Quaker Bolivia Link
Quaker Bolivia Link was established in 1995. It funds small community-initiated projects aimed at improving the quality of life of impoverished, rural indigenous Aymara people on the Altiplano in Bolivia, through community empowerment and the promotion of sustainable livelihoods. QBL receives support from Quaker groups in the US, Britain, Ireland and Germany.
Sixty-five percent of Bolivians are indigenous Aymara. They have to contend with poor soil, a short growing season and a lack of safe water supplies. Because their problems are endemic, rather than the result of war or natural disaster, the international community has tended to overlook their plight, and as so often with Quaker relief work, QBL seeks to work in the gaps left by other organisations.
In 1993, British Quaker Ken Barratt, honeymooning in Bolivia with his American wife, Pam, was moved both by the friendliness of the indigenous Aymara people and by the poverty he observed. On his return to Britain, Barratt organised a study tour of Bolivia with 20 fellow Quakers. From this experience, Quaker Bolivia Link UK was born.
From the start, the focus of QBL has been on water supply and agriculture. None of the original group were experts, and in the first four years, they “made a lot of mistakes.” Then they hired four local ‘technicos’ from the University of La Paz to oversee projects, and the programme began to expand rapidly.
Quaker Bolivia Link US was set up in 1998, when Barratt and his wife moved to the US, and the local Bolivian organisation, Fundacion QBL, was set up in 2001. Fundacion QBL employs a coordinator, a team of two agricultural technicians, and a financial administrator. When needed, they contract specialized engineers to plan and supervise the construction of projects.
QBL works with all communities, not just Quakers. They work in partnership with villages and municipal government, who generally provide 30% of the cost. The projects they fund are generated by the local community, not imposed from outside, and QBL endeavours to include men and women equally in the planning and organisation.
Working initially with municipal government, and the list of community projects they have drawn up, QBL will usually identify a project that appears to match their expertise. Then they meet with the whole village to discuss the project, so it is really clear what the community wants to achieve, and who within the community could work on it.
Water and agriculture remain the key priorities for QBL. Many villages on the Altiplano have no access to clean water. Water from streams and open wells is often contaminated and can cause gastric problems and skin rashes, with children being particularly at risk.
QBL funds three types of water projects – gravity feed systems, which capture water from springs in the surrounding hills, hand pumps that draw water from the shallow water table, and electric pumps that are provided when neither of the other two systems are viable.
The work is carried out by local people, so they learn to fix problems and maintain the system themselves. The projects are designed to last for around 30 years, and QBL helps communities to establish democratically elected water committees and to learn how to handle conflict resolution.
Water is the first priority, but villages also need reliable supplies of healthy food. Small agriculture projects can supply this, and also provide a source of income when surplus produce is sold to neighbours or at local markets. QBL funds greenhouses, which protect growing vegetables from the cold nights at high altitude. They supply chickens to provide much needed protein, as well as building coops and providing training in husbandry. They work on ways of improving crops of alfalfa and broad beans through improving seed stock and pest management. They also help to establish irrigation schemes, which can also be vital in areas that are often subject to drought. QBL also supports projects that improve the quality of the llama herds, one of the few forms of agriculture that is feasible on the highest pastures .
Altogether, since 1995, QBL has funded water supplied in 55 villages on the Altiplano and over 500 families are growing vegetables in greenhouses built by QBL.