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A surprising migration in Bolivia

Letter From...

We didn’t actually realize it when we arrived in Villa Amboró. The community consisted of just a few wood and banana-leaf houses and a school.

By this point, we had been driven 47 kilometres down a gravel track, crossed a river by foot and walked for almost an hour down a dirt road that seemed to lead through deserted mandarin orange farms straight into the jungle. We wanted to explore the mountainous rainforest wilderness of Amboró national park, but weren’t prepared for just how remote it would be.

Given the effort put into publicizing the community’s eco lodges, we were assuming that there would at least be a pension, one of Bolivia’s ubiquitous cheap eateries that sells soup and a main course, but this turned out to be excessively optimistic. We asked the only person in sight, a woman looking rather confused at our sudden arrival on foot, if there was anywhere that would sell us food. ‘Well, the shop probably would,’ she said. ‘It’s just past that horse.’

Illustration by Sarah John

As we sat outside said shop with a can of sardines, a can of sweetcorn and some crackers, watching two cockerels fight in the dust, I reflected that I could see no power lines anywhere. It was the first time I had been to an entire village with no power.

We walked on past the community, in search of accommodation. On either side of us were more mandarin groves that soon gave way to dense rainforest. From time to time, we passed small farmhouses with low, wire fences and children playing outside. About 20 minutes later, we met Juan and his family. In the yard of their smallholding were coffee beans drying and chickens rooting through the undergrowth. Juan was a guide in the park and had keys to the lodges. This was fortunate, because to get there, we had to turn off the road and take a forest cattle track, moving three fences out of the way. When we arrived, they were deserted. According to the guestbook, nobody had visited for three months.

Passing an older friend on the trail, Juan started chatting in Quechua. I took this as an excuse to ask about language: I had previously understood that Quechua was spoken mostly in the highland regions of Bolivia. Juan surprised me by explaining that he wasn’t actually born in Villa Amboró, or even in the Santa Cruz department. His family migrated here 30 years ago, but he was born in Potosí department, a chilly, mountainous part of the country that has lived and died by the fate of the mining industry for centuries.

Juan is one of many people I have met who have migrated from Potosí. Some left when changes in the mining industry left their parents without jobs, while others wanted to escape a life of rural poverty, pasturing sheep and praying for a good potato harvest, to seek their fortune elsewhere. For many Bolivians in rural areas, this is still a reality today.

Many Potosinos have migrated to neighbouring Cochabamba, a large city with a temperate climate, but I was surprised that they would move to this part of the jungle. Despite the undeniable natural beauty and sense of calm, life can’t be easy: there is no mains electricity, running water, paved roads or domestic gas, and it is separated from the rest of the world by a river with no bridge. That 30 years ago, a tiny jungle community with no basic utilities seemed an appealing place for Juan’s parents was a telling reminder that Bolivia has developed at a breakneck pace in the past generation.

That night we cooked, by candlelight over a wood fire in the lodge’s clay stove, a stew of canned sardines in tomato sauce, runner beans, onions and cumin with rice. Juan ran me into the village on his motorbike to buy supplies. I asked for two bolivianos ($0.28) of beans and the shopkeeper disappeared into the garden behind her shop to pick them, before replying apologetically that she only had one boliviano’s worth. I also bought the village’s last can of beer.

Part of me was surprised for a moment about being charged in bolivianos: Villa Amboró felt so far removed from my home in Cochabamba, I was amazed it was still the same country. This is called the Plurinational State of Bolivia, with good reason.

Amy Booth is a freelance journalist and circus instructor living in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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