johnson  Allison Johnson :: Bolivia

Reflection 1

Since there is so much to say about Bolivia I’ve decided it would be best to confine myself to one aspect of my life here, my work, in this forum. For everything you could ever want to know about Bolivia and I, check out

I work for Centro Vicente Cañas, an NGO sponsored by the Catholic church, committed to strengthening grassroots community organizations. My team consists of me, a Dutchman, a Chicana-Filipina and two Bolivian nationals. We’re writing a report, which will eventually become a book, on the effects of external migration on the social, economic and political development in four barrios in the Zona Sud of Cochabamba. Founded in the last fifteen years by internal migrants, the barrios lack basic services and the people are desperately poor.


None of them have running water, so they have to rely on periodic tanker trucks. Often, the water they sell has been recycled from rich people’s swimming pools and drainage ditches. Parts of the barrios have electricity, which only works when the rest of Cochabamba isn’t consuming much power. Both water and electricity are more expensive in the barrios than they are in my barrio. Garbage collection and a sewage system are nonexistent. People dump their waste empty lots, or the local river.

Only a few of the barrios have schools, and only elementary schools. The government hasn’t paid the teachers in months, so the communities have taken up collections to keep them from striking. There are no hospitals or pharmacies in the communities, so people don’t get much healthcare. Transportation only runs when the roads are dry and even then it’s infrequent, uncomfortable and overcrowded. It’s an hour commute to the centro by bus. Most of the people in the barrios are comerciantes, so they leave home at 5am and return at 10pm.

One community is home to the petroleum refinery, and another to the city dump. There’s never been an environmental impact evaluation, but the effects are visible with the naked eye. You see far more sick children, far fewer old people. All of the barrios are just south of the airport, and the planes pass just a few hundred feet above. It’s terrifying and deafening.

Worst of all, in some of the barrios people bought their land from shady speculators. None of them have legal titles. They’ve spent their life savings on these little scraps of land, which lack the most basic services. They’ve organized and improved their communities, putting up lightposts, digging ditches for pipe, and then they’re threatened with eviction.

Right now we’re trying to define our informants and set up interviews to discern the effects of migration. We know that in the barrios about one in five families have a parent abroad, and that most migrants live in Spain, Argentina and the States.

It’s already clear that migration has both negative and positive effects in our barrios, but I’ll leave that to my next entry, when I know more.

Reflection 2

As I noted in my last entry, there is so much to say about Bolivia I’ve decided it would be best to confine myself to one aspect of my life here, my work, in this forum. For everything you could ever want to know about Bolivia and I, check out

Now that I’ve spent a month working with our informants, I have a better how migration affects our both Bolivia and our barrios. Migration is globalization at its most intimate. Displaced and dispossessed by the neoliberal economic system, unable to make ends meet, families are forced to make difficult choices.

Bolivia has high levels of both internal and external migration. When the mines were privatized in the late eighties and early nineties tens of thousands of workers were laid off and migrated from Potosi and Oruro, primarily to Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. With the second round of agrarian reform and the encroachment of huge estates, during the same era, many people lost their landholdings and migrated from the altiplano to El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.

The prospects for work aren’t much better in El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. The official unemployment rate is 70%, and the underemployment rate just as high. Most people work in the informal economy, as street vendors, day laborers and domestic employees. Education seems to have little effect. Taxi drivers often have university degrees. Even the employed don’t earn enough to feed their families. Minimum wage works out to about $70 a month. With such bleak prospects in Bolivia, many go abroad.

Approximately 30% of the population lives abroad. About a 1.5 million Bolivians have migrated to Spain, and a million more to Argentina, and half a million to the US, leaving around eight million people in the county. There are smaller communities in Chile, Brazil and Italy, and pockets in Peru, Ecuador, Israel and Japan. Approximately 50% of the population is expected to live abroad by 2020.

Families see migration as an investment for the future. They will borrow huge sums, up to $10,000, to travel abroad. Sometimes the investment pays off, and the migrants save enough to send their children to school, to provide for their families, to build new houses, and eventually, to invest in small businesses, taxis, and rental properties. Other times the migrants are unable to find work or adapt to life abroad, or, in the case of illegal immigrants, are deported, and the investment, plus interest, is lost.

Migration’s effects on families are the most marked. Last week I was interviewing a woman in her garden while her two year old son played nearby. Every time a plane passed overhead he would point and say "Papa!" An eight year old boy I talked to told me that he didn’t have a father, even though his had only been in Argentina for a year. The effect is even more pronounced when mothers migrate. Since most of the Spanish demand is for domestic workers almost 60% of Bolivian migrants are women. They are forced to leave their families behind, in the care of relatives, or in a few cases, alone. I interviewed one sixteen-year old in charge of four siblings. I’ve meet other teenagers who live alone and receive remittances from their parents. In these cases, children have little incentive to stay in school and on the straight narrow. As a result, Cochabamba has high rates of teenage drug and alcohol abuse and pregnancy, and child abuse and molestation.

Migration also has huge effects on communities. In the barrios where we work we often see huge houses, made of brick, painted bright colors, with one-way glass windows, red terra-cotta roofs and tile floors. They stand in stark contrast to the other one-room casitas, constructed of adobe, with scrap tin roofs and dirt floors. Unfortunately, the nice new houses are often empty, their owners abroad, while families of six or seven squeeze into the more humble houses. Returned migrants also invest in their communities. Migrants sponsor schools, churches, health centers and parks. Oftentimes, this is a huge help for the communities. Other times it’s conspicuous charity, benefiting the donor more than the community. When the migrants return for fiestas like Carnaval or Independence Day they’re often the patrons of lavish parties, with abundant alcohol, food and entertainment, which last for days on end. These parties can also create competition and division within the communities.

The most damaging is the brain drain phenomenon. Migrants are generally younger, closer to middle class, more educated and competent, and most able to improve their communities. I talked to one returned migrant, who had a college education, but moved to Spain to pour cement because wasn’t able to find work. Losing their best and brightest slows Bolivia’s development even further.

It remains to be seen, the benefits of migrant’s remittances will outweigh the costs of their absence. It just seems so unfair that some of us are forced to make such difficult choices.


Dr. Meena Rishi 

Program Director
Pigott Building, Room 518
Phone - 206.296.2078
Fax - 206.296.2486
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