Posts filed under ‘Bolivia’
Any Kiva Fellow will tell you that visiting Kiva borrowers is one of the most satisfying parts of our experience. This is our moment to go beyond the borrower photographs and short biographies on the Kiva website. We greet borrowers by shaking hands and kissing cheeks, we sit in their homes, we walk through their fields, we touch the garments they sew and taste the baked goods from their ovens, we learn the names of their cows, and we try to make their children smile.
These are moments when we transcend the digital world and our Kiva connections become human.
Señor René, Vegetable Farmer, Cochabamba (CIDRE)
Señor René lives in a high-altitude farming community a couple of hours from Cochabamba. His several small parcels of land are perched on the slopes of the Bolivian Andes that reach eastwards. The views of the surrounding peaks, the nearby farms and the valley below are simply magnificent.
He lives in a one-room adobe home with his wife and four children. The Kiva loan helped pay his one-time share in the community irrigation system which allows him to double his agriculture production since he can now grow crops after the rainy season.
René and his family received me and my CIDRE colleagues with extreme generosity. We were served a tasty and healthy almuerzo (the sustaining midday meal) of home-made cheese and hot salsa, fresh steamed broad beans and boiled potatoes that were harvested from their garden that morning.
During the meal we talked about his farming. He is genuinely grateful for the Kiva-funded loan and the low interest rate — this goes a long way in helping support his young family.
As we were leaving he surprised us with a fat bag of fresh-picked beans. It was a large gesture that the CIDRE loan officers especially appreciated. He thanked me personally for coming all the way from the United States to spend time with him.
Pointing over the distant mountain peaks, René asked me to pass along his greetings and thanks to everyone at “home.” I smiled, looking over those mountains knowing that everywhere is home to the Kiva family.
Señora Yelica, Baker, Santa Cruz (Emprender)
The heat of eastern Bolivia can be intense. As soon I reached the shade of Señora Yélica’s backyard she handed me a cold glass of Coca Colla, Bolivia’s coca-leaf enhanced “real thing” soft drink.
Her property on the outskirts of Santa Cruz is filled with flowering fruit trees: orange, mango, papaya, avocado, pomegranate and fig. This is tropical Bolivia and she takes full advantage of the sun, warmth and rich soil to supplement her family’s diet with fresh fruit right from her backyard.
Rising early seven days a week, Yélica bakes dozens of pan de arroz (a bread of yucca meal, rice flour and cheese encased in banana leaves) and cheese empanadas. She sells these to neighbors but with her Kiva-funded larger oven she can now sell in the markets for more income.
She offered me samples of all her baked goods, covered with cotton towels to keep them warm. She introduced me to her smiling grandmother who listened intently to our discussion and enjoyed watching this visiting foreigner trying his best to keep the sweat from rolling down his brow. We laughed about her lazy pets, a sleeping puppy in the shade beneath a wheelbarrow and a curled-up kitten.
It was a sublimely pleasant visit. Graciously welcomed by outgoing hosts amid a lush paradise, my thoughts lingered on the joys of being a Kiva Fellow at times like this.
Señor Gustavo, Magician, La Paz (CIDRE)
As soon as I stepped into Señor Gustavo’s home workshop, I knew this would be like no other borrower visit. I was surrounded by stacks of boxes, cardboard, playing cards, coins, yarn and CD’s – there were enough Kiva-funded materials to assemble 1,000 Maletines de Magia, the magic kits he sells at fairs throughout Bolivia.
He welcomed me with a huge smile and immediately the show began. He jumped right into performing tricks, explaining the design and manufacturing process, and how he sells these at fairs. Gustavo is a seriously committed to his business. A fan of magic as a child, he has now made it his livelihood. He designs his magic kits to be especially didactic for children, helping them develop cognitive abilities, such as basic math, counting, probability logic and pattern recognition.
As I sat back in my seat, I was amused and awestruck by his magic… and equally impressed at how simple the tricks are once he explained them.
After half an hour of the “Don Gustavo Show” I had to get down to business and verify some key details of his loan. He answered my questions but his mind was clearly on his next Kiva-funded loan as he quickly dove into an enthusiastic pitch of his next “Magic Kit” project.
The CIDRE loan officer wryly explained that he’d still need to stop by the office to fill out the paperwork. He grinned broadly as she told him that Kiva funds can’t simply be pulled from a hat.
Some truly magic moments with Kiva borrowers!
Peter Soley is a Kiva Fellow (Class 19) serving in Bolivia (La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz) with CIDRE and Emprender. Become a member of their lending teams (CIDRE, Emprender), lend to one of their borrowers today (CIDRE, Emprender), or apply to be a Fellow!
“Do you know the real San Severino?” asked the inebriated man next to me on the bus back to Cochabamba. “The real San Severino!”
I wasn’t too sure exactly what he meant; the real San Severino died over 1500 years ago. “Well, um, I know he was a saint, from Europe I think, who brings the rains…” I stumbled but tried my best to answer him.
“Bah! No one knows the real San Severino!” he blustered.
After a moment the question came again: “Do you know the real San Severino?” I knew this was going to be a circular conversation making the hour-long ride seem even longer. So I countered and turned the question on him.
“Ahh… ¡si pues!” He raised his right hand emphatically: “San Severino… he was… um… a Christian and a patriot… from the early republic, who… uh…” After an uneasy pause he dropped his hand in exasperation.
Snickering behind us, I spotted a couple of grinning chola woman looking at us. They were swearing those lovely shiny dresses and colorful bonnets typical of the indigenous women here. I smiled at them and asked if they knew who the real San Severino was.
They just shook their heads and laughed.
Apparently, even the faithful who come to celebrate the festival of San Severino don’t know who the real saint was. I admit there are a lot of Catholic saints to remember, numbering well over 10,000. But at the end of the day, when the processions, fireworks, drinking and dancing were over, here in Bolivia it really doesn’t really matter who the real San Severino was.
What matters is the celebration in the streets. A celebration for the change of seasons and a time to welcome the hot sun and the saturating rains. It is a time to revel with family and friends (and strangers, like myself) with good food and dance. It is a time to rejoice that the rains will bring growth and abundance to everyone.
Old Traditions Die Hard: Lliupacha Yuyaychay (The Andean Cosmovision) + Christianity
For thousands of years festivals in Bolivia have celebrated the unity of the physical and spiritual worlds through pagan rituals and dances, centering on the Pachamama, the supreme and life-giving Mother Earth goddess. Natural cycles, especially seasonal change, have long meant party time in the Andes.
The conquering Spanish were intolerant of the local religious traditions and tried hard to erase paganism. But Christian beliefs never fully replaced the existing practices, as is evidenced in the syncretism of such powerful religious icons as the Pachamama and the Virgin Mary. Today most Bolivians practice a combination of both Catholic and pre-Hispanic rituals.
San Severino, Patrono de Tarata
Enter San Severino, an Italian saint who died over a thousand years before the Americas were known to modern Europe. Some of his remains were allegedly brought to Tarata with the Franciscan missionaries who established a church here during their evangelical march eastward.
It is said that during the first procession on the saint’s feast day (actually in early January), it rained so hard that the locals were convinced that San Severino was responsible. This milagro (miracle) secured his fame here as the Patron Saint of the Rains.
Because San Severino was such a hit with the locals, the Franciscans conveniently changed his feast to coincide with the traditional rainy season welcoming rituals already in place. And tah-dah: the San Severino festival was born. Or born again.
Today thousands flock to Tarata to worship the saint who will bring the all-important downpours needed to replenish wells, dampen fledgling crops and quench the thirst of livestock. Farmers carry pitchers of water blessed in Tarata to sprinkle in their fields, venerating both San Severino and the Pachamama.
Tarata: Small Town with a Big Reputation
Tarata today is a one-horse town with fewer than 3000 inhabitants but it boasts favorite-son Bolivian Independence hero Esteban Arze and three former Presidents of Bolivia. The most infamous being Mariano Melgarejo, a brutal autocrat who is remembered for giving a large chunk of Bolivia to Brazil in exchange for a white horse (he allegedly traced the horse’s hoof on a map of Bolivia to designate the parcel).
Normally a quiet town, the cobblestone streets come alive as the faithful and fun-seekers arrive en masse for San Severino. Events kick off the last Saturday in November with the entrada (inaugural procession) and an evening of fireworks, drinking, dance and general revelry.
Dancing In the Streets: San Severino Sunday
The following day a solemn mass is celebrated at the church and the San Severino statue is carried through the streets. This ends the Catholic part of the celebration. The rest of the day is spent drinking, dancing and watching the energetic fraternidades (fellowships of marchers) parade through the streets in flashy costumes, dancing, and singing mostly in Quechua (the language introduced by the Incas).
Chorizo y Chicha: Full Flavors in the Streets
And of course no Latin American festival would be complete without a vast assortment of street vendors. Hand-cranked ice cream, fresh fruit, fried potatoes, sweet gelatine, good luck charms, handicrafts, ceramic jugs to carry holy water and chicha, games and children’s rides… something for everyone.
Most conspicuous were the meaty morsels in large cooking vessels that lined the main streets. Tarata is known for its chorizo sausage and there was plenty of supply for San Severino’s feast.
Of course there was chicha, the beloved corn beer that is ever-present in the Cochabamba region. Cooked above huge adobe fireplaces and fermented in oversize terracotta jugs, chicha is served up in buckets and consumed liberally from dried-gourd saucers.
Chicherías are everywhere in Tarata, just look for the little white or red flags hanging outside homes. And one mustn’t forget to spill a little on the ground in honor of Pachamama when it’s your turn to drink!
Finding Friends and More Fun
I find most Bolivians to be warm and especially courteous but today they were overflowing with affability. I enjoyed the many smiles in the streets and I made new friends over shared buckets of chicha while watching the processions pass.
I was happy to run into Mario, a CIDRE colleague of mine. He introduced me to his family and friends and fed me peanuts fresh from his farm. We spent a good time chatting and joking and enjoying the festival.
By late afternoon the processions had ended, the grilled meat stands disappeared and the chicherías slowly became quieter.
And I noticed that the sky was turning a bit darker… it seemed in every way the San Severino festival was a success!
Peter Soley is a Kiva Fellow (Class 19) serving in Bolivia (La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz) with CIDRE. Become a member of CIDRE’s lending team, lend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow!
Agriculture has long been the anchor for the people of land-locked Bolivia. As a testament to the region’s horticultural richness, the number of foods originating here is impressive: potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, pineapple, kidney beans, manioc, quinoa… foods we all know and should love.
And nowhere else in Bolivia is farming as vital as in the Central Valleys near Cochabamba, an area blessed with ideal climate and naturally rich soils. This is where I have been working with CIDRE, one of Kiva’s partners, and I am learning much from Kiva borrowers (quite literally) in the field.
The Incas colonized Cochabamba to help feed its growing empire. Then the Spanish arrived, introduced dairy farming and exploited the Quechua locals with the hacienda system. The conquistadores’ pressing concern was to provision the Potosí silver mines which provided much of the wealth to world-power Spain.
Today much of the land has been redistributed more equitably and farming continues to fuel the Cochabambino economy.
But there are powerful challenges:
Land: Low Supply, Rising Prices and Deteriorating Quality
While the 1952 Revolution in Bolivia went a long way in granting farmers their own plots, the last decade has seen land prices increase dramatically due to urbanization, limited turnover since family plots rarely change hands, and increased demand from migrants seeking better opportunities in the Cochabamba area.
Rising prices have encouraged some farmers to sell, usually to larger landholders and cash-flush immigrant Bolivians returning from abroad. This all adds up to great demand for land but low supply for most Bolivians.
Soil degradation is another major problem. Years of deforestation, excess grazing and rapid urbanization cause heavy erosion that washes away valuable nutrients needed to strengthen the soil. Decreased land productivity requires more chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds, resulting in higher costs to farmers and arguably less healthy food for consumers. It puts at risk the lives of countless rural Bolivians who depend on the land for their survival.
Advances in past decades have greatly expanded farmers’ access to water for irrigation. Kiva’s partner CIDRE did some pioneering work in the 1980’s to introduce wells and canals to under-served rural areas. Most farms now yield three crops per year, an increase from 1-2 previously.
But adequate supply of clean water is still a concern: expanding (and thirsty) urban centers, shrinking glacier-fed sources, and a sharp increase in contamination are limiting factors. Cochabamba’s Water War of 2000 made international headlines when massive popular protests halted the privatization of the public water works.
Without water there is no growth. Sadly, the water problems facing Bolivian farmers have few real solutions today.
Climate Cycles and Change
Weather in Bolivia has long been extreme: a long dry season (usually culminating in drought) and a saturating rainy season. Many parts of Cochabamba’s valleys flood during the months of December to March which dramatically reduces available pasture. Moving cattle to higher elevations, pasture rental and additional fodder all increase the costs to farmers during this period when dairy production (and income) is low.
Global factors compound these normal patterns. Bolivia’s glaciers are disappearing. Unprecedented shifts in weather, such as more frequent hailstorms, can wipe an entire crop in minutes. Severe thunderstorms obliterate fields and collapse stables. Gradual warming in the higher altitudes, while allowing for a more diverse crop portfolio, has introduced new pests and other problems that leave local farmers unprepared.
You don’t have to listen to scientists if you don’t want to. Just ask the farmers: climate change in Bolivia is real.
New Demands for Dairy Producers
As consumer demand for dairy products has grown, so too have the burdens on Bolivian farmers. Few alternative outlets exist so most dairy farmers must sell crude milk at increasingly lower prices to large-scale industrial producers, such as the behemoth Pil Andina. While industrial producers have introduced new quality controls which lead to healthier and safer dairy products, farmers must pay for more expensive production methods which squeeze profits.
Only farmers who can achieve greater economies of scale are doing well. Smaller farmers face extinction. As a consequence of newer technology (fortified feed, milking machines, and storage tanks) there are fewer manual day-wage jobs which hits landless Bolivians especially hard.
Bolivia faces tremendous hurdles in getting its agricultural products to markets abroad. Stiff competition with far-more-industrialized Argentina, Brazil and Chile (who also control access to ports) puts Bolivia at a distinct disadvantage with regional partners.
Moreover, the recently-expired Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) which favored Bolivia with duty-free status, no longer covers nearly 30% of Bolivian exports to the United States. Several people told me this as yet another uncertainty facing Bolivian farmers today.
Finally, agricultural production is far below optimal levels. Many farmers still till their fields with wooden plows dating from the colonial period. And massive emigration in recent years of able-bodied Bolivians has left many fields fallow. Bolivia doesn’t normally produce a surplus but when it does the transportation costs to ship the goods abroad neutralize its competitive advantage in price.
Despite all this, what seems to work for farmers in the region?
Many take out small loans, frequently with the help of Kiva, to help manage the agricultural ups and downs. They invest in feed futures to avoid spiking prices during drought. They use the extra capital to build stables, drainage ditches and sustaining walls to protect their farms from the rains.
Some supplement their income with non-farm work, such as construction or transportation. Others cultivate niche products, such as preserves, honey or quesillo cheese to sell at local markets.
Others turn to the community and leverage the collective power of farmers. They join farmer cooperatives to purchase storage tanks to aggregate products for higher prices or pay for shares in community-owned reservoirs and irrigation canals.
Farmers are an enterprising bunch and manage to find ways to move forward.
So, what does the future look like for farmers here?
Despite continuing urbanization and many young Bolivians finding work in the cities, there is a farming future here. The national government has few resources to carry the agricultural sector to a profitable and sustainable future, but many NGO’s are working hard to help bridge the gap.
Of course, Kiva’s field partners in Bolivia have a strong history of helping farmers grow their businesses and succeed in spite of the environmental and economic challenges. They continue to offer innovative funding options to clients with the help of Kiva loans.
One of the first dairy production projects in Bolivia, the Simón I. Patiño Foundation on the outskirts of Cochabamba offers state-of-the-art research on non-GMO plants, a seed center, and model dairy farm. It eminently influences farmers in the area.
Other organizations are working with farmers to develop soil stability and crop diversification programs, such as planting barrier and cover crops (i.e. supporting grasses and legume “green manures”) to increase soil fertility without chemicals.
Many other groups, such as the Foundation for Sustainable Development, are expanding the capabilities of nonprofit organizations to implement other sustainable solutions that include and empower local communities.
The future of farming in Bolivia may not seem entirely bright. But with steady progress in recent years on increasing environmental awareness in the general public and implementing lasting changes in the agricultural sector, the future promises to be green!
Luckily I’m here in Bolivia for one of the most important celebrations of the year so I jumped at the chance to witness the Todos Santos holiday up close and personal. My previous knowledge was limited to piecemeal notions imported from Mexico, but here in Bolivia this special celebration takes on its own particular traditions dating back centuries and is deeply rooted in Andean cosmology.
Life and Death: A Revolving Door
Long before the Spanish arrived, the Andean people viewed life and death as a continuum. Each spring these two worlds converge — the dead return from the underworld (ukhupacha) to momentarily enjoy the pleasures of life and to deliver happiness and abundance to loved ones in the living world (kaypacha).
This intersection of life and death is the Day of the Dead; its celebration coincides with the Catholic All Saints’ Day holiday in Bolivia.
Todos Santos ceremonializes the never-ending succession of arrival and departure, of renewal and disintegration, of the changing cycles in the natural world around us. It accompanies the coming wet season, known in Quechua as Aya Markay Killa, when the rains return after the annual period of drought to nourish the dormant crops and begin a new season of growth.
In Andean society, Todos Santos is a celebration of reciprocity. Knowing the returning dead will be famished and very thirsty after a year in the dry earth, family members prepare the mast’aku, an offering of favorite foods and beverages to be shared during the festivities. This feast nourishes the bones of the deceased, who in turn bring rains that will ensure abundant crops and livelihood for loved ones.
Receiving the Dead: A Feast for All
Todos Santos begins on November 1st with almuerzo, the filling midday meal, when the dead are welcomed home. The family meal is celebrated in style with rich flavors, prayer, amusing recollections and tales, music and togetherness.
The celebration turns public on November 2nd when farewell festivities move to the burial grounds. Streets leading to the cemetery host a lively fair.
Flower vendors, milliners, clowns, artists cram the sidewalks. Food stalls offer ice cream, orange juice, grilled snacks and colorful candies to celebrants en route to the burial grounds.
Flowers and Food
As families gather in the cemetery, the first order of business is to spruce up the grave sites. Vases are washed while trash bins overflow with faded flowers and the stems of their replacement bouquets.
Next, another mast’aku (offertory table) is arranged with sentimental items such as a photographs, flowers, toys and personal mementos. The main contribution is food: dried fruit, pineapples, oranges, sodas and chicha (fermented corn beer) – an appetizing tribute to the dead.
Plentiful masitas (baked goods) adorn every mast’aku: sweet breads in the shape of ladders (representing the Catholic tradition of ascending to Heaven), animals (such as llamas, snakes and birds) and doll-like t’antawawas (literally “bread children”) which date back to Incan times.
Earlier in the week the markets of Cochabamba were brimming with vendors selling these masitas. I watched buyers busily fill their shopping bags in preparation for the Todos Santos festivities.
I found the heaping stacks of baked goods a marvel, more interesting than the synthetic aisles of manufactured Halloween candies found back home. I now understand why Señora Celestina (A Kiva borrower in La Paz) has been so busy with her baking business!
Supplication and Song
Reverence imbues the entire cemetery despite the outward and celebratory nature of Todos Santos. Everywhere families join in prayer as children’s voices are heard around every corner: “…pray for us now and in the time of our death…”
Santa María, Madre de Dios,
ruega por nosotros pecadores,
ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.
Partnered with prayer, of course, is music: guitar players and groups of roving mariachi bands play Andean folk tunes, trumpeters blow a mournful rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, and children with pan flutes sing rueful melodies before bowed families.
Bidding Farewell to the Dead
All these ceremonial elements are crucial to the Todos Santos parting ritual that takes place on November 2nd. The abundant food, music and prayer energize the spirits as they return once again to the underworld. Nourished and adored by loved ones, the dead bid farewell to their families and leave the world of the living, ending the precious reunion.
In another year, a new cycle of growth and abundance will again join the two worlds of kaypacha and ukhupacha. Todos Santos will be celebrated once more with all the beauty and vitality that Bolivia inspires.
By Peter Soley | KF19 | Bolivia
By Peter Soley | KF19 | Bolivia
As a newly deployed Kiva Fellow, join me as I introduce you to La Paz and the Kiva Borrower Verification process that I am performing for two of Kiva’s partners in Bolivia. Come along as I visit Kiva borrower borrower Celestina who bakes holiday cookies high in the hills above downtown La Paz.