The Heart of South America: Bolivia

By Ximena Murillo, MIB

In previous issues I’ve written about various countries, providing a social and economic outlook as well as sharing the beauty, rich cultures, and uniqueness of people native to such places. In this issue, I would like to take you right to the heart of South America. With a population of approximately 11,306,341 (July 2018 est.) and a GDP of $37.78 billion (2017est.), Bolivia is one of only two landlocked South American nations bounded by Brazil to the north and east, Peru to the northwest, Chile to the west and southwest, Argentina to the south and Paraguay to the southeast. This is a country of contrast from the magnificent Andean glaciers, high altitude cities, rushing rivers, to rainforests, tropical areas with extraordinary bio-diversity and major tributaries to the legendary Amazon River, the high desert of the Altiplano (at about 13,000 feet in elevation), and towering presence of the Andes Mountains.  If you watched the recent CNN special with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Bolivia, you would have experienced the striking beauty, exceptional bio-diversity, and rich culture that is unique to this wonderful country. 

One of South America’s most diverse and fascinating countries, Bolivia is rich in resources and rightfully proud of its history as well as its culture. While Bolivia is rich in culture, heritage, and diversity, it is also one of the poorest countries in South America.  The ancient Inca people from the Andes region of Bolivia were among some of the more advanced societies of their day.  Many of the advanced technologies developed hundreds of years ago by the Inca’s remain in use today, including navigational technologies.  Bolivia has long been known for its abundant supply of precious minerals including gold, silver, tin, and lithium.  From the early exploration of the Americas, Spain severely exploited Bolivia and its people in efforts to acquire and access these precious minerals, disrupting many of the institutions of Inca society, traditions, and economic systems. The indigenous people of Bolivia have never recovered from this disruptive force, leaving them in a perpetual state of illiteracy and extreme poverty. 

Indigenous people constitute approximately 62% of Bolivia’s population. Recently, indigenous people have become a potent political force in the country, exercising considerable influence with respect to governmental policy.  Today, many indigenous people hold key cabinet positions in government and throughout a variety of political institutions. This, for the most part, has been an urban dynamic, leaving questions regarding what has happened with indigenous populations in rural areas.

Over the past several years, an award winning Houston-Based international nonprofit, United4Change Center (U4C) (www.united4changecenter.org),  has led efforts to comprehensively and sustainably create opportunities for women living in isolated and vulnerable communities of rural Bolivia, lifting them out of extreme poverty through access to education, healthcare and economic opportunities. Women are, by far, the most exploited people in Bolivia, but they also represent the best opportunity for improving circumstances for their families and communities.  While women may have the greatest need, they are at the same time meaningful agents of change for others.  In rural Bolivia, women and girls are often denied access to education, leaving them without the most essential literacy skills.  In some areas, women rarely enjoy access to healthcare, resulting in tragically high rates of premature death.  Domestic violence as well as sexual and economic exploitation of women is rampant. 

Research has discovered that when a woman’s circumstances are significantly elevated, she tends to extend such positive changes to her family and community in lasting ways.  Thus, U4C has targeted women as levers for positive social change for the purpose of lessening the burdens of extreme poverty.  Together with several local and international partners, U4C has launched enhanced literacy and healthcare initiatives followed by the establishment of a Center where women acquire new technical and entrepreneurial skills, while establishing a support system to help women culturally transition to greater social independence and economic freedom. This year only, 400 participants have discovered their talents, developed leadership skills and achieved the confidence to transform themselves, their families and communities. The goal is to empower women and expand economic opportunity while preserving a rich culture for these beautiful people. 

These women are now launching their own businesses and contributing to their local economies while asserting leadership and supporting other women in similar efforts.  In doing so, women are discovering, too often for the first time, their sense of value and worth as human beings — something their conditions have previously denied them.  U4C and its partners are observing wonderful transformative dynamics emerging from this wonderful effort.  Some of the products now being produced are consumed locally.  U4C is developing cooperatives and access to regional buyers for others.  For products that need access to international markets, U4C has established an online fair-trade store.  Please feel free to see some of the wonderful artisan products these women are now creating at: www.united4changecenter.org/shop-for-a-cause. 

“La Unión es la Fuerza” (“Unity is Strength”), the national motto of Bolivia, is inscribed on Boliviano coins.

Ximena Murillo, MIB

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