Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Environmentalism in Bolivia close to home

The first time I tried to explain what I study to a new friend in Bolivia, he laughed in my face.

“An environmental studies major would die of hunger here,” he snorted.

It’s true; the field of study that is becoming one of the most popular in the United States is virtually nonexistent in Bolivia. This, the poorest country in South America, is aching to develop its economic potential and move towards modernization. Its cities are full of medical students, engineers, teachers and economics students. The rural areas are pure agriculture. Environmentalism seems to be a foreign concept here.

Over the last two months I have spent a lot of time perched on rocks next to rocky potato and oca bean fields in the most undeveloped areas of Bolivia, talking with the residents of tiny agricultural mountain communities that lie a few bumpy hours drive outside of Cochabamba. Reserved rural Bolivians open up to me as a representative of Mano a Mano, the organization which helps them construct roads, health clinics, water reservoirs and schools. I have had the privilege of hearing the voices of people far removed from my life in Walla Walla.

Sitting in one small mud home lit by dusty light filtering through a hole in the wall, I am finishing up an interview with Don Cecilio, a 42-year-old farmer with a leathery brown face and a cheekful of coca leaves. He has welcomed us into his home for the night; his three-year-old grandson bounces on the little straw mattress behind us, babbling in quechua.

My only question for you, says Don Cecilio as I pack up my recorder, is why do you come all this way just to do these interviews? What benefit could you bring from here to your country?

This has been a common question in my interviews, and one that has made me realize how much there is to learn from my modest professors in the campo. Most families here in rural Bolivia have small rocky patches of crops, over which they labor in a constant effort to grow their own livelihood. Their houses are made of the same mud and grasses found around them. Most people never finished middle school. These people are no scientists, but many have noticed marked changes in the patterns of rainfall and temperature over the course of the last ten years. They notice how rain falls at the top of the mountain and runs over the other side to the jungle, leaving their own land barren and dry much of the year. They use the resources available to them to channel the little water they can access into irrigation ditches to distribute it amongst them. They know how to save seeds year to year. They are conservationists in the most literal sense. This community blends with the mountains; it lives and dies with the land; it is made of the land.

Where I come from, many people consider an environmental consciousness a luxury. We are so far removed from our environment that it is necessary to make it into a study-able “ism” in order to intentionally connect ourselves back to it. Heck, now a person can even dedicate their college years, and countless years after, to studying it.

Sitting here with Don Cecilio in his dusty home, I realize that he has an essential understanding mostly lost in the flurry of development. It is the understanding that environmental studies majors like me, living in that now-developed place, are trying to get back. Environmentalism here is not a foreign concept at all, and the environment is not a thing to study; it is the most basic local concept, and simply the way to live.

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