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BOLIVIA: Living Outside of the Dike

Franz Chávez

TRINIDAD, Bolivia, Mar 15 2007 (IPS) - “If you haven’t seen what has happened to our houses, get in the canoe; it’s safe, you won’t fall in. Go and visit the barrio,” says a woman in this north-central Bolivian city, and four teenagers invite this IPS reporter to climb on board for a tour.

A colourful wooden sign emerging from the water announces that this barrio or neighbourhood is Zona 6 de Agosto (6th of August), the date of the founding of the Bolivian republic in 1825.

The improvised “canoe” rocks back and forth, the edge just barely 10 cm above the level of the floodwater. Water seeps in through a small puncture hole in the floor of the canoe, as Rodolfo Vaca, 17, bails continuously with a piece of plastic. But after half an hour he is clearly exhausted.

His friends, who are all around the same age, have their own responsibilities. Grover Moreno is obviously the leader, and Alexander Morasima and Jesús Vaca paddle and steer the canoe through what were until recently dirt roads lined with weeds and trees.

Since the start of the rainy season, in late 2006, 51 people have died and nearly 80,000 families have been left homeless in Bolivia, according to the most recent report provided to IPS by the head of the national civil defence department, Gonzalo Lora. In late February, President Evo Morales declared a national disaster.

This year’s exceptionally heavy rains and flooding are blamed on the El Niño climate phenomenon.

Trinidad, a city of 90,000 and the capital of the department of Beni, has been hit especially hard by one of the worst floods in the history of this country, South America’s poorest.

A 10-km ring road built in 1993 serves as a dike, and is the city’s only protection from the frequent floods caused by the waters flowing down from the Andes mountains to the southeast.

However, the slightly raised road increasingly acts as a dividing line between the residents of poor outlying neighbourhoods, who have lost virtually everything under the immense lake created by the flooding, and the largely middle-income families living within the boundary of the ring road, who are protected by the dike although they are affected by power outages and deficient public services.

On a rare sunny day, several families are coming and going from the ring road, trying to salvage belongings from their shacks and houses that are still under water.

The four teenage boys offer their services to the families, paddling or at times getting out to wade as they pull the canoe through the thick submerged weeds.

Just before this IPS journalist hops on board, the boys approach shore carrying a load of small mattresses wrapped in blue plastic sheeting. Their owner, a schoolteacher, falls overboard into the murky, contaminated water, and the youngsters fish her out.

Despite the flooding and the collective tragedy, no one is complaining on this bright day, and people have come over to enjoy the lake created by over a month of heavy rains.

When asked by IPS about the square shape of the vessel, Moreno explains that “We built this little canoe with the boards that were left over from several construction projects. But we had no tar, so we had to fill in the cracks with rags to keep the water out.”

A young woman and her dog float by on a few boards buoyed up by empty plastic soft drink bottles, and suddenly this reporter feels much greater peace of mind about the stability of the vessel he is riding in.

“We help people pick things up from their flooded homes. You can’t carry things out on your shoulders because the water comes all the way up to your head, and if you try to walk on the slippery bottom, you could fall,” says Moreno.

The canoe passes by homes made of mud and stalks that are slowly crumbling under the water, and a few cars whose owners were unable to get them out in time.

“The help from the rescue workers has not made it here. They only went to the better organised neighbourhoods,” complains Moreno.

“I lost my clothes, shoes and food,” he says. “My books were also left behind in our cabinet: my algebra textbook, from the fourth year of secondary school, and others that I need. I’ll have to work to save up the money to replace them.”

His friends say they lost pigs and chickens that they were raising in their backyards to make a little money to buy things they needed.

The boys gaze nostalgically at their old neighbourhood as we pass by disintegrating huts and brick homes that are still standing strong. In the windows can be seen stuffed animals and other signs of life as it used to be.

Moreno says his best recent memory was “a chicken stew with my friends on the Sunday before the flood. It was drizzling, and we had won a football championship. The next day everything was covered by water.”

The worst meal he has had since he took shelter in a tent “were some crackers with soft drinks, because it was impossible to cook on the wet floor. The best was a ‘travellers stew’ with bones, rice and plantains.”

The Zona 6 de Agosto neighbourhood offered a picturesque combination of dirt roads and animal pens, where “chickens wandered across the streets, and you could see dogs and pigs walking around. It was beautiful, and it made you want to come to the neighbourhood, to clear your mind.” Today the barrio is completely under water.

The youngsters make it clear that they feel excluded because their homes were outside of the ring road. “People who live on the inside are the ones who have money and power. They can afford a better house, one that won’t be flooded,” says one of them.

In Zona 6 de Agosto, “the neighbourhood council distributes the land and we pay a monthly fee of 120 bolivianos (15 dollars). The lots cost around 1,500 dollars (compared to 10,000 dollars within the boundary of the ring road), but wood for building is expensive for the poor.”

Moreno’s home was made of wood “and was surrounded by a little fence put together with boards. The roof was covered with little tiles. We had to work hard to maintain it, to make it last.”

“My room was neither big nor small. There was room for two beds, one for me and the other for my brother, and for my table and a space for studying. I had no sheets or proper mattress, just a cheap straw mattress.”

Moreno remembers the best thing about his home: “My books, my diplomas, certificates from the Unidad Educativa San Vicente (a school) for being the best student, for good behaviour, and for organising groups of friends to do homework, helping young people, and organising sports tournaments.”

In the future, he says, “I’ll live in my neighbourhood with my friends and neighbours, outside of the ring road. But I hope they will build another road,” to protect the outlying areas of the city, he adds wistfully.

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