South American Dispatch: Bolivia

By Hal Brill
This article first appeared in the June 2009 edition of the Natural Investing newsletter

It’s good to be home! In the last issue I wrote from beautiful Patagonia and shared some of the environmental issues we learned about. From there we continued north along the spine of the Andes Mountains in Chile and Argentina, and by late April arrived in Bolivia. I want to share two stories with you. The first is about a site visit to one of our community investment partners. The other is about a community-owned ecolodge in the Amazon jungle. For more stories and lots of photos you can check out our blog, www.halandalgosouth.wordpress.com.

Solar Ovens and the Red Brick People

One of my goals in Bolivia was to visit the regional office of E+CO, a nonprofit that specializes in clean and renewable energy in the developing world. Several Natural Investments clients have invested in their People + Planet Notes, so I was eager to see how this money has been put to work in Bolivia. They put me in touch with their South America Representative, Gonzalo Rico Calderon, and via email we sketched out a tour of three major projects.

From Gonzalo’s office we could actually see the first project out the window. He lives in Cochabamba, a city well-known to anti-globalization activists for resisting efforts to privatize its water system. He pointed to a pipeline descending from the nearby mountains towards the city. This is part of the municipal water supply, but previously the water came down a gully, causing erosion and wasting lots of water. Gonzalo, an engineer by trade, saw that there was an opportunity to install a hydro electric plant using this water. Now there is a modern turbine that feeds power into the grid while the pipeline prevents erosion and loss of water.

Solaroven2 imgp0799

The second project only involved a small amount of funding from E+CO, but is changing the daily lives of many women. Sobre de Roca is a small company making solar ovens. Ruth Saavedra, a true solar enthusiast, took us to a neighborhood where she trained a coordinator who bring solar ovens to local homes and provides the support needed to assure that they get used. We made unannounced visits to over a dozen homes. In all of them the women proudly showed us what they were cooking in the sun that day: chicken and rice, soup, Andean potatoes, and a cake! The ovens enable the families to save money by reducing their need for propane, which of course also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In what is often a recurring theme traveling in the “third world,” I realized that we in the USA have plenty to learn from Bolivia!

For the third project, we traveled to La Paz. Above the high altitude capital are clay cliffs that are being hacked away with hand tools. This is the home of the red brick people, a collection of about 30 individual micro-producers, all making hollowed out red bricks that are a choice material for construction. The fuel to fire the bricks has traditionally been whatever they could find, including sawdust, used motor oil and various wood scraps. Black soot comes belching out, and the working conditions of the fire tenders require long hours and are dangerous. E+CO helped all of the interested producers form an association that was able to bring in a natural gas line and build modern kilns. The result is a much cleaner and healthier means of production.

These three projects were very different from each other. Yet each one helped deploy cleaner technologies in a way that improves the environment and makes a direct impact on people’s daily lives. Gonzalo was an excellent host and we learned much about the challenges facing Bolivia, as well as difficulties for social entrepreneurs in a place like this. E+CO is fortunate to have someone on the ground with his many years of experience in both technical aspects and legal affairs. This kind of support is essential if well-intentioned investments are to translate into positive social, environmental, and financial returns.

A Gem in the Jungle

The eastern two-thirds of Bolivia is part of the Amazon basin. We booked a stay at the Chalalan ecolodge, located in Maadidi National Park. I have to give kudos to the folks at Lonely Planet for helping us find this place. Their travel guides emphasize ecotourism, encouraging travelers to seek out companies that are owned by local communities. Chalalan was conceived of by elders in the remote Amazonian village of San Jose de Uchupiamonas. Their community had subsisted by hunting “jungle meat” and cutting down trees. Nonetheless it was dying as the animals were disappearing. Now the community has a new lease on life, with a hospital, clean water system, and improved schools.

ChalanStaff imgp0880

The staff at Chalan are proud of their community-owned enterprise.

We were treated to incredible hikes where we spotted dozens of beautiful birds (our guide said that there are 967 species of birds in Maadidi park). The lodge is located on a pristine lake in the jungle, and our guide paddled us around in a dugout canoe as we watched 3 kinds of monkeys and spotted Caimen. At night the staff played traditional music as we danced and partook in a coca leafceremony. It’s no wonder that National Geographic has featured Chalalan as one of its top picks for being immersed in the Amazon while making a valuable contribution to a traditional community.

 

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Hal Brill

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Comments (1)

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    Patricia Ewanski

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    Hal,

    It sounds like your trip was phenomenal. I am inspired by your company’s work!

    Patricia

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