RELEASE DATE: 15 May, 2016

EDITORIAL BY William Wroblewski

I first came to Bolivia in 2008 to spend seven months volunteering at a rural college. The Unidad Académica Campesina-Carmen Pampa is a small university nestled in a little village about 40 minutes by minibus from Coroico, in the heart of Bolivian coca and coffee country. It is a place where hundreds of students, largely the children of farmers and other rural dwellers from all over Bolivia come to study agronomy, veterinary science, nursing, education or ecotourism. These students mingle with faculty and administrators, who are often from La Paz, and with a small band of foreign volunteers from all over the world. It’s an intriguing mix of cultures and perspectives from all over Bolivia and the world concentrated in one little place.

Integrated into this microcosm of higher education is a rural community of coca, fruit and coffee farmers; chicken breeders and sheep herders; shopkeepers and taxi drivers. Undoubtedly, the campus serves as a force that ties Carmen Pampa together, but an additional, largely agrarian economy continues here as well. And so during a recent visit to the village it was not a surprise to meet Benita Mollisaca, an elderly coca farmer, harvesting in her cocal (see the cover of this issue). She is just one of many people who would be here regardless, with or without the college. She is a true local campesina.

In this issue of Bolivian Express we step outside of our urban confines to learn more about the Bolivian countryside, or the campo. We visit tourist destinations that provide a taste of rural life, from wineries in Tarija to coffee farms in the Yungas to ayahuasca ceremonies outside of La Paz. We meet craftspeople bringing a bit of the country to the city, including talented artisans near Santa Cruz and restaurateurs providing farm-to-table dining experiences in Bolivia’s major cities. We talk with some young women bringing Bolivian craftspeople onto the stage of global high fashion. And aside from the market and tourism opportunities coming from the countryside, we take a critical look at some of the key issues facing rural communities in Bolivia, including dangerous effects of climate change and the challenges in providing adequate healthcare to far-flung communities.       

In working on this issue of the magazine, we realized that the campo is not just another place to visit and experience; in fact, country and city are deeply intertwined here. In every story that we chased, we discovered profound connections between the rural and the urban, and witnessed how what happens in the cities in Bolivia has profound impacts on the countryside, and vice versa.

One of the most important forces shaping rural communities in Bolivia, including in communities surrounding Carmen Pampa, is migration. As agriculture continues to be a difficult way of life, and as major industries – particularly mining – change and adapt to global market and environmental forces, more and more rural residents are moving to the city, at least part-time, in search of economic opportunities. In my travels around Bolivia I’ve seen this much too often. Two years ago I visited the village of Yulo, about three hours from Potosí, where nearly half the homes were empty. Knocking on doors was more often than not a lost cause, and I remember neighbors calling to us as we waited on countless doorsteps. ‘No hay nadie,’ they would say. ‘Todos se fueron.’ Entire families had uprooted and moved to Argentina in search of work. In many places in rural Bolivia, all that remain are the elderly and the very young. Working-age adults and students have moved elsewhere.

In many ways, Benita is lucky (which may explain her infectious belly laugh that never ceased throughout our photo shoot). While she wakes early every day to work in her fields, her son remains by her side. Despite graduating from the college in Carmen Pampa a few years ago with a nursing degree, Reynaldo has opted to stay at home to help his parents in the fields. He certainly has the option to come to El Alto or La Paz and look for work in a clinic or health centre, but instead is happy to be in his community, with his family, picking coca and avocados in the morning sun.

The Bolivian countryside has its own attractive forces that keep people rooted there, and makes it something not to be missed by visitors here. We hope this issue of Bolivian Express offers a window into this often-overlooked side to the Bolivian experience.


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