In September 2013 I left the States on a one-way flight to Peru with two friends. Over two months we traveled down Peru’s dusty southern coast and into the Andes. We dug a big hole, got our asses kicked in chess in a Lima park, hiked the Inca Trail and felt a bit guilty about it, watched way too many movies about wolves, made a lot of great new friends and debated the meaning of life. We split up in November, and I did some potato communications in Cuzco, translated for some American doctors in the Andes, worked on a farm in Cochabamba, taught chess and English in the Amazon, and spent a month as a journalist in Honduras.
I pictured the trip as part Motorcycle Diaries, part On The Road, part You Shall Know Our Velocity! and part something uniquely my own. The idea was to find the answers to all of life’s burning questions; I was able to at least come home with an insight or two about myself and where I fit into a really big world.
Another blog post that I wrote in January and never posted.
So I’ve been pretty captivated lately by the history of the Inca state of Vilcabamba, founded in 1539.
Just a decade earlier, the Incas had ruled a 770,000 square mile area ranging from modern-day Colombia to modern-day Argentina. Spanish invasion began in 1532, and by 1539 the Inca survivors controlled just a small patch of thick, remote Amazon jungle around the city of Vilcabamba.
For eight years, Vilcabamba was ruled by Titu Cusi, a politically savvy leader who kept Spanish invasion at bay through appeasement, acceptance of Spanish missionaries, and diplomatic stalling.
With one exception:
An innocent Spanish prospector called Romero appeared in Vilcabamba in 1570 and asked permission to search for gold. ‘The Inca gave him permission, and he discovered rich veins in his search for mines. In a few days he mined quantities of gold. Romero thought that the Inca would be delighted, and brought him the gold in the hope of negotiating a new licence for a period of months during which he could mine much. When the Inca saw the gold he thought it could arouse greed and attract thousands of Spaniards, so that he would lose his province. He therefore ordered them to kill the Spaniard Romero.’ Intercession by Diego Ortiz could not save Romero, who was beheaded and thrown into a river. This was the only Spaniard killed on Titu Cusi’s orders. The Inca rightly saw that the lure of mineral wealth was the one magnet that would certainly bring Spaniards swarming into Vilcabamba. –John Hemming
Vilcabamba was finally conquered in 1572 after the Spanish decided its example was a threat to their colonial project.
What’s crazy, though, is how much the dynamics sensed by Titu Cusi still operate today. If you’re a rural community trying to live on your ancestral territory, one of the most disastrous things that can happen is the discovery of natural wealth on your land.
I’m doing some work at the Potato Park, a project aimed at preserving Andean culture and potato biodiversity. One staffer recently argued to me that the project would be impossible if gold or copper existed in Potato Park territory.
To wit: Peru recently approved 18 new wells to drill for natural gas in the Amazon, despite studies arguing that the arrival of workers from far away could spread “fatal epidemics” in the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve for indigenous peoples. Ostensibly pro-indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales is pushing a highway project through indigenous land despite widespread opposition, in order to facilitate natural gas extraction. In Honduras, conflicts over mines and dams have killed dozens in places like Río Blanco. It can literally mean the different between death and survival for a culture today: Illegal logging in Awá territory in Brazil has caused a ”genocide” of disease that whittled the Awá population to just 400 before the Brazilian government took action against loggers. It still remains to be seen whether the evictions came in time to save the group.
Día del Mar march in La Paz, to commemorate Bolivia’s lost access to the sea during the War of the Pacific against Chile. The landlocked nation is now suing Chile at the International Court of Justice to try to get the territory back. In a similar suit, Peru recently won some ocean territory whose ownership was disputed with Chile.
Versión en español aquí. Written with Gustav Cappaert. Published at IPS. (Photo: El Palomar, an agricultural community in Bolivia, one of over a thousand rural communities to which the Bolivian government plans to expand internet access with national satellite Tupac Katari 1.
– Maria Eugenia Calle, a local official in this Andean agricultural community, recently saw the Internet for the first time.
Her hometown of El Palomar will host one of about 1,500 telecommunications centres that the Bolivian government plans to open this year in rural areas. They will be served by Tupac Katari 1, a Bolivian satellite launched from China late last year.
Socialist President Evo Morales claims that the satellite will make Internet, cell phone service, distance education programmes and over 100 television channels available to everyone in this vast, sparsely populated country.
In El Palomar’s yet-to-be-opened telecom centre, Calle and a small group of onlookers watched as a reporter booted up a computer to test the signal.
“Go to the United States. Show us the White House. Search for Toyota. Search for Real Madrid,” they suggested.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and also among the least connected. Only 7.4 percent of inhabitants have access to the Internet at home, by far the fewest on the continent. Because Bolivia is landlocked, undersea fibre optic cables do not reach the country, so Bolivians settle for some of the lowest speeds and most expensive connections in the world. Hopes for the satellite are high.
“It’s a dream, isn’t it?” said Calle, 40, El Palomar’s secretary of education. “I’m happy that my children are going to be able to communicate with the United States, other countries – or here in Bolivia, with La Paz, Cochabamba,” she said.
With a population of just 10 million and a modest national budget, Bolivia is a strange fit among the 45 nations with their own communications satellite, which are typically either wealthy, heavily populated, or both. However, an increasing number of developing nations are making the investment. In the next two years, Angola, Nicaragua, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka will launch their own satellites.
Rural areas bring special challenges for Internet expansion. The cost of installing and maintaining equipment and training people to use new technology is higher farther from cities, said Francisco Proenza, an ICT scholar and visiting professor of Political Science at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.
While the use of mobile phones has increased dramatically, the Internet has lagged behind. In rural Peru, for example, 62 percent of rural households own a mobile phone, while just 7 percent of those living in rural areas make use of the Internet
After a 2009 revision, Bolivia’s constitution guaranteed access to basic services including water, electricity, and telecommunications. In addition to the satellite, the Bolivian government has opened over 300 rural telecentres and offered incentives to telecommunications companies willing to build infrastructure in rural zones.
According to Ivan Zambrana, director of the Bolivian Space Agency, a national satellite is the most cost-effective way of providing access across Bolivia’s diverse rural terrain, which includes mountains, tropical rainforest and desert. It is also a means of protecting Bolivia’s communication infrastructure from political factors that could restrict access, like the United States’ embargo against ally Cuba.
Bolivia’s Ministry of Communications has marketed the satellite aggressively. The agency created a television advertisement, a Facebook and Twitter campaign, and an Android app to promote the project. In the months surrounding the satellite’s launch, billboards reading “Tupac Katari, Your Star” and “Communications Decolonized” were placed in major urban areas throughout the country.
“When we think of Bolivia, we don’t think of technology, we think of rural poverty, but Bolivia has changed,” said Robert Albro, an anthropologist at the American University in Washington who focuses on Bolivia.
Despite the fanfare, skeptics of the satellite argue that Bolivia’s priorities are misplaced, especially with alternatives available.
Many other countries, including neighbouring Peru, have extended access to rural areas by subsidising the use of existing satellites. Google and Facebook are each considering a fleet of low-flying drones that would provide worldwide Internet connectivity. Until now, Bolivia has spent 10 million dollars annually to lease satellite capacity from foreign providers.
To finance Tupac Katari, Bolivia took out a 300 million dollar loan from the Chinese Development Bank, which the government claims will be repaid by satellite revenues within 15 years.
“It puzzles me that countries like Bolivia are launching their own satellites,” said Heather Hudson, professor of public policy at the University of Alaska. According to Hudson, existing satellite coverage could meet rural Bolivia’s needs. “It’s like 20 or 25 years ago, when there was a wave among other countries, you had to have your own airline,” she said.
Meanwhile there are concerns about misplaced priorities. “Our priority is improving the conditions of nutrition, water and the environment,” said Isidro Paz Nina, national coordination secretary of the Movimiento Sin Miedo, a party looking to unseat President Morales in November elections. “The satellite isn’t bad, but we want people to not have to worry about suffering for lack of food.”
Delays and miscommunication have also brought frustration. “The government said that with the Tupac Katari satellite antenna, cell phones, television, the channels and all that would improve. Up until now, it hasn’t been seen,” said Victor Canabini Quispe, a 51-year-old in El Palomar. “I hope the government doesn’t deceive us,” he added.
Meanwhile, the public opening of the telecentre in El Palomar has been postponed due to delays in training a community member to run the centre and disputes over who will pay for the inauguration ceremony.
If the satellite project succeeds, it could have a big impact on life in rural Bolivia. The satellite will be a “window to the world” for children in rural areas, according to Zambrana, the Bolivian Space Agency chief. He said that many Bolivian children living in high altitude climates have never seen a tree in their lives, and will see one for the first time through satellite-delivered images.
In five years, Bolivia “will be more modern, better connected, with more educated citizens. We’re going to be a little richer – or a little less poor,” he commented.
The message is one that is resonating in at least one remote part of Bolivia – San Juan de Rosario, a small community in Bolivia’s arid southwest, and a planned telecentre site.
Gregoria Oxa Cayo owns a hotel here for tours visiting Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, but by necessity she lives four hours away in the larger town of Uyuni. She grew up in San Juan and her parents still live here, but she needs Internet access to run her hotel and travel agency, and there is none in the isolated desert town.
“If there was Internet here, I would live here,” she said.
From the family farm near Cochabamba where I WWOOFed for two weeks. It was an amazing place: a large variety of organically grown crops and animals to help sustain a family of five, run by a stay-at-home agronomist dad and his working biologist wife. The site produced almost no waste. Food scraps get composted or fed to animals, urine and dishwater are filtered for irrigation, dry toilets are cleared out every few months to make fertilizer, and inorganic stuff like plastic is stuffed into empty coke bottles that are then used as construction material.
I wrote this blog post back in, like, January and never posted it. Better late than never:
Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas is beautiful, but walking through there as a tourist wears on your patience pretty fast.
As a gringo, you’re a walking dollar sign, constantly declining pitches for restaurants, nightclubs, textiles, trinkets, massages (or perhaps “massages”), weed, cocaine, and info about Machu Picchu.
After four months of living in Cuzco and frequently passing through the Plaza de Armas, this got pretty annoying. After a certain point I unfortunately got in the habit of avoiding eye contact and giving cold refusals, or ignoring the hawkers altogether. This was partially a deliberate tactic to minimize intrusion, but also partially just because I was past the point of containing my irritation. I’m actually frustrated with all the previous people, but today I’m taking it out on you, sir.
Of course, the sellers themselves have it even worse. To earn their paycheck, they have to repeat the same pitch over and over and over, nearly always to be rejected by rude foreigners who obviously have money to spare.
I don’t know what the solution is, but it struck me as an interesting example of how economic inequality creates an animosity that feels very personal to both parties, even though it isn’t at all.