UNODC in Bolivia

Cristina Albertin: "We must understand the reality in which farmers live"

Interview by Norha Restrepo | en español

Cristina Albertin, UNODC Representative in Bolivia, already knew the country well before she took up her post in early 2007. Ms. Albertin, a German agronomist, had lived in La Paz between 1991 and 1994. In this interview, Ms. Albertin reflects upon the situation of farmers in Bolivia and the opportunities for development that are within their reach.


What was your first experience in Bolivia like?

I started my career in the United Nations here, with the World Food Programme. I thoroughly enjoyed that stay in Bolivia because my job at the WFP gave me the opportunity to really get to know the countryside. I worked on a dairy project and travelled constantly to the different regions of the country, an experience that taught me to understand just how farmers live. And it was that experience that convinced me to stay in the United Nations system.

With respect to the lives of farmers, how would you say it has changed since you were exposed to them in the early 1990s?

What I saw back then was that farmers lived in a situation of neglect. They didn't have access to social services, didn't get any assistance for their productive activities, women didn't participate much in training courses. Their situation was very complicated, very difficult, and the level of poverty was quite high. Back then, I didn't have anything to do with the coca issue. Now, if you travel to the coca regions of Los Yungas, for example, you will see that the situation is very similar. It is quite terrifying to see that farmers there are not supplied with water or electricity, that the communication infrastructure is very bad, that the Government does not provide any assistance for the extension of agricultural services.

How is the coca issue dealt with in the framework of alternative development?

We have to move closer to the population, which I don't think is that difficult since the people are in great need. There is a great demand for assistance. What we have always done is to focus on the overall development of a community and on the generation of income for farmers. You can't adopt a confrontational attitude. We have clearly seen that people keep growing coca because it provides them with an income and, obviously, you cannot deprive farmers of that income without giving them something in addition or in exchange. We must understand the reality in which farmers live.

A farmer was telling us that various previous projects have failed because they had not supported the community from the onset until the products were ready for export. Do you agree?

Absolutely. That gentleman reminded me of my first experiences in Peru because this was the same criticism levelled against the first alternative development projects. But we should not forget that this happened 20 years ago and that we have all learned our lesson. What we have realized in the last 15 years or so is that it's not possible to promote only one link in the chain of production, but that we must keep in mind all aspects: the production, the processing and the commercialization. Also, that a product need not be commercialized solely for export. In the case of coffee, this makes sense because foreign markets are the ones that create the greatest demand, but there are other crops that can be sold in domestic markets and be very profitable.

UNODC supports the "Jatun Sach'a" ("big tree" in Quechua) alternative development project that is implemented in the tropics of Cochabamba and Los Yungas of La Paz. UNODC works with groups active in the forestry and agricultural sectors in the management, preservation and use of natural resources.

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