Friday, August 2, 2013

Reflections from the heights of El Alto

Since coming to La Paz, I’ve become increasingly aware of the absence of many of the rules and regulations I am accustomed to in the UK. This can be quite refreshing and even liberating, but at times it can also be extremely frustrating. Navigating the streets of La Paz, the buildings look like they have been dropped into a bowl and are slowly crawling up the sides, clinging onto the earth before they level out onto the flat of El Alto.

However the lack of rules and regulations can have much more serious consequences than simply a messy city plan.  In a culture of local markets anyone can grow, produce and sell whatever they desire. The famous Rodriguez street market is full of stall upon stall of colourful fruit and vegetables asking to be bought and eaten. The reality however is that you have no idea where or how they have been grown, with reports of contaminated water supplies and excessive pesticide use being common.

We are working with Focopaci on an urban gardening project. It helps to build greenhouses with communities in El Alto to create sustainable sources of income and also to empower the women that it works with. Many people may be sceptical of such a project, ‘you travel to another country, build a greenhouse and come home feeling good about what you have left behind’. But there is a lot more to this project than I first imagined and it has made me aware of a lot of issues that I previously hadn’t considered. 

El Alto is one of the fastest growing cities in Latin America. Situated on the planes that surround the valley of the more expensive La Paz, it is a town where many Bolivians migrate to in order to find work and better opportunities for their families. Focopacci, who works with these recently migrated communities, found that quite often the parents went out to work together, leaving the children at home unattended, locked in the house for safety with sufficient food to get them through the day. This lack of parental presence can be very detrimental to a child’s development, with an absence stimulation and communication in the child’s day. School days are short here in Bolivia, typically 9am-1pm, or 1pm-5pm (as there is not enough classroom space for all the children to study at one time). So what do the children do when school has finished and their parents aren’t at home?
The green houses are funded 50/50. The families who want to be involved in the scheme put up the money and labour to prepare the ground and build the walls. Focapaci then donates the finance and expertise needed for building the roof. They also run regular workshops in how to tend crops, house animals and make their own compost so that the family greenhouses become entirely self-sufficient.

For Focapaci, an organisation that focuses on working with the women of the family, the greenhouses allow the mother to grow a variety of crops, vegetables and fruit all year round. Primarily this improves the diet of the entire family, but it also allows the mother a source of income while managing to stay at home and look after the children. The mothers sell their produce at a weekly market, giving them independence, another benefit and step forward in a relatively machismo society.

In Bolivia10 out of 100 children under the age of 5 die as a result of malnutrition. The Bolivian government recognises the severity of this problem and has started a scheme to give out vitamin supplements to children and pregnant women. However while this is a noble effort it doesn’t tackle the roots of the issues involved, which is why Focopacci is using the urban gardening project to show the government that, working on a local scale, it is possible to find a more sustainable way of improving the nutrition of Bolivia both now and in the future.

 Written by Alice Curtin 
Edited by Zoe Scabbiolo and Sarah Cassidy

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