The university of La Paz conducts research on the important potato cultivation, amongst other things. Everything is done in cooperation with the people in the villages - here Micaya near La Paz.
Photo: Leonidas Aretakis/Sida
Tailor-made research can lift Bolivia out of poverty
Bolivia has since long thrown out the Spanish colonial power and installed democracy. But two questions still haunt the country. How can the country become truly independent? And how can their rich natural resources benefit their population? The country’s universities believe to have the answer.
The mines around the city of Potosí were the Spanish Empire’s greatest source of silver. They extracted 41 thousand tonnes, causing the mountain to sink several hundred meters. Today’s independent and democratic Bolivia is still rich on natural resources like minerals, natural gas and forests. Yet the country is one of the poorest of the continent. Inequality is high and the educational gaps are wide. The question of clean water is so important in Bolivia that it has led to the overthrow of governments and even inspired a James Bond movie.
The universities produce locally adapted solutions
One challenge is that the country lacks the technical skills needed in order to fully use their natural resources in domestic production. Instead, the raw material is often exported directly, without processing. Innovations could lead to more jobs, and the multiplied value of a processed product could be spent on wages and new investment. But lack of knowledge stands in the way of the country’s economic development, which results in poverty.
For that reason, the public university UMSS in Cochabamba opened the Unit for Technology Transfer (UTT) in 2007.
– Technology transfer gives fast results. We pick frutas maduras, low hanging fruit. Knowledge just needs to be adapted to local conditions, says engineer Carlos Gonzalo Acevedo Peña, UTT coordinator.
Among other things, they made it easier for companies to get in contact with researchers. This led to the creation of cross-disciplinary networks at the university. UTT has also created innovation clusters, consisting of cooperation between the state, university and private sector.
Cochabamba is often called the culinary capital of Bolivia, so it was only natural that the first cluster would involve food. The city also has a leather cluster. The model has spread, and the public university in La Paz now has a cluster for wood producers.
Poverty brings other problems. Areas without access to clean water are home to parasitic diseases. Lack of tax revenues makes it hard for the state to provide basic public services like infrastructure, education and health care. Poverty also pushes some into drug trade and criminality.
But universities can play an important part in countering poverty. They can conduct research on local problems and produce innovations to develop the economy and provide the country with skilled workers. Therefore, Sweden has provided Bolivia with research support since 2000. The purpose is to facilitate for the country to conduct independent research in order to decrease poverty.
Health research that makes the most of traditional knowledge
Bolivia has the highest ethnic pluralism in South America, with 55 percent of the population belonging to the indigenous groups. Before being colonised, the peoples around the Andes grew a plethora of crops, including the hundreds of potato varieties growing in Bolivia.
The botanical knowledge of the indigenous population has long fascinated researchers. Dr. Alberto Giménez Turba coordinates a Sida sponsored research project.
– When I was young, I studied medicinal plants with the Tacana people. They showed me everything, for example that the bark from the Evanta tree can be used to treat leishmaniasis. It is also used on children, which implies that it is not poisonous. So we took the bark to our laboratories and confirmed it.
The indigenous population thus performs a kind of pre-scientific work. Through surveys, the researchers can see which plants have the same use in many communities. The next step is to identify the active substance, and to find out in which quantity it is the most effective. Traditional treatments are often complicated and inexact, and can go on for months.
The research results are spread in the rural areas in richly illustrated books written in simple Spanish. At the moment, the researchers are working on their third edition.
– We need to acknowledge traditional wisdom, and live in symbiosis.
Sometimes researchers find additional effects. One product is already on the market – the anti-inflammatory cream Chillka. It feels good on the skin, and the smell reminds one of mosquito repellent.
The leishmaniasis medicine, made from the same plant, has been flavoured with strawberry to please children. But a hint of bitterness is still there.
– It is not very tasty, but we are working on it, says Alberto and laughs.
A knowledge economy with respect for mother earth
Support to universities has recently been multiplied, and the country’s GDP and export volume is increasing quickly. But respect is still paid to Pachamama – Mother Earth – through ecological considerations and the scientific application of traditional knowledge. Some of the carbon taxes go to a research fund, and since 2010 there is even a Law of the Rights of Mother Earth. President Evo Morales recently installed a clock that goes backwards as a symbol of the country’s peculiar development path.
The ability to conduct research can be a key to greater independence. The social role of universities is emphasized by Waldo Albarracín Sanchez, principal at the country’s largest university UMSA in La Paz:
– Universities must have an altruistic vision. We exist to develop research in the service of the people. No wonder that the first thing our dictatorship did was to shut down the universities. Thanks to Sweden, we have strengthened our democracy, and we are very grateful.
Lucio González, principal at UMSS in Cochabamba, has two paintings on his wall: Bolivia’s declaration of independence and a large portrait of the liberation leader Simón Bolivar.
– During the time of colonialism, our natural resources were shipped out of the country. The universities symbolize the vision of a different world. This is where the idea of democracy was born, and this is where it was kept alive during the dictatorships. We are happy about the cooperation, and I know that our friendship with Sweden will last for a long time.
Bilateral support to Bolivia
Swedish research support to Bolivia amounts to 216 million SEK for the period 2013-2017. This is distributed through the major state universities UMSA and UMSS, who together represent 85 percent of the country’s research.