By Joe Lowe
A Report From Rural Bolivia
Central Bolivia consists
of a mass of rugged mountains, hills and valleys that separate the high, cold
altiplano in the west from the tropical, flat lowlands to the east. In the
upper end of one of these valleys lies the farming village of Tipa Tipa. Roughly
three blocks long the village is made up of two dirt roads lined with small
mud brick houses. It is home for slightly over sixty farmers and their families
with another forty families living above and below the village. The majority
of the inhabitants are descendents of the area's indigenous people. Though
most can speak Spanish, Quechua, the language of their Incan ancestors is
the primary language.
Life is slow in Tipa
Tipa. Livestock roam the lazy streets and when an occasional car or truck
passes through everyone will stop to watch. The locals, Tipa Tipeños,
are friendly and always use salutations whenever passing one another. For
most of the day the village is left deserted, but during the mornings and
evenings it's busy with people visiting one another and running errands.
Early one morning in
September, Miguel Villaroel, a young farmer living below Tipa Tipa, rode his
bike into the village to buy a pesticide for his tomatoes. Miguel parked his
bike and greeted the owner with a mix of Quechua and Spanish, "Don Juan!
Buen dia, walejillachu". He bought the pesticide on a credit-tab that
is slowly growing larger. If the tomato prices are good this year he will
be able to pays his debts and hopefully make a small profit.
Although born in Tipa
Tipa, Miguel grew up living in tropical Santa Cruz before returning home in
his teens. At 18 he joined the army to complete his one year of mandatory
service. There, in Cochabamba, he met his future wife. They spent two years
in the city but with a baby coming and poor job prospects they returned to
Tipa Tipa. Since then his fortune and that of his family has followed the
fluctuating price of tomatoes and onions. Short and wiry, he beams a contagious
smile. With an open mind and a passionate curiosity, Miguel is constantly
experimenting with new crops and methods to increase his production. Like
the majority of men here he dresses conservatively in slacks and dress shirts.
Miguel constantly carries a green bag full of coca leaves with him. Before
working, during a break or in any spare moment he chews the leaf, leaving
bits of it stuck in his teeth and green saliva on his lips. Chewing the coca
leaf is an Andean tradition that dates back centuries. It is a mild drug with
several medicinal uses. The most common use of coca in Tipa Tipa is to give
energy and keep it sustained during physical work.
Life for Miguel revolves
around his small farm plot as he spends his days bent over with his hoe or
pick making the most of the small amount of land and water he has. His wife,
Francesca, with her long black hair in braids, dresses traditionally in white
blouses and thick skirts. Following tradition, she does not perform field
work, but instead cooks over the fire in the house, tends livestock, manages
the children and hand washes all of the family's clothes. Both she and Miguel
wear thick leather sandals with soles made of tire rubber, called abarcas,
protecting their feet from ever present thorns. Their three children dress
in used t-shirts and shorts from the U.S., which, frayed and riddled with
holes, are on the point of disintegration. The children attend a small country
school in the morning and return in the afternoon to work in the fields, help
around the house or sometimes play soccer as the sun sets.
Nearly two hundred years
ago the Bolivia people, led by Simon Bolivar, gained their independence from
Spanish rule. However, until the year of the Agrarian Revolt in 1953, the
majority of the population, which is made up of indigenous people, lived as
virtual slaves on large Haciendas owned by wealthy Spanish and Creole Patrons.
One tenth of their livestock, a portion of every harvest and the labor of
women and men both were due annually to the Patron. Failure to meet these
requirements could be punished severely with beatings that sometimes resulted
in death. In addition, peasants had no right to education or freedom of _expression.
Nor did they have the right to move or relocate themselves. These injustices
eventually created the frustration and anger that would lead to a revolution.
The Agrarian Revolt of
1953 spread quickly across Bolivia, and within a few days the ruling Patrons
had lost their power and the land was returned to the farmers. However this
did not end the problems faced by peons in Bolivia or Tipa Tipa. Widespread
poverty continues today. Men and women struggle to support their families
with the tiny farmlands and water rights they have inherited. Farmlands continue
to diminish in size as, following hereditary tradition, they are divided between
the family's children. Some farmers try to support their family with as little
as an acre under production. After the Revolt farmers enjoyed lands adequately
large enough to support their family's. However, as Miguel knows, those times
are gone. He watched as his parent's land was divided eight times into tiny
pieces and has now decided to not to have anymore children in an effort to
slow this process.
The same was true with
his family's water allotment. Water that once supported the needs of his immediate
family now must support a continually growing community of relatives. Without
sufficient water a portion of the tomatoes he planted this year will dry and
wither under the blasting equatorial sun. With only a few hours of access
to water a week Miguel waits desperately for the rains to begin. As he waits,
Miguel is aware that few other farmers are consciously trying to avoid the
problems associated with large families and that situations like his continue
One morning, two months
ago, Miguel woke up with his right eye nearly shut. It looked as if he had
been in a fight. When asked, he brushed the swollen eye off as a rash. But
the swelling, it's timing, location and size showed all the characteristics
of a vinchuca bite. The vinchuca, a local insect, is a well known transmitter
of the Chagas disease. Chagas is incurable. It causes heart and intestinal
tissue decay and eventually leads to premature death. The vinchuca is active
primarily during the night and is most likely to bite people as they sleep.
For this reason the disease can be prevented easily by sleeping in mosquito
nets. However, nearly all people, including children and infants sleep unprotected
and in this region Chagas is known to be epidemic. Local people are reluctant
to have their blood tested for Chagas knowing that treatments, in addition
to their costs, cannot cure the disease. They are apt to blame obvious symptoms
of Chagas on other things. For example, a local farmer, Raul Vallejo, who
suffers from rapid heart palpitations that cause insomnia, attributes his
condition to the chemicals he sprays crops with. Undoubtedly, lack of protective
equipment is dangerous to his health, but this problem is sign of Chagas.
Being unaware of the connection between Chagas and it's symptoms has the tendency
to make locals apathetic toward the disease and the efforts to combat it.
Thus the epidemic continues and villagers such as those in Tipa Tipa continue
When Miguel has a free
afternoon he hikes into the hills behind Tipa Tipa to collect firewood. Looking
down from above, the village and the surrounding blocks of farmland all look
empty. In the hills he can sit, chew coca and dream about moving to the United
States for a few years to support his family. The prospects of leaving are
not good. The airfare is expensive and visas are extremely hard to obtain.
For now, Miguel has to continue farming in Tipa Tipa. With the economy slumping
and onion and tomato diseases mounting it looks like things may not improve
for some time to come.
Joe Lowe is working for
the Peace Corps in Bolivia.