Thursday, 6 March 2008

Quaker work in Bolivia - by Newton Garver

Aymara trainee in a QBL greenhouse. Photo: Quaker Bolivia Link
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Evangelical Friends began missionary work among the indigenous Aymara people of Bolivia after World War I, and when they left early in the 21st century there were some 30,000 Bolivian Quakers grouped into six or eight yearly meetings and continuing to expand their numbers. Currently are engaged in a different sort of missionary work, focused on educational and economic opportunities.
Two Quaker organizations are active in Bolivia. BQEF Bolivian Quaker Education Fund provides scholarships to young Friends. QBL Quaker Bolivia Link has a strictly secular focus on rural poverty, health, and nutrition. The organizations are therefore complementary rather than competitive or overlapping, and they occasionally cooperate. Friends' work among the Aymara began with Evangelical missions in the 1920s. There are now some 30,000 Bolivian Quakers grouped into six or eight yearly meetings which continue to grow. QBL and QBEF represent a new kind of mission, jointly supported by Orthodox and Hicksite Friends. I have written previously about this newer work in Friends Journal (February 2001 and February 2007). This report is an update.
QBL was founded in Britain in 1995, incorporated in the US in 1999, and continues to have two boards, one in the UK and the other in the US. There is an overall coordinator or director in the US, a former Peace Corps volunteer; a publications and outreach director (one of the founders); and five employees in Bolivia.

Since the mission of QBL is secular, as is the staffing, the work attracts support from well outside Quaker circles, and the annual budget is over $200,000 -- often well over. In recent years the most impressive work has been the establishment of greenhouses on the Altiplano. By policy QBL funds only groups, never individuals. Nonetheless many of the greenhouses are individual rather than community property, because the women of this or that village have banded together into an organization to make the proposal for individual greenhouses.

I visited one such community in October 2007 with Claudia Pinto, a remarkable indigenous woman and community organizer, whose mission is to assist indigenous women on the Altiplano to take control of their lives. She seeks out potential leaders and them gives them workshops on how to organize, and when they have a viable organization she helps them get funding. She has been doing this work for over a decade now, and the groups she helps get started are just the sort of groups that QBL likes to support. In this case the proposal was for greenhouses, but in other cases it has been irrigation, well water, farming implements, animal husbandry, or horticulture. The largest project, costing tens of thousands of dollars, has been a health clinic in Amacari, a community on the southern bay of Lake Titicaca.

Tuxajahuira community installing their own water line

Though neither Claudia Pinto nor the women she organizes are Quakers, both the people and the work deserve the admiration and support of all of us. On my visit in October I was accompanied by my son Geoff. Our rustic finger-food lunch was followed by a lively game of soccer (at 13,000 feet!), in which Geoff joined with as much surprise as pleasure.

BQEF is meant to fill some gaps of having no special relation to Quakers in Bolivia, not funding individuals, and giving no grants for education. In 2003 it granted scholarships to 15 individual young Friends for post secondary education in Bolivia. All 13 members of the Board are Friends, all staff in both the US and in Bolivia are Friends, and all grant recipients are either Friends or Quaker organizations. Contributors include more than a dozen Quaker meetings from Britain, Ireland, New York, New England, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and California. Its long-run goals are to

  • enhance the educational opportunities of Andean Quakers
  • nurture their service work,
  • strengthen their schools, and
  • bring this work to the attention of Friends in North America and Europe.

QBEF scholarship winners with Newton Garver, 2003

The seven programs of BQEF are:

  1. Higher education scholarships: 50 in 2008. Since the stipends are delivered each month in cash, there is regular face-to-face contact with each student each month. Their gratitude, their liveliness, and their intelligence, and their commitment is a joy to behold.
  2. Computer program: Computer labs established in the three urban Quaker schools and nearly 20 computers installed. Three rural Quaker schools are to be included this year, Internet established in the three urban schools, and another 30-40 computers installed. Computers are such an everyday affair in the US that it is difficult to properly imagine how much this means to the Bolivian Friends.
  3. English program: Language labs have been established in the three urban Quaker schools, and hours of instruction in English have been tripled for the secondary students. It is not a luxury. They will need English for their university work, as well as for the Internet and communicating with North American Friends.
  4. Internado: A supervised residence in Sorata, organized and operated by Quakers, for pre-teens and teens from outlying hamlets who would otherwise have to walk hours each way to attend secondary school. Opened in 2006 the Internado has received generous support, especially from Irish Friends, and expects to complete the purchase of its home this fall.
  5. Volunteers: In the very first year, 2003, Friends, students at Friends schools and colleges, and others who find us one way or another, began asking whether they might volunteer. In 2007 there were a dozen volunteers. Volunteers pay their own way, help with classes (especially English), and come home amazed with the richness of their experience.
  6. Workshops: The Friends Council on Education (FCE) regularly offers workshops in the US for teachers new to Quaker schools, and in 2005 a Spanish version of these workshops was introduced in Bolivia, with follow-up workshops in 2007. In January of 2006 the first full AVP workshops were held in La Paz, and workshops have been held every January and June since, now expanded to the cities of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. We expect both the FCE and the AVP workshops to become self-sustaining, but at present they still need the occasional support of outside facilitators.
  7. Interns in the US: Travel to date has nearly all been from north to south, but in the fall of 2008, God willing, two young Bolivian Quaker teachers will spend a full semester as interns at Quaker schools in the US. We look forward to this program as a new way to build a bridge between the two Quaker cultures.

BQEF has a part-time coordinator in the US and a full-time coordinator in Bolivia, as well as five other staff members in Bolivia. In 2008 its budget exceeds $100,000 for the first time, although substantial parts of the program remain off-budget, paid for by others. All this represents the steady increase in BQEF programs.

There is no substitute for seeing for yourself, and QST Quaker Study Tours, led by Barbara Flynn of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting, offer a wonderful opportunity at a fair price. The next QST leaves June 22, 2008.

I cannot conclude without a word about the extraordinary challenge now facing Bolivia as a nation. Evo Morales was elected President in December 2005: the first indigenous President ever, the first modern President to be elected with a clear majority. The political elite at first thought he would collapse, especially after his first move was to cut his own salary and that of other high-paid government employees. But in 2006 he laid down an ultimatum to the oil giants, and won. That quadrupled the income of the government, and the old elite saw the stakes were real. Besides cutting bureaucratic salaries, his decrees also provided more funds for health and education, and in 2007 two utterly new benefits: a voucher worth about $25 to every public school pupil who completes one of the first five elementary grades, and a pension (renta dignidad) to every Bolivian citizen aged 60 or more. In 2007 he and his party also put together a new constitution and a new agrarian reform law. So the revolution was real, and threatening (as the elite saw it) to become even more so.

It is natural that a counter-revolution is under way, with the powerful and the frustrated of the old elite threatening to appropriate the new wealth and to secede from the nation. It is a situation not unlike what the US faced in 1861 and Spain faced in 1937. Fortunately Evo Morales is as intelligent and as pragmatic as Abraham Lincoln, and his government does not contain such fractious elements as the Communists and Socialists in the Republican government of Spain. Nevertheless the fate of the nation, and of its indigenous peoples, is at stake. As Friends we can do nothing but talk and pray, but I am confident that in the long run the strengthening of the indigenous people by the Quaker programs described will have a healthy stabilizing effect.

See also QBL video, Wikipedia on Evo Morales, NACLA news from Bolivia and other Latin American countries.

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