The Upside Down World News

"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" - Eduardo Galeano

Tipa Tipa

By Joe Lowe
A Report From Rural Bolivia
11/11/03

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 to multiply.

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 to suffer.

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.