LA PAZ & SANTA CRUZ – A Country in Chaos

It was going too smoothly, I guess.  The odd drama here and there but nothing I couldn’t handle.  But the tone changed soon after I crossed the border from Peru into Bolivia and entered the lakeside town of Copacabana.  I decided to grab a coffee in one of the cafes with a roof terrace overlooking Titicaca before catching a ferry to the small Isla del Sol.  The staff were distracted and unenthusiastic to take orders and it became apparent why half an hour later.  They sprang into action; pulled the shutters down, locked the doors and told us to stay out of sight of the roadway.  Rebellious/stupid as ever, I began meer-katting to see the huge crowd of people that had begun marching through the streets.

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Marching in the streets of Copacabana

This set-in motion a period of road closures, protests, unrest and violence ahead of the presidential election, culminating in an emergency plane journey and escape from the country on a 37-hour bus ride to Brazil.   Inevitably, FireTreks has taken a bit of a detour!  Surprisingly though, I was still fortunate enough to meet some fantastic people in Bolivia to tell me more about projects being championed in a country suffering immense difficulties and one of the poorest I have visited.  I hope to return once things have settled down to finish what I started. But this is the story so far.

Arriving in La Paz I could feel the tension, a buzz of electricity coursing through the narrow streets as I squeezed past hundreds of people, head down, feeling like making eye contact might cause an explosion.   Many people were carrying national and indigenous flags even where no obvious protest was occurring.  I had heard on the travellers’ grapevine that Bolivia was prone to regular protests, particularly blocking roads to disrupt the transport system so did wonder whether people just mobilised at the drop of a hat.

After a few days I grew a little braver with exploring and wandered the streets to find my feet.  It would have been easy to judge Bolivia seeing what was in front of me.  La Paz is a cramped and chaotic city, the traffic a disaster, the infrastructure a mess and the local parks ugly, covered in graffiti and many locked up.

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The city of La Paz

However, one incident made me rethink what I was seeing.  Two girls approached me with a rose which they said was for me.  I’d been accustomed to declining offers like this, jaded by years of walking on Westminster bridge where the ‘you touched it, you bought it’ policy was often employed by anyone touting flowers.  After declining a couple of times, they told me it was Women’s day in Bolivia to commemorate the birthday of Adela Zamudio, a famous Bolivian poet and feminist and insisted the flower was for me.  Embarrassed, I took it and watched them walk away, mentally scolding myself for always thinking the worst in people.

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Bolivia is poor, the poorest in South America in terms of GDP per capita, so yes, it’s going to be a little rough round the edges.   But good exists in people regardless of environment and the thing that stood out was the passion of local people demanding change and a better life for themselves and the people around them.

During my time in La Paz I met with the British Ambassador Jeff Glekin and vice Consul Jill Benton who discussed the prospect of a new fire academy being proposed for Cochabamba.  The academy would train fire fighters in Bolivia to an international standard and it is hoped that eventually other South American countries could also benefit from the facilities.

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Meeting at the British Embassy in La Paz with Ambassador Jeff Glekin and Jill Benton

Bolivia was the first country to embed environmental protection into the constitution but lacked efficient investment in the fire services.   However, the recent spate of fires in the forests of Bolivia which destroyed between 4 and 6 million hectares led to a huge social response, raising fire protection into the political spotlight.

Jeff explained that the varying departments around Bolivia were incredibly diverse, particularly when comparing the mountainous La Paz to Santa Cruz at sea level.  The differing political views, racial demographics, terrain, environment, meant that collaboration was not always prioritised.

The fire academy project would provide equal training for all. It would create a community of collaboration and unify what I would later discover was the most disjointed fire service I had come across on my journey so far.  Not only would it improve the skills of fire fighters in the region but it will also provide a starting point to address the public’s need for a response to the forest fire crisis.

Following the meeting, I was curious to find out more about the political climate in Bolivia to understand how it could affect the outcome of the Academy.

Evo Morales was Latin America’s first indigenous leader.  A self-proclaimed socialist, he was heralded for improving the conditions of the poor and providing a voice to the indigenous community.  However, the Bolivian constitution states that a president can only serve two consecutive terms.  At the end of his second term, he argued that since the constitution was updated during his first term, the two-term policy should not be applicable until he started his second.  Confused?  It basically meant he would be allowed to stand for a third term.

Whilst his argument was successful and he comfortably won parliamentary approval, the tremors of rebellion were beginning to rumble from the public.

I had arrived in Bolivia at the end of this third term where Morales had once again contested the limitations of his presidency.  He now wanted the constitution changed as it was ‘against his human rights’ to be denied to continue as party leader.  Even though a referendum had been called and the public had voted against him sitting for a fourth term he successfully argued his request to stand again.

This was the last straw for many.  A president who thwarted the constitution in order to remain in power was viewed as a dictator by some, feeding directly into the right-wing agenda to smear his presidency.    Protests began in earnest and violence erupted between the two camps.   I had to shelve plans to explore the Northern regions and flew directly to Santa Cruz for fear of being stranded.

On my arrival, a calm had descended on the city.  The election was 2 days away and the people were preparing.

The magnitude of what I had learnt in La Paz didn’t fully sink in until I met with Chris Gannon.  Chris certainly needs an article of his own based on his story! His company ‘Gannon Emergency Solutions’ has driven fire safety reform in over 30 countries and his no-nonsense approach has earned him the nickname of the ‘Gordon Ramsey’ of fire safety. He had been integral to the fire academy project proposal.

Chris took me to visit one of only two fire stations in Santa Cruz (a city of 2 million people) where we met with the team to discuss the state the fire brigade was in.

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Meeting the team in Santa Cruz
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Santa Cruz region served by only two official fire teams

One major difference with the Bolivian firefighters is that they are not regarded as an independent entity.  Instead they fall under the banner of the ‘Police’.  Despite their bright red uniforms the Police badge is clear to see…and the public hate the Police.

The passion and devotion that had been apparent in so many other countries were lost here.  They seemed to be the joke department, where some members of the Police ended up as a ‘punishment’.  The station facilities were depressing, the outside, a graveyard of dead fire trucks which couldn’t be removed because they couldn’t afford disposal fees. Most of the younger members of the team were only there as a stepping stone to other Police departments.

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Fire truck graveyard

In addition to the official state fire service, several private companies have established their own fire teams.  This means there are 9 separate phone numbers people can call in an emergency.  Dialling the wrong number could mean a wait for assistance from across the other side of town since they do not cooperate or coordinate with each other.  What’s worse is that some have contracts with certain health facilities so may drive past multiple hospitals before getting the medical help you need.

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Additional emergency numbers

Five sets of kit were shared between the team of 25 which was a huge step up from the previous year where a single hat was shared by the entire crew.  The hat was made by one of the firefighters so there was no way it would meet any safety standards for approved head gear but it looked the part so it was seen as an honour to be chosen to wear it.  Fire boots were also scarce, so many were just painted to look like fire boots.

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The famous hat

The main operational fire truck was given the nickname “Chivvy Chivvy” (meaning baby goat).  Put simply, a baby goat could be traced as it would not be able to hold its bladder, peeing a trail that could be followed…. much like the fire truck which had a permanent water leak.

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Chivvy Chivvy

The team were lovely so I tried to remain upbeat during the discussions even after hearing:

  • that they had no usable cutting equipment regardless of hydraulic equipment that had been donated to the station.  Staff were too afraid to open it since it had not achieved sign-off to ensure the donations were not a bribe.

  • that vehicles older than 3 years could not enter the country INCLUDING donated fire trucks which is why Chivvy Chivvy was still on the road.

  • that the guys could not conduct fundraising to improve their station for fear of corruption allegations so they had to dig into their own pockets for refurbishments.

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Unopened boxes filled with much needed cutting equipment

There was more, a lot more, but I would need to write a novel to fit it all in.  The City’s anti-corruption policies seemed to me to be adversely affecting those at the bottom of the food chain rather than dealing with the real corruption issues, notably found near the top.  It was forcing these guys to seek alternative solutions to fire fighting and was effectively putting their lives at risk.

I left feeling emotional.

The proposed academy is set to change the lives of the firefighters all over the country.  It will provide training to a service so disgustingly under-funded and under-resourced by bringing everyone up to a level playing field.  I truly hope that it helps to shine a light on the conditions these fire fighters are facing.

I can see now why this project means a lot to everyone.  I want to get involved too and I think anyone who reads this should try and support in any way they can.  Jeff requested that consultants and equipment exporters should get in touch.

So, what next?

I had a bus booked for the day after the election whilst the votes were being counted and was able to exit the country into Brazil with the hope of returning 2 weeks later when things had ‘settled down’.

Then all hell broke loose.

As the votes were counted, results were trickling in, showing a small lead for Morales.  Then nothing was announced for 24 hours – this pause led the opposition to believe something untoward had occurred as the vote count was not going Morales’ way.  Regardless, he declared himself the winner.  If I had left just one day later, I would have been stranded in the city for weeks – no buses were able to leave and the roads were blocked with fighting escalating in the streets.

32 people were killed.

It was later deemed that the vote had suffered enough irregularities to be considered void.  Under threats from the military (an institution which under the constitution was not meant to choose sides), Morales fled the country to Mexico to seek political asylum.

During all this the people continued to fight each other – there were those wanting change and an end to a greedy corrupt president flaunting the constitution, and those who believed a coup had occurred, toppling the only politician who had ever represented their rights.

At the time of writing, Morales has now moved to Argentina to continue fighting his cause and the interim president has issued a warrant for his arrest for inciting violence.

I often think about the girls with the flowers and hope that Bolivia can start to move forward and begin prioritising what really matters.  Unifying the community and creating a climate of support for those who serve it would seem like a good place to start.

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