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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Simple and elegant: Solving problems the Bolivian way

I’ve been in Bolivia for about 2 months now and theres a lot to say about it. On the one hand there’s the stunning scenery, colourful history and boundary pushing politics. On the other there’s the lack of widespread infrastructure, a questionable relationship with middle eastern dictatorships and a high rate of domestic violence. Most people have a very limited impression of Bolivia and one no doubt heavily informed by politics. Failing that they might know that there are salt flats, or be able to point to it on the map.

However for all the things said of this country I think its best features, the parts I feel truly passionate about, lie in the way they deal with social challenges. Much government policy, especially since the election of President Morales, is influenced by culturally historic values that permeate through native cultures. One of these values is the respect of Pacha Mama, a mother earth figure, which translates into expansive and well developed environmental policies. These values extend through every corner of this country and are subtly reinforced everywhere you look. Every school and street corner, no matter how remote or basic will have a set of recycling bins. If you buy a coke from the local shop in a glass bottle you will get charged 3 bolivianos extra which will be given back to you once you return the bottle.

My favourite incarnation of this attitude however is the fact that almost anything baggable, is. Milk? Gallons of it, it all flavours, soy and almond varieties. Soya pineapple low fat milk - you can buy a bag of it. Drinking water, dulce de leche, cream cheese and mayonnaise. The jam I have in the fridge and the olives I bought yesterday, all come in bags and sachets, no plastic tubes or glass jars in sight. Step out of the supermarket with your bags of bags and fancy a coffee or a juice? no problem, you can drink it from a glass by the vendor or they’ll pour it in a bag with a straw and off you pop. I understand that this isn't reusing or recycling but the reduction in the amount of packaging and production that goes into these everyday products is enormous. For every gallon of milk we would buy in a rigid plastic bottle the equivalent packaging in Bolivia takes up a tenth of the materials and collapses totally flat. These simple everyday implementations of those 3Rs that we learnt at school opens your eyes to the potential of the materials we use.

In our after school project at UpClose recently we took the 2 litre bottles that the zoo recycles and turned the bottom halves into planters for sunflowers, we used the top halves to help us make juggling balls out of sand and old balloons, then the ones left over we spray painted and filled with gravel to be used as cones for the football classes we ran the next day. Beautiful.

Bolivia, like many South American countries, and European ones for that matter, has issues with traffic. The volume, the pollution, the sheer amount of it. Also, considering the original architects built the city in a rocky basin, it doesn't lend itself to modernising to cope with contemporary traffic levels either. However, much like their environmental attitude, their solutions to traffic, noise and air pollution are much more creative than their western counterparts. In london we have the congestion charge, monetary incentive is the usual form of reward or punishment for community behaviour. However the second poorest country in south america, along with several others, has adopted a system of road space rationing. This method involves the limiting of access to central areas on particular days to vehicles that carry certain numbers in their license plates. Don't get me wrong, this would never work in the UK, we are far too used to instant gratification, including where we can drive. However, in true bolivian fashion, getting something done tomorrow means ‘sometime this week’ and so the imposition of road space rationing fits in quite nicely to cultural norms already present in Bolivian society.

Though these measures have been taken to reduce the volume of traffic in the city, the behaviour of the drivers was also on the agenda for the La Paz local government. Cue the introduction of the Zebras. As a mascot it was an interesting choice as most Bolivians had never encountered a zebra before and so they faced a much bigger information hurdle than maybe any other animal based campaign would have done. Once they established their connection with the pedestrian crossings of the same name and their agenda for an improved La Paz they quickly became the unofficial mascot for the city, appearing on posters, murals and parades. As ICS volunteers we had the opportunity to spend a morning being zebras, getting to know the people inside the skins and aiding them in their work for a little while. Those who qualify to don the zebra suit are young adults from disadvantaged areas in the city who have undergone roughly 3 months of intensive training. Their focus is heavily on the reinforcement of moral values such as friendship, sharing and teamwork, conveyed mainly in their relationship with the young children of the city who can be seen hugging, high fiving and blowing kisses at the zebras. In 4 hour shifts, legions of zebras and donkeys (the zebras devils advocate) appear at the pedestrian crossings throughout the city, discouraging drivers from honking their horns, helping old ladies to cross the road and warning pedestrians of the imminent red light.


When I first heard about the zebra project I was skeptical. I figured that there were much more important things that the local government in a developing country should be focussing on. However, since I have learnt more about the project and been a zebra myself it has started to make a great deal of sense. There are some very boring, authoritarian ways that you can monitor and control social behaviour, but the zebra project puts the onus on the citizens themselves by making them care. Every encounter with a zebra ends in a smile. Its hard to rail against rules that are gently suggested to you by a plush character that gives your child a high five.

This is indicative of the approach taken to solve lots of societal issues. Recently the city hosted its annual entrance of the students parade with thousands of people paying to get a good view. As with any event with lots of people though you come up against the issue of public bathrooms. A friend and I finally gave in to the call of nature and headed warily to the port-a-loo set up on the street, but we were pleasantly surprised to find an orderly queue and a kiosk where you paid 50 cents for a ticket and a wad of toilet paper. I stood in the queue and processed this. By installing such a simple system you give people a stake in the service being provided, they've paid for their ability to use this service and been given the responsibility of not misusing it. I’m sure no one else in that loo queue was thinking about it quite as deeply as I was, but maybe it struck a chord as I couldn't imagine such a simple yet effective system being used in the developed country I call home.

So much of the social awareness that goes into grass roots community changes is initiated by small, simple and very creative ways. The city is run through with colourful murals depicting Bolivian pride, the value of education and family, indigenous imagery and many a zebra. Though there is a lot of graffiti to see, the murals are mostly left untouched even though they line the sides of the main thoroughfares and the biggest buildings. The clock on the principle government building in Plaza Murillo in the city has been reversed on itself with the hands turning counter clockwise and the numbers starting to the left of the 12. This is to symbolise the erasing of past mistakes, the reclaiming of ancient traditions and the retrospection of the people in charge. It's a simple gesture, and one that doesn't require any real political action, but it got people talking, it was an unspoken indication of the political climate which becomes mirrored in the community and raises its own expectations.



If you wikipedia Bolivia you will gather most about its colonial history, indigenous culture and modern politics, but the most notable thing about this beautiful country is hard to google. The way in which on entering a bus you say good afternoon and everyone says it back. The way that everywhere, from the posh restaurants in the centre to the hole in the wall tiendas in the villages, offer a set lunch which includes 3 courses.


We may be able to judge Bolivia by western standards of development, but we would definitely come off the worse should we be judged by Bolivian standards of civilization.

Written by Kate Clark.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, it looks like an amazing country! I'm sure there must be problems there too, or else they wouldn't need international volunteers, but the picture you paint is of a more developed and civilized country than ours. Hopefully one day I'll go there and find out for myself.

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