Fires, Drought and Rainforest

So we’ve already started the hot, dry, smoky season here.  Generally it’s smoky because they burn the sugar cane fields and the processing plant to the north of us throws out a lot of ash and smoke while processing the sugar cane.  However as we’ve found out happened in 2010 when we first got here and is happening again this year, in dry years the fires get worse.  Similar to what happened in the US this year, fires have started getting out of control in Bolivia.  When these fires get out of control in rural areas, there’s little more than men with buckets and rugs to beat them back.  Just a few days ago a huge chunk of land owned by the Santa Cruz airport burned out of control but luckily the airport has firefighters and were able to keep stop it before it got to the airport.

Many of these fires are human-started.  The majority of the fires are in the department of Santa Cruz (us) and the department of Beni (north of La Paz).  According to a recent article in our newspaper El Deber, the vast majority of the burning is associated with cattle farming and agriculture.  Why these fires started is a more difficult question though.  We know that farmers burn forest to clear the land; they also burn trash and according to the newspaper today, many farmers have claimed the fires came across the border from Brazil.  However since the same article said the authorities were fining anyone found starting fires, the truth is probably getting buried.  Burning can also be part of the yearly harvest cycle for crops such as sugar cane and what starts as a controlled burn could get out of control.  Beni and Santa Cruz are the main agro-business regions in Bolivia so it would make sense that so much burning is centered here, particularly during sugar cane harvest.

So we have man-made fires burning out of control with inadequate ability to fight them, but the problem doesn’t stop there.  Coincidentally the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz are also the regions where the Amazon rainforest spills down into Bolivia.   And as a recent article picked up by, “Bolivia park declared one of most diverse places on Earth” explains nicely, this region has huge biodiversity significance.  You know the stories about a scientist going deep into the rainforest and finding some fungus that cures this disease or that disease.  This is that forest.  El Deber reports that since January over 1000 fires occurred in forest reserves and protected areas.  (How large those fires were is not clearly explained however).  I don’t believe Madidi National Park, which the nbc article talks about, has had any large fires but they are certainly not out of danger.

They say it might rain on Wednesday.  Let’s hope it does.  Our weather forecast today:

IP Shark Week

Intellectual Property Shark Week

So Discovery Channel is having their infamous “Shark Week” this week.  I’m going to one-up them with a series of articles and posts about a very dangerous form of shark…Intellectual Property (IP) sharks.  If you’re following me on Facebook/Google+/Delicious you’ll be treated to a bunch of different topics surrounding the problems we have with Copyright and Patents…or you can just ignore them.

If you’re reading this on the blog this is a bit off topic but I wanted to put it all together in one pace. You missed the fun in realtime, but here’s everything you missed all at once.


Copyright in the U.S. began with the constitution which gave the congress the power to: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Once the constitution was ratified, the original Copyright Act (of 1790) set the “limited time” to 14 years with the option to renew it for another 14 years for a total of 28 years.

With the copyright term set to 14 years, authors were able to make a good amount of money on their works, as historically the vast amount of money is made immediately after release. However when the time was up, others were able to take these works and freely share them with anyone. For example, the movie “Its a Wonderful Life” was originally a terrible box-office flop. However when its copyright expired, several TV stations put it on to fill air-time around the holidays because it was free to all. Its popularity rapidly grew from there. #IPSharkWeek

In 1976, at the behest of rights holders, congress drastically lengthened the term of copyright to the life of the author plus 50 years (or simply 75 years for works created by a corporation). Then in 1998, when the copyright on the originally Mickey Mouse movies was about to expire, Disney pushed congress to again extend it. This time for the life of the author plus 70 years or 120 years for corporate works. #IPSharkWeek

After the originaly 14 years of copyright was up, people were also free to take the original work and build upon it. For example Disney took the story Sleeping Beauty (published 1697) and was freely able to make it into an animated movie. (This is a common theme for Disney movies).  They waited almost 300 years, but at the time they made the movie they would only have had to wait 28 years to use a story in a film. However, you can’t make a painting of a scene from Disney’s movie until 2078 (if congress doesn’t extend copyright again). #IPSharkWeek

Along with getting extraodinary extension to the copyright terms, the distributers of copyrighted works also decided to really jack up the penalties for unauthorized distribution. They got congress to say that you would be liable up to $150,000 per work that you copy without a license. So if I were to burn a copy of one of my CDs for my wife (retail value $8), I would be responsible for copying all 16 tracks on the CD (each one being a separate work) for a grand total of $2.4 million!  Happy birthday honey :-) #IPSharkWeek

Copyright law has not been completely corrupted to serve the interest of the publishers. There are two things that the public (which the constitution says should be the beneficiary of copyright) has on its side. The first is a limited term (which isn’t as limited as it used to be). The other is Fair Use. This allows for some (very limited) opportunity to use works that fall under copyright without permission of the publisher. Some of the ways you can use fair use are: criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research. Unfortunately just because you fit into one of these categories doesn’t mean you’re in the clear to use it…there’s a bunch of other requirements too. #IPSharkWeek

In 1998 the media distributers, mostly music and movie publishers, decided that the internet was for real, and that they didn’t want their music and movies distributed in any way besides CDs, VHS/DVD, and Cable TV. To put a stop to anyone who wanted to try other methods for selling media, they created the DMCA. A large part of this law was devoted to anti-circumvention. This means if a content producer puts encryption on their DVD (most do), then its against the law for you to use a tool to remove that encryption, and for example, copy it to your iPod. #IPSharkWeek

The real crazy thing that the DMCA’s anti-circumvention clause did, other than keep people from putting the DVDs that they own onto their iPods, is enable other, non-content, companies to lock out competition. For instance, the companies that make printers and then sell the ink a huge profit margins put a bit of computer code into each ink cartridge so that they could use the DMCA to go after anyone who tried to make competing ink cartridges. Even better, there was a garage door opener company that sued another company another company under the DMCA that made universal openers which worked on their doors. Even if these lawsuits aren’t successful, just fighting it off could put an inventive startup out of business. #IPSharkWeek

To oppose the industries unlimited power to encrypt things, and keep them from being used for fair use, congress and the register of copyrights have established several exemptions to the anti-circumevention policies. One is to allow professors to copy a DVD for use in the classroom. Another is to allow e-books to be read by screen readers for visually impaired people. Yet another allows users to jailbreak their smartphones. #IPSharkWeek

Another aspect of the DMCA (the final one I’m going to mention) allows for publishers to request that a website (youtube, wikipedia,, etc) take down a user’s content if the publisher merely sends an accusation that the content is copyrighted by the publisher. The plus side of this, is that it absolves the websites of any responsibility for the content their users publish. The down side is that the number of times this has been abused by publishers is very un-funny. There are no checks and balances for fair use or even that the alleged copyright holder actually owns the copyright. There is no judge to decide if the take-down is legitimate, you only need to make an accusation to get the material taken down. #IPSharkWeek

One of those examples of publishers abusing the DMCA take-down request: A user submitted a video of birds (and their mating calls) to youtube. Then a company that licenses music for videos sent youtube a takedown request stating that his video contained some of their music and youtube took his video off the site. He tried to appeal to youtube, but when they asked the music company what was up with their request, they insisted that they owned the rights to his, clearly, original recording.  #IPSharkWeek

The publishers of music and movies often call people who illegally copy the items they distribute “pirates” or “thieves”. But really? Is sharing your favorite song with a friend by copying it onto an ipod “stealing” anything? If I were to walk into your garage, hot-wire your car, and drive off in it, that would be stealing…one minute you had your car, the next you didn’t. This is not what happens when you copy music. No one loses their copy of it…studies have even shown that the odds are very good that your copying of one song won’t negatively affect your decision to purchase that music. #IPSharkWeek

So the internet has been around for a few years now, and isn’t really going away. And the major content companies (mostly music and movies, but books and TV too) haven’t really gotten into the whole “online” thing. They’re really only on iTunes and Amazon. Why? They’re really afraid to change their past business model (CDs/DVDs/VHS) for something new. There’s lots of companies that have tried to innovate in this space, but they almost all get shot down by the same companies they would end up benefiting if they were successful. #IPSharkWeek

Its one thing to illegally download a DVD from the web, but it is another thing all together to put a link to youtube on your website. The big content industries want both to be illegal, luckily the law is still on the side of the people with this one. The federal appeals court (7th circuit) recently ruled that its *not* illegal to put a link to an online video on your website. You’re not copying it! #IPSharkWeek

In 2001 a smart guy named Bram Cohen developed a new internet protocol for rapidly downloading large files. It is called bit-torrent and it allows everyone who is downloading the file to pool their bandwidth so that they can all download it faster. Amazing technology. The music and movie people quickly started to oppose this technology, because it was so good that it worked well for copying movies and music too…they have (and still are) tried to demonize this technology, even though it was originally designed and is widely used for non-infringing purposes.  Here’s one example of a site over 1,000,000 different *legal* files available for download with bit-torrent. #IPSharkWeek

Here’s the list of what’s hot on the site:

There’s also lots of other software available over bit-torrent, like my favorite operating system, Ubuntu:

Not content with their current power over content, the big content industries pushed congress to create a (series of) new law(s) that would let them together with the feds shut down websites that they don’t like, even overseas. Part of this was called SOPA, and the internet wasn’t having it. On the day of January 18, 2012 tens of thousands of people called the capitol switchboard, overloading it. There was so much traffic to congresses web-servers that they went down for a while. Over six million people signed petitions against SOPA (that’s a decent percentage of the 300 million citizens in the U.S.).  The amount of people who contacted their representatives this one day is more than ten times higher than any other day in history. And it worked. The next day the bill was dead. #IPSharkWeek

The people who had pushed the SOPA bill were dismayed at the huge outpouring of support against their cause and decided to cast the blame against groups like Wikipedia (they’ve got a huge commercial motive, NOT!) and some companies like Google who had spoken against it. I’m sure that Google doesn’t make any sizable percentage of its money from this type of content either way. #IPSharkWeek

Blaming the organizations for the failure of SOPA isn’t even getting to the meat of the issue. It was important that organizations helped people get together and express their views, but it was the millions and millions of people that should be the important piece of the puzzle, not one company vs. another. Eric Raymond wrote a good letter to Senator Dodd (now the chair of the movie producer’s organization) explaining how this bill would have hurt the internet and all the people who use it. These are things that shouldn’t be messed with for *any* industry’s bottom line. #IPSharkWeek

Here’s a funny dramatization of what Chris “Rodd” wants to make into law with bills like SOPA. #IPSharkWeek

So after the Internet’s SOPA victory, the worry was that the content companies would just wait a few months for things to calm down and try the same approach again. Sooner or later they’d get luck with congress…so to take the initiative some of the people who are knowledgeable about these topics developed a “Declaration of Internet Freedom” to outline freedoms that should always be protected on the internet going forward. This should make things clear to industries who want to innovate which practices the users will and will not stand for. #IPSharkWeek

So I’m going to post my own suggestions for how to fix copyright but #IPSharkWeek still has a couple days to go…you’ll have to stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s what some other great minds think about fixing copyright.  (Up next: patents)

Software Patents

Patent time. Software patent time. The patent system has worked wonderfully for years at protecting the rights of inventors of all kinds of gadgets. However the U.S. Patent office states that you cannot patent an “Abstract Idea” or a “Rule of Nature” such as a mathematical formula. Anyone who understands how software works knows that it is just (complicated) mathematics combining ideas together., so software in general shouldn’t be patentable. Unfortunately, the courts got confused somewhere along the way, and it is. #IPSharkWeek

The other thing about patents, is they need to be non-obvious to someone “skilled in the arts” (aka a programmer). Yet somehow Amazon managed to get a patent on a “One Click Checkout”, where you click one button next to an item and it just ships it. Basically this boils down to they’ve already stored all your billing info and don’t need to give you a page to enter it again. Not only is this obvious, but it is pretty much the definition of an abstract idea and is implemented completely in software (aka math). #IPSharkWeek

The problem with patents is that, unlike copyright, you can keep people from using functional things by suing them over patents. Take microsoft, they have a patent that allows a filesystem to use filenames longer than 11 characters (can I get a shout out for good-old 8.3 names?), sounds obvious *and* abstract. They then drafted this patent into their battle against the Linux operating system and started suing companies that used linux, like TomTom. That’s not really competing fairly. #IPSharkWeek

So Apple got a patent for using “swipe to unlock” on their iphone. Then the started seeing that Samsung was making phones that were technically far superior to the iphone and instead of releasing an iphone with a bigger screen, they sued samsung over this trivial patent, hoping that they could block sales of samsung phones in the U.S. Samsung, not being a pushover fired back with some patents of its own, and though the trial isn’t over it doesn’t look like either side will get a clean victory. They’ll probably end up settling for very little money and the only ones who will win will be the lawyers!

Life Patents

Another thing that you can unfortunately patent that you shouldn’t be able to is life. There’s a company that found a genetic marker (has been in millions of peoples’ DNA for millennia) which indicates a elevated likely-hood for a certain type of breast cancer. So they went and patented the gene. Now if you want to get tested for that important mutation, you need to go through them. There are no other options, no second tests. #IPSharkWeek


So that just about wraps up #IPSharkWeek, but before I go, I want to leave a couple posts about what you can do. First, use Creative Commons licenses and media. Creative Commons is an organization that created a collection of freely available licenses that you can apply to your works (photos, writing, etc) which give others permission to use them in specific ways, without having to wait 120 years for it to enter the public domain or to get specific permission from you. Since it was created in 2001, millions and millions of works have been made available with the various Creative Commons licenses, which you are free to use yourself.

Another thing you can do is to use Open Source software. This is software that is given away (usually) free of cost, but more importantly it gives its users the freedom to use it in any way they see fit or even to modify it to their liking. You may not be someone who can edit code of your favorite program to make it work better, but if you use software that has the freedom to do that, there’s a good likelyhood that someone else in the community of users (there are real communities that form around open source sofware) will have those skills.  You may already even use free software. Firefox is. Libre Office (edits MS Word/Excel/Powerpoint) is. Gimp (a photo editor as good as photoshop) is. The Linux operating system (my favorite version – Ubuntu), which is a complete replacement for windows even is. All available for free. #IPSharkWeek

So people have been asking, what are my ideas for reforming IP law.  Here they are: 1) Shorter copyright term, I think the original 14+14 years was fine, plenty of time to make money off your work. 2) Sane penalties for copyright infringement. If you make a copy of a $8 CD, you shouldn’t be responsible for millions in damages…something like 10 times the commercial value would be a fair punishment. 3) No patents on software, they just don’t make sense. 4) No patents on life…it was around before us, discovering something and then patenting how it works shouldn’t be something one organization can monopolize.

Thanks for reading #IPSharkWeek….tune in next week for #GlobalWarmingSharkWeek or #GovernmentSurveillanceSharkWeek…just kidding, no more rapid-fire messages for awhile.


Making Maps

A quick note: The blog has had some hiccups over the last month and a half, sorry for any readers who couldn’t get access. I think I now have things worked out with our hosting provider and it should be better. We should have some more new material coming soon!

Making Maps – The First Step in Development

Having used google maps for years (and before that mapquest), I expected, in 2010 when I came to Bolivia, that a city of 100,000 people like Montero (wikipedia, better version) would certainly have some online maps that I could look at before I arrived. I was hoping to scope things out, see where I would be living and working, what was around, where I could put my skills to work, etc.  Unfortunately there wasn’t anything.  Google maps had a spot for montero, and a few of the roads, but not very many and almost no street names or any other kind of reference spot.  My personal favorite mapping spot, OpenStreetMap, was even worse off, it just had the main road through town (which I would later find out wasn’t even done correctly).

So when I got to Montero, not only did I not know what the town would be like, but we had the most difficult time finding my way around for the first couple months. After a while of this, I decided to take matters into my own hands and build a map of the town.  In addition to being able to find great fried chicken places a second time, I was hopeful that my map would also be of use to others. I know that there are several NGOs that work on a regular basis in and around Montero and it would be great if they could build off of my work as well. Eventually, I hope that as Bolivians become more and more computer literate, they could also benefit from having a decent map of their city. (Spoiler: here’s the link)

I decided to do my work in the OpenStreetMap database for two reasons: 1) they have great map making tools (both online and offline), which I was already familiar with and 2) the maps would be made freely available to anyone who wanted them.  For those not familiar with it, the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project works like wikipedia. Anyone can edit it and there is a huge community focused around making it better (and keeping it free of vandalism).

Being lazy, I started creating my map near where I was living. I’d go out early in the morning (before it got super hot) and wander around the streets near where I lived with my GPS running and a camera I used to take pictures some of the plaques that the city had put on every house. These had on them the address for that house and many had, crucially, the names of the streets. I had tried to write down the names, but that resulted in me standing in front of someone’s front door for a minute while I tried to write down spanish names. Using the camera allowed me to take just two seconds per door and resulted in a lot fewer strange looks.

An address plaque that has a street name on it.

Once I’d get back home, I’d convert my GPS track into the common GPX format (also wikipedia) which is a common, computer readable, format for GPS data. Once I had the GPX file, I would do two things with it. The first is to simply upload it to the OSM server so it would be available for use later. Then I would open it together with my pictures in a program called Viking. This program (and there are many others like it) could use the timestamp (assuming I had previous set the correct time on my camera plus or minus a few seconds) on my pictures to put them onto my GPS track. Now I could see which of the lines in my track (aka streets) had which names.

I would start up the online editor on the OSM website. To make streets here is very easy, I would start by clicking on the end of one street to make a point, then just click a few points along my track (more if there were turns) until I got to the end and OSM automatically connects them into a line. Finally, I would simply select the type of street: dirt road, paved road, various classes of highway, etc. (What these classifications mean varies from country to country, for example here they are in Brasil.)

Once I had all the lines for streets input into OSM, it was time to add their names. By looking at my GPS trace with the pictures at the same time as my new map, it was easy to see which picture corresponded with which road. All I had to do was read the picture and type it into the road name box.

I didn’t spend too much time on this right away, which turned out to be a good thing, because about a month after I got started OSM got sponsorship from Microsoft. Part of this deal meant that satellite imagery which Microsoft had would be available in OSM’s online editor. Now instead of walking up and down each street, I could just sit at my computer and draw the street lines where the satellite images showed the streets going.  Much easier!  The downside to this is that the satellite imagery didn’t line up quite right. It turned out that all the images were about 30ft north of where they were supposed to be, not terrible, but enough that it stood out on the GPS. To solve this I went to various points around town that were easily visible in the satellite imagery (I really only needed one or two though) and took careful GPS positions of them. Then I used these as control points to show me how far I needed to adjust my lines.

Now that I could make all the street lines from my computer things went much faster. After four hours of furious clicking, I had all the street lines in the main part of the city.  A few more days of on-and-off work gave me the rest of Montero and a bunch of the surrounding area. The map was looking very good, unfortunately only the streets near where I lived had names. To fix this, I went back to my walking around with a camera and taking pictures of address plaques, but it went much quicker now. I only needed to hit one house on each street.  I was able to walk a zig-zag path from the edge of town into the center and got all the street names in that quarter of the city!

In addition to streets OSM also has built in support for all kinds of points-of-interest from resturants to churches to drug-stores.  Its easy to add them in the editor, just select one and drag it in, and now that I had a map with streets and names, it was easy to figure out where to put things. If I knew that the grocery store was on Calle Warnes a block up from the main plaza, I could just add places from memory. After putting in my favorite/important places, I was considering my map complete!

This is about where it stands now, you can see it here:

This is great, now when I find a great new fried chicken place, I know where to put it so I can find it again!  However, the uses of the map aren’t limited to finding restaurants or getting around town. OSM provides all the map data freely to anyone who wants to use it, so it can be imported into other programs and used as a base to add other map related information, such as population density, disease outbreaks, crime rates, etc. Then this data can be used to make important development decisions. This is really a whole field, which is called Geographic Information Systems (GIS), but you don’t need to be getting a graduate degree in it (like my brother who starts his masters in GIS next week…good luck Kevin!) to put it to use.

So if you are one of the EWB people reading this blog or otherwise work in international development, think about making a map of the whole community/region as your first step in working on a project. Its easy, and a lot of work can be done state-side before you head into the country.

Blacked Out for SOPA

So I was hoping to follow along with many other sites on the Internet today and black-out the blog in protest of the SOPA and PIPA bills that are in congress, but it was too complicated to setup for just one day, plus this post will last longer.

For those who don’t know there are two bills currently in congress SOPA (in the House) and PIPA (in the senate). These bills were put forward by Music, Movie and Television conglomerates to try to combat the online copying of their works. Unfortunately these bills are far too sweeping. Basically, they would give these companies the power to take any site they don’t like off the Internet, without giving the site a chance to defend themselves in court. If that’s not bad enough, the method they want to use to do this would break important security systems for *ALL* websites. Without these systems in place, bad guys on the Internet can re-direct your web browser to rogue sites that look like Paypal, Gmail, Wells Fargo, USBank, Hotmail, E-bay, etc. and get you to login to their malicious site (because you think its the real one) then once they have your user-name and password, they can use it on the real site to do bad things.

The fact that a bill would have this amazingly awful side-effect simply proves that the congressmen who wrote it (and the Music+Movie+TV people who actually wrote it) simply don’t understand the technology that they are dealing with, and don’t really care what side-effects the bill has.

Obviously this is a bad situation, and we clearly need to do something about the technical problems with this bill.  However, we also need to look deeper at what is going on here. Over the last several decades the content industries (Movies, Music, TV) have pushed many bills through congress, making copyright law much tougher than the founding fathers ever intended.  Originally copyright was only good for 12 years, which was plenty of time for the creator to make their money off it.  After this period, the creation was available to anyone, with the idea that it would make all of society richer.

However, the content industries weren’t happy with this, even though they make the vast majority of their sales in the first 12 years, there were a few percentage points more profit they could eek out.  So they decided to change it to 70(!) years after it is published. That means that things important to society like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, are locked up and you have to pay the copyright holder if you want to use them.

Besides the long term extensions, the content industries have also fought to limit how people use the content they have paid money for.  For example, when I was in high school and college I made mix CDs to share some of my favorite songs with my friends, but now the content industries have started suing people who want to share with their friends.  Another example is DVDs, if you buy a DVD of your favorite movie you’d think you should be able to watch it on your iPad on your airline flight, right? Sadly, no, the content industry (in 1998) made it illegal to copy DVDs, even for your own personal use.

There are lots more examples I could go into, but they all revolve around the content industries (which were immensely profitable even during the recession) fighting to make even *more* money than they already do, without having to actually make more or better content.  As citizens of the USA, we need to start moving copyright back to something that benefits our society instead of the shareholders in a few companies.  The first step is to call our congressmen and women and tell them to oppose SOPA and PIPA.  But we can’t stop there, we need to keep rolling back the changes they’ve made over the last few decades, so that copyright is a benefit for all of us.

Learn more:
EFF: One-page guide to SOPA (pdf)
reddit: A technical overview of the SOPA and PIPA bills
DYN: How these bills would break DNS
EFF: Free speech on the web

Contact information for US elected officials

Thoughts on poverty

It’s a big leap to go from having nothing to having something.  There’s also a big difference between having something and having everything.  True physical poverty is having nothing but few people in the world can be categorized as such.  And since no one has everything except God, that leaves the rest of us somewhere on the spectrum in between nothing and everything.  Physical richness is having more than nothing. Emotional richness is having something and knowing it.  Spiritual richness is having nothing but thinking you have everything.  Emotional poverty is having something but feeling like you have nothing.  Spiritual poverty is being surrounded by everything and seeing nothing.

I see poverty everyday but it comes in different forms.  At first glance many things in Bolivia looked quite developed and we thought “Oh this isn’t so bad, perhaps we should serve where there’s real poverty.”   Then I began meeting children who have stepfathers that beat them or live with a relative because their parents have been in Spain for the last 5 years to work, broken families and broken people.  Children who were abandoned, malnourished, mistreated, with no feeling of self-worth or knowledge of their own potential.  Yes, there is a poverty here, but perhaps not so different from the poverty in many countries of the world, developed or not.

Then you look at pictures of the drought and famine in Somalia.  Tragic, heart-wrenching scenes of dead children, ruined livelihoods, and people with nowhere to go.  Despite the clear desperation that anyone would feel in that situation, stories surface of neighbors helping neighbors build their stick-shelters to keep out the wind.  One woman came ahead to the refuge camp with her 5 children while her husband stayed behind to try to keep alive the few cattle they had left.  She ran into an old neighbor who offered they could all stay with her and her children in her small hut until they found a hut of their own.  Here we have a solid family, a generous neighbor among people so close to true physical poverty.

Another interesting aspect is people’s perception of other people’s poverty.

It is much easier to ask people to donate to relieve physical poverty.  I don’t know about all the statistics in the video above, but I like it’s overall point that stimulation of the local economy is always more helpful to an area than donation of goods.  And there may be a disconnect between perceived need and actual need.  So much emphasis is put on relieving physical poverty but is that really the most important?

As a missionary I’ve come to realize that my duty here is not to relieve physical poverty but to help people discover their spiritual and emotional richness DESPITE the physical poverty.

TIP? This is Peru.

This past week, we had just finished planning a trip through Peru for our winter break in July when this story came out. Obviously we read it in the local papers but I found an English version for you. Guess where we had planned to go in Peru? That’s right, Puno. Luckily the Cuzco and Arequipa parts of our trip can hopefully still be salvaged with some monkeying around with plane flights. We received a warden message also this week that what with the unrest and road blocks, the border is now closed between Bolivia and Peru. Also from the local papers it sounds like there are Bolivians stuck in Peru amongst the protests and there’s beginning to be food shortages in and around Puno. This is also winter for them so colder temperatures are an added hardship.

Though I don’t support violence and don’t know all the details, my first reaction is to side with the protesters however. Peru and Bolivia are both hot spots for mining minerals and I have heard many horror stories of irresponsible mining companies dumping arsenic in rivers, pressuring people off of their lands, dumping mercury along roadsides that children then ate, and it goes on. Oxfam America has also been speaking out on this issue ever since I did my training with them back in 2005. The documentary they put together on a gold mine in Peru had such a strong effect on me that I decided to never buy gold jewelry again unless I knew where it had come from. In the same vein as blood diamonds, they call it “dirty gold.”

Also in other news, Peru’s government is possibly going to change drastically with their elections this week. This editorial gave an interesting viewpoint of what the US could learn from their problems.

More upbeat and personal stories and pictures coming soon, we’ve had family visiting and now need some time to recover!

Vatican speaks out on climate change

This week, the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences (basically the Pope’s science advisors) released a (strongly worded) report (pdf) calling on all Christans (and indeed all people) to immediately begin a “rapid transition to renewable energy sources” among other things.

I learned about this report through the excellent news publication ArsTechnica (article), and Forbes (article) has also reported on it.  The gist of it is the same refrain we’ve been hearing from all kinds of important bodies…we need to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The difference is that the Vatican has framed it in terms of our moral obligation. When we use electricity that came from coal, or drive a car that gulps down gasoline, we are hurting and killing others. The effect may not be as immediate as when some of the other problems with the world: violence, abortion, stealing, etc., but it is the same end result. This document is our wake up call that our moral actions aren’t only the ones we can see with our eyes, but some of the effects of our moral actions need to be measured by scientists.

So, how does this affect our life in Bolivia you ask? Well, a big part of this document is looking at the diminishing glaciers, and their affect on water supplies. Here in Bolivia, much of the water outside the brief wet season (Jan-Feb) comes as the glaciers high in the Andes melt throughout the year. For thousands of years the people of Bolivia (Incans, then Spanish, then the modern Bolivians) have depended on these glaciers for plentiful water throughout the year (more importantly in the mountains, but somewhat on the plains as well). However, now as the glaciers have all shrunk, they don’t have enough water to release (water released throughout the year is directly affected by the size of the glacier), especially in the last few months of the cycle. Just this past December when the rainy season was making a timid start, ranchers surrounding Montero were in fear of their cattle dying from dehydration since water stores had run out.  Some people have coped with this by getting water from further away, some have just left their livelihoods and moved into cities. Our region, Santa Cruz, has experienced a HUGE amount of urban growth in the last 40 years. Montero practically didn’t exist 40 years ago.  And as the glaciers continue to shrink, every year the water situation gets worse. I think it’s fair to say most of the farmers around here are one bad rainy season away from complete ruin.

Impressively, the Bolivian Catholic church as well as the people themselves are taking climate change VERY seriously. With the help from a German organization a series of movies were made interviewing people from all over Bolivia and each had their story of how the rains have become inconsistent or there has been violent flooding or warmer temperatures, basically indicating natural conditions were more unpredictable than previously. These people felt strongly that their government should intervene to mitigate effects on people personally and take an active role in policy creation. In addition, and to me very interesting, at no point did they point the finger at the developed world for ‘creating’ such a problem. The Bolivians in the movie, as well as the speaker doing the presentation (this was at our equivalent of World Youth Day here- so imagine me and a room full of high schoolers as the audience) presented the situation as something that each person in the room was actively causing through their own actions and something that each person could do something about. It was really great. He also talked about trash accumulation since litter is a HUGE problem here and pointed a specific finger at the sugar processing plant in Guabira (10km to the north of us) and the amount of carbon dioxide is spews out daily. These were strong words since all of us in the room either ate the sugar from Guabira or knew people who worked at the plant.


Important quotes from the Vatican’s document:
“We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming”

“We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish.”

“Human-caused changes in the composition of the air and air quality result in more than 2 million premature deaths worldwide every year and threaten water and food security”


ArsTechnica Article:

Forbes Article:

More Bad News on Food Prices

For the last week or so Bolivia has been rocked by massive strikes from groups as diverse as teachers, doctors, and miners. Because of the skyrocketing costs of food, everyone is trying to get paid more in their job to make up the difference. There’s all sorts of crazy Bolivian economic policies that I could talk (and/or vent) about that are based on shaky economics, they don’t really have much to do with the unrest…they just pile on to the problems.
Even if Bolivia had the best possible economic policies (I’m not going to say I or anybody else knows what those would be), it still would be having a lot of the same issues, just because of the huge increase in food prices. The World Bank just released numbers saying the the food prices have risen 36% over this time last year! When you’re already working 10hrs/day, and spending up to half your money on food (the rest probably on housing), there’s simply no room in the budget for food prices changing like that. Thus you need more money to just get by. So, you go on strike to try to get that. When you have lots of different groups all on strike at the same time, then it starts to get crazy. There have been road blocks on all the major roads, miners exploding dynamite in La Paz, and doctors shutting down the clinics and hospitals.

The price increases aren’t just affecting the people of Bolivia either, but these prices are going to affect anyone who really has to watch the price of the food that they eat. I know that when I was living in St. Louis, this didn’t include us…we were blessed enough that we didn’t have to think about if we could afford the stuff on our shopping list, but I know there were people even living in our old neighborhood that did have to think about things like that.

So what can you do to help?
1) Eat less meat. Raising livestock (like cattle) takes a lot of food to feed the animals (more than 50 times what we get out of them), if there wasn’t the demand for so many animals to eat, more of that feed could go to feeding people. I’m not suggesting being a vegetarian, I don’t think I could do that unless I was forced to…but if everyone cut down their meat consumption by half, that would make a huge difference. Try to start thinking of meat as more of a reward or food for celebrations than something you eat on a daily basis.
2) Drive Less. (or get a more efficient car) A huge part of food prices is the transportation of the food. Thus the price of gasoline is making an impact on the current food price crisis. If we can start being more efficient with our driving habits, we can reduce some of this pressure on food prices (and do a whole bunch of other good things too).

World Water Day

Today being World Water Day, I’ve been thinking about our water here in Montero and wanted to share my thoughts with you, our lovely blog reader.

First, we usually don’t drink the water from the tap here.  For the (fairly large amount of) water that we drink here, we have one of those blue 5-gallon water dispensers…like the office water cooler, except there is no cooling function :-(   However, for cooking, showers, and laundry we’re using the tap water here.  Usually that seems to work out fine, but a few times (less than 10 since we’ve been here) our water will turn brown and dirty!  That’s no good when you’re trying to boil a pot of spaghetti, and would be worrisome if I were in the shower when it happens.  Luckily this has never lasted more than an hour or two, and then everything is back to normal.  Some of the people here said it was because they had been cleaning build-up out of the water tower, but I’m not sure if I believe that.

Everyone we talked to here says that the tap water is safe for drinking, and I haven’t really seen anything that would make me believe otherwise.  After all we do live in a sizeable city, and they do have water treatment facilities at work.   Since we’ve been down here, and our bodies have gotten more adjusted to everything, we’ve been a bit less careful about only drinking the bottled water.  Now for some stuff, like brushing our teeth, we’ll use the tap water, and it’s been working out fine.

Everything here is different outside of town though.  We haven’t had a lot of direct experiences, but we’ve heard some stories about people in the countryside having to get by with some pretty bad surface water (streams, ponds, etc).  We just talked to a person last weekend who was working in one of the communities to install a well for them, so that they could have a source of water that wasn’t completely contaminated.

From a broader perspective, I think we might be starting to turn the corner on clean water access.  Ten years ago, this was a huge issue that wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.  Now there have been tens or even hundreds of thousands of wells drilled in all sorts of communities around the world.  That combined with the fact that 2010 saw the point where we went from more people living in the country to more people living in urban environments, where is is at least feasible to setup clean water distribution systems if they aren’t there already, means that if we keep pressing this is a problem that we might get close to solving in the next several years.  There’s still a ton to do, but I think there’s at last reason to be positive about the situation.

The Price of Sugar

So you may have read in a couple of Laura’s previous posts that the price of sugar is at an all-time high here in Bolivia.  In fact it isn’t just sugar (which is the worst), but the price of food in general is skyrocketing.  This is causing rather wide-spread unrest here.  Last week there were reports of citizens of various communities setting up roadblocks around the country (not terribly out of the normal here), and there were several very large protests, most significantly in La Paz and Oruro. (Before I go any further, I want to make clear that we don’t feel in any danger whatsoever, so don’t worry mom&dad….funny side note though, the protests in Oruro involved some miners throwing sticks of dynamite.)  Montero hasn’t had any protests or other disruptions, but that doesn’t mean that the drastic rise of food prices hasn’t affected people here.

In Bolivia, like many 3rd world or developing nations, for most people a huge percentage of their earnings goes towards food.  This can be up in the 30-50% range, just for comparison when we were living in St. Louis, we spent somewhere below 5% of our earnings on food…which included all sorts of great things like pizza (frozen, dominos and Pi/Deweys…did I mention I miss pizza?) and going out to eat every now and then at nice restaurants.  Here those people who are spending up to half their income on food are buying the basics…bread, rice, potatoes, beans, and maybe a small number of vegetables to spice things up.

Just to give an idea…a roll (they don’t really have loaves) of bread here costs 1 Boliviano (7Bs = 1US$)…for breakfast I eat three or four of these, usually with margarine (15Bs for a tub good for a week) and jelly (20Bs for a jar good for 2 weeks) then I have a glass of juice to wash it down (10Bs for a bottle good for a week).  So doing the math…that’s about 9Bs for breakfast each day…or 279Bs for a month…just for breakfast.  Now, granted living with the sisters, I’m quite a bit better off than most of the people we work with, so for a more typical person lets divide that in half and say 140Bs per month.  The typical Guarderia (Daycare) worker here only makes about 700Bs a month, so that breakfast (defiantly less than a third of what they eat in a day) is costing them 2o% of their pay!  Luckily for them, they get a pretty generous lunch provided by the government through their work at the school.  They don’t eat huge dinners here, so I imagine that is probably similar to the breakfast expense for them (or they just go hungry for the night).  And this is just for one person, some of these people are single mothers with a couple of kids to feed.  On the bright side, most of the people at this level don’t have to get their own housing, they either live with a man (married or un-married) or with extended family, which is good because renting a room here would also account for a large percentage of their monthly pay.

That’s just one example, there are many more like that, some even more on the edge.  I haven’t had a lot of direct experience with it, but I’m sure there are many people around who go hungry from time to time.

So hopefully that gives you a bit of background.  Once I figured all that out, it made sense why people were protesting a hike in the price of food staples by 15%.

It isn’t only Bolivia that is strongly affected by this either.  You may have heard that there were governments being overthrown and such in the middle east.  There’s a lot of reasons for these protests, but usually buried half way through one of the articles describing why people are angry comes a few sentences about rising food prices.  However I can imagine that in these countries (mostly desert countries that have to import a lot of food and are especially susceptible to price fluctuations) it was a major factor to why people were unhappy to start with right now (like the straw that broke the back of the 30-year old regime).

There’s a great story on food prices and unrest from NPR that I’d really recommend, it explains some of the linkages between food and some of the events around the world.  If you’re interested in more on this, this google news search for food prices has new articles every day about how people all over the world are being impacted by this rise.