I returned to La Paz to meet with the members of the Canadian Consulate. Sharon Armstrong and Gustavo Bracmonte were extremely helpful. The Consulate told me that Bolivia was an “area of interest” for Canada. There are only nine such areas in all for the world. This means that Canada is singling Bolivia out for special attention and assistance. This is because of the poverty, gender inequality, concerns over the environment and other social and economic factors in Bolivia. Armstrong informed me that there was even a program to assist business partnerships between Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Aboriginals in Bolivia. I would recommend doing business there if anyone is interested. The costs of setting up a business are far less than doing so in Canada. One person I had talked to spent $50,000 creating a bar and restaurant. It was a high-end business and highly successful. The initial money included all work, equipment, furniture and stock. A partner who is from the area though is essential. There are many programs that will assist you besides the Indigenous partnership Participation Program. There are programs that will help you create business plans and assist you in either importing or exporting goods. Bolivia is wide open and ready for business.
Another man who echoed this sentiment was Mateo Laura Canqui, the Prefect of La Paz province. A prefect is the equivalent of a premier in Canada. He was also one of the few Aboriginal politicians in Bolivia in a high position of power. Canqui rose through the ranks of grassroots movements helping farmers and natives. He was one of the few politicians that has campaigned vigorously against corruption. When first asked about corruption he said that there were departments within the Bolivian government I could talk to. I explained that in Rurrenabaque a former prefect had been pointed out to me. The man owned several businesses in the area and I had been told he obtained them by using diverted funds. “He was corrupt and this is his reward,” I was told. I wondered how Canqui was doing with all the bureaucrats that might have been a part of it. He said, “There is a problem but since we know it is there we can work to make it less.”
Canqui told me that he welcomed joint ventures with Canadians and Aboriginal people in particular. “Bolivia and La Paz are a place of opportunity. We wish to make it a place of opportunity for all,” said Canqui. He sees wisely managed foreign investment and joint ventures as necessary for the growth of the Bolivian economy.
Then it was off to another Native community. The road would turn from paved to dirt. I felt like I was back in Cree country and had a small moment of nostalgia. It turns out, though, that only 5 per cent of roads in Bolivia are paved so the dirt road is a normal thing. You have to be careful traveling by road. It has one of the highest rates of road accidents and deaths in South America. This includes tour buses. During the week I was there a bus had crashed and killed 17 people.
I would be traveling by four wheel drive, however. This trip would be to explore and learn about a mountain community where a Canadian organization, the Canadian Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (known by its French acronym CECI) were helping Natives from the community of Oruno to market weaved products made from Alpaca wool. CIDA was providing the funding while CECI provided the personal. Co-operation does happen… at least outside of Canada. The alpaca is a close relative of the llama and its wool is used for hats, scarves and sweaters.
You can see it is a hard land but beautiful in its own way. People living here earn about $400 a year. The infant mortality rate is high. Only 66 per cent live past their second birthday. The soil is hardy but supports mostly grasses. Over 200 varieties of potatoes are grown in the area. The people living in the area though are a tough resilient people, not unlike the Cree. They were curious about who the intruders were, when we came into the community, but as soon as we established our bonafides we were welcomed with open arms.
The Alpaca Project was started in 1994 with a budget of $2 million over a five-year period. It allowed the alpaca breeders to form a co-op and develop markets. Before the co-op the wool buyers would treat the breeders like dirt but the co-op voice brought results and respect. Market prices weren’t at the buyer’s whim anymore. The breeders had more power when they negotiated and this allowed them to create a standard for alpaca and llama wool. A few looms were brought and they began to make clothing. What they didn’t sell they could wear. The project was a success by anyone’s standards.
But Dianne Vachon of CECI says more is needed. They have approached CIDA for $5.2 million for another five-year project. This one will include the participation of five provinces. CECI says this will develop the whole sector in lama and alpaca production and will ultimately allow the breeders a say in local economic development. The breeders will have economic and political power and this will contribute to a decentralization of power.
But besides combating poverty Bolivia has other problems. Its reputation as a cocaine-producing country in the early 1990s hurt relations with the US. Many Bolivians blame the US for a record 20% unemployment rate in 1999. Many see Bolivia’s main problem as the partition between businessmen with all the modern amenities and the other half who are basically subsistence-level peasants. Perhaps this is what sparked the riots in October over a pipeline that would carry natural gas northwards. The political and social situation in Bolivia exploded with deaths and a change in government. Carlso Mesa would take the reins of power. Tensions are still high and the situation is still far from being resolved. Anti-Western attitudes are high. A Canadian non-governmental organization’s office in Caranavi was destroyed by an unknown militant force. Fortunately the office was vacant at the time. A lot of problems are happening in Chapare, an area about half the size of Nova Scotia. It is in this area that the coca growers are resisting the Bolivian government’s attempt to stop coca production. Though in the past there were few casualties, at least nine soldiers have been killed and 91 wounded making this an area to stay clear of for tourists. Since the soldiers are US-trained there is plenty of anti-Western sentiment in that area.
Throughout this all Bolivia remains a country of focus or concentration for Canada. That status means that interested parties will be able to access Consulate help and CIDA programs and expertise in setting up businesses there.
I learnt that the new prefect of the La Paz province was Nicolas Quenta
Ticona. I wish Mateo Laura Canqui, the past Prefect, all the best in his new endeavors. I also wish to thank the Canadian Consulate and staff in Bolivia for all their assistance. They went out of the way to help me understand the politics and situation in Bolivia. I can hardly wait to return.
a) carry a Canadian passport for all visits outside Canada;
b) keep a photocopy of your passport’s identification page with you;
c) carry passports, tickets, and money separately;
d) keep valuables and passports safe and carry only enough money for anticipated expenses;
e) leave a copy of your itinerary and proof of citizenship with family and/or friends;
f) carry legally certified documentation signed by both parents permitting a child under 18 to travel alone or with an adult (i.e. a relative or teacher), or carry legally certified documentation from the absent parent if only one parent escorts the child, in addition to a copy of any separation or divorce decree or death certificate; and
g) not visit unknown or isolated areas without first obtaining information or assistance.