Saturday, March 03, 2007

Veteran Bolivian reporter covers disaster

This is José Antonio Quisbert, reporter for El Nuevo Día newspaper, interviewing refugees from the flooding that has leveled vast areas of Bolivia. He has been reporting for newspapers and television for more than 30 years, and he approaches his work with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a rookie.
Quisbert, 53, has done a couple of impressive investigative series for the paper in the past several months. He won a national prize for investigative reporting a few years ago. In the early 1980s, during the brief, repressive regime of Garcia Meza, Quisbert´s house was bombed and destroyed, presumably by backers of the president in retaliation for articles he wrote.
For three days last week he and photographer Beto Justiniano let me tag along as they went into the most heavily damaged areas straddling the Rio Grande to capture the human side of the story. The rains began in late December and the waters have been rising steadily. This disaster has been unfolding like a train wreck in slow motion. Each day another town is affected.

On Feb. 27, we went about 80 miles north. We went as far as we could by car, then on the back of motorcycle taxis on rutted dirt roads (20 miles of terror), then paddling a boat and finally in a motor launch to a community known as Isla.
The land is dead flat. It´s almost completely under cultivation in soybeans, corn, sugar cane and some rice. The soil is very rich and productive, and almost all of the trees that used to anchor the soil have been removed in the past two decades. The land was less able to absorb the shock of one of the worst El Niños in the past 25 years. There are laws about leaving a tree buffer next to rivers but no one obeys or enforces them.

Last week, the swollen, surging Rio Grande blasted out of its normal channel and cut a new path through thousands more acres of farmland. The men you see in the photo here are wading back to their homes to see if they can recover anything.
The river claimed it all.

Quisbert is interviewing some of the farmers. Some belong to cooperatives that work land collectively, and some are essentially entrepreneurs who have borrowed heavily to buy tractors, seed and fertilizer and work tracts of several hundred acres. The man with his hands on his hips has 1,000 acres. He borrowed to buy the land and has $150,000 invested in a soybean crop that is under water. We went a couple of miles by boat and saw many houses like the one below, up to the roof line in water. The open areas around it were soybean fields.

Just in Santa Cruz province, 625,000 acres of soybeans has been destroyed. That´s one-sixth of the country´s biggest export crop and represents about
$125 million in losses. That´s a lot in Bolivia. This country´s gross national product is only $25 billion, a figure easily exceeded by the revenues of almost any Fortune 500 company.
In the cattle-raising province of Beni, about 20 million acres of land is under water. That´s equal to about one-third the land area of Ohio. Losses are about 300,000 head of cattle, or $20 million, which is very big money here.

These boys are part of 10 families who fled the city of Trinidad, a city of 90,000 that is completely surrounded by water. The 25 people managed to get free passage on buses to a modest house in Santa Cruz. At the moment Quisbert interviewed them, the families had exhausted all their food except for some handfuls of beans, which they were boiling in a pot in the yard. Several of the kids had skin infections from the water and insect bites. The adults had lung conditions. Supposedly relief services were aware of the family and had promised aid. Quisbert called a doctor after he finished the interview and asked him to look in on the family.
In his written account of the interview, he showed the families´plight in a compelling way with details gathered from meticulous reporting. He engages the reader emotionally through facts and a few revealing quotes. It´s not sob-story journalism but shoe-leather reporting.

The newspaper is part of a major national fund-raising and relief effort along with its sister newspaper in La Paz and ATB television network. Donors have contributed mattresses, clothing, tents, food, kitchen utensils, everything that a family might need.

We watched as volunteers sorted through a huge pile of donated shoes and sandals trying to match up pairs. Why they weren´t paired together at some point earlier seemed to be a mystery.

The needs are vast and the numbers are staggering. The last numbers I saw indicated that about 340,000 people had been affected by the flooding, which could mean they suffered losses or injuries or are homeless. About 40 people have died.

Photographer Beto Justiniano is working here to get some shots of a collection and distribution center under the stands of the city´s soccer stadium.

People have asked if they can help. Catholic Relief Services has an online connection that gives information about its work in Bolivia and allows you to contribute:
That is the only service I´m aware of that allows online contributions and that I feel comfortable sending people to.
The Cruz Roja (Red Cross) here doesn't appear to have any mechanism for foreign individuals to give. The International Red Cross doesn't have a program specifically for Bolivia.
Unicef is accepting donations for Bolivia relief at You would have to specify Bolivia. And a local bank, Banco BISA has set up an account, 1177-5840-17, to accept donations. You would have to ask your bank how to do that.

The theory is that I´m supposed to be upgrading the skills of the journalists here in Bolivia, but Quisbert and his photographer don´t need my help. They´re real pros. I was just there collecting dust. They seem to like having someone else along to talk with. They bounce ideas off me and ask my opinion on things.
Quisbert is planning to leave the newspaper in June and start a true-crime TV show, with daily graphics showing crime rates and human stories of crime victims. He has the experience to pull it off. We kick around ideas for his show, how to make it different. Quisbert´s idea is to present crime in way that will make public officials have to do something about it. Not just blood and guts but with an accountability factor. What is being done about it.

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