Saturday, July 26, 2008

Back from Bolivia

After giving a workshop about turning tourism to money and Corporate Social Responsibility, we went to a 'peña' at some restaurant where three old men from Samaipata were playing guitar and accordeon singing traditional (or so I suppose) songs. It was a great atmosphere, so we enjoyed our beers and reflected on the things we had seen while we visited our (potential) projects. After that, we went to a local karaoke bar - which seems very popular there - and sang/danced the night away. We had to get up reasonably early the next day because me and two girls were going to walk around through the national reserve Amboró for about 6 hours. Munching away on some coca we didn't feel like we had been taking a lot of alcohol and just a little sleep though. We followed some small, almost invisible footpath for most of the day, and our guide told us he had made it some 6 months ago, so we were among the first to walk there!
After exploring the woods, we had to get into some taxi's again to go back to Santa Cruz. Once we got there, we played some basketball in the Parque Urbano next to our hostal and after that, some bad bacteria got to me and made me dead-sick that night. I couldn't remember feeling that bad since a long time, but the next day I could finally get some sleep and little by little I felt better again.
So luckily I could join the rest of the group on the 21st when they went to a university of CadeCruz where they were going to give another workshop about CSR, this time to the happy few who enjoyed an academic education. All spanish-speaking SIFE members (including me) had to lead a group of students while they were working on a test-case to make that as socially-responsible as possible. Our group worked on a supposed Levi's factory in Bolivia, and they came up with all kinds of measures, ranging from on-site water purification and re-use of disposed fabric to flexible working hours and procurement of ecologic cotton. I hope they will apply CSR in their future carreers.
The next day was already our last one in Bolivia, and we spent it visiting another potential project in the sub-urb La Guardia. There, a group of Iranian tapestry-producers (we didn't come up with this) is teaching women in the neighbourhood how they can produce their own high-quality tapistry. We could witness a gathering where about 80 of these women turned up who appeared to be the heads of local associations, so they would pass the message on to about 1000 other women. Quite some multiplyer! After this gathering, we enjoyed lunch at the site where the tapistry was to be produced. Right now, they were still erecting the building were it was going to take place, but they had already made a lot of progress in a few months.
That night most of us went to bed early, because at 05.00 in the morning we took a plane to Sao Paolo (after we had opened our bags to let the Bolivia anti-drug force take a sniff) and after taking a look at that city for about 5 hours we continued our trip to Amsterdam. It was very strange to see all the neatly arranged plots of land and well-maintained buildings again, connected by trains and proper roads. The Netherlands is really conveniened to live in, but I hope I will remember the dirt-roads, the poorly-built houses, the run-down taxi-cars, the coca-chewing construction workers, the spicy smell of the jungle, the contaminated tap-water, the movement for autonomy, the big landowners and the small shopkeepers. The Netherlands have a lot Bolivia doesn't have (money being the most important thing) but Bolivia has a lot that I've never seen in the Netherlands.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sí a la Autonomía

After visiting the small community La Libertad, we went to another remote area called Huaytú on July, 15th. There, the NGO Aguarague is teaching people how they can increase their honey-production with the Bolivian bees that they're keeping. Right now, they use big metal cans as beehyves, but they're going to transfer the colonies to new, wooden hyves. That will increase the production and by selling the honey through a cooperation they can get 2x to 4x the price they get now. It was great to meet these people who live from almost nothing, but still make a very merry impression. They very much appreciated our visit, and we very much appreciated their warm welcome.
This was a big contrast to the inauguration of the new chairman of the entrepreneurial association of Santa Cruz, CadeCruz. Raul Strauss, the new chairman, had invited us to this event, but merely spoke to us. We waited for about 45 min before the ceremony started, and it contained a lot of references to the importance of a strong Santa Cruz, promoting autonomy. This posh elite dressed in expensive suits and dresses saw themselves as the motor of growth in the region and the country. But it was difficult to believe that this rich elite really cared about people like we met in Huaytú and after the ceremony ended we left as soon as possible. We went to a Mexican restaurant for a late dinner, and later on two men who apparantly had also been to the ceremony sat down at the table next to us. While we were joking about the strong autonomía movement, one of them showed his appreciation for what he thought was our support for the movement and gave us his business-card. He appeared to be the head of that whole movement, which must be very powerful judging by the many 'Sí a la Autonomía' signs that appear everywhere in the streets.
On monday the 16th we tried to process some data we had gathered through the previous week, prepare for meetings to come and decide on unfinished matters. That prooved to be a daunting task though, with time passing quickly while everybody was typing away on laptops and in internet-cafés.
But it was necessary to wrap up our activities of last week, because on the 17th we left for Samaipata, a small touristic village in the first hills of the altiplano, the highlands that cover the west of Bolivia. It was nice to get away from the bustle of Santa Cruz and enjoy the quietness of the small village. The main reason we went there was to talk with the Asociación Samaipata Cultural, who wanted to set up their own library. We had many meetings to teach them how they can write a project proposal, find out how we could make this project economically sustainable and ask schoolchildren what they thought of the idea. In the end we decided to first set up a bookstore and later on expand this to a kind of study center/library.
With old Inca-ruins and a natural reserve nearby, Samaipata attrackts quite some tourists. The income from this business, however, mainly goes to foreigners who set up a hostel, restaurant or bar catering to the specific demands of European and American tourists. Therefore, we organized a workshop where we explained how locals could get more benefit from the tourist-industry. We combined this with a competition, promising a $200,- award for the best proposal to implement corporate social responsibility in a small local enterprise. About 30 people turned up for this workshop and they reacted enthousiastic to the initiative that we showed. Let's hope we get a lot of good proposals!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Cruising through Santa Cruz

My last year at Leiden University for a great part has been dedicated to SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) Leiden. With this organisation we try to set up development projects by exploiting opportunities through education and entrepreneurship for local people with little access to funds and information. We're especially active in Bolivia, because several of our team-members have strong connections with that country. Therefore we went on July 8th to Bolivia with a group of 13 people and a donation of Xplore, a Dutch organisation funded by the governement that promotes international development cooperation.
All our projects in Bolivia take place around Santa Cruz, so we took a plane and a taxi to backpacker's hostel Jodanga in that city. With free wireless internet and a swimming pool, it wasn't a bad place to stay. The first few days we prepared for the meetings, visits, evaluations, presentations and excursions to come. A few of our members had already gone to Bolivia a few times, so they arranged most of the program. One new potential project is the promotion of Fundempresa, an organisation like the Chamber of Commerce, among small entrepreneurs. To find out if people are already registered there or know that organisation, we took to the streets on thursday 10 july and interviewed a few dozen shopkeepers. It was great to see the different reactions, ranging from enthousiastic to unwilling and from unsympathetic to talkative. Some people were already registered, others didn't know the organisation and some didn't want to have anything to do with it.
The next day we went to Buena Vista, a small village where we stayed in a far-away accomodation next to the jungle. We had all the mosquitos, sounds, smells, plants, animals and views you would expect there. After getting out of Santa Cruz some parts next to the road already look like 'the wild', and when I saw the forest stretching out to the horizon I could understand people don't see any harm in burning down a little plot and grow some fruits or vegetables. And indeed, we could visit a coffee-plantation there and saw parts of burned-down forest and small papaya-orchards. After spending a night there we visited another potential project: a fish-farm where schoolchildren are taught how to grow and sell fish. We could participate in the first lesson of this course and see the ponds where the fish are grown. The man responsible for all this, Mr. Rojas, was very passionate about his undertaking and asked us if we could help him build the processing-area for the fish. That evening, we decided to support hum with €3000,-.
Today, august 13th, we went to another project. In La Libertad, a small community at about 45 minutes from Santa Cruz Mr. Reyes is teaching people how to organically grow their own vegetables and sell this to a shop for organic food. He is also growing medicinal-mushrooms and hopes to export these to Brasil and/or Japan in the next few months. While we were in La Libertad, we gave a presentation about basic entrepreneurial skills such as planning and accounting, which was very well recieved. It was nice to see how these people live and how enthousiastic they are about the idea of producing their own food in a sustainable way.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Berlin, Belgium, Bolivia: Beware!

Before going to the US, I wanted to enjoy the beautiful diversity of Europe and of course join my SIFE Leiden team (see to Bolivia, where most of our projects take place.
The reason I wanted to go to Berlin was mainly because my sister was doing European Voluntary Service there at the Schlessische Art Institute in Kreuzberg. I heard from so many people that Berlin is such a great town, that I really had to see that place. With my sister and her housemates (she´s living in Friedrichshain) as guides, I was introduced to the most obscure bars and clubs. What I really loved of East-Berlin was the fact that in any empty industrial complex or office building there could be a stage, DJ or theater hidden behind doors coverd with graffiti or other art-forms. So the night-life was great, and during the day I enjoyed the funny and strange surroundings of east- and west Berlin where you can probably find the most dense combination of a big range of cultural, historical and ideological infuences. I especially liked to see all the remnants of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik): all the huge buildings, memorials, avenues (named after Karl Marx, Lenin etc), parks and of course the Berlin wall. It's really strange to walk around those eastern neighbourhoods, take the underground and get off at the foot of the most modern entertainment, shopping and business-centers at Potsdammer Platz.
After taking in all these different impressions for 4 days I said good-bye to my sister and went back to Holland, but not for long. The next weekend I first went to Maastricht and after spending the night there, me and Ignas, a friend of mine took the bus to Vaals and walked up to the Vaalserberg, with 300 meters above sea-level the highest spot in the Netherlands. It's also the 3-country-spot, where the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany meet. So from there we crossed the border and walked into the Ardennen, a beautiful area in the eastern part of Belgium. There we enjoyed the nature, railroads, views and local beer hiking and camping for 3 days until we reached Trois Ponts, a small village from where we took the train back to our own low country.
And when I got back, I had about 1 day to get ready for my next trip: visiting Bolivia with SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) Leiden (see After helping to set up a number of development projects there for the past year, I finally get the chance to see it all with my own eyes!

Going To DC!

A few months ago I heard there will be a good reason to start posting on this blog again: I will be studying for two years at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. After they put me on a waiting list and two other universities rejected my application (Johns Hopkins and Chicago) I got an e-mail telling me that I was admitted at GW! That means I will be doing the 2-years master International Trade and Investment Policy at the Elliott School of International Affairs there. After studying Japanese, Political Science and some Anthropology, I think economics will give me the practical tools necessary to contribute to any kind of business, project or policy. I still want to do ´something with international development´, but I figured I could do this through the private sector just as well as in a public institution. And because in the end it does all come down to money, studying how and why money is invested in certain activities will probably help me to understand why certain countries developed successfuly and others didn´t.
But before I can start doing this I have to arrange a visa, a place to live, register for courses, make sure I attent orientation activities etc. etc, so that will keep me busy for a while. But I also have to enjoy my last holidays, so for this summerI planned a trip to Berlin, Belgium, Bolivia, Prague, Vienna and Croatia! You´ll read more about this in the next posts.