Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Day 11 - The Democracy Center and Friends of Nature

This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. Our eleventh day was not one of the more exciting ones. We began with a presentation by a wonderful organization, The Democracy Center, then flew to Santa Cruz, and ended with a presentation by a not-so-wonderful organization, Friends of Nature Foundation (FundaciĆ³n Amigos de la Naturaleza).

The morning began in a rushed way as we had to meet with the Democracy Center and then quickly head to the airport for our flight. We arrived downtown early and spent a few minutes in a large, central square before walking over. As you view the photo below, imagine this square full of Bolivians who are angry at the government for selling out their water utility to Bechtel. You can hear the full story from Democracy Now. Cochabamba's Water War in 2000 was the beginning of a revolutionary epoch in Bolivia that ended in 2005 with the election of Evo Morales.

The plaza in Cochabamba

I sat out for much of our presentation with the Democracy Center. They were nice and they do incredible work on important subjects, but their presentation was a work in progress and it gave me a migraine. Please forgive me for this omission.

As we flew into Santa Cruz, I did not quite know what to expect. I expected lots of Big Ag, perhaps racism against the indigenous, lots of money, and a tropical environment. The city of Santa Cruz is fully named Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which means Santa Cruz of the Mountain. I could not tell you why, because the place is as flat as Illinois without a mountain to be seen. Santa Cruz de la Sierra the city is also the capital of Santa Cruz department, the largest department in Bolivia and one that is often the most radical in rightwing politics because it is full of wealthy landholders with large landholdings that make their money off export crops like soy and sugarcane.

Like other departments in the Media Luna (the "Half Moon" departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando, and Beni), Santa Cruz has declared autonomy from Bolivia. They don't want their wealth from export agriculture and oil going to bring the rest of the nation, where most of the population lives, out of poverty. Santa Cruz has some oil and gas, although I don't think as much as Tarija, and some cattle, although not as much as Beni. Roughly speaking, it's the worst of Texas mixed with the worst of Iowa.

As we flew in, we saw a flat, deforested, grassy landscape covered in palm trees that were blowing so hard to one side so consistently that they looked like perhaps they had grown that way. Once we were off the plane, we could confirm that it was wind. We had arrived for one of Santa Cruz's "surasos," blasts of cold Antarctic air, that it gets occasionally during the winter. I, for one, was not sorry at all. I got a total of one mosquito bite our entire time there and didn't have to spend my days sweaty and stinky.

The ride from the airport took us past Big Agribusiness after Big Agribusiness. I would use the cliche that we weren't in Kansas anymore, but it probably WAS quite a bit like Kansas actually - much more than it resembled the Altiplano, anyway.

After checking into our rather luxurious hotel and eating a quick bite, we headed over to FAN - FundaciĆ³n Amigos de la Naturaleza - for a presentation.

A pet of our hotel who lived outside the dining hall.

FAN was located in an office covered in beautiful, professional quality nature photos of Bolivia's diverse wildlife. It was obvious that they had money. They welcomed us into a conference room and began their presentation. Forgive me for not transcribing the whole thing.

The most interesting details we learned about FAN were ones we learned not from FAN but from the group we met with the next day, PROBIOMA. But they did give us a useful presentation on the geography and ecology of Santa Cruz.

Below is a map they showed us of five ecological zones in Santa Cruz: the valleys (valle), the Chaco, Chiquitania, Pantanal, and the "Integrated Zone."

The valley region is a continuation of the ecosystem and geography found in Cochabamba. Pantanal is like Florida's Everglades. It borders Brazil. The Chaco is a near-desert that borders Paraguay and that's where the oil and gas exploration is at. In the north, Chiquitania is a tropical dry area with forest and cerrado. Chiquitania was named when the Spanish showed up and decided the indigenous were short (chiquito) and called the area, essentially, Short-people-land. There is cattle ranching and forestry in Chiquitania, and logging is a major threat there.

The "Integrated Zone" was once forest but is now mostly full of industrial monoculture like soy and sugarcane. It's a pet peeve of mine that they call it the "Integrated Zone" as if its native landscape was soy monoculture or something. The city of Santa Cruz is smack in the center of the "integrated zone."

Ecoregions of Santa Cruz

Key to Ecoregions

From top to bottom, in English, the ecoregions in the key are:
1. Flooded Amazonian Forest (the darkest blue-ish color on the top left)
2. Sub-Andean Amazon Forest (very dark green)
3. Pre-Andean Amazon Forest (slightly lighter dark green)
4. Amazon Forest of Beni and Santa Cruz
5. Chiquitano Cerrado (cerrado is like a savanna or grassland) (this is the green color on the top right)
6. Chaco Cerrado (a bright yellow-green color that is just to the right of the beige Gran Chaco)
7. Flood Savannas of the Moxos Plains
8. Flood Savannas of the Pantanal (the slate-blue color that is on the right part that sticks out)
9. Dry Chiquitano Forest (the bright light green color on much of the map)
10. Gran Chaco (the beige color)
11. Yungas (nearly black)
12. Tucumano-Boliviano Forest
13. Chaco Serrano (yellow)
14. Inter-Andean Dry Forest (orange)

How's conservation going in Santa Cruz? Red=Very Critical; Orange=Critical; Beige=Regular; Light Green=Good; Dark Green=Very Good

Burn Risk in Santa Cruz

Incidence of Forest Fires in Santa Cruz

FAN spoke a lot about conservation and reducing pesticide use by teaching people to use pesticides properly. They brought up the climate crisis and REDD, the international program to reduce emissions by preventing deforestation. The way they spoke of these things raised red flags for me. Obviously, they wouldn't present to us saying "Hi, we are greenwashing, we take lots of corporate money, and we suck," so it was left to us to listen to their presentation and determine whether they were greenwashing or not. And, I, for one, was suspicious.

As it turns out, FAN is the organization written about in the William Powers book Whispering in the Giant's Ear, which I highly recommend. They've taken money from BP and other large polluters, we found out later. Stay tuned for that story.

After the presentation, while on the drive home, our group began to talk about FAN. One group member felt that there was room for all types of organizations. Perhaps FAN would reach producers who were willing to use less pesticides but not give them up, and other organizations that were more radical would reach farmers who were willing to go organic. Or something like that. I disagreed. Far too often, I said, the "moderate" organizations like FAN will sell out the more radical organizations that are being true to the environment and true to science. And, as we later learned, I was totally, 100% right about FAN (and others) doing exactly that.

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