CAFOD has worked in Bolivia for over twenty years. The current programme supports ten partners working mainly in the departments of Potosi, La Paz, Cochabamba and Chuquisaca. They empower indigenous communities, social organisations and local authorities to achieve an integral and transparent management of natural resources and to enable genuine participation of the poorest and most disadvantaged men and women in the decision making processes and structures which affect their lives. Since February 2008 CAFOD has had a permanent staff presence in Bolivia with a programme officer based in the capital city of La Paz. CAFOD shares office premises with Trocaire and Christian Aid. This strategic alliance is strengthened by the fact that four of CAFOD’s partners are co-funded by these sister agencies. CAFOD’s current programme is run by Jennifer Hadley, the editor’s daughter.Just getting to Bolivia is a marathon journey of around 24 hours door to door. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. You step off the plane at five in the morning at an altitude of over 4000 metres. With the combined heady effects of lack of oxygen and lack of sleep you are far from feeling ready to absorb the unfamiliar cultural experience of Latin America. It was comforting to find a familiar face at the arrivals gate; our daughter guided us smoothly to her apartment in the city and tucked us up in a warm bed with a cup of coca tea (a good high altitude antidote)!
The city itself is in an awesome setting: as you drive away from the highest airport in the world towards downtown La Paz, the first sight of the urban sprawl in a canyon descending the mountainside nearly 1000 metres with the backcloth of the 6,500 metre triple-peaked, snow-capped Illimani leaves you breathless-literally! In fact the inhabitants in the lower, richer suburbs enjoy an entirely different climate to those in the poorer higher parts, with more oxygen to breathe and altogether balmier temperatures.
Bolivia has had a turbulent political history since gaining its independence from the Spanish in 1825, with no fewer than 188 coups d‟état earning the country a place in the Guinness Book of Records!
In 2006 Evo Morales made history by being elected the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Advocacy and information work is therefore an important element in CAFOD‟s programme as the Bolivian Government seeks to redress the balance of power in favour of the poor majority. CEPAS-Caritas is the official development and relief organisation of the Roman Catholic Church in Bolivia. One example of CAFOD‟s work is to support a training programme for rural community leaders to enable communities to take advantage of the government land reform programme. This is done by means of workshops with the indigenous people.
Bolivians believe in exercising their democratic voice in a similar manner to Europeans, as I am reminded by the demonstrations going on outside St. Paul‟s Cathedral as I write this article. The political issue being played out inside Bolivia while we were there was a march by indigenous people against plans for a new highway to be built through a homeland protected by the constitution. The march had started out in mid-August and had been following a 500 km route reaching La Paz around mid-October where there would be mass demonstrations and representations to the president.
Before the march arrived, we had already tasted another form of Bolivian protest, the roadblock.This happened while we had been travelling back to the capital from Lake Titicaca. Our bus had come unexpectedly upon about 100 people from a local village occupying the middle of the road. They were in dispute with the mayor about a wrongful arrest. We were among several busloads of tourists held up for about 5 hours and it was only after lengthy negotiations that we were allowed to proceed. The whole episode was conducted in a most dignified and respectful way.
We had been rather looking forward to witnessing the arrival of the march in La Paz but we were due to get on our plane one day before its predicted arrival. As luck would have it, our plane was cancelled and the extra day in La Paz gave us a unique opportunity to witness Bolivian democracy at work. Since arriving home we have heard that the march was successful and the president has signed off a law stopping any road going through the indigenous protected homeland.
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