmers. That's my job," he simply summarized. "You know, Sarita," he said into my little, red recording device, "My job is also just sharing with people, treating them as an equal..." and for that reason, Porfirio explained, "they don't see me as a professional, they consider me as their friend."

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