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A letter from Chenoa Stock in Bolivia

November 2011

Call to Restoration

Reflecting on my first three months in La Paz, Bolivia, one might say I hit the ground running—adjusting to the altitude of the world’s highest capital at 12,500 ft., working in the UMAVIDA office with coordinator Cleo and accountant Miguelina, engaging in the never-ending task of improving my Spanish—the working language here—and exploring and getting to know the city and community that surrounds me.  I admit and apologize that three months is a long time to be out of communication, but I have not been the only one on the move in this country.

A few days after my arrival in La Paz, on August 15, three indigenous communities, the Chimanes, Yurucarés and Mojeños from the Amazonian lowlands of Bolivia, began a 500-kilometer (301-mile) march to La Paz in protest of a government-planned, Brazil-funded highway that is to connect the Andean highlands with the Amazon lowlands.  The first two phases of the highway are complete, but the final phase, which would connect these two routes, was planned to cut through the heart of the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS), a rainforest region where these isolated, indigenous communities live and carry out their livelihood.  These lowland communities and other supporters of TIPNIS marched for two months toward La Paz—encountering issues of extreme weather, police confrontations, and acclimation to the altitude of the capital—in order to meet with President Evo Morales and protest, asking that the highway project through TIPNIS be terminated.  These communities, which represent a part of the two-thirds indigenous population of Bolivia (the country with the proportionally largest indigenous population), fear the exploitation of their land for economic purposes and declare that they were not previously consulted, as it is written they should be in the newly adopted constitution. The march arrived in La Paz on Wednesday, October 19, with crowds lining the streets of the city, cheering in support.  After waiting a few days to speak with President Morales, he and government officials finally sat down with TIPNIS leaders and came to an agreement to pass a law that suspends the construction of the highway through TIPNIS.  Though this situation may not be completely resolved, as politics go, it was and is a victory for the communities of TIPNIS, as well as those who advocate for the rights for the protection of Madre Tierra (Mother Earth).  Their strong, protesting voices were heard and were able to create a change in order to restore and preserve their human rights, as well as the rights of the land.

Though we of UMAVIDA were not directly involved with this march, we were intently following their movements throughout these months, and we were there to welcome them to La Paz upon their arrival.  It is a motivation and strong call to us, as we, Uniendo Manos por la Vida—UMAVIDA (Joining Hands for Life)—are also involved in a mission to create awareness and systemic change in order to preserve and restore both human and Earth’s rights. 

While "hitting the ground" these past three months, I have been able to see this growing awareness in action throughout different programs of UMAVIDA partner organizations.  In these past months we have held two Water Schools, which were three-day seminars focused on water rights and laws, local issues of water contamination, and eco-theology, as well as a lecture on photojournalism to prepare for the photo contest in which members would participate.  I participated in both schools in La Paz and in the city of Potosí, located 426 km. (265 miles) from La Paz, known as one of the world’s highest cities, at 4,090 meters (13,420 ft.). In each of these gatherings I was able to hear youth speak about their knowledge of the exploitation in their areas, whether it be lack of access to water for irrigation or consumption due to glacial melting, water contamination from non-functioning water plants in El Alto (the ever-expanding neighboring city of La Paz) or from the silver mining activity of hundreds of cooperatives working in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) in Potosí, where many of the youth participants had worked as child miners years before or had lost fathers due to this dangerous work.  These youth were able to speak in detail about the conditions of contamination in their areas and also create a great atmosphere of questioning and discovering more about specific environmental laws, regulations, and the situations around contamination and exploitation in other areas of Bolivia and the world. During these discussions, you could observe that they understood the great impact this broken and inefficient system of exploitation had on the environment and human population, specifically the poor, and the urgency needed to change it one action at a time, starting with themselves.

The next phase of this awareness-building process was a photo contest with the theme "Poverty and Contamination."  Each participant was to carry out a local action by displaying his/her area’s reality through a photo report of three to five photos.  We held the exhibition on Friday and together were able to celebrate their work, as well as emphasize the importance and significance of the themes of contamination and poverty, specifically in Bolivia. It was a gathering of mutual encouragement when these youth affirmed their commitment to continue to be involved in the UMAVIDA water campaign and to spread awareness about the restoration and rebuilding of our Madre Tierra.

It is not only the youth of UMAVIDA who must make this commitment. We are all called to be aware of our surroundings and the injustices around us.  We are all called to build the Earth for the restoration of its lands and people.  As the Israelites were working to rebuild and restore the temple after the exile, Zechariah writes God’s words of guidance, “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.”  This is our call as we interact with our neighbors and discern how we can restore the kingdom within and around us.

Chenoa Stock

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 301
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 24

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