A Summary and Reflection of the Project

Saying Goodbye in Tarairi, Bolivia.

The follow entry reflects on my project as a whole

The school:         Founded in 2007, El Centro de Educación Alternativa Agrícola_Tarairí (CEAA_T, or the Alternative Agricultural Education Center of Tarairí) is located in Tarairí, Bolivia, a community of about 500 people.   Two professors live at the school and run the agricultural processes.  Enrollment in 2010 was 15 students, though the school has the capacity for three times that number.  Classes take place in the afternoon, after classes In the neighboring high school let out.  The project is currently funded by Teach a Man to Fish, a UK based NGO that helped develop one of the world’s first self-sufficient agricultural schools in 2007, and a consultant from that organization has been working at the school since March of this year.

The goal:            To have an agricultural high school that is completely funded by the profits from its agricultural and livestock production that is managed by the professors and students.  Thus, the school ensures is perpetual existence as well as demonstrating to its students how the rural lifestyle they are accostumed to can bring them much greater economic success.  The school’s goal is to achieve economic self-sufficiency by 2014.

My project:         To help the school make progress towards its goal of economic self-sufficiency, thereby ensuring that adolescents in Tarairí can become economically successful, rural entrepreneurs.  In practice, this meant teaching business and accounting skills, physically building infrastructure, and organizing the first ever school fair (the “Feria”).

 

                For ten weeks this summer I worked at a three year-old agricultural high school in rural Bolivia.  I did not understand this at the time, but the details surrounding my arrival would be indicative of the difficulties I would run into for the rest of my time there.  It was May and I had already bought my plane tickets when I got the email from Charlotte, the Teach a Man to Fish consultant at the school.  School vacations had changed, so there would be no students at the school on my planned arrival date.  After adjusting my travel schedule accordingly, I arrive at the CEAA_T to find that the campus was empty of students and professors.  “They extended vacations another week,” she told me.  When those vacations ended, a severe cold snap compelled the Bolivian government to cancel classes nation-wide for another week.  When that ended it was a federal holiday.  The successive chain of excuses meant that for the first three weeks of my project in Bolivia, there had been a single day of class, and it was at half-attendance.  I spent those weeks in Tararaí with no students around, half-frozen, and wondering how on Earth I was going to be able to help the school out.

                The new setting was disorienting, so I used my extra free time to learn as much as I could about the school.  Watching the groundskeeper milk the cows and sell the product to taught me how the revenue stream worked for that business.  I attended community trainings organized by a German governmental aid organization to learn how to make organic fertilizers and insecticides.  I helped one of the professors capture bees for the honey-business.  Through immersion, I learned how the school, AgroXXI, and the surrounding community worked.  And with increased understanding and familiarity, I became more productive at the school.   I would spend my mornings looking for ways to improve the processes at the school.  Having helped a professor lay bricks for the new chicken coop and having read a book on how to make organic fertilizer, I felt comfortable taking out the cement and building necessary improvements to our giant compost structure.  With time and energy comes understanding; with understanding comes an empowerment to act.  This was a reoccurring lesson.  It wasn’t until I had spent weeks playing in community soccer matches, eating with the students in the dormitories, and learning about how agriculture works that I could effectively make things happen in Tarairí.  Though even then, it was far from easy.

Upon arrival, I was surprised at how far the school was from its goal of self-sufficiency.  The situation looked bleak.  Only the milk business was creating any revenue at the time.  Not a cent had yet come into the school from chickens, pigs, honey, fertilizer, corn storage, citrus, or ornamental plant processes, and some of them were still far from earning revenue, not to mention profits.

It made plenty of sense to me, then, that I focus my work on infrastructure and getting the businesses ready for production.  I thought that the students’ apparent lack of enthusiasm about the school and the school’s unpreparedness to teach the students all stemmed from the fact that there weren’t functioning, established business that they could take part in yet.  Without chickens or pigs, and when the cows stopped giving much milk, what was there for them to do?  Thus, the most effective way I could help was by doing what I could do bring those processes along as quickly as possible.  It felt good to be making visible improvements to the school, but then my focus shifted and I began to work with the students on the school fair.

                I was fortunate enough to have my time working in the school culminate in a final project: to organize a day-long festival or “Feria” for the school.  The students of the school were divided into groups and each group was assigned a product.  Some students made corn flour; others made organic insecticides, and each group had to manage (with significant input, pushing, and encouragement from the teachers) all aspects of their business, writing a business plan, making a presentation, and selling their product at the Feria.  Everyone had to come up with a final product by September 5, when the school would host a festival to bring in people from the community to spend the day and listen to the students present their products.  The goals were threefold:

  1. To give the students for the first time the opportunity to be in charge of a business and see it through from inception to final product.
  2. To reaffirm the agricultural school’s presence and credibility as an educational institution within the greater area.  After a few years of failed crops and dead chickens, the school had earned a harmful reputation among the community of being  incompetent.
  3. To test the school’s ability to develop and sell new products.

The work was fascinating.  It forced me to deal with small town community politics and Bolivian governmental bureaucracy.  Most importantly for me, I finally was spending long stretches of time working closely with students.  Given that the staff of the school was overworked, I was the de facto tutor for each of the groups.  They had never had this kind of control in a project in their school careers, as the typical Bolivian education prefers rote memorization over creativity and empowerment.  All the students, even the most troublesome ones, were clearly animated as they worked on their products.  Attendance improved and many started arriving to campus well before the 3PM start time of classes.  This was a striking contrast to the beginning of my time in Bolivia, when student enthusiasm was minimal and school attendance consistently below 50%.  Entrusting the students with the responsibility of a developing their own product made their presence more important to the school’s functionality, and they responded by showing up more consistently and becoming more dependable.  Seeing that change was by far the most rewarding aspect of my work in Bolivia.

                I left Bolivia at an exceptional and atypical high point.  Except for a few snags, the Feria had gone about as well as I could have hoped.  Each group had a final product and almost everything was sold at the Feria.  The school gained institutional knowledge on how to develop, market, and sell products, and the students left feeling more empowered and enthused to be at school.  And I left soon after, following a week of recapping, relaxing and long goodbyes.

This positive ending, however, somewhat masks a summer of real hardship and frustrations that should not be discounted.  My ability to help the school was astoundingly limited by my powerlessness within the school administration, the professors extreme reluctance to have me help them with any work they were doing on the project, and people with differing priorities than me not following up on work they had agreed to do.  I sometimes felt that I was wasting my time in Bolivia, thinking that I could do more good by simply getting a high paying job in the US and giving a percentage of my salary to the school.  I learned that many of the dilemmas of economic development are epitomized by such counter-intuitive thoughts.

                It will be hard to judge in the long run how my presence in Tarairí will have affected the agricultural school.  I do believe the school has the potential to be financially self-sufficient by year 2014.  On the other hand, there is a real possibility that Teach a Man to Fish will for various reasons stop funding the school next year, forcing the school to shut down.  Despite this uncertainly, I am comforted by what I have taken away from it all.  I learned about Bolivia, working with adolescents, development studies, NGO administration, how I work in stressful situations, and what things in my life matter to me most.  And that, I believe, fittingly concludes my Brown education.