Archive for the ‘Bolivia’ Category

Military March & Indigenous Parade

Each year, the Bolivian military holds a parade in a different department (a department is like a state) of the country. This year, the parade took place in the Department of Santa Cruz on August 7.  For the first time in Bolivian history, indigenous people, dressed in traditional attire, marched in the parade alongside of the uniformed military personnel.  In the past, the military has been used as a tool to convert and assimilate indigenous people into the nation state through mandatory conscription.  This year´s parade was a show of peace and solidarity among the many indigenous groups as well as between the military and the majority indigenous population.  Additionally, this year marked the beginning of mandatory military conscription for women and it was the first military parade in which women participated. 

As the many indigenous groups marched together, showing off their distinct cultures, costumes, music, etc., the Morales administration attempted to move the country beyond regionalist thinking and toward a more unified, pluri-ethnic nation.  And holding this event in Santa Cruz this year was symbolic, and sent a clear message in opposition to the autonomy movement.  This event is just one more indication of the broader political economic shifts that are taking place in Bolivia at the present moment.

The business community of Santa Cruz felt like the central government was trying to intimidate them, and noted in the national papers that the indigenous organizations were actually armed militias.  They spread rumors that the parade and consequent “Andean invasion” would bring violence to the city (although the event was entirely peaceful).

We attended this historic event and we will post photos to our flickr account when we are able to do so.  (We´ve been trying to write a post about this for nearly 2 weeks!  Better late than never!)

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a brief update from La Paz

We´ve been laying low for the past day (a needed break), but we wanted to send a brief update about our work in La Paz (that is, the things we´ve done aside from meeting the president).

Since we started filming two weeks ago, we have been in close collaboration with several MST organizers and members.  One in particular, Eulogio, has been a critical part of our film and it is high time that we give him a nod.  Eulogio has been a part of the MST movement in Bolivia since it´s birth in 2000, and he has land (although still untitled) in one of the MST settlements, Tierra Prometida (which we have not visited during our filming).  He is a regional organizer and active member, and he has accompanied us on nearly every trip we´ve taken.  It is thanks to him that we were able to meet Evo Morales.  Additionally, he is one of the main ¨heroes¨ of our film.  He comes from a lowland indigenous background, and his parents were both slaves on a hacienda in the Department of Santa Cruz.  His father fought in the Agrarian Revolution in 1952, and Eulogio has carried on his father´s vision for more just land and labor policies.  He currently lives in a marginal barrio on the outskirts of Santa Cruz and has a long bus ride to the city center, where he has held numerous odd jobs trying to make ends meet.  Eulogio has been a good friend, a visionary for the movement, and our direct entree into the worlds of MST.

With Eulogio´s aid, we have interviewed numerous people in the land reform offices.  The first person we spoke with was Bienvenido Zacu, the General Director of Communal Land and the Vice Minister of Land for Bolivia (all government officials here have remarkable titles!).  Bienvenido was an organizer for indigenous land rights in the Guarayo Province of Santa Cruz, and he is now a part of the new indigenous face of Bolivia´s national government.  He spoke often of his humble background — he has a great deal of respect for the Morales administration for putting grassroots organizers in high level government positions.  During his interview, he spoke of the agrarian reforms as well as the challenges of dealing with the Santa Cruz agrarian elites and business community. 

We also interviewed Ramiro Llanos, the first legal advisor to the movement who now works for the national CEJIS office (an NGO that provides in kind legal support to indigenous people fighting for land rights).  He noted that, in spite of Morales´s support for MST, there are still many challenges at the community level that MAS (Movement Toward Socialism, Morales´s political party) has yet to address.  He is the only policy person with whom we´ve spoken who commented on the lack of critical resources in rural areas, such as the lack of medical clinics, schools, potable water, and other infrastructure.  While the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela have provided tractors, seeds, and other farm equipment to some rural communities, there is still much work to be done before these communities will fully prosper.  Llanos believes that MST leaders will need to continue to pressure the government to gain these services.

Our interviews with other figures in the central government reflected many of these same sentiments.  These interviews will provide a larger, political-economic framework for our film, but the everyday lives of the campesinos will be at the center.

Tomorrow night, we head back to Santa Cruz after another full day of filming.  Tuesday, we will be tying up loose ends in Santa Cruz as we try to gather photos and music to complement the video footage we´ve captured.  We pack up and head back to the U.S. on Wednesday.  We´ll do our best to update the blog and add photos as time permits!

Hope you are all doing well,

Niki, Kara & Emily

Bigwigs of Santa Cruz

After our trip to Pueblos Unidos last week, our bodies barely worked but we were fired up about our project.  We learned how difficult it is for campesinos to survive in el campo. We already knew that a small group of people (approximately 150 elite families) control vast expanses of productive farm land in the Department of Santa Cruz.  So, we decided that it was important for us to make a good faith effort to hear what the “other side” — the wealthy landowners and the business community that supports them — had to say about property rights and economic development in Bolivia.  We entered the CAO (a collaboration of agro industry bigwigs) and the regional civic committee (called Comité Civico), which is promoting autonomy (see below) for the Department of Santa Cruz. 

Upon our arrival, they all gave us time and were willing to explain their points of view on camera.  Throughout recent Bolivian history, the many mestizo residents in the eastern portion of the country have felt alienated from the national government. They spoke about the ways in which, they feel, La Paz and the western region receive more resources than the eastern region in spite of Santa Cruz´s large contributions to the national GDP. As well, they spoke about their desire to mirror the economic development policies of the United States, particularly with respect to private property and the extraction of natural resources.  We did not really mention MST in our interviews, but the people in the business community portrayed MST members as terrorists, as armed and dangerous, and as thieves who steal land from the “productive and hard-working” citizens of Santa Cruz.  They specifically pointed toward the Pueblos Unidos and the fight over Raphael Paz´s hacienda, Yuquises.

This set of interviews, which took place in modern, glitzy, sky scrapers, marked a stark contrast from the realities of life in the rural farming communities like Gran Chaco and Pueblos Unidos.  We are hopeful that allowing this community to speak for themselves will provide insight into the obstacles that MST faces in its continuing struggle for land rights.

[Aside: Autonomy would give Santa Cruz total control over the economic and natural resources that it produces, rather than redistributing them nationally.  Many of the other departments, particularly in the highlands in the western part of Bolivia, have been left with next to nothing after their mineral resources were forcefully depleted during the 20th century. Thus, autonomy would reap benefits for the eastern portion of the country and leave the rest (majority indigenous and poor) with very little.]

¡Yes, we interviewed the President of Bolivia!

Niki, Emily, Evo Morales, Eulogio, & Kara 

We interviewed Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, tonight.  We shook his hand, had our picture taken with him, and he spoke to us in a taped interview for 13 minutes.  It was awesome.

In his 13 minutes, he spoke about the Agrarian Revolution that he implemented in June 2006 and his larger vision for Bolivia´s future.  Under the new agrarian policies, the state will reclaim unused, unproductive land from latifundios (people who have accumulated large land holdings as the result of political favors) and redistribute it to poor campesinos who will begin to produce on their small scale, organic farms.  As land is redistributed, it will only be titled to communities, like Gran Chaco and Pueblos Unidos, not to individuals.  These policies will give campesinos the opportunity to work and produce for themselves, thus escaping the poor working conditions of the haciendas and informal work in urban centers.  However, he also spoke of the challenges in implementing these reforms due to the resistence from the business community (primarily located in Santa Cruz) as well as from the United States (IMF and World Bank).

The president, Evo Morales, has a remarkably humble presence.  Initially, he said that while he has assumed the seat of presidential power, he is still a part of the larger indigenous campesino movement.  His broader vision for the future of Bolivia is to create work opportunities in Bolivia, to release the country´s natural resources from corporate stranglehold, and to decolonize the nation, creating a pluri-ethnic and multicultural decision making body (known as the Constitutional Assembly).

Aside from the fact that Niki almost broke her leg as she tripped up the stairs, Kara almost broke a fancy sofa in the presidential parlor, and the light situation was a disaster because the sun had set and the inside lights were extremely yellow it was an amazing experience.

We will upload pictures (and geotag them as promised) when we return to a place where we have regular computer access (we have been writing our blog posts from internet cafes).

Hope you are all well,

Niki, Kara, & Emily

Some of our filming challenges

Just a quick note about the challenges of making this film.  We are on the move all of the time and, therefore, unable to carry much equipment (as it is, we are hauling 25 pounds of camera equipment with us everywhere, often on long treks and up steep hills!).  We are using a Sony PD 150, which has been a great, durable camera, for most of the filming.  As well, we are using a tiny handheld camcorder for some of our B-roll footage.  But we do not have any useful external lights, and we often find ourselves in low light situations and/or communities that have no electricity.  Nearly all of our filming must be done by 6:00 pm when the sun starts to set.  Finally, there is a great deal of dirt and sand, and oftentimes it is a challenge just to keep the cameras and lenses clean.

There have been many instances when we wanted to film/photograph landscapes and critical scenes for cutaway shots along our journeys, but the rides are often too bumpy and dusty — it is hard to hold the camera steady when you´re being thrown around the back of a camioneta 🙂  We film and photograph whenever the buses & trucks stop, but we only have a minute or two before everyone starts shouting ¨¡VAMOS!¨ at us!

We are now in the process of interviewing national level government officials.  We are running around La Paz, from government building to government building, only to find that our appointments are delayed, cancelled, or rescheduled.  When we are able to interview someone, we are often filming in cramped, dark, cold offices, and we have five minutes to set up and break down.  It´s exciting to say the least… we´ve gotten it down to a science — at times we must seem like some crazy comedy show!  So we are going with the flow, doing the best we can under less than ideal filming conditions (to put it mildly).  And we´re having tons of fun in the process.

With all of that being said, we have managed to capture some amazing footage.  The interviews in Pueblos Unidos were incredible — the people´s stories will shine through any technical imperfections on our end.  Hopefully, it will all come together in the end 🙂

Can´t wait to share the finished product with you all when it´s done!

Pueblos Unidos: building a community

We recently took a trip to the Pueblos Unidos community in the province of Guarayo.  After spending 10 hours on the back of a large, flatbed pick-up truck (camioneta), we were welcomed by a sign that read ¨Welcome to Pueblos Unidos, a sustainable agricultural community.¨ We were also welcomed by compañeros who help us cross the small river separating the road from the community — they ferried us across in canoes that the community had constructed.

Arriving at Pueblos Unidos

We were warmly welcomed and community members provided us with a guest house, inside which we set up our tents.  Large expanses of productive, agricultural land served as the backdrop to the pueblo.  The village center consists of small homes made of motacu branches and the wood that is cleared to make way for the fields (chacos).  There was a warm, optimistic feeling in this community in constrast to the sense of sadness that lingered at Los Sotos (in the Gran Chaco region).  Pueblos Unidos has more water, has had more productive crop cycles, and more national and international attention and support than Gran Chaco.

We were filthy and exhausted after our trip there, and did not manage to do any filming during our first evening in the community.  However, we got up early the next morning (Monday).  First, we attended a community meeting to gain permission to proceed with the film project.  Some community members were a bit suspicious since they have experienced disappointment and unfulfilled promises in the past.  There was democratic and open debate in which people spoke individually, publicly expressing their opinions (some were doubtful while others were fully supportive).  In the end, the compañeros voted unanimously to allow us to film their lives, struggles, work, and histories.

We began filming immediately after this meeting.  People were bustling about — pumping several buckets of water per household for their daily use, riding bicycles out to the fields, and preparing meals and bread for the day.  We managed to interview five community members, three of whom requested that we film them in their fields with their crops.  They are very proud of the watermelons, soy, beans, rice, peanuts, lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce. 

Heading out to the fieldsDona Rosa & her daugher

Prior to the construction of this settlement, the members of this community had occupied the Yuquises hacienda for several months.  While living on the hacienda, they had grown a great deal of food, but paramilitary units came and burned their crops, homes, and community buildings.  They were violently displaced, and were living in public parks and under bridges in the northern region of Santa Cruz.  They now have legal entitlement from the Morales government to use the land at their new settlement, Pueblos Unidos.  The crops that they are so successfully growing represent hope for the future and the possibility of a peaceful existence with independence and dignity.

We spent most of the day on Tuesday with several leaders, touring the lands and hearing their plans for future development (which will possibly include eco-tourism). 

We headed back to Santa Cruz on Tuesday afternoon — loading ourselves and our gear back into the pickup truck.  Two campesinos who needed immediate medical assistance joined us on the trip back.  We dropped them off at a medical clinic in Chane, run by Cuban doctors who provide free care and free accommodations.  If not for our truck, it could have been months before they were able to get to the nearest free clinic.  Thank god for Cuban doctors.

After bouncing around the back of the truck for 12 hours, which Niki has repeatedly compared to a full body horseback ride, we were filthy, exhausted, and desperately in need of hot showers.  But the experience was amazing and well worth the difficult travel and filming conditions. 

Our mode of transport

Currently, we are in La Paz.  We’ll write more today or tomorrow.

Besos y abrazos,

Emily, Kara, & Niki

The Many Faces of Santa Cruz

Yesterday was an exciting day.  We got a lot done, but did a lot of running around in the meantime.  Our plans seem to change minute by minute.  In the morning, we got on a microbus headed for an MST organizer’s house, but had a change of plans (one of many) within about five minutes.  We leapt off of the micro (sometimes they sort of stop), dashed across the street, and caught a different micro headed in the other direction.  When that micro was moving too slow, we leapt off of that one and hailed a taxi.  Somehow, between loud cell phone conversations, we ended up at CEJIS, a legal office that provides in-kind support for land reform efforts.  We walked in, walked out, and jumped into another taxi.  Somehow, we found our way to Evo Morales’s presidential house in Santa Cruz, where we interviewed the Official MAS (Movement Toward Socialism – the political party in charge) Representative of the city, who serves in the Morales administration.  She was great – she has been involved with MAS and CEJIS for years and she had a great deal of information to share.  She is working to connect us to national government leaders in La Paz (our fingers are crossed for a short meeting with el Presidente) for our visit next week.  By this time, it was late morning and we headed back to CEJIS, where we did two short interviews.

 

Around 1:00 pm, we got back on track with our original plans and caught a micro that took us out to El Plan Tres Mil, a poor community on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, where one of the MST organizers lives.  We were able to get some footage from the window of the bus, which we’ll use to show the dramatic contrasts between downtown Santa Cruz and the unpaved streets of El Plan.  We ate lunch in the mercado at El Plan (pollo y arroz) and walked through the community.  We filmed the organizer during the walk, and he narrated as we passed different sites.  At his house, we were able to hear his stories about his family – his parents were slaves and his father was part of the Agrarian Revolution in the 1950s.  While many in El Plan rent the land that they live on, he and his family have managed to purchase their plot and build a three room house where they (he and his children, and some grandchildren) live together.  Many who live in El Plan do not have access to basic infrastructure – some do not have running water, all of the streets are rutted and unpaved, and there are major drainage problems throughout the community.  During our first visit to El Plan earlier this week, another MST organizer told us, as we walked from the bus to our host’s home, “This is the poverty of my country.”  Kara took lots of photos during our visit, particularly of the organizer’s grandson, who was wearing a Superman shirt and rubber police boots.  She also got many shots of his home and family.  Everyone was very warm and welcoming, and we will be spending more time with them during the upcoming week.

Later in the afternoon, we filmed in and around downtown Santa Cruz.  While in the plaza, we filmed Niki as she spoke to one of the armed guards about people’s right to demonstrate in front of the mayoral palace.  The guard told us that, of course, anyone can demonstrate on the plaza.  MST has been prohibited from doing so, however, and one organizer was brutally beaten there when he went to make a formal statement on the organization’s behalf.  We filmed and photographed lots of interesting political graffiti (pro and anti Evo, pro and anti autonomy for Santa Cruz, etc.), and on the way home we were lucky enough to have a taxi driver with a good sense of humor, who drove very slowly so we could film out the window.

 

We did more filming downtown today, and we head out to another MST settlement in the countryside tomorrow.  We will write more when we return in a few days.

 

Hugs,

Emily, Kara, &Niki

Countdown to filming…

Friends of MST will begin filming the documentary about Bolivia’s landless peasant movement (Movimiento sin Tierra) on Monday, August 6. There are three of us from the U.S. — Niki, Kara, and Emily — and we will be collaborating with MST organizers, MST members, and Bolivian university students.

The filming will take us all over the country. We will start in Santa Cruz, where we will film for about 2 days before heading to some rural MST communities nearby. After about 8 days in the lowlands, we will fly to La Paz and El Alto in the Andes mountains. La Paz is one of Bolivia’s capitol cities (Sucre is the other one). There, we are hoping to meet with some of the national level government officials — in particular, the Minister of Land — who are allied with MST. In El Alto, we plan to film with the neighborhood associations that support MST activities. From there, we will take a 10 hour bus ride to Potosi on the altiplano, which is the heart of the miners’ union. Over the past twenty years, Potosi has experienced major population loss in the wake of economic reforms and changes in ownership of the mines. One of the MST organizers featured in the film is originally from Potosi, but migrated to Santa Cruz to find work. We will meet his family and learn about his migration experiences. Then back to La Paz, back to Santa Cruz, and back to the U.S. This is an ambitious itinerary, especially since travel in Bolivia can be unpredictable due to road blockades… ! But we’re flexible and open to changes. And, of course, we’re overly optimistic and hoping for the best.

You can follow our progress on this blog — we hope to make regular posts while we are traveling (as long as we have internet access). You can also follow us on the map and view our geotagged flickr photos (there’s nothing posted yet, but stay tuned…).

For those of you who don’t know much about MST-Bolivia, here’s some background:

Movimiento sin Tierra is an international landless peasant movement that works to pass land reform laws that will redistribute land to the poor. In Bolivia, like many Latin American countries (and many countries throughout the world), the agro-industries control a great deal of the land, but produce primarily for export rather than for the local consumption. In Bolivia, poor campesinos have historically been pushed off of their farms and today, 7% of the population owns 90% of the land.

Through land reform policies, MST members hope to rebuild small farming communities. Currently, they occupy unused land — usable land that is just sitting dormant — where they build make-shift homes, schools, and community centers, and collectively farm the land. Resources are shared. Many MST members have faced extreme poverty and displacement after migrating from rural areas to urban centers; these communal farming projects ensure that they have food, shelter, and other resources for their families.

For more information about MST, visit The Friends of MST website (also visit the website of MST Brazil which frequently posts news and updates about MST). Niki attended the international Sin Tierras (Sem Terras in Portugese) conference in Brasil in June 2007… read her blog post below.

Peace,
Emily

Saludos from Brazil: MST Conference

I had the most amazing experience at the MST Conference in early-mid June. We arrived in Brazil, after a long trip from Santa Cruz to Sao Paulo and then a bus from Sao Paolo to Brasilia. However, the day we arrived the energy was amazing…there were 20,000 Sem Terras (MST-Brazil members) organized in a huge gymnasium – sort of like a coliseum, all dressed in RED. The music, the energy, and the passion were so overwhelming. The Brasilian MST movement is so organized – every state was represented, they had their communities with them. The food was brought all the way from their farms to Brasilia (rice, corn, meat, fish, couscous), and they set up tents with collective kitchens. This guaranteed that every single person at the conference was fed. Meals are a wonderful celebration of community — we gather five or six at a table, eat from one anotherś plates, talk, laugh, and share experiences from distinct parts of the world.

So it was 5 days of intense political conversation about US forms of imperialism, and the situations in Venezuela and Cuba, Haiti, South Africa. We were with an International Delegation — I have met such incredible organizers from Cuba and Nicaragua, Honduras, Indonesia, and S. Africa. We had events from 8 a.m. until late at night. And often we stayed up till 3 or 4 talking in our rooms. Everything was collective — 7 women in a room — we ate together, slept together, etc. There is something about this form of living that is so wonderful. 

The highlight of the conference was the HUGE MARCH: imagine 20,000 people marching in 3 highly organized lines from this gymnasium to the center of Brasilia, the heart of Brazil’s government. It was amazing: construction workers were shouting from the tops of buildings, “We are with you, companeros!” Then, a school bus passed by and the kids screamed out of the window, “Because of you, Sem Terra, we will live better!” We stopped traffic. There were Argentinians leading chants and cheers regarding the importance of land reform. We passed the US embassy, rested 10 coffins at the steps symbolizing the death of people all over the world. The US embassy was full of security, and we barely got passed the gates. There were tons of policemen on horses. It was really incredible. Then, we arrived at the senate and gathered in the main plaza. As we were approaching the plaza, all you saw were seas of people in red. And MST left a proposal for land reform with Lula.

We just got back from the conference this morning. We are now living in the MST headquarters, which is this really interesting space. It is a collective dormitory, 20 bunk beds for women and 20 for men. There is a woman who cooks for the entire house, feijoida. There are young people all over working, learning, studying — and there is this great computer lab. I am going to an MST settlement later this week, and then back to Bolivia. Really wishing you were here to experience this…to feel the passion and the energy.

Hope you are well,
Niki