Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Alternative Development on the Gold Road (Diana - Vet Grad)

In Bolivia’s tropical lowlands, mining is king. Situated on the Camino del Oro – the Incan “Gold Road” that connected altiplano capitals with lowland goldfields – the town of Guanay is no exception. Mining activity accounts for nearly 70% of all employment opportunities in the municipality. In spite of the fertile soils, which, at one point, produced some of the nation’s highest-quality coffee beans, agricultural production has taken a backseat to mining in the zone.

Imagine verdant jungles and lush pastures stretching in every direction as far as the eye can see. Now, picture this greenery scraped and scoured by bulldozers and dredgers.

Diana and her family traverse an abandoned mining site to reach their poultry farm.
Diana León Cerda was born in a small mining town one hour outside of Guanay. During her childhood, Diana’s isolated community lacked the infrastructure for livestock production, and did not have access to a veterinarian. When her dog began to suffer from complications while giving birth, then, Diana’s family was helpless to save her. In that moment, she decided that she would find a way to bring veterinary services to her town. “I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to caring for the creatures that had no protector in rural towns like my own.”

As a UAC-CP Veterinary Medicine student, Diana quickly became involved in the wide array of animal production modules unique to the College. Starting in their first semester, Vet students spend a minimum of four hours weekly working on the pig farm, in the chicken coops, at the meat processing plant, or with assorted livestock such as sheep or quail. Daily opportunities for hands-on learning through productive enterprises encourage students to do what the College does best: unite practice with theory in support of sustainable rural development.

Diana smiles in front of one of her four chicken coops.

Inspired by the UAC-CP’s productive offerings, Diana saw the chance to use her education to improve the livelihoods of her community members. Each semester, she would return to her hometown and speak with friends and family about practical ways to stimulate sustainable production in the region. After her third semester at the UAC-CP, she began working with her community to build pigpens, vaccinate livestock, and treat the few large animals that her neighbors raised for subsistence farming.

After graduating from the College, she returned to her home community with a vision of economic and social transformation. Working with her older sister, a UAC-CP Agronomy graduate, Diana built a model poultry farm just above town. They began by delivering chicks to local homesteads, supporting families as they built larger chicken coops and returning every 15 days to answer questions about raising these new animals. Speaking about the lack of community knowledge surrounding livestock production, Diana says, “Before us, subsistence farmers didn’t give much thought to how they raised their animals. They didn’t know that well-raised livestock could be a source of income – much more stable and healthy than working the mines.”

Diana's nephew looking at the family's chickens.
Working with local farmers, Diana recognized that technical support in livestock production was a need not unique to her own town. In response, she founded a veterinary clinic in Guanay to serve more of the surrounding rural communities. “I am the only veterinarian in my town, and one of the few who is willing to venture outside of Guanay. The UAC-CP taught me that, as a vet, it is my duty to educate my community.”

Individuals from every community across the region now know Diana by name, regularly calling her with questions and requests for individualized trainings. From her Guanay clinic, Diana travels the region to incentivize diverse production and provide sustainable alternatives to mining. “It is clear that we can’t live off of mining forever,” she says. “I support production to support my people.”

Diana with her sister, María Nela, a UAC-CP Agronomy graduate.
Diana attributes her social mission to the UAC-CP’s focus on “professional ethics.” “Our peers educated at other universities are trained to be professionals, but we are taught first and foremost to be good people.”

She continues: “I hear community members complain that my colleagues don’t understand them and don’t want to understand them. That these vets are impatient or inconsiderate. We have many families without the means to implement what we are taught to be the best productive methods, but we from the UAC-CP know that it is our obligation to sit with these families, speak to them as individuals, and find alternatives together. For all of our religious and moral education, College graduates respect humanity and know that we are responsible to community members as people.”

Diana supports this professional-personal development by offering internship opportunities to current UAC-CP veterinary students, showing them the impact that one veterinarian can have on rural livelihoods.

Her younger brother, Rimer, is currently an Ecotourism student at the UAC-CP. She wants the donors who have supported her family’s education to know that, without their support, she would not be where she is today. “The UAC-CP is a true home for those in need. Thank you for everything that you have done and continue to do for us!”

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Educating the Whole Child (Nenrry - Education Grad)

It was in elementary school that Nenrry decided she would become an educator. The eldest of five children, Nenrry Vasquez Rey was born to a coca-farming family in the Afro-Bolivian community of Tocaña.

“You can see in your own educational journey the needs that exist,” Nenrry says. And, in her first experiences with education in Tocaña, a culturally unresponsive classroom left her feeling failed by the system that was meant to support her.

“As a young child, I was very aware of the fact that we in Tocaña lacked an education that encouraged us to stay and grow in our unique community.” The faces of her teachers were foreign: not a single Afro-Bolivian stood at the front of the classroom. Instead, teachers were brought in on short-term contracts from ethnically Aymara communities, located hundreds of miles away in the Bolivian highlands.  

“When your teachers, your role models, don’t know your culture, you begin to think that what you have and where you live isn’t good, that it's somehow less.”

Nenrry smiling in a La Paz café

With the goal of “filling the educational gaps” in her home community, Nenrry entered the UAC-CP in the second cohort of Primary Education majors. While at the College, she was sent to a conference on indigenous leadership in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and another on indigenous language education in Argentina. She noticed at these meetings that Afro-Latino communities were not represented, and so, together with a UAC-CP agronomy graduate, she founded CONAFRO – a national organization that supports and unites Afro-Bolivians across the nation through labor, education and human rights advocacy.

Nenrry’s work mobilizing the Afro-Bolivian community soon garnered international attention; upon graduating from the UAC-CP, she was offered a consultancy with UNICEF to conduct an educational needs analysis in Afro-Bolivian towns. This opportunity segued into a position at the Bolivian Ministry of Education, where she led the development of an Afro-Bolivian educational support plan under the Gender, Race, and Social Justice Division.

Today, Nenrry travels throughout the country, monitoring and supporting the construction of regional indigenous curricula for the Ministry of Education. She works as part of a team that monitors the implementation of a novel piece of Bolivian education legislation, which mandates that two types of curricula be used in each school: a common national curriculum, and a regional curriculum drafted by each of Bolivia’s 36 recognized indigenous groups. This model has teachers integrate an indigenous group’s cultural knowledge and history into the classroom, even if only one student is affiliated with that ethnicity. So, if an ethnically Aymaran student is in the classroom, his or her teacher would be responsible for incorporating lessons on Aymaran livelihoods, production, customs, and language into regular lessons – this would mean, for example, teaching Aymaran units of measurement in math class, and exploring Aymaran history before moving on to Bolivian history.

According to Nenrry, this law stems from the idea that all students have “distinct social needs” in the classroom. “In heavily indigenous communities, we see very high rates of desertion beginning in elementary school. A major factor contributing to this epidemic is that the education system does not respond to children as unique individuals.”

The most meaningful part of this work for Nenrry is that it enables her to support Afro-Bolivians all across the nation. Through CONAFRO, she was able to lead the development of the Afro-Bolivian regional curriculum, highlighting the knowledge that she wished she had learned as a child. “Our work allows those children studying in towns far from large Afro-Bolivian communities to know and remember their homeland.”

Nenrry dreams of taking the best practices she has learned while traveling and opening up a model school in her home community. Schools, she believes, need to provide more than a basic education. Her education center would be “a space for integral learning,” valuing music, sports, and languages together with traditional academic subjects. And it is inspired by the “whole person formation” she experienced at the UAC-CP.

“The children of Bolivia deserve a complete education that recognizes their individuality. Because the UAC-CP educated me as a whole person – as a person as well as a professional - I dare to dream this education for Bolivia's children.”