Tuesday, August 21, 2007

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer

El Alto, Bolivia
As the altitude increased, so did the quickness of our breath because the air was thinner and the oxygen seemed in short supply. You could feel it on your skin, in the back of your throat and in the tightness of your lungs. The scenery was breathtaking, but the altitude actually took our breath away. This was compounded by the cold. The kind of cold that seeps in all the way to your bones. It is the lingering cold that you feel even after you’ve drank your tea and buttoned the top of your coat.

El Alto was generally considered a slum or informal satellite city of La Paz for most of its history. I have even heard it described as the dorm rooms of the capital. For decades it has been the landing place for recent migrants coming in from the various rural areas of Bolivia hoping to have access to a better life, social systems, social services and access to the formal economy. However, all of these hopes and demands have surpassed the capacity of El Alto, it is now home to 800,000 people, mainly indigenous descent, though some estimate the population has topped one million.

In 1988 the city declared its independence from La Paz and became its own individual municipality comprised of 10 districts. It resembles a major urban government and yet it was unplanned, self-built and is comprised primarily of transient population who often are not included in the formal economy. It has intermittent access to basic services (water, electricity, schools etc) intertwined with areas that have rural characteristics (less desired land, dependence on external food sources, strong cultural identity, and lack of proper service for the majority of the inhabitants).

According to statistics in 2007, 60% of the population in El Alto are less than 25 years old. This is evident as you drive through the neighborhoods and see all of the children, only some of whom are wearing school uniforms and the others you can only assume do not attend. Despite the fact that there are so many young people, services for them are not readily available. Nor are there areas for them to play safely. Garbage dumps double as soccer fields and rusted playground equipment springs up from rocky terrain. Children congregate next to polluted water sources or play in dust-filled streets. It is shocking at first, but somehow you become accustomed to the sight.

Because El Alto is so large, CCF will be operating initially in just one of the 10 districts. And in fact, even within the district of over 100,000 inhabitants, CCF will be operating in the 10 northern most neighborhoods, also considered the most vulnerable, poor and marginalized. The district we chose is not currently being supported by any other international organization. The vast majority of the inhabitants are second generation migrants who came from the areas surrounding Lake Titicaca. The cultural ties to the community are so strong that most of them moved together and brought their costumes, heritages, social hierarchies and traditions. The younger generation identifies very closely with traditional culture, but are also linked with the assimilated El Alto culture as well.

These communities have a strong reputation for cultural identity and civil society involvement. They are proud of their ability to unify and speak as a collected voice. They are politically aware and highly motivated. Unlike so many marginalized groups, they demand a voice. The popular call to action is “El Alto De Pie, Nunca De Rodilla”, (El Alto on its feet, never on its knees) meaning that they will stand up for themselves and not be knocked down. I will tell you more about their strength and structure as well as the voice of the youth in my next blog.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

hey Nicole, hope you're staying warm, I know Bolivia can be really chilly right now. I did some of my graduate research on water privatization in El Alto. I'd be interested to know if most CCF families will have access to water and sanitation. Can't wait to hear the details upon your return. Safe Travels, Amanda