Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Lesson of Bolivia

Travelling through South America for seven months last year really opened my eyes to the true meaning of the words “developing nation”. I had always thought it meant a country on its way to prosperity because the global economy had finally arrived and was the sole solution to all their former woes. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

That promotes the idea that a high material standard of living and rampant consumerism is the ultimate goal of any society. And I now understand that the mere presence of consumer-based corporations within any country, in no way reduces poverty nor addresses any real social needs. Indeed it creates a myriad of other problems, most notably 'out of control' pollution from plastic packaging (i.e garbage).

Cholitas sell anything they can on the streets of La Paz. Bolivia is the poorest (and highest) country in the western Hemisphere. Copyright Doug Pyper

Mega-corporations like Coca Cola and Nestle are strangling our planet with packaged consumer goods and are now making these products available to the poorest of the poor in South America at prices they can afford. These corporations in no way provide any subsistence or a better quality of life for the common people...unless you consider an impoverished vendor selling Coke in a bus terminal or by roadside in the middle of nowhere as meaningful employment.

Indigenous roadside vendor selling plastic east of La Paz, Bolivia. Copyright Doug Pyper.

In developed countries we've become experts at hiding this petrochemical disaster in our land fills and to some extent with recycling programs. However, these so-called solutions are all but non-existent in South America especially in rural areas, small towns and the fringes of large cities. These people have existed for centuries (albeit with great hardship) on biodegradable natural foods and livestock. They could throw their garbage on the ground and it would go away. It is no longer so, and they are now being buried in their own plastic refuge…with no apparent solution.

It was disheartening to travel throughout Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia and witness this corporate born disaster. Garbage is everywhere! What’s worse is, whenever possible it is discarded into the few watersheds that do exist. Seems as humans we all harbour an inborn misconception that if you put something in any form of flowing water it will go away. In very dry countries like Bolivia this is nothing short of catastrophic. Western Bolivia is mostly high dry desert known as the "Altiplano". At 4000 meters above sea level there is little water at all.

The garbage landscape across rural Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Copyright Doug Pyper.

Fortunately it seems there is a growing awareness of the issue. It was heartwarming and inspirational to witness an “Environment Day” in the tiny village of Samaipata in eastern Bolivia. Children and educators filled the small central square to celebrate the salvation of our the planet. One would suspect that this type of education is prevalent in Bolivia, if it exists in such a remote location as this. But more importantly, it begs the question…how much are we doing to educate our own children on issues of global survival and environmental issues here in North America.

Additional photos here:

Poster at children's environment event in Samaipata, Bolivia. Copyright Doug Pyper.

Child at environmental awareness day in Samipata, Bolivia. Copyright Doug Pyper.

Children with their artwork at environmental awareness day in Samaipata, Bolivia. Copyright Doug Pyper.

Respected Nigerian author Ben Okri wrote: “Childhood is the father and mother of humanity. If you want to understand a nation study the way it treats its children, the way it educates them, the way it moulds them”.

And with regard to life in so-called developed nations Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano penned “Almost everywhere growing up has come to mark the start of a deadly race to consume at all costs. It often begins nearer to infancy than it should and for the most part it means submitting to the dismal regulation of joyless work”

Perhaps we should all rethink our often arrogant life view. The people in the countries I visited with few exceptions were full of joy despite their hardships….something I see much less of in my own country Canada. It was a personal wakening for me.

Recently Bolivia is taking a leading role on environmental issues in South America and on the world stage. As one of the foremost victims of climate change it is essential to their survival.

They are in the process of passing La Ley De la Madre Tierra (The Law of Mother Earth), which would give nature similar rights as those granted to human beings. And in July 2010 a resolution was brought forth by Bolivia to the UN General Assembly declaring access to clean drinking water and sanitation a human right. It was was unanimously passed with 122 countries voting in favour. Canada represented by Stephen Harper refused to sign this declaration. All Canadians should be made aware of this travesty in our name.

And perhaps globally we can all learn a lesson from Boliva's model and follow their ideologies for continued existence here in the fragile hands of mother earth.