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Three Saint Paul Rotarians -- Valdi Stefanson, Vicki Gee-Treft and Roger Nielsen --- traveled to Bolivia in January 2008 to participate in the Laguna Sulty Agricultural Reservoir Dedication.

This is a Rotary sponsored project - an agricultural water reservoir, designed to impound rainy season runoff waters and distribute throughout the nine drought months to parched field. The reservoir holds 1.5 million cubic meters of water and serves a farmer's cooperative of 600 families. It is expected that 2 or 3 annual vegetable crops will replace one meager dry-land corn crop and will at least double agricultural incomes.

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Here is the original report from our first visit to the site:

In Central Bolivia near the tree line, Rotarians from Minnesota, Bolivian engineers and local politicians were scouting a potential location for an agricultural water supply reservoir project at 14,000 feet. Although the land is very rugged, the Andean farmers achieve yields of potatoes, beans and cereal crops when irrigation is applied --- on small terraced mountain-side plots.

We stopped at a plateau just before the final assent to the site. We spotted sheep grazing, along with teams of oxen in the background being used to plow the fields.

Climbing the road almost to the proposed water reservoir site, we found that local farmers had blocked our advance with rocks! The local farmers felt mistrust, and they talked vigorously with the local politicians that were to introduce us to the site. They feared that our efforts would simply lead to yet another "promised project" that would never materialize, as had happened too often before. Moreover, if a reservoir were built, they may not get compensation in the form of replacement acreage plots. (Also, the local politicians whisper that it could be that the highlanders may be hiding cocaine processing uphill from their road block.)

This setback summarily ended our objective of investigating the proposed site for a reservoir that would provide irrigation for thousands of farm families. (As it turned out, two days later, the local politicians came to the city to apologize and report that all local concerns were settled and that they now had a unified battery of support for the proposed reservoir.)

After this road-block setback, the local officials suggested that we look at an alternate site that had been previously considered, higher up the mountain. We traveled upwards, on switch-backs and steep muddy roads to approximately 15,000 feet.

Along the way, we encounter a Shepard girl, with her flock of sheep, herding dog and bedroll. Instead of attending school, this girl was assigned to summer-graze the sheep herd. When we asked how many sheep were in her care, she answered "many". Our gift of fruit was well received. (Notice her footwear.)

As the afternoon light was waning, we arrived at the alternative site for an agricultural water reservoir. Here, we were now above the tree line and it is cold - just above freezing temperatures. To our surprise, we found farmers with potato and cereal crops cultivated on the mountain slopes.

We were at high altitude; the clouds seemed to envelop us.

We spotted a cluster of structures made of rock walls and thatched roofs. The buildings were only three feet high and we walked over to check out what we assumed to be sheep barns. Instead, we encounter an elderly woman valiantly attempting to add kerosene to a small cooking stove and realize that this is her home!

She is very hard of hearing and mistrustful of the cadre of local politicians, "Gringo" Rotarians and Bolivian project engineers. The old widow was overwhelmed. She fretted that she had no food for us and explained that she had no place for us to sleep the night. To put her at ease, we reply in Quechua, the local Andean dialect, that we are just visiting the area briefly.

On hearing the Quechuan language, she became more comfortable, and showed us that her seed potatoes had gone bad and that she had no money. We pass the hat and hand over some Bolivianos (money.) This doesn't help. Her anxiety and mistrust heightens. Why would we give her money for nothing in return? We also helped her fill and feed the wick into her small kerosene cook stove. In return, she allowed photographs of the interior of her dwellings.

Notice the rock walls, dirt floor and thatched roof? Daylight can be seen between the rocks. Imagine how cold this would be at 15,000 ft. altitude, with winter coming on? Such is the life of an elderly widow in the high Andes of Bolivia.

We leave with a promise to return. On the two hour drive down the mountain in the darkness, a plan is hatched to return to the widow with a hand-crank flashlight, a solar cooker and blankets. Perhaps a few chickens.

 
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