Ascension de Guarayos, Bolivia – a grubby truck-stop town buzzing with motorbikes, crawling with cockroaches, and brimming with marching bands. Built around a central square with a big wooden church, it’s far removed from the highland llamas and bowler hats of western Bolivia. At the market you’ll find abundant fresh fruit, crunchy peanuts, and the creamiest Palta avocados that slip from their skins like butter. The snack bar a block away on the main drag specializes in salchipapas – French fries and snipped-up hot dogs, served with mayo and ketchup.
The residents of Ascension come from a diverse mix of ethnic backgrounds. Around half are Guarayu, while the rest are mainly indigenous Quechua and Aymara, plus Bolivians of European descent. There’s also a notable minority of overall-wearing Plattdeutsch-speaking Canadian Mennonite farmers.
The surrounding countryside is peppered with palm trees – a flat rolling expanse of soy plantations, rice fields and ranchlands. Much of the original forest has been cut down as the region undergoes a rapid transition from subsistence agriculture to monocrops. In nearby rural communities, such as San Andres and El Cañon, many people live in simple wooden or mudbrick shacks with uneven dirt floors. The Bolivian National Institute of Statistics estimates that 50 per cent of the country’s rural population lacks access to safe drinking water. Without running water, many residents of the Guarayos region get their drinking water from shallow hand-dug wells just a few feet deep, and some need to walk more than five kilometres to access the water source. The water is often turbid with a distinctly yellowish tinge; it’s no coincidence there are high rates of Hepatitis A and Typhoid fever in this part of the country.
The Bolivian National Institute of Statistics estimates that 50 per cent of the country’s rural population lacks access to safe drinking water.
Trevor Hirsche first set foot in Ascension de Guarayos in November 2006 to volunteer with an organization that was installing water filters. Motivated by a desire to improve living conditions in the developing world, Hirsche was drawn to Bolivia by its rich aboriginal culture and his fascination with the leftist politics of newly elected president Evo Morales.
Shortly after his arrival, the organization Hirsche was volunteering with ran out of funds and was unable to continue operating. But rather than return to Canada, Hirsche and fellow volunteer Janaki Jayanthan – then in their early 20s – decided to start a new organization from the ground up. By February they had signed an agreement with the municipal government and established COBAGUAL (a Spanish acronym that translates as the Bolivian Cooperation for Clean Water).
The main mandate of COBAGUAL was to install biosand water filters – a type of filter that can be made using locally available materials and is up to 99 per cent effective at removing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa from water. Originally developed by Dr. David Manz of the University of Calgary in the early 1990s, the filters are rectangular concrete casings about a metre high and filled with sand. When water passes through the sand, pathogens are removed by mechanical trapping, adsorption, and the development of the elegantly named Schmutzdecke – a layer of beneficial micro-organisms that feast on harmful pathogens. Biosand filters are especially well-suited to places like Ascension because they’re low tech and don’t rely on specialized replacement parts that need to be shipped in from afar.
Realizing they’d need buy-in from the local community to bridge cultural barriers and make the organization sustainable in the long term, Hirsche and Jayanthan hired several Bolivian employees, including Felipe Quispe. The humble church-going father of three has been key to the success of the organization because of his ability to coordinate logistics in the often chaotic context of small town Bolivia. “His opinions are very valuable,” says Hirsche. “He always lets me know when he doesn’t think something is going to work.” The two communicate in Spanish. Hirsche had a basic grasp of the language when he first arrived in Ascension and has since become fluent. In appearance, they form an unlikely duo: the bearded and scruffy-haired Hirsche – often seen sporting a colourful t-shirt with shorts and sneakers – versus Felipe, with neatly cropped black hair, who wears pleated pants and a button-up shirt even on the hottest of days. Nonetheless, the two are united by their motivation. “I want to help people in need – especially children, who have so much to lose. It’s a big preoccupation for me,” says Felipe.
Biosand filters are especially well-suited to places like Ascension because they’re low tech and don’t rely on specialized replacement parts that need to be shipped in from afar.
Hirsche and Jayanthan’s first stint in Bolivia lasted about six months. During that time, COBAGUAL installed around 25 filters and overcame many of the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles associated with starting a non-profit in a foreign country. Upon returning to Canada, Hirsche and Jayanthan recruited a board of directors to form the Bolivian-Canadian Clean Water Network (BCCWN). Soon afterwards more administrative duties were passed on to COBAGUAL, allowing it to operate as an autonomous organization. The BCCWN now provides COBAGUAL and similar Bolivian-run member organizations with advice and helps fund approved projects.
In the fall of 2008, Hirsche enrolled in a master’s program in hydrogeology at UBC, where he wrote his thesis on ways to mitigate water pollution from a copper and zinc mine in Peru. He kept the water network running during his studies by keeping in close contact with a small crew of Bolivian employees and relying on volunteers from abroad, including UBC students, to help out with filter construction and conduct follow-up visits.
Towards the end of Hirsche’s master’s program, the Pathy Family Foundation launched a community leadership program at several universities across Canada. Hirsche applied and the BCCWN was chosen as one of two participant organizations from UBC. Armed with this newfound support and funding, Hirsche returned to Bolivia in May of 2012 as a community leader with UBC’s Go Global program.
The work of the BCCWN is carried out in a context of ongoing public consultations and frequent conversations with residents. “I think what has made the BCCWN unique is the fact that we haven’t been content to keep doing the same thing,” says Hirsche. “We’ve evaluated the effectiveness of what we’ve done and have tried to evolve to better meet the needs of the community we’re working to support.” When Quispe learned there was a desire among locals for improved latrines, for example, the BCCWN implemented a project to construct several ecological composting toilets as an alternative to conventional outhouses, which often contribute to groundwater contamination. By learning the wants and needs of locals, the mandate of the BCCWN has expanded over time from a singular focus on water filters, to include sanitation programs and sustainable agriculture.
The work of the network is carried out in a context of ongoing public consultations and frequent conversations with residents.
Hirsche’s focus on food security and agricultural self-sufficiency largely stems from a country-wide crisis in late 2010, when the Bolivian government abruptly ended subsidies on transport fuel. As a result, fuel prices spiked and truck drivers simply stopped working. Felipe says this caused food prices in Ascension to more than double, and many items became unavailable at the market. The situation only lasted a week, and everything returned to normal after the government restored fuel subsidies. But had the hike in prices lasted longer, Hirsche says the BCCWN wouldn’t have been able to increase wages enough for its Bolivian employees to buy sufficient food. Inspired by this event, Hirsche has been highlighting the benefits of more diversified and small-scale organic agriculture.
A few months after Hirsche’s return to Bolivia, COBAGUAL started a demonstration site at an empty lot in Ascension, where they built a composting latrine and a community garden to demonstrate the feasibility of organic growing methods as an alternative to slash and burn agriculture with heavy pesticide use. To draw attention to the site, Hirsche lived there in a traditional mud brick house with no electricity or running water for four months.
Hirsche admits the garden project has been a challenge – from battling veggie-loving bugs and infallible fungi, to convincing locals about the merits of small-scale organic agriculture in the first place. Even Felipe was originally in favour of pesticide use, because he feared organic methods would lead to crop failure. Hirsche recently had a conversation that he says demonstrates the prevalent mentality of the region. A community leader told him the region’s crisis is a lack of basic services, which in turn is related to a lack of employment opportunities. As a result, youth don’t stick around. The leader argued that rather than trying to tackle specific issues, the BCCWN should be looking for ways to generate employment – like clearing what remains of the forest to plant rice and GMO soy so they can generate income more quickly. Hirsche says he’s worried that people think clearing the forest for monocultures is the answer, and hopes the garden project will show an attractive alternative. Nonetheless, he realizes the leader had a point, and suggests that local residents can produce value-added items — for example, making jam out of pineapples to sell in the nearest city. Despite the challenges, several months after it was established the garden was producing plenty of cucumbers, lettuce, and beans. Consequently, a similar project was started in the nearby village of San Andres.
Hirsche says he’s worried that people think clearing the forest for monocultures is the answer, and hopes the garden project will show an attractive alternative.
The latest major development came last winter, when Hirsche and Quispe purchased 15 hectares of land. Hirsche says he’ll use the land to develop a more integrated and holistic demonstration site to showcase environmentally friendly agriculture that can be mimicked by other producers in the region. The purchase is a testament to his long-term dedication to the BCCWN and Bolivia. “To be successful it’s necessary to be able to learn from trial and error and not be adverse to picking up the pieces and starting over again several times. The hope is always to arrive at something that is useful for the community,” he says. And it´s not just the BCCWN that has changed over the years. Hirsche says the country he now calls home has contributed to his personal evolution. “I’m more of a realist and less of a dreamer than I was before. I recognize that getting out in the world to do good isn’t easy, and that it’s easy to believe you’re doing good without really bothering to check. My time in Bolivia has also given me more of an appreciation for how resourceful, courageous, and resilient people from challenging circumstances can be.”
Trevor Hirsche is the president of the BCCWN. He graduated from UBC with an MSc in Hydrogeology in 2012 and was awarded the Inspirational Latincouver Award in 2013. Hirsche now works at the University of San Francisco Xavier in Sucre, Bolivia, as the hydrogeology master’s program coordinator. The BCCWN is currently accepting volunteers and donations. Please see bccwater.weebly.com for details.