Monday, June 16, 2008

Visit to the Chapare

Our trip to the Chapare was marked by heavy rain, which began the day we arrived and ended the day we left. Nevertheless, at Parque Carrasco we braved the weather and enjoyed a hike through the rain forest with a local guide, who pointed out the native flora and fauna. The latter included a cave full of bats, and the guacharos, extremely noisy birds that are recovering from a threat of extinction. The highlight of this visit was the metal cage that visitors have to ride in to cross the river separating the guide’s house from the trailhead. The cage runs on a cable over the river, and we went across in batches of four as Julian, our guide, grabbed the cable and pulled us across.

The next day we visited Chimore, another town in the Chapare and headquarters of the various coca eradication and interdiction forces. These include the FTC (joint task force of the Bolivian military), the UMOPAR (the Bolivian rural coca police), and the DEA, who live in a bunker off to one side and are not seen very often out in public. We first were taken to see an actual coca field eradication, something that outsiders rarely get to glimpse. We were led by a Coronel, commandant of the FTC, who gave us an orientation on Bolivian coca policy before sending his group of young conscripts out to pull up the coca bushes. Coca growing is legal up to a certain limit in Bolivia today, but anything grown beyond that legal limit (such as this particular field) is subject to eradication. The Coronel went out of his way to impress upon us his recognition that coca is not the same thing as cocaine, even offering our group some coca leaves to chew. (Lisi did her best in this regard, but didn’t seem to enjoy the experience.) This alone indicates the change in coca policy under the Evo Morales administration. After the eradication tour, we returned to the base where we received a lecture on Bolivian drug law from the Chapare prosecutor’s office, and then toured the cocaine museum set up by UMOPAR. The tour was led by another friendly Coronel in camouflage fatigues, who showed us all the clever ways that narcotraffickers have found to smuggle cocaine base out of the Chapare. The museum also included mock ups of drug processing labs, where coca leaves are converted into cocaine paste, which is then transported to more sophisticated labs (largely in Colombia) for conversion into powder cocaine.

Following this rather intense experience, we visited a nearby cooperative farm, where small farmers participate in a project of growing and marketing hearts of palm. This farm has been very successful, using start up support from USAID and later the Spanish government, recently becoming more independent and experiencing a great demand for their produce. It was encouraging to see this success – most of the reports on “alternative development” have described its many failures in the Chapare. But here they have been able to gain a lot of local support – it helps that the canning factory is located nearby, and it is easy for producers to sell their product without long transportation costs and marketing problems. Other crops being grown on nearby fields include black pepper, which is difficult to grow but turns a good profit. The farmers are experimenting with organic farming, and recycle their waste as compost which they both use and sell to other farmers in the area.

The only real problem we had in the Chapare (besides the nasty armadillo that Tom ordered for lunch one day) was at the Parque Machia, where they take in and rehabilitate injured animals. Machia is known for its monkeys, which come down from the trees to pick the pockets of visitors – a site our students were eager to see. We visited the park four times, and were never able to get in. The first two times it was raining, and the woman at the gate said that the monkeys get nervous when it rains and sometimes bite visitors. The third time we went it was not raining, just overcast, but again we were unsuccessful – the woman told us that the monkeys get nervous when it is cloudy and sometimes bite visitors. The fourth time was on the morning of our departure, when the rain and clouds had finally cleared and the sun shone down brightly. The same woman at the gate told us that the monkeys were eating breakfast, and we would have to come back in an hour. I have to admit that at this point I lost my cool, calling her a “nazi” and a “fascist” and threatening to write nasty letters to the tourist guidebooks denouncing their treatment of foreign visitors. I think the students may have enjoyed this display almost as much as they would have enjoyed the monkeys.

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