Matt Cohen.


Matt was both a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student in the Loret Miller Ruppe Peace Corps Masters International Program at Michigan Tech. Find out more about this program at http://peacecorps.mtu.edu/ .


August 26, 1999 - Just arrived.

"Just wanted to let you know we´ve arrived safely and started our training. Everything's going great here. I have you to thank for at least a million things. My Spanish is good enough to place me in the highest language group which means I´ll start learning another language soon enough. Also, the Project director was really impressed by my knowledge of tropical systems and the classes I´ve taken. It should bode well in my site placement.

"The other trainees here are all great. We´re a young bunch averaging around 23 years old with 33 of us total. Theres´21 business and 12 forestry. Tomorrow we move out of the city to live with our host families. I´ve got to get used to using an outhouse."


1 September 1999

Things are going really well here in Bolivia. I moved out to a outlying rural community called Kolba Pompa which is about 30 minutes outside the city in the lower valley. As part of the Peace Corps community based housing training program, they've spread all 33 volunteers out in small pockets so that we can fully integrate into Bolivian life.

I'm living with an elderly couple and their three daughters. Two of the daughters have 7 kids ages 2-12 living at the house. They are all really nice and the kids cant seem to stop being entranced with everything I do. I've been trying to teach em how to play football and they've been teaching me soccer (although at 9,000 feet I can only run for about 15 minutes before I collapse, they say it will get better though!). The house I live in is pretty poor although not as poor as some of the other volunteers. I was one of the lucky few blessed with an actual toilet (although you need a bucket of water to make it work) and we even have a phone and TV . The Donia has a bunch of chickens, ducks, pigs, and dogs to go along with her corn, onion, potato, and herb crops. Water runs from 9-5 daily from the local well that 32 families share and after that you'd better have your barrels full. My family also runs a store out of their home where they sell everything you could want.

As far as the food goes, potatoes, potatoes, potatoes, and sometimes for enjoyment, potatoes. Actually sometimes we get to have some of the other luxuries like guinea pig (lots and lots of fat and bones) or chicken claw soup (nothing like eating skin and tendons) although I haven't bought myself to eat the chicken claw yet. Breakfast consists of bread and tea, lunch is soup with potatoes and meat, and dinner is rice, potato, and some kind of meat. Nothing goes to waste here. Anything left over (banana peals and potato peals) goes to the animals. Every kind of uncooked vegetable has to be dosed in iodine to prevent infection. I usually eat with the kids while the donia has food in the kitchen. On special occasions we drink this corn beverage called chicha that's pretty much the national alcoholic beverage. Its pretty potent stuff and tastes great.

Still, for all the terrible food that's here, things are awesome. The community I live in is really tranquil and everyone always has time to smile, talk, and help you out. No matter how little these people have (and its not much) they'll offer you whatever they have in a heartbeat. We live near a big makeshift soccer field and on Sundays its the place to be. Just outside all the daylong games is a big market that's setup to buy anything you might need for the week. This is the place to be if you want to people watch!

My Spanish is really good and I've been able to start learning the native language Quechua a little bit. Its a really different sounding language and the kids have a lot of laughs hearing me try to pronounce some of the words. Everyone speaks Quechua.

All the rest of the volunteers I've met are really great. Even though weave only known each other a week weave all become good friends. Today was our first reunion with everyone since Saturday and everyone was really happy to see each other.

As far as lessons go. I've been working mostly at water conservation and soil conservation techniques. Erosion is a huge problem here and weave been learning how to contour farm using two sticks and a stone to follow the hills natural slopes. This weekend we're heading to a plantation to look at reforestation techniques from a university project.


21 September 1999

"I am already starting to learn Quecha and I'm planning my first presentation to Elementary School kids. I'm going to use Joan's "Well in a Cup" exercise to teach kids about thinking how to manage their own wells better. At least they'll get to take home a little well. Hope all is well [no pun intended]."


Mid-October 1999

I only have a little bit of time because I`ve got to get down to the market to buy supplies to make my plant press for our tech trip tomorrow. I`m teaching everyone how to make one. We`re going on our tech week trip to the state of Potosi up in the Andes to work on soil conservation projects and live barriers. We`ve been digging a lot of infiltration ditches, creating stone walls, and soon to be planting trees and grasses.

About my site. I got really lucky with this one. I`m gonna be working with the University of Oruro at their experimental research station in the village of Condoriri. I`ll be running extension programs in reforestation and soil conservation with local farmers in addition to working at the station on the agronomy faculty. They`ve asked that if I`m capable to teach classes in environmental education to university students. They`ll also be great opportunities to work on and locate a good thesis project. Plus, the APCD here used to work with this University for 10 years and knows everyone there. He`s really excited about sending me there to start some potential research projects. Its about 40 km outside the city of Oruro at an altitude of 12,000 feet. I`ll know more in three weeks after I get back from my site visit week. Till then I can also talk to 2 former volunteers I`ll be replacing.


More from Peace Corps Training. Early November 1999.

The training site is located in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which is a city of 600,000 people and is the third largest in Bolivia. It has a reverse-Mediterranean climate which enables all kinds of plants to grow well. Fruits, vegetables, and all other kinds of crops can be found in abundance. Although it is dry here for much of the winter (June-September) months, rainfall during the summer and spring provide sufficient quantities of water for the year.

Cochambamba city is located in a valley surrounded most prominently by Mount Tunari (5035 meters). The valley is approximately 25 km long by 10 km wide with Tunari to the Northwest.

For training, we have been placed in a community-based training program which clusters students in small groups based on their project and language level. In these communities we receive four hours of language training four days a week, Monday-Friday. Technical training occurs two times a week for four hours and on weekends when necessary. My community consists largely of displaced miners who earn their living from their small businesses or crops and animals. Approximately 32 families live in Colpa Pampa which is about 10 km outside the city. There are two small town centers close-by called Tikipaya and Colcapirhua where one can find most things you need for everyday life.

My family that I live with is large. My parents, Don Prudencio and Doñia Eduarda have nine children (5 boys and 4 girls) with the youngest being 18. All boys but one live and work in Buenos Aires, Argentina where there are more jobs. The other boy works as a mechanic and lives on the other side of town with his wife and kids. Three daughters live here with us and the other daughter lives about a block away with her husband and 5 kids. There are 7 kids in my house ages 2-13 of different parents. Colpa Pampa lacks a large young adult population due to the job migration to Buenos Aires and the Chapare region of Cohcabamba this is where the coca leaves are produced and cocain is extracted. Its tropical climate gives good growth rates for a drug trade and this is the U.S. DWA has a large presence there. For safety reasons, Peace Corps volunteers may not work there). The catholic church plays an important role here and operates a large school nearby. Water in Colpa Pampa is from one large well which is pumped 9-5 Monday - Friday and 7-6 Saturday and Sunday. Each family pays about $10 a year to pay for water pump usage and other incidentals. They elect a person to care for the well each year (my family's mom is the one in charge of pump usage).

Tech training is in the area of soil conservation and a little bit of reforestation. We have studied contour farming using the A frame and water hoses, construction of infiltration ditches to slow water runoff, use of live and dead barriers to control erosion, water-catchment systems, nursery management, Bolivian and local land use laws and systems, terracing, and basic local plant knowledge. Because of the mountainous terrain of Bolivia, soil erosion due to de-vegetation combined with heavy rains have left large problems with unproductive or "dead" soils for the farmers of the mountains and valleys (where most Bolivians live). The tropical lowlands which consist of ½ of the Bolivian land mass remain relatively uninhabited and unaccessible. This is slowly changing as people leave their farms and migrate to the tropics. However, most Peace Corps soil/forestry work concentrates in the mountains and valleys.

For our technical week we went to one of the poorest regions in all of South America. Known as the Zona Roja or Red Zone, families here earn less than $100 a year. Our base of operations for the week was the small colonial town of Toracari. At one point, this town was an important stop from the mines of Potosi to the coast for the Spanish but has now all but been abandoned. It lies about 10 km off the main road and 6 hours by car from the nearest telephone. There was no electricity and spare on generator for radio use and most things were brought in by mule.

While there we witnessed a once-a-year festival known as the "tinku". For this festival, all neighboring communities walk up to two days in order to take part. The people are of mostly pure Indian blood and rely on Quechua rather than Spanish to communicate. The purpose of the Tinku is to spill blood for their earth god "pacha mamma". The people believe that by giving their blood in fights, they will ensure a good harvest for the upcoming year. In many cases, deaths may occur which for these communities, while sad, ensure an extra good harvest.

To initiate a fight, men from the communities walk into the town square and march around it challenging other groups to fight them to take over the square. To ensure no person runs during the battle, each group of men have a person in the rear holding a whip. The person at the end of the week-long festival that has been beat up the most assumes a position of honor in their town and in the ones we witnessed, get to carry a large cross back to their communities while others dance around him.

While the fighting is an important part of this ceremony, it only takes up a small portion of the actual festival. Heavy amounts of drinking combined with marathon dancing makes for a lot of really drunk people. The drink of choice is Chicha which is a corn derivation but they also drink quite a bit of alcohol puro which consists of 98% pure alcohol (potent stuff!). For the women, this ceremony is a chance to see members of their family they can't normally see during the year. Due to the small population of each community, women must often marry into other far away communities to avoid inbreeding. This is the one time of year they all get together. Also, it is a chance for the women to earn some extra money for their families by selling their artesian stuff. Unfortunately, most of the money ends up going to their husbands to supply their drinking habits for the week. The place of women in this society is important but sadly under-recognized. Consequently, women have few if any rights.


26 November 1999

I got sick shortly after swearing in with a bacterial infection and possibly strep throat. I lost four more pounds last week but they're feeding penicillin into me right now. Two weeks into my volunteer work and I haven't gone out to my site yet. I leave Monday.


28 November 1999

I met a guy from USAID who's an RPCV from Dominican Republic and he offered to help me get seeds when I need em. Now I just need some reason to plant em eh?


Guess what, you're probably gonna shake your head at this but I've been thinking about getting a cell phone. A lot of other volunteers have them and they're a lot cheaper than getting a real phone for my city place. A real line costs about $1000 but a cell phone is $100 for the phone and then you buy cards to make outgoing calls. Incoming calls are free. Its just a pain in the butt having no way for people to get ahold of me other than them walking to my house. Peace Corps life is changing huh...


We're gonna go down to the Amazon basin for Christmas and New Years!


Early December

Alright, so its nearing the holiday season and everyone could probably use a good laugh right. Well, how about one at my expense (and deservedly so).


As I said in past e-mails, I`m working at a research station for the Universidad Tecnica de Oruro (Technical University of Oruro) as the Agroforester and Soil Conservation specialist. On my first day at the site I got assigned a kid (about 16) named Edwin to work for me on my various projects. The station director had looked around at the ravines and yards and noticed a lot of garbage laying around so he asked if I (as the environmental specialist of the station) could direct in the cleanup and burning of all trash. I said "sure, I can do that!". So anyways, Edwin and I collected all the garbage into a bunch of piles. I had thought burning is a little extreme but hey, when in rome.... So Edwin takes out the matches and starts lighting all the piles on fire (again, I`m thinking, maybe we should only light one at a time but he probably knows what he`s doing so I should just let him work). All the sudden, as the piles are burning, a huge funnel cloud comes right down on my fire pit (I`m not kidding, it was huge!). Well, it takes all the burning paper and plastic and throws it up into the air and scatters it in a bunch of directions. Now, we live in a prairie sort of environment surrounded by grasses and really dry ones at that. Next thing I know, theres two or three little fires starting up on the hillside above the center. I`m freaking out and Edwin asks me what we should do. I Yell to grab a damn bucket and head for the well. With a bucket for myself I run right up (and into) the biggest fire (singing all my hairs on my body in the process) and dump the water. So here I am running around the hillside with two other people, soaking wet (cause I tripped and got the slimy algae filled water all over me) while some local Indian women are sitting there just laughing their asses off at the stupid gringo running around like a chiken with his head cut off! Well, we finally got the fire out and I decided that for my first day, I`d done enough. I got from this (other than a nice fire tan) the nickname "el hombre de Fuego (the man of fire) which lasted a few days. The rest of the week I decided to work on something a lot safer, fixing the tree irrigation system. Score one for the college graduate.


The second story just happened today after almost two fairly productive and uneventful weeks of work. Next to my nursery I`ve been working on there`s a pretty good sized pen with some Vicuñas in them (they`re about the size of deer and are related to llamas). They look cute at first glance but there`s this one male in the group and his name is Marcello. Marcello doesn`t like the idea of me working near his pen and his women so he makes sure to let me know it by spitting towards me every time I pass by. The other workers all hate him but I decided to try to make friends and told the others they`re not to throw anything at him or make any hostile gestures. Didn`t work.... Today, while I was in the nursery Marcello comes up to the fence spitting and making his usual charming noises. Except today I decided to just kinda look at him in hopes he would calm down. Pissed him off more... Marcello found a way to get out and starts charging after me. Terrified at first I start running but then midway through that I realize that he could easily catch me so I swing around and give him a sock in the face at the same time he gives me a kick in the chest. We both fall (me more than him) but I get up and immediately start kicking the little guy while he's spitting and kicking at me. Enough of that, I grab a shovel from nearby and go after hime. If I`d had a gun I would have shot him there and then. The only reason he`s still alive is that unfortunately he`s an endangered species so he`s protected by law (Yes, me the wildlife biologist is picking fights with endangered species). We finally got him into his cage and I was made to feel a little better when one of the dairy workers told me the same thing happened to him last night. Well, those are my stories. A smart person would have probably kept them quiet and not told a soul but I never said I was that smart. Hope you all get a good laugh.


Things are going well. I`m heading down to the Amazon basin in about a week to meet up with some friends for New Years. I figure maybe I can find a few other endangered species to pick fights with while I`m there too! Also for those of you who don`t already know. I broke down and bought a cell phone with my settling in money (hey who needs blankets when you`ve got a phone).


Mid - January 2000

I just went down and saw Susan yesterday. She took me out to her site and we caught up on things over the last two months. She seems to be doing really well and enjoys her site a lot. I also received the paper on tree harvesting methods in dry areas as well as the journal on Mountain Research and Development. It has a lot of great stuff on it. (our APCD ordered a copy for the office after seeing it).

Anyways, I've spent the last few days trying to locate some funding for a variety of projects I've got in mind. I'll probably end up using my SPA money on buying tools and shade covering for the University nursery. I'm gonna start teaching once a week courses to the University students on nursery management and soil conservation techniques. I want to give each ten students a bed to work with in which they can seed, transplant, mix soils, etc. to. We just right now have to get around the nursery workers who dont like the idea of having students working around in the nursery.

I'm also looking for some money to do a research study on the comparative effects of llamas versus sheep in grazing patterns. I would be working in cooperation with another professor who's be doing a nutritive analysis of the grasses most commonly foraged on. My part would most likely include creating exclosure zones in which we could monitor the amount of soil and vegetative loss to quantify differences in foraging behavior. This might be the more tricky experiment to find funding for because the nutritive analysis won't be cheap. For my thesis study I'm thinking about doing a similar experiment to the Sheik (Beets book) experiment by creating a variety of different holes to capture water and measuring the resultant growth rates of trees in comparison to the different holes. I would probably use 2-3 different species of both native and introduced origins. Regardless, I wouldn't be able to start field studies for another year due to the fact that the rainy season is already upon us right now. I've got plenty of time to lay out my study.


Mid-February 2000

Since I became a volunteer in November, I have moved up to the Centro Experimental Agropecuaria Condoriri (Agricultural Experimental Research Center at Condoriri) to assume my duties as the stations´ forestry specialist. I spend my week divided between the research center and the Agronomy Faculty in Oruro. Monday thru Thursday I am out in the campo (countryside) at the center and usually return Thursday evening to work Fridays and some Saturdays in the faculty nursery.

For my first month and a half, I spent most of my time cleaning and improving the stations´ nursery and irrigations system for its trees. This mostly entailed a lot of manual labor in the form of digging new canals for irrigation, removing weeds and bushes from the area, and weeding out dead or dying plants from the nursery.

The nursery, due to the fact that it has been out of operation for quite some time, was in poor condition. Weeds and grasses had grown in with the planting beds and walls were crumbling and in disrepair. On the suggestion of my counterpart, Jesús Cárdenas, I measured out open spaces near the nursery for future expansion plans. My plans are to create an additional three nursery beds consisting of 10X2 meters for two of them and 4X2 meters for the other. One other area would be created and designated for composting. Our idea is to produce approximately 4000-5000 trees per year from this nursery to give to the local farmers for soil conservation projects.

I`ve also begun teaching English classes two nights a week to about 20 students at the center. Although I`ve never taught English before, I think I`m doing a pretty good job and have been working on sentence structure and verb usage as well as increasing vocabulary. I plan to incorporate translations for popular songs and articles from Newsweek to better their vocabulary and have some fun. I also have fun teaching them some of the slang from our country as well. English is a difficult language to learn and I never realized it until I started teaching it.

In the upcoming months, I hope to begin producing seedlings from the station nursery. We are looking to begin with Quiswara which is a native tree/shrub that grows well on the altiplano. However, it is unpopular with many farmers due to the fact that it does not produce a straight trunk for use in construction but rather many branches from a small stump. From there, I would like to move to a more popular species, Alnus (elm), which has proven to grow fairly well in this climate with a straight trunk that is popular with the local farmers.

Currently in the nursery, we have approximately 800 sticks of Sauce Miembre which we are planning to plant alongside a local river bed to protect farmland from erosion. These sticks should be ready for transplant in about 3 more months. My only concern with this planting is that it will coincide with the driest and coldest time of the year and mortality may be high.

At the suggestion of the station director, I have mapped out an area around the center in order to plant approximately 80 trees for beautification of the center. The director is interested in planting mostly around the new basketball court that they constructed for the center. I`ve planned to plant a mixture of Retama and Elm which seem to easily outperform most other non-native tree species in the area.

In the area of soil conservation, I`ve designated a site on a nearby hill in which I would like to begin a demonstration plot with infiltration ditches and dikes to use as an example to local farmers. Integrating the site with grasses and trees, I`d like to show how these techniques not only stop erosion, but also help capture humidity for the otherwise dry soil. My counterpart has also expressed an interest in constructing Atajados (water collection basins) to study how they perform in the dry altiplano climate.

The main method by which most farmers have found recent success is through irrigation farming from a local river. Using small pumps, farmers bring water out of the canals and up onto the flat ground to irrigate a variety of crops including Abba (Lima Beanish), Onions, Quinua (a popular grain), Potatoes, and Alphalpha. Other farmers use the hillside slopes to plant drier crops such as Wheat, and Potatoes. This hillside area is where I have the most interest in soil conservation due to the potential high loss of topsoil during the rainy season.

Another highly important factor in the livelihood of the local farmers is their livestock production. Sheep, Llamas, and dairy cattle seem to be the predominant animals along with some limited Pig and Chicken production. Almost every household has at least one or more varieties of these animals. I have also seen some Burro´s around here which the farmers apparently use for pack animals. Animal power is utilized intensively in farm tillage and ground preparation with some scattered families having tractors.
Output from these systems is poor in comparison to other departments due to the harsh, cold climate, and lack of precipitation. Salinization of the fields due to irrigation is another concern for many altiplano farmers although seems to be less of a factor here compared to other areas. Late rains this year and unusually cold weather caused the loss of some crops in mid-December. However, high rains in January and continuing through February seem promising.

The altiplano is defined by the flat stretch of land that lies in between the occidental and oriental mountain chains of the Andes. As it has been described to me, this land consists of fill that has come down from the two mountains to cause it to rise almost to the level of the mountains themselves. These chains appear as hills in the surrounding backdrop and consequently give us a justified feeling of being on top of the world.

Vegetation consists mostly of sparse grasses and small shrubs with the occasional native tree. Much of the usable native tree species were long ago cleared from this area for use in firewood and as a result they are few and far between.

Temperatures normally range from -8 to 12 degrees Celsius throughout the year and average yearly precipitation is around 300mm. Last year, due to la Niña, precipitation spiked to 770mm and this year in January alone we had approximately 100mm of rain. Seasonal predictions for rainfall in this epoch are therefore hard to predict. Soils in my area consist of a variety of different types ranging from sand, clay, to a very rocky mixture of the two. Most soils in this area are unsuitable to anything other than grazing and thus much of my work may focus on improving pasture quality.

Historically, Oruro was founded and established mainly to extract the minerals from the hills surrounding the altiplano. Recently, these mines that have lasted for well over a century have begun to peter out and thus has left Oruro struggling to find a new economic base. One of the more beneficial points of Oruro lies in its location. Near Chile, La Paz, Cochabamba, and with a railroad connecting it to the south to Argentina, it has become a transportation hub for passengers and cargo on its way to other destinations. Still, it is little more than a stop on the way to other places for most of the tourists and transports that pass through. I like it that way....

Even before the arrival of the Spanish, this area was inhabited by a number of groups; most prominently the Aymara, which where a group of people located in the altiplano from Lake Titicaca near the Peruvian border throughout La Paz and Oruro departments. These people are renowned for their toughness and respected for their ability to maintain their culture and language even through Incan rule. They are one of the few groups to accomplish this feat within the Incan Empire. The Aymara language is similar in some structural ways to the Incan language Quechua but differs widely in pronunciation and tone. I`ve found it infinitely harder to learn than Quechua and am still working on mastering even the most basic phrases.


Early April 2000

I´m now going on my eighth month in country and 4 1/2 months of service here in Oruro. For the first two months not much was going on and I spent most of my time reading out at my site and hanging out in the city. It was acutally kinda pitiful but with summer break for the students at the University and preparations for carnival (which went on for nearly two months prior to the event) there wasn´t really much of anybody doing anything. Well, carnival arrived (and so did my mom and stepdad Marc) and we got to party a bit, travel around Bolivia, and hang out.

Now I´ve been spending a lot of time out in my site and working. I´ve got three soil conservation experiments working at the station and I think I found some money to build some rainfed farm ponds for some of the local farmers which should provide them with water for irrigation all year long. I started teaching a class in soil conservation at the University to 100 students. Plus, I´ve bought some student out from the city to spend one day a week working alonside the local farmers so they can learn how tings are really done. They originally weren´t used to a teacher soo young but I think they´re getting used to me. Besides, being the only gringo at the department I stick out like a sore thumb so that everyone knows who I am. The same thing happens in the communities as well. Its been a bit strange for me but when I walk down the street in the town I live near, most people just stand in their doorways and stare. When I say hi to the little kids they smile and then turn around and run into their houses. When I asked one of the local farmers why they do that he said its cause I´m like a half a foot taller than everyone and they´re not used to seeing white people. One of the funnier things happened to me when I went out to one of the local communities in which I work. This place consists of about 10 adobe houses and a school with no electricity or running water (its out there man!). Anyways, I´m sitting in a meeting hanging out with the local men and they´re all talking half in Aymara and half in Spanish so I understand about half of what they say.

At one point, one of the guys asks me the inevitable question (they all ask me this); When am I gonna take a Bolivian girl back to the US with me? I just answered jokingly that I need one that can cook and has a sturdy back to collect firewood. Undetered, the guy says to me, "why don´t you take Doñia so and so, shes got over fifty llamas and sheep and most of her teeth. You could be rich with her? I´m not too sure if the guy was actually serious or not but we all had a good laugh.

Nothing solves any problems or worries you might have like some good hard work. I was a feeling a little overwhelmed last week and went out to the countryside to work and after a few days of digging trenches, hand-harvesting crop with some farmers, and setting out adobe bricks, I felt great. One day, I worked for six hours picking carrots for a local farmer with a pick bent over in front of an adobe hut alongside a river. It was grueling work and after six hours I couldn{t even move my back but the other farmers just kept toiling away without ever stopping for a break. For every one hundred pounds or so of carrots, the farmers recieve about 5 dollars (half of what it was the previous year). Still, its either do this or go hungry.

Anyways, right now we´re heading into winter and I´m looking to try to get some projects ready for the next years´ rains. I also want to start working with schoolkids to plant trees in a local town. Its pretty ugly and trees would really help.

I´ll spend a week in April taking Aymara classes down in Cochabamba but its a really hard language to learn so we´ll see how I do.


I´m now going on my eighth month in country and 4 1/2 months of service here in Oruro. For the first two months not much was going on and I spent most of my time reading out at my site and hanging out in the city. It was actually kinda pitiful but with summer break for the students at the University and preparations for carnival (which went on for nearly two months prior to the event) there wasn´t really much of anybody doing anything. Well, carnival arrived (and so did my mom and stepdad Marc) and we got to party a bit, travel around Bolivia, and hang out.


Now I´ve been spending a lot of time out in my site and working. I´ve got three soil conservation experiments working at the station and I think I found some money to build some rainfed farm ponds for some of the local farmers which should provide them with water for irrigation all year long. Istarted teaching a class in soil conservation at the University to 100students. Plus, I´ve bought some student out from the city to spend one daya week working along side the local farmers so they can learn how tings arereally done. They originally weren´t used to a teacher so young but I think they´re getting used to me. Besides, being the only gringo at the department I stick out like a sore thumb so that everyone knows who I am. The same thing happens in the communities as well. Its been a bit strange for me but when I walk down the street in the town I live near, most peoplejust stand in their doorways and stare. When I say hi to the little kids they smile and then turn around and run into their houses. When I asked oneof the local farmers why they do that he said its cause I´m like a half afoot taller than everyone and they´re not used to seeing white people. One of the funnier things happened to me when I went out to one of the local communities in which I work. This place consists of about 10 adobehouses and a school with no electricity or running water (its out thereman!). Anyways, I´m sitting in a meeting hanging out with the local men and they´re all talking half in Aymara and half in Spanish so I understand abouthalf of what they say.


At one point, one of the guys asks me the inevitable question (they all ask me this); When am I gonna take a Bolivian girl back to the US with me? Ijust answered jokingly that I need one that can cook and has a sturdy back to collect firewood. Undetered, the guy says to me, "why don´t you take Doñia so and so, shes got over fifty llamas and sheep and most of her teeth.You could be rich with her? I´m not too sure if the guy was actually serious or not but we all had a good laugh.


Nothing solves any problems or worries you might have like some good hardwork. I was a feeling a little overwhelmed last week and went out to thecountryside to work and after a few days of digging trenches,hand-harvesting crop with some farmers, and setting out adobe bricks, I feltgreat. One day, I worked for six hours picking carrots for a local farmerwith a pick bent over in front of an adobe hut alongside a river. It was grueling work and after six hours I couldn't even move my back but the otherfarmers just kept toiling away without ever stopping for a break. For everyone hundred pounds or so of carrots, the farmers recieve about 5 dollars (half of what it was the previous year). Still, its either do this or go hungry.


Anyways, right now we´re heading into winter and I´m looking to try to getsome projects ready for the next years´ rains. I also want to start working with school kids to plant trees in a local town. Its pretty ugly and trees would really help.


I´ll spend a week in April taking Aymara classes down in Cochabamba but its a really hard language to learn so we´ll see how I do.


May 25, 2000 - Matt Becomes First Michigan Tech PCV to Lose Cell Phone.

The other day in La Paz I lost my cell phone and had to get a new one with a new number. Dude, it cost like $95 and a whole day of running around so I wasn´t stoked. The one good thing though is they promised me with this new number I an receive calls anywhere in Bolivia.


5 June 2000

My students at the University recently presented their soil conservation exposition in which they constructed terraces, ditches, dikes, rain fed farm ponds, and microcatchment systems (just about all borrowed from Beets book). They did a really cool job and I'll have to send the photos to you.

I've been asked by my APCD to be one of the two volunteers that will serve on a committee with embassy officials, NGO people, and Bolivian officials, to advise on development work in Bolivia. We'll meet one or two times a year. Right now he's presenting my study on forage improvement at a Peace Corps conference in Guatemala. He says they're gonna publish it.


June 2000

One of the first things I realized is that the people out in the communities surrounding the station aren`t just going to come over to the station to meet me; and going to one meeting doesn´t qualify me as a regular local on the altiplano scene. So I started to go out at least three or four times a week on my bike to the local farm houses and when I saw people out and about I began to talk to them. If there was work to do (such as harvesting crops or building structures) I offered to help them. While I was working with them or touring their lands with them I found that it was they and not I who were constantly asking for ways in which they can improve one thing or another. From this basis I got to know 2 families pretty well and a handful of others on a name basis. I decided that these 2 families are motivated, young, and inventive people and that any future projects could be done with them.


I also began to teach a couple of classes at the University. One of them was a class in Soil Conservation to third year students. I have about 120 students in this class that is broken up into two sections. We meet once a week for 3 hours at a time (each section) and my main job has been working with them out in the field to teach them basic soil conservation techniques. I´ve had them construct a number of structures including dikes, infiltration ditches, terraces (small scale ones), contour lines, and minin rain-fed farm pond models. One day for each group, I bought them to Condoriri to view my larger scale versions and also to work measuring soil erosion and contour lines for future ditch construction. Another group of students I´ve begun classes with is a group of fifth year (school is five years here) students who once a week I bring out to the station to work with local farm families. We have 11 students in all and I place 2 students with each family so that they can learn how the real farm system functions. Their job is to do whatever the families do and learn from them. After a period of time, if they have some viable solutions to some of the problems and the farmers are in agreement, the university will help with resources and the students will direct the projects under my and my counterparts´ supervision. I think that this is potentially the most beneficial and rewarding of all my work because it not only helps the local farmers, but also trains the future agronomists in real world practices and solutions.

At the station itself, I began a number of projects to study soil erosion and water harvesting. Some were already listed above but one of the projects I´m most proud of is the introduction of "Fanya Juu" ditches that I wanted to try up here in the altiplano. These ditches originated in Kenya and have some real benefits over normal ditches. Its my hope that in a years time we will be able to see some real results in the way of increased soil humidity and erosion control. Another project I have begun to supervise is the construction of a rain-fed water pond on station lands. One the students here at Condoriri has chosen this project for his thesis work. He would like to measure evaporation rates and how they differ from more humid, lower altitudes. This will be the first pond of this type ever constructed on the altiplano. I´ve also noticed in the local families a number of self constructed greenhouses which contain earthworms purchased in local cities at an extraordinary price (6 dollars per ½ kilo). I`ve thought that if we can start a worm raising project, the cost would be minimum and sales from the excess worms could provide additional income. I`m currently investigating the feasability of such a project.


Things are going along rather smoothly. I`ve been happy with my work and have been meeting a lot of great people. I feel comfortable in my site and look forward to the possibility of more work.

Agricultural Production:
Most farm production done in the surrounding area is small-scale subsistence farming which relies heavily on animal drought systems for plowing as well as manual labor. Small family farms are the norm with most families managing an integrated system of livestock and agriculture. When possible, animal fertilizer from sheep, cattle, and llamas are added to the fields to increase production. Green fertilizers are not commonly used in this area.
The majority of agricultural production in the surrounding area lies in seasonal rain-fed crop systems which produce a limited variety of crops such as Potatoes, Wheat, Onions, Barley and Quinua. These systems are mainly small scale and limited to areas where soil productivity remains relatively high. However, due to problems with erosion and variability of climate (i.e. changing rainfall patterns), this method gives variable yields.
The preferred but more costly system of farming in the area is irrigated fields which rely on water pumps to remove water from sub-terranean aquifers or from a nearby river system. In this system there is a larger and more variable crop production including Carrots, Beats, Lima Beans, and Alfalfa. However, as a result of the increased cost of running and obtaining the pump, this method is not available to all families. Soil conservation practices (ditches, terracing, etc.) are rarely utilized in these systems. However, in recent years there has been a slight increase and utilization of such techniques in the areas surrounding the research station.

Livestock Production:
Most families within the area rely heavily on livestock production to augment their income. Pasturing is done mostly on communal lands and normally by the women or children. Sheep, Llamas, and cattle are the most commonly used species of animals. Of these three species, only Llamas are native with the rest being introduced by the Spaniards during colonial times.
Due to overstocking and overgrazing problems associated with a dense population, animal quality and production is relatively low. These problems could and are being addressed by local extension agents who are currently preaching better animal selection and more selective grazing. However, due to the economic benefits of having many animals over fewer (more stability in harsh times) this approach has been slow to be adopted.



13 July 2000

It's the dead of winter right now in Oruro and its freeeeeeezzing (literally). My Brazilian friend Tarcio the other day was fascinated by the bucket of ice that had formed outside my house the other day (It was the first time he'd seen ice in his life). I, on the other hand being from Southern California, was less than thrilled. We recently passed San Juan (which is supposed to be the coldest day of the year). Traditionally, everyone goes outside their house, drinks a lot of pure alcohol with hot water, gets drunk and sits in front of a big fire. I lasted about a half hour outside before going in to some party where it was a bit warmer.

Works been extremely hectic lately and I just got a great letter from the United Nations small projects fund saying they'd agreed to fund a project of mine on building rain-fed farm ponds (atajados) in a local community I work in. Its supposed to harvest rain water to provide additional irrigation to farmers in my region. These farmers are some of the poorest in the world. They earn about $250US a year and live in adobe hut without electricity or even sometimes water nearby. The funding is for $13,000 (more than sufficient) and they say if I do well on this project I can request a follow-up project of up to $100,000.

I've also just started two new projects on strengthening tree resistance to the climate and creating microcatchments for trees to provide more water and create microclimates. The Peace Corps has decided to publish a study of mine on forage improvement and I'm going to a conference next week to present my results.

Here in Oruro things are pretty tranquilo. Although its cold here and pretty dry, I really like my city and my campo site. Its very friendly and I feel really comfortable here. Peace Corps life is pretty relaxed and I make my own schedule so there are days that I can just spend sitting in the sun in a park bench reading if I so desire. Its nice not to be too stressed out but still be considered productive.

My group now getting to be the old timers here in Bolivia. We've been in country now almost 11 months and two groups have already come after us with the third arriving next month. Its weird ´cause I still feel like the new guy.


15 July 2000

I actually just spent some time reminiscing on the houghton lifestyle. We had two guys pass through here who were riding their motorcycles from Michigan to Argentina and they had lived in Sault St. Marie for a year. We had a lotta fun talking about Yoopers. At least there in Michigan though we had heat. You dont notice the cold soo much until you cant escape it. Adobe doesn`t insulate very well.

Tonight I`m going out drinking with the wolf man from the circus that's passing through. How many times in a life can one say hes drank with the famous wolf man from Mexico?


2 October 2000

Since my last report back in May, my work has continued much along the same lines as before. The atajado (or rainwater harvesting ponds) have been my primary work and the grant from the United Nations Development Projects fund has come through only recently. The work as of late has centered around mostly around locating potential atajado sites and doing the basic soil examinations required for construction. I've also been looking for a good tractor driver to do the actual digging of the ponds.

The farmers were difficult to arrange at first and due to the limited amount of resources and the requirements that the ponds not be placed with families that already have some sort of irrigation there occurred some infighting with the local community leaders over which sub community would get the ponds and how many each would get. The number of ponds according to our calculations that we can build is 10 and due to requirements that it benefit at least forty families, we've had to insist that at least three to four families share each pond. The hope is that the following year if this project goes well we will be able to get a grant for $150,000 from the Fondo de Desarollo Campesino (and NGO) to build one atajado for each family.

What remains to be done is a lot! We have a month and a half to get the tractor out and digging, get all the trenches measured and in place, build the sedimentation traps, get the overflow and tubing put in, and most importantly get the pond compacted down so that when the first rains come the pond doesn't fall in on itself. I've been quite nervous about our project and have therefore been hurrying it along as best as I can. The money just finally came in yesterday and the farmers are now digging their soil pits so I can examine them this week. Due to country instability, I worry though that we may not be able to get things done in time to beat the rains. Adding to that is the worry that the farmers will not work as hard as they need to because they need to sow their fields.

On the forestry side of my work, I've cut 2,500 Sauce mimbre to start new trees from the sticks. Currently, they are sitting in water to allow for the roots to sprout at which point we will move them to the planting beds in my nursery. I've made a deal with the mayors' office in Oruro to allow for us to trade 1,000 of these sticks with 1,000 aspen sticks they've cut from the city trees. We also have another 1,500 Sauce mimbre that are from last years cut and are ready to plant. I'm going to put them in as potential windbreaks in a local field and have high hopes for their success due to the fact that they are about the only tree species that seems to grow with ease in this climate and altitude. The nursery is really shaping up and my worker has built some new beds and we should soon have a composting pit installed along with a wall to keep out the animals.


Matt with the football.


End of December, 2000.

The last time I wrote this report was in September when I recently found out about the necessity of a site change from my site. At that point, I was unsure where or what my new job would entail and so was vague as to my future work.

I've now finally settled myself into my new job and new site after three months of delay and my new job is working as the roving engineer for the Natural Resource Project of Peace Corps Bolivia. As the roving engineer, my job is to work directly with volunteers in the soil conservation/forestry and environmental education projects to assist them in any way possible (pretty vague I know). The majority of my work is centered on site visits to the volunteers and helping them with technical aspects of their work. Even though I've only been at this job for about a month, I've already made a number of site visits to the volunteers in my project and have a number of solicitations for more visits.

Some of the work I've been doing in my new job has related to nursery development, designing irrigation systems, assistance with project writing, and various requests for technical information from other volunteers. On top of all this work, I've also been trying to get out to my site to finish up my Masters' project experiment (a nearly impossible feat to accomplish this time of year) and also get the atajado project I spoke of in my last report going. As it stands right now, I don't think I'll be getting anything done until early January when people start heading back to work. Life moves slower here and things very easy to get accomplished.


I had a lot of issues with deciding whether or not to accept this new job. It's meant the loss of a lot of good experiences (community living, direct extension work, loss of freedom, etc.) but in the end I decided to accept it based on the help and impact I can have on a number of projects nationwide. I like the idea of working on a variety of interesting and different projects as well as seeing the entire country and getting to know the various subcultures here. Living in the city and traveling so much has been hard but I think I'll get used to it.


15 January 2001

It was extremely scary but last week almost everything went according to plan and after a full week of working all day every day in the campo I was able to get the trees in the ground and the barb wire should be finished as we speak.

The rains have come really hard this year and I think we`re in for a higher than normal rainfall this year which means that I`ve already seen some of my plants are going to drown but thats all part of the experiment right?

The only problem I encountered was that my tractor hole digger broke on me so me and my worker (along with two other workers I contracted) dug 300 holes in one day and planted another 300 trees the next day. My hands are super calloused and bloody after this week and I got a cold from working in the rain but I haven`t felt this good in a long time. I guess all I needed to get feeling better was to smack a pick at the ground for a few days!


20 March 2001

Traditionally, all the Peace Corps projects in Bolivia (there are four) had a third year volunteer coordinator who worked directly with the APCD (Associate Director) on project issues such as volunteer technical support, organization of meeting, and training (both pre-service and in-service). However, a short time after I arrived in Bolivia, the project coordinator position was eliminated in favor of regional coordinators who work with all volunteers in the region to provide volunteer support. Many of the directors felt that this change made their jobs more difficult as there was no longer anyone available to help them directly with project issues. In order to supplement this loss, the directors of all four projects created a roving engineer position in which one volunteer who displayed a firm grasp of the technical issues related to the project acted as an intermediary between the volunteers and directors. Their job is to travel to volunteers' sites and help with technical support for the various projects that volunteers manage.

When I needed to get a site change, Remigio (my APCD) asked me to consider taking on this position as the first roving engineer for the project. Whereas there had existed roving engineers before in the other projects, their work mainly involved short site visits to offer technical assistance and maintain the contact between volunteers and administration. Remigio wanted to broaden the Rovings' work responsibilities to include organizing regional project meetings (an idea I had), helping train trainees, and accompanying him on site development trips in order to get a volunteers perspective on new potential sites. Basically, this new job is exactly like the old project coordinator position but with a new name and not using third year volunteers.
Remigio gives me complete freedom to make my schedule and because I have a cellular phone, he can call me anytime that he needs anything specific from me no matter where I am in the country. I receive solicitudes from volunteers via email and head out to their sites for anywhere from 2 days to a week. It's interesting work in that it allows me to become involved in a variety of projects and also to see a lot of the country in a way most volunteers would never be able to see. We have 38 volunteers working under our project in Soil Conservation/Forestry and Environmental Education so there is always some work to do and I've been quite busy with visit requests. Plus, it's a great excuse to visit all my friends and call it work.

In February I went down to the south of the country with my APCD to hold the first ever regional project meeting in Bolivia. The purposes of this meeting were to find ways in which volunteers working in the same project in the same region could better coordinate their work and also to strengthen administration-volunteer communication. I was put in charge of organizing and running this meeting and even though there are some bugs to work out it went rather well. Because of the success of this meeting, the other projects are now adopting this for their volunteers. Our next regional meeting is scheduled for the 2nd of May in the Santa Cruz region. Following the meeting, I stayed in the region and visited a few volunteers in their sites.

More recently with my Roving job I have been helping Remigio to place the trainees in their new sites. In Bolivia the volunteers are given all the potential sites in the third week of training and must select three from among these sites as potential sites for them. The APCD is then given the responsibility of deciding where the volunteers will go from among these choices (if to any of them). Most volunteers received their choices but in one site no one had chosen it so Remigio bought me in to sit in on the last interviews and help decide who will have to go where. It was a bit stressful since this is where the volunteers will be for the next two years but I have been to most of the sites and was able to augment information on each site for the volunteers. I think they will all be happy in their new sites as they're all great places.

I was also recently selected as one of 5 volunteers in the country to take part in the Project Revision meeting in La Paz with Peace Corps administration, Embassy and USAID officials, and Bolivian government personnel. The object of the three-day meeting was to redesign the project goals and objectives to better fall in line with Peace Corps Washington's goals and objectives. Project revisions are normally done on a five-year basis and I considered it a great honor to be invited to participate in this meeting. I believe that the changes we made to the project should result in a more realistic and flexible working relationship with volunteers and their counterpart agencies.
With all the traveling that I have been doing as part of my work with the roving position, I haven't had a tremendous amount of time to spend in my old site in Oruro. In early January I spent about a week out in my site setting up my Thesis experiment and checking up on some of my still ongoing projects. Because of the fact that I hadn't yet set up my experiment, I was a bit pressed to finish the whole thing in that week due to the fact that I wanted to take advantage of every bit of rain that was falling. What I was unaware of however was exactly how much rain was going to fall this winter. Normally in Oruro we receive about 330 mm of rain per year but so far this year we have received about 650mm essentially more than doubling the annual rainfall by the years end. This is serving to work against my thesis in the fact that my rainwater harvestings systems have been performing their jobs too well and as a result I've seen a high mortality rate (mostly among the cypresses) due to drowning. This was an entirely unexpected outcome but I think that now that the worst of the rains are over with I should be ok and the trees that survived will be all the better off for it.

The week that I spent out in the countryside was probably one of my most productive weeks in my life. The tractor apparatus I had initially borrowed to dig the holes for the trees broke after only digging about 30 of the 403 holes we needed to dig. In one day, my worker and I (with some help in the late afternoon from two other workers) completed digging all the 300 tree holes using picks and shovels. Earlier in the week we had widened 180 meters of trenches and deepened 90 more meters of trenches all by hand. It was a lot of work but by the end of the week we had planted all 300 trees in their systems, gotten all the fence posts in place, and stretched all the barbed wire so that the entire experiment was completely set up for the 12th of January. After that week I rested and salted my hands which were completely ripped up and bloodied from the pick work. It felt really good to finish this experiment and I was also extremely happy to be back in the countryside after recently having spent a long time in the cities.

Since that week in January, I haven't visited my site too much and this week (12th of March) is the first opportunity I've had to get back out here since then. Carnival has just recently ended so things are only slowly starting to get back to normal here and the reality of things are that nothing has really changed since I've been gone. I plan to spend this whole week building a system of dikes and designing a canal system to protect the roads out here from flooding. Transportation to and from this area has been made nearly impossible during this rainy season due to the intense rains and subsequent road damage. Yesterday I went up to an area where the previous year I built some small dikes and saw that only from this year alone they have already filled in with about 60cm worth of sedimentation! Erosion rates for this area have been estimated at around 170 tons/hectare/year.

Of all the trees that we worked so hard to plant back in November and December, only a small percentage are still living. We planted around 3000 Sauce mimbre and due to frosts lost around 2000 of them. Of the 1000 Aspens that we planted only around 400 are still alive and those are mostly the ones I had placed in the nursery to prepare for next year or the year after that. Of the 350 or so that we put out in the surrounding areas as part of a reforestation effort only about 5% are still living. All this has been quite disheartening and I'm at a loss as to explain where we went wrong. I made sure they were all well irrigated and fertilized before the rains came and the only explanation I can come up with is that the late frosts that arrived only about a week after we planted the trees must have killed off the weakened trees (the nursery was more protected from the winds so that would explain the higher survival rates. All in all, its' been a learning process but one that I never wish to repeat. The next year I plan to use almost exclusively native trees regardless of farmer preference for non-natives with the only exception being Ulmus campestris which seem to grow comparatively well out here. However, in my examinations of some of our older Elms today I found that a majority of them as well have been recently affected by hailstorms and colder than normal temperatures. Its all been sort of a disaster so I'm not sure what my next step as far as forestation should be.


Initially it was a little difficult adjusting to life in my new site due to the fact that life there was so different than my life in the countryside of Oruro. It took me about a month but I've adjusted pretty well and even though I miss my old site and am always happy when I get back there, I'm also happy in my new site and I feel fortunate that I've been able to learn another side of Bolivia. The people whom live in the city (and especially my richer friends there) live lives completely different and separated from the life of those whom live in the country.

Its' been an interesting experience for me and I've discovered that there exists in this country a huge barrier of discrimination on the part of the richer Bolivians toward the country people. (The way one speaks says a lot about your origin here. My richer Bolivian friends get a good laugh when I speak because I carry a lot of the country dialect in my language). My Spanish is improving a lot since I moved to the city because one of the bad things about living in the countryside is that all the people there speak a poor version of Spanish as their first language is Aymara and they never learned to speak Spanish very well. My English is also suffering from speaking too much Spanish and even as I write this I'm struggling to remember what the English translation of some of the words I want to use are. I've been told I speak Spanish in my sleep which makes me happy.


9 April 2001

Busy is not even the word for what is going on here. The bulldozer finally came out to my old site last week and I´ve been spending night and day getting everything ready for them to build my water catchment ponds. I don´t leave the countryside very much recently and haven´t been able to check email or even eat a decent meal in a while. The good news is that I´m getting a lot of publicity on my project from local newstations but the bad news is that they interviewed me after a week in the countryside without a shave or bath or even a change of clothes. It was a pretty repulsive sight.

I also built a large dike system to prevent flooding and have about three other reforestation and education projects that are all on hold now due to work overload. With only 7 more months to go I want to try to get anything and everything I can finished or at least underway before I leave.


18 May 2001

I just finished organizing a national workshop on Environmental Education sponsered by USAID and the EPA. We distributed a big box of books to 20 agencies throughout the country for environmental education programs and with the goal of forming a national network. It went well but I`m exhuasted. My pond project is and has been for quite some time in the construction phase. I`m currently looking for financing for a larger pond project even though I wouldn`t be around to do it. I just hosted a day long seminar on soil conservation with 25 farmers from my area and it went rather well. We`re going to be writing a soil conservation manual and I`ll probably be writing an Atajado (rainwater catchment pond) manual around July or August.


15 June 2001

I spent a majority of my time during the months of March and April in my old site up in Oruro. My dreams and nightmares all seemed to collide at the focal point of which is known here as my Atajado project. My Atajado project (in case you can't recall) is the UN funded experiment to construct 11 rainwater catchment ponds in the high plains of Oruro for the purpose of providing supplemental irrigation and drinking water for 40 families in the communities around San Antonio de Condoriri.

There are a few other features such as drinking troughs for animals, the cemented entrance canal for the pond, and the cemented overflow escape canal that I have left out of this simplified drawing but at least it gives the basic idea of what the Atajado entails.

The ponds we are constructing all average around a 600 cubic meter volume capacity which although small in comparison with other Atajados, should be sufficient for the first set of Atajados. What we are going to be investigating is whether the amount of rainfall per year will be enough to sustain a project investment of this size and also whether the high evaporation rates are going to substantially affect our volume rates over the course of the year. As to the first question, I have no doubts that an Atajado of this size could and will be easily filled on a yearly basis. Following even short rains, gullies are filled with rivers of water that wash (along with valuable topsoil) themselves down to the river. If farmers could (through this project) create a dike system and diversionary canals that lead to the Atajados, they could easily fill up 600 cubic meters within one or two rainfall periods. Ideally, I would have like to have had the chance to create larger Atajados but given our limited funding on this project had to settle for only 600m3.

The Atajado project is to construct 11 ponds to benefit 40 families (around 260 people) in four different communities known as Qaqani, Ocovinto, Cala Cruz, and Antiloco. Much of my work in the month of March was preparing all the sites for the arrival (at long last) of the tractor. We had found a company that was willing to do the excavation work for the small amount of money that we had available (All 11 ponds had to be dug for $4500). Back in November I had tested most of the soils from the sites using my coke bottle method. Basically, I cut a 2-Liter Coke bottle in half, puncture a couple of holes in the top and then fill the top half of the bottle one-third full with well ground sediment from the site (I removed any large stones and broke the soil up extremely well so that it would provide an appropriate filter for the water). I then filled that same top half with two-thirds water put that top half of the bottle into inverted into the bottom half, marked the point of the water level, and left it sitting on my windowsill for a 24-hour period. If after a 24-hour period, the water level had not diminished greatly (more than a couple cm.s), than I accepted this soil and site for Atajado placement (is this method ok?). So most of my work was reacquainting myself with the sites the farmers, my counterpart, and I had chosen. We also had to purchase a great deal of supplies from the city such as tall stakes to guide the tractor driver, PVC tubing for placement under the Atajados, cement, and a number of other little things.

When the tractor finally did arrive (after three consecutive weeks of not arriving as promised) the real hectic work began. We normally woke around 6:00 in the morning and headed directly out to the sites to leave the tractor driver. Because we didn't have any transportation like a jeep or anything, this many times meant me riding the guy out on the motorcycle to the site, then riding over to the next site and prepping that site. Preparation of a site entailed measuring out the base perimeters of the Atajado, placing the tube in its correct location, and then digging the trench for the tube placement and staking out the perimeters. Then I had to get back to the Atajado site, check on the progress of the tractor driver and whether he needed anything or not, and then head back as fast as I could to the research station so the other technicians could yell at me for hogging the only transportation we had. My counterpart and I were so frayed after the first couple of weeks of this that we wanted to kill everyone at the station. However, after a number of errors, problems, and incidents, we finally managed to get things in place and as we speak the last Atajado should be finished.

What I have learned on this project can and will fill a manual when I get time to writing one. The first Atajado was of course one of the most interesting since contrary to what I had believed, three things did not happen. First, I had told my counterpart who was in charge of getting the tractor to insist on a escalificador (I'm not sure what its called in English but its this plow-like apparatus behind the bulldozer that lets the bulldozer break up hard dirt without having to use the front spoon). Although he swears to me that the tractor owner said he had one, the D7 CAT showed up without one and the owner said they don't have one. This would in the future of the project prove to be very important as we encountered some extremely hard, compact clay soils that the spoon of the bulldozer couldn't cut through. It consequently left the Atajado badly formed on some of its angles. The second major problem I encountered with the project was that I had assumed that my counterpart had shown the operator what an Atajado looks like. Since these ponds are a bit different from normal ponds in that they are constructed on slopes, they require a certain technique to digging them that one has to gain only from seeing photos or actual Atajados. Since we didn't have any actual Atajados nearby, I had to educate him using photos and diagrams that I had. It didn't prove to be enough for him and he started digging and piling dirt on the sides at too much of an angle and without first clearing away the brush and topsoil from the construction area like I had asked him to do. The third problem involved my big error. Because we did our construction in a small basin on a hill, I assumed that we could drop down 5 meters from our originally selected site without any great change in soil quality. What does 5 meters matter in a relatively uniform area such as where we were? Apparently it matters a great deal because just as the farmers told me, the ground proved to be too soft and wet from the previous rainy season and the tractor after only working 1 hour on the 10 hour project began to start sinking in the soil. So we corrected things by moving the Atajado up 10 meters and encountered perfect soil. My lesson: always listen to what the farmers tell you about their soil!!! The other problem turned out to be that the tractor they sent us was just too big and couldn't negotiate the small spaces of the Atajado. We would have to compensate by making them less deep and wider. But, this all proved unimportant because after only 3.5 hours of work on the first Atajado, the tractor broke down and was out of commission for the next 2 ½ weeks.

After repeated attempts to fix the tractor on site, the owner decided to recall it to Oruro and replace it with a smaller and more maneuverable D6 CAT. We also got a new tractor driver who was much more capable and thus we left the first Atajado (as the original tractor was still sitting in it) and went on to the second Atajado. Although I wasn't there for the construction, this was how it went on the setup location of the pond two weeks before. When I began to measure the Atajado boundaries I wanted to make sure that there would be no problems this time since I was embarrassed by the last one. The farmer, Lucio Torres, asked me if we couldn't move the pond location just 10 meters up so that he could use the land below for farming. Remembering what had happened in the first I told Lucio we could do this only if he swore to me that there were no rocks farther up the slope that the tractor would encounter when it started excavating (rocks ruin the pond integrity). He swore to me that there were none and having learned to listen to the farmers I said ok…BIG MISTAKE! Apparently, there were not just some rocks, there were a lot of rocks and when it happened and they all asked Lucio why I had moved the location up 10 meters he told them that it was my idea and that I was to blame (I of course wasn't present to defend myself). They them scolded him for not correcting me with his knowledge of his own parcels and then proceeded to move the Atajado location back to its original spot. So what did I learn? Listen to the farmers sometimes but always maintain you own ideas as well. I didn't make this mistake again on the future Atajados.

Another aspect of the Atajado construction was the depth at which you placed the tube at the start of the work. When the work is started, you dig a trench and put the uphill side end of the tube in the ground so that when the pond is finally dug the tube should be no more than 30cm off the pond base so that dead water volume is minimized. I originally thought (along with my counterpart) that 50cm of depth would be enough but after the first couple Atajados we realized that 70cm would actually have to be the depth. In Don Lucios' pond, because he was moving his pond and due to the different methods they employed in its construction, his tube was eventually located 1.5 meters above the pond base! The poor guy had to dig the tube out through tractor compacted soil, dig down more, place the tube and then top it all off. It took him 2 days of work. Trial and error…

Those are my biggest horror stories from the pond construction phase. The rest of the ponds went really smoothly and the tube and the location turned out to be beautiful. On a couple of ponds I lost some volume since the tractor couldn't dig any more due to the hard ground but overall I was pleased with the work. It took a lot out of us and there's still a lot to do but the big part is over with.

In mid-May we had an exposition day with the participating farmers from the Atajado project and I spent a day teaching them all various soil conservation methods using my soil conservation hillside that I had spent my first year in my site constructing. I taught the farmers the importance of farming on the contour, how to use an A-level, different terracing and trenching systems they could construct, how to build dikes to control erosion*, and also how to improve natural forage capabilities of the soil using different conservation methods (they seemed particularly interested in this as all of them pasture their sheep and llama and cattle). We also explained to them what they needed to be doing on their Atajados between now and the end of winter (cleaning and compacting of the basin and walls). It was a great day in that I finally was able to show the farmers some really useful ways they could improve their harvests. I plan to have more such days in the future with other surrounding communities and I would like that my replacement in my site there continue on with that work.

So now that my Atajados are at least dug, the next thing we had to do was to go out and measure with a teodolo (I think that's how you say it in English) the crown of the Atajado so that the farmers could level everything off. This part of the work I left to my counterpart as I had to organize a workshop on soil conservation in Cochabamba for the following week. One further problem we ran into in the project is that we discovered after speaking with the farmers that the abundant amounts of sand that we have out there are useless for making cement and that even though we hadn't put it into the cost of the project, we would have to obtain a truckload of sand in order to build the supplementary structures. Every day with this project is a problem but it's also a learning experience. Still, we will all be extremely pleased when this experiment is done with.

The last two weeks of April we were evacuated to Tarija due to worries about the building tensions in this country. We spent two weeks in a hotel in Tarija in the South of the country with 50 volunteers digging holes and laying sod during the day. I was going nuts under all the rules and regulations they put us on but luckily the problems in the country turned out to be nonexistent so we were able to return after only two weeks. That was my first and hopefully last experience with the evacuation process. Fun!


Mid-September 2001

Much of my recent life has been dedicated to trying to get my farmers organized in order to finish the rain water catchment project that I have initiated with them. The ponds were all finished in June and I spent a great deal of time visiting each pond and using the engineers level to measure the crown of the ponds and also lay out the plans for the collection canals. The farmers were made clear that their part of this project was the manual labor and maintenance of the pond structure and that in this phase of the project they should be working to clean out and compact their ponds, level off the crowns, and prepare the supplementary structures for the delivery of the cement when all these other things were accomplished. My counterpart and I went as far as to schedule a meeting for a Friday and spent all week going to the various sites and telling the farmers that all 40 participating farmers should plan on attending this meeting. I had been really concerned about the lack of initial work I had seen on the part of the farmers so we devised a contest to see who works the best with the farmers themselves defining the prizes to be given.

By the time that the meeting came around, only about 13 of the 40 representatives had shown up. After another hour and a half we had 23 representatives with all but one of the ponds being represented in one way or another. Prior to the meeting my counterpart and I had devised an itinerary to give to the farmers as to which days we would be doing what activities and at what sites. I had purposely given the farmers two and half weeks (in addition to the week before the meeting took place) to get the basic cleanup and leveling off of the pond done. I specifically asked them if that would be enough time and if they needed more time. (The actual work time between four families for each pond should be around three days if they all contribute a little bit). They all answered that it was plenty of time and that it would all get done. I was really mainly concerned because it being August already I knew that it was getting time for the farmers to start preparing their fields for planting (which occurs in late September) and I didn't want that to interfere with their work. They all said it wouldn't be a problem and promised to start work. As I had my parents coming in for a week and a half and other work to do in other cities I wouldn't be around until the notated time anyways so I thought it should all work out.

However, when I returned to my site to do the survey of the ponds with my counterpart on our appointed days I was extremely discouraged to find that of the 10 ponds only 2 had been completed with their assigned work and many hadn't even done any work on the ponds. Whets more is that in many of the ponds I could not locate the farmers to ask them when they would get to work on it. The farmers I did locate all promised me and my counterpart that the work would be done by the following week (a promise I seriously doubted). Although I was extremely disappointed by this I felt that getting angry and yelling wouldn't accomplish anything so I accepted their answers and pleaded with them to do the work as fast as possible so that we could have these ponds functioning for them by early October when some early rains are known to come.

The following week I was required to attend my close of service conference so was not able to return to my site. When I did get back I discovered that another two of the ponds were pretty much completed but that the rest still hadn't accomplished much of anything. At this point I was fed up with this work. I can't imagine why they don't work on this project and neither can my counterpart. The most important thing they lack in this region is water and it has been proven with these farmers that those who do obtain water are able to expand their production and thus raise their quality of life substantially. Those with properties close to the rivers and with pumps to get water from that river are the richest farmers in the area. My farmers are the poorest of the poor and should be motivated to do their work more than anyone else. Whats more is that I feel terrible for those farmers whom have worked so hard on our project because we cannot proceed further until all of them have finished their work One of my farmers in particular has been extremely motivated and worked hard at getting his pond ready and I am saddened that he is punished by the rest of those whom haven't done anything.

Since this last visit I have been busy with a number of other things related to my other job so haven't been able to get back to my site. I hope to get out there for a day this week and then maybe by the end of September. Right now though I am at a loss as to what to do. I know this project will get finished but I would not have the desire to work with most of these farmers ever again. They had begged so hard to be included in this project and now are not doing anything so it leaves me quite frustrated. If I had the money I would return to their houses with a bulldozer and cover up the ponds we built so that they learn to take things a bit more seriously in the future.

The other thing that I have been working on a great deal is getting my manual ready to be printed. My APCD has informed me that there is money with Peace Corps to print up such manuals and I am now working with my counterpart to put the last finishing touches on the manual to try to get it to print by the end of September. I still lack a few small sections and want to update many of the diagrams and add information in certain areas but I think it should be quite helpful to Volunteers who would like to know how to do such a project on a limited budget.

This past week I was sent to represent my APCD and Peace Corps in a national meeting with the objective to form a network association of Environmental Educators in Bolivia. This meeting is sort of a follow-up on the meeting I helped organize in May to distribute environmental education books to various organizations within Bolivia. The meeting I recently attended also dealt a great deal with developing new material such as puppet shows, posters, pamphlets, and slide shows with environmental themes. The things I learned from this meeting were quite interesting and besides that I had a great time seeing some old friends from previous meetings and meeting new friends. The participants were all directors or coordinators from various NGO's and some Universities within Bolivia. One woman in particular has asked that I come out to her far away state of Pando to give a lecture on agro forestry methods to farmers. Pando is the most isolated state of Bolivia and is located 100% in the Amazon Basin. She says that the local prefecture there will pay my airfare and lodging if I agree to come. I would love to do such an activity but have to get together information and learn more about their systems before I could go. Plus, since Peace Corps does not work in that area due to its distance from the rest of the country I would need permission to attend such a workshop. Nevertheless, I am honored at the invitation. It would be an incredible experience.

Toward the end of the weeklong meeting we established a structure and directorship that includes participants from each of the nine states of Bolivia. We also developed various objectives and a purpose statement for the movement in general and a number of state/regional oriented activities to be completed. The directorship will be in charge of coordinating events within their states and getting new members and participants active in the movement. I felt honored to be able to participate in the formation of such a group and feel I influenced a great deal the structure of the movement through my suggestions and input. We all left this meeting a lot closer and more dedicated to better coordination of environmental activities within Bolivia. We have yet to accomplish a lot of things but I think that this movement is on the right track. I feel they need to work a lot though in the future of including local and national governmental institutions more in the process including universities and school districts.

I have only recently returned from this trip and am now preparing myself for another workshop that I will be helping to organize with another volunteer on forming youth ecology clubs in Bolivia. This workshop is taking place on the 25-28th of September in the city of Sucre and as my APCD is out of town myself and my best friend and 3rd year Volunteer coordinator Becky Gray have been put in charge of organizing this event. We plan on having about 30 participants with half being Volunteers from all over Bolivia and the other half being their counterparts from various agencies. We have $5,500 to do this workshop in addition to another $3,500 to bring in a facilitator from Los Angeles who has done a number of these workshops in other countries. She's supposed to be excellent! I've been so busy with other things recently though so I haven't had the time to devote to this workshop yet. This week I will be working on it a lot and plan to fly out the Sucre on Saturday to get things ready and buy materials and such.


23 October 2001 - Matt's letter to new PCVs.

When I first told people that I would be spending the next two years in Bolivia the comments from my friends varied. Oh yeah - I saw that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie. Or, so you're going to Africa huh? The fact that nobody knew much about Bolivia made me wonder what was this country all about.

Now, more than two years later, I find myself getting ready to say goodbye to the place Iíve called home and the people with whom I've laughed, cried, sweated, and shared my life with. To put into words all the things that have happened and all the things I have felt during my Peace Corps service in Bolivia would be impossible. But there are a few things that I have learned and think I will forever remember about my time here in Bolivia.

· Family and Friends are important. In Bolivia, everyday is a day made especially for family and friends. Whether it be sitting outside someoneís home talking or throwing a party on the sudden arrival of a long lost friend, one thing is made clear. Family and friends come first.
· Time operates on different speeds. In our society, we schedule our world around the clock as if it is some quantity to be used sparingly. In Bolivia, time is something less precious in that it exists only as a framework or reference point. Here, things begin when they begin and end when they end. If a meeting is scheduled for 8:00 than you could conceivable start by 10:30 (bring a book!). To understand this (and to have the patience and flexibility to accept that) is key to living in Bolivia.
· Poverty doesn't mean poor. In the United States we tend to think of Bolivian peasants as poor. However, when it comes to spirit I've learned that they are some of the richest people in the world. Too many times, Iíve been to the houses of the poorest of the poor and shared with them their overflowing kindness, generosity, and pride to think otherwise. From them Iíve learned that being poor in terms of spirit and life is a much greater tragedy than lacking a large house and cable TV.
· Don't forget to smile and laugh! In Bolivia, and I now believe in all the world, a smile and a good sense of humor will go a long way towards endearing yourself with your neighbors. The ability to laugh at yourself is imperative to your sanity. If you can laugh at yourself and make others laugh with you, life gets a whole lot easier.

I think an ex-Peace Corps Volunteer from the sixties said it best recently when he said that this land, this country, leaves an indelible mark on you that youíll carry for the rest of your days. Nobody leaves here untouched by the kindness and generosity of the Bolivian people. The friends you make and the experiences you have during your time in Bolivia are sure to leave lasting changes.

As I near my time to leave this place, I think back on all the wonderful things that have happened to me here and find myself truly thankful that I could have spent two years in a country like Bolivia.

Were there hard days?
Of course, but arenít there always?

Was it easy?
When you relax, anything is easy.

Are you sad to leave?
More than anything.

Would you do it again?
In a heartbeat.

I think that the qualifier for any type of experience is whether you can positively answer these questions. In my case, they've been answered. I hope they are the same answers you'll have after two years here.
Welcome to Bolivia! Youíll be glad you came.

Matt Cohen
PeaceCorps Bolivia '99-'01


Just before leaving.

I finally finished up my Peace Corps service last Friday after two weeks of goodbyes, stressful packing and running around to finish up my work, and a lot of tears and beers. In the end all my work came out well and our ponds are now up and running ready to harvest the first rains of the season for my farmers. We had a big inauguration day on my last day in my site and the dean and Chancellor from the faculty I work with at the University, the director, sub-director, and project director of peace corps, all came to see it. We killed a sheep and had a nice barbeque with the works. It all went well. So after a few more days of goodbyes in various towns and cities I started to make my way for Brazil.


25 June 2003 (update: at this point Matt has finished his MS in forestry, counted about 35,000 tree rings doing some forestry lab work and has completed his first year of law school at UC-Davis. This message comes while he is working in India between the first and second years of law school).

Well....I arrived safely in India and am sequestered by the heat and dust into my air conditioned office. (I know I shouldn't complain to you since you've been to Somalia and Niger but its averaging 45 here every day)...Anyways, I always remember and disseminate your advice every time someone looks like they're not able to manage the chaos. Work is great. They've put me in charge of critiquing the Special Reporteur reports on the right to food, the right to adequate housing (including land tenure) and the illicit movement and dumping of toxic waste. I'm happy as a cow in India because its all NR stuff.

We spent last weekend up at a hill station in the Himalayas and it was really nice to tour some old temples and get away from the heat for a while. The terracing in that area of the country (up near the Kashmir region) is incredible. I couldn't stop myself from wanting to examine every different farming system as we made the climb from the flatlands to the Himalayas (in a lot of ways its a lot more advanced than I'm used to from Bolivia but they still weren't doing contour farming). I was also thinking of trying to get in touch with some of the authors I used for my thesis bibliography. The studies were done out in a desert region about 8 hours from here and I thought it would be a great way to get out and see the area. I have the names but not the articles so I may have a difficult time though.

Thanks for everything! I realize that you and Peace Corps have really gotten me hooked on working with and studying ag systems. Now I just have to find out how to incorporate my legal training.


There are many good web pages about Bolivia. Here are just a few:

The US State Dept page on Bolivia.

The Instituto Nacional de Estadistica.

*Andean Culture, which includes Bolivia.

 


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Most recent update: 25 June 2003.