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.