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Reporting back from Bolivia

November 2013 

In October, head of Christian Aid Scotland, Kathy Galloway, visited Bolivia with Sally Foster Fulton and Iain Cunningham, to strengthen the links between the Church of Scotland and Christian Aid Bolivia and its partners.

Here, she writes about the work one Christian Aid partner, CIPCA, is doing with indigenous communities in the Bolivian Amazon rainforest.

hand holding chocolate bar

Walking in the forest

In September, I had a lovely family holiday on the island of Mull. There, I learned about Atlantic temperate rainforest. In global terms, coastal temperate rainforest is extremely rare, and among the few places it occurs is the West Highlands, which, along with western Ireland, has the most oceanic climate in Europe.

In north-western Scotland, temperate rainforest broadly includes woodlands dominated by oak, birch and hazel, where trees and rocks are often thickly clothed with bryophytes, lichens, ferns and fungi, leading to these woods being termed the 'Celtic rainforest'.

Walking in the ancient woods of Mull was therefore a good preparation for walking in the Amazonian rainforest.

Even so, I was amazed by the beauty and diversity of the Beni region, where CIPCA work; Bolivia is one of the ten most bio-diverse countries in the world.

The Amazonian region is an area of global heritage, at the heart of international debate about the use of natural resources in an increasingly resource-constrained world.

It is one of the richest areas in terms of natural resources, but also one of the most unequal in terms of access to these resources and the rights of historically excluded groups, such as indigenous people, women and rural farming communities.

Christian Aid in Bolivia

Christian Aid’s programme in Bolivia promotes the rights of forest communities and other vulnerable groups under threat from aggressive and non-inclusive development models, with a geographic focus in the Amazon.

We work closely to strengthen grassroots organisations to secure their rights to manage their land and resources in a way which is inclusive and enables them to be actively engaged in their own development process and move from subsistence to be thriving and resilient communities.

Deforestation is a huge problem; the country lost 6.5 percent of its forest cover during the period 1990-2005, much of it illegally.

Forest loss rates continue to increase. Over 300,000 hectares of forest are now lost annually according to Bolivia's national forestry agency, increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, this is something that affects us all!

It was a real privilege for Sally, Iain and me to visit the small indigenous communities of Bermeo and Santa Rosa.

These villages, gathered round a village square, with their church, their school and their community centre, live very simply but sustainably, with a degree of mutual help and co-operation that puts our 'developed' communities to shame. Their welcome and hospitality were generous.

  • For all their hard work, we could see how vulnerable these small communities are to a host of external threats.'

As Sally wrote in her own blog, 'they manage their surroundings in a way that does not undermine the delicate ecosystem. They gather cocoa beans, banana, papaya and yucca, but part of their work is to ensure that the necessary diversity is maintained.

'They grow crops to feed the village but do not destroy large areas of rainforests, and they raise animals, but hunt and fish as well to keep the balance.'

Leadership is invested in young people, supported by the wisdom and experience of their elders.

And yet, for all their hard work, sensitivity to their environment and hope for the future (including sending some of their young people to university), we could see how vulnerable these small communities are to a host of external threats.

Land and resource security

Some of these threats concern land use and development.

Christian Aid partner CIPCA has supported indigenous communities in securing land titles on over 400,000 hectares in the Beni region.

But this legal hold is fragile. In the name of food security, the door has been opened to genetically modified seeds and the commercialisation and foreign take-over of productive lands for mono-crops and cattle ranching.

In addition, the Amazon is once again experiencing something of a gold rush by mining companies, and oil exploration is going on in national parks. Many Amazonian indigenous territories, so hard fought for, are now being accused of being 'unproductive' and potentially standing in the way of a national development process.

But the extractive model is socially and environmentally unsustainable.

Other threats come as a result of climate change.

Forest communities and towns in the Bolivian Amazon are faced with increasing hazards such as flooding from more extreme and intense rainy seasons and forest fires due to hotter dry seasons.

The main threat for many of the communities is the extension of agro-industry and its bad practices.

Lack of consultation with affected communities about massive infrastructure projects such as dams and superhighways, and a volatile political atmosphere, mean that a way of life which protects the rainforest remains fragile.

Which is where chocolate comes in!

A special crop

We were teased about going all the way to Bolivia to eat chocolate, but our visit to the chocolate factory established by Christian Aid and CIPCA in April this year left us in no doubt about its importance as a social enterprise.

Here's why the wild Amazonian forest cacao being harvested and processed in the factory is so special:

  • It forms part of a complicated, diverse, but harmonious agro-forestry system, in a context where there are many fruits, nuts and an abundance of animal and bird life.

  • It is family- and community-based production which keeps income in the local area, meaning that people do not have to go out looking for work in the informal labour market, taking them away from their communities, where they are more vulnerable to exploitation.

  • Cacao is resilient to floods, which have worsened as a result of climate change, because the fruits grow high up on the tree.

  • The management of plants and transformation of the beans adds value and draws on ancestral knowledge of sustainable management of the forests.

  • It supports indigenous communities' claims on land which is constantly threatened by large cattle ranchers who clear the forest for grazing land.

  • It preserves the rainforests, reducing the risk of logging and forest fires when the agro-forestry systems are actively managed by local people.

  • It is completely organic.

  • It strengthens food security for families at a time when food market prices are sensitive to high inflation by guaranteeing them a buyer and a fair price for their harvest.

We did enjoy the chocolate - but even more, we were inspired by the pride and delight of the workers in the factory, and by the hope and empowerment it has brought to these strong yet fragile communities.

All our futures depend on such communities.


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Christian Aid in Bolivia

Find out more about Christian Aid's work in Bolivia, a country rich in natural resources but where more than 60% of the population live poverty.

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