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Ground Shifters: Amazonian Warriors

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In the first installment of Ground Shifters, reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky heads to the Bolivian Amazon basin with Narda Baqueros, a fireball of a woman. Baqueros fights for social justice and equality in one of the most machismo regions in the Western hemisphere.

She and her compañeras share tears and laughter, as they strive for economic independence and empowerment in the dense jungle.

JEAN: It’s easy to romanticize the Amazon, especially if you’ve never been there. A National Geographic photo doesn’t convey reality: the heat, the unforgiving soil, disease lurking inside tiny insects, and the hard life of its people.

[narda ambient]

JEAN: Today’s challenge: mud. I’m with Narda Baqueros and her two sons, Rider and Alvaro. We’re making our way through the Bolivian Amazon basin, or trying to anyway. In the early rainy season’s loose ground, our motorcycles sink every few hundred feet. Bugs swarm our heads when we stand still. We’re on our way to speak with women activists who survived an armed ambush during a 2008 march for land reform. But what was quite an adventure for me, is just daily life for Narda.

NARDA: You don’t need to be a millionaire to be happy. You don’t need to be a millionaire to do good. You just need a good heart and good judgment. I’ve always believed in this and I think that’s why I’ve often taken on battles that don’t have anything to do with me, to fight the abuses of this world.

JEAN: Although Narda is small and round at only about five feet tall, her voice commands attention. She can’t straighten her fingers—a parting gift from decades of manual labor shelling Brazil nuts, the main occupation for women in her town of Riberalta. In 2001, she formed her most recent mechanism for battling the world’s abuses—a collective named OMAB, or the Organization of Bolivian Amazonian Women. It started as an offshoot of the male-dominated workers union.

NARDA: Even today my friends remember me saying: let’s get out of here. This space is too small for us women. We are going to go farther as only women than what we can do from here. Our first activity was to get together with more women and I taught the few things I knew, resistance strategies, and how to report human or working rights violations. We would meet in the warehouses. I remember many of them didn’t know how to read and write. I would always say that we are part of this society. We have rights too. We can’t wait for our rights to be given to us, we have to demand them, by force if necessary. We have to struggle to win those spaces. They would always say: Ay, I can’t go to the meeting because I have to stay with the kids. I would say: bring them along.

JEAN: And slowly — the women did. For years, OMAB represented the majority of the Riberalta’s Brazil nut shellers. Now, it’s a catch-all alliance: Narda and her cohorts give sexual and reproductive health workshops, collect testimonies of area human rights violations, accompany women to report domestic violence, protest potentially destructive hydroelectric dams and more.

Their work would be considered admirable anywhere. But here—where the machismo is like the humidity — thick and sticks to your skin — their efforts are extraordinary.

Narda brings me to speak with Maira, who co-founded the collective. She’s a very small woman in her 50’s but her speech is rhythmic and soul-full. Narda and I are the only ones in the room, but it sounds like she’s giving a heartfelt sermon to the masses of what it’s like in her world.

MAIRA: Everyday I’m in these communities, wives load and work Brazil nuts. The men too. But the difference is that when both of them are equally tired, one gets to rest in his hammock and the other has to keep working: bringing water up from a 100 meter well, cooking, peeling the rice or the yucca. Probably the kids are dirty and need to be bathed. There are no husbands who say: oh, don’t worry honey, you cook, while I wash the kids. Or, you do the rice and I’ll do the yucca.

JEAN: Also too few are husbands who allow political engagement, says Silvia, another OMAB member. She is cooling herself in front of her thatched roof house and shakes her wavy hair away from her eyes while she thinks hard on her reality.

SILVIA: There is so much machismo. Women can lose their homes for being union leaders. Husbands often don’t understand, don’t support and just don’t get it. When you are a leader, you have meetings. At any moment you can be called in to talk to management or have an internal meeting and you have to be there. When you’re in negotiations or when there are problems, you never stop. That was my life when I was a union leader. I left before dawn to go to work. When I finished I would check in at home to see that my kids were ok and then go back to union business. Often, I wasn’t at home with my family until late at night. It’s really hard.

JEAN: Silvia and Narda were both forced to choose between la lucha, and their husbands. Silvia is raising five kids without their father, Narda raised three alone.

JEAN: The two like to recall amusing moments. Normally it’s when Narda gets heated. She once flung her tiny rubber sandal at a distinguished panel because they purposefully ignored her raised hand. A few years ago, she poured Tamarind juice on Bolivian President Evo Morales’s lap because, she says, he tried to claim credit for a community project she and her compañeros built from the ground up. But for every funny story, there are three that make you cry.

NARDA: Everyone was shocked when we as women started joining in the political protests, when we took to the streets to confront the opposition groups. They would come to beat us down and we women resisted. We have seen our friends die. We’ve seen their children be killed. We have seen them stabbed like in 2008. 

JEAN: Back then, political violence in this area was at its height, recalls Liliana, who we visited that mud-soaked day. She’s 31, and has six kids. The youngest, who’s one, is being lulled to sleep in the hammock swaying at our side. Liliana and other campesinos in a march for land reform were ambushed by armed groups sent by the right wing governor at the time.

LILIANA: They tried to hunt us down as if we were animals. We had to flee down in the river where we were trapped and that’s when the shooting started. They took no pity. We just ran. Those who couldn’t run — got caught. They were kicked and totally beat up. Kids too, suffering. So many couldn’t cross that river and they started to drown. We got out, but those who didn’t, well I never saw them again. Imagine, my five kids were going to be left without a father or mother.

JEAN: In addition to taking it to the streets in those days, Narda’s collective helped secure medical attention for the wounded. She traveled 15 hours by land through hostile territory to bring back her niece’s corpse. Belki, who was in her mid-twenties, was killed during that tumultuous time. Narda also ended up bringing home the son of her friend. 

NARDA: When I went for my niece, his body was there too, already dead when I entered the morgue and I recognized him. When I was heading to the plane on my way back, I called my son Alvaro and told him to tell Suela to come to the airport because I am coming back with her son. But she did not know if he was dead or alive. When I arrived I hugged her and said that I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news but I have brought your son because he was among the dead. These are the times when you just have to swallow all your pain and bury it deep down inside.

JEAN: These days, Narda’s collective’s work is bearing fruit. It’s most recent accomplishment is Villa Norita, a housing development for Brazil nut shellers and their families.

NARDA Bueno estamos en la manzana numero 4, lote numero 6 de la urbanización Villa Norita, un programa de vivienda social. Ya estamos con un avance de casi 90%, un avance fisico…

JEAN: Narda brings me into a nearly-finished brick home, one of 205 in a newly cleared swath of land a few miles outside of Riberalta. Each home sits on a 362 meters squared plot she explains. The houses are 64 square meters, with two rooms, a living room, kitchen and bath. The construction, she says, is 90% complete. She has never owned her own home. But Villa Norita is even more than that.

NARDA: Villa Norita is not just about owning your own house. It’s about the many of us for whom that dream was unreachable because there were no loan programs, especially not for people like us who had nothing to mortgage.

JEAN: A recent government program that allows the women to borrow money for housing construction without putting up collateral made Villa Norita possible. As she walks outside, Narda begins to tear up.

NARDA: Over there in that area where those three blocks merge, that’s where the sports field is going to be. And we are trying to get more land to put in a school and hospital. We are going to keep adding on, improving quality of life with education, health services, sports and more to bring about a new generation of leaders.

JEAN: There’s still a lot to do — like secure potable water and a sewage system. Narda won’t rest until she gets an embassy or engineering group supply the resources for this vital infrastructure. She sleeps less than 5 hours a night. As it seems the world rests on her shoulders, she receives no salary or stipend. No one in OMAB does. Like almost all activists in Bolivia: their political battles are done in their spare time. Narda, like every other worker or farmer in this country, must make her own living.
And that’s not so easy for a known rabble-rouser. She’s been on the Brazil nut industry blacklist for years. So she makes and sells cookies, cakes or jam. She crochets, she sews. She lives on about $125 a month.

JEAN: Narda’s at it today—seated on a wooden stool, large plastic bowl in lap, mixing batter for a dozen cakes. Her home is like most here: hammock stretching through the living room, an outhouse in the yard. Tomorrow is New Years Eve and Narda laughs as family fills up the house.

JEAN: But as usual, one person brings her the biggest smile.

NARDA: I have two grandsons, but Samuel and I have always been very close. I love them both equally but there is something very special about Samuel: you never have to tell him something twice. He’s been at my side in meetings and workshops, since he was three years old. He knows how to negotiate, he talks about women’s equality and he doesn’t care if he steals a few cents from his mom to give away to someone who needs it, even though she gets mad.

JEAN: Samuel has Narda’s eyes, the small slivers of a quarter moon. Abuela and Grandson share more than this: they are like twins born in different moments in time.

NARDA and SAMUEL N: y a vos te gustan los hombres que le pegan  a las mujeres? S: no, no me gustan. N: que se debe hacer con un hombre que le pega a su mujer? S: Denunciarlo. N: Y a donde? S: a la carcel. N: a la carcel.

JEAN: Narda asks, “Do you like men who hit their wives right?” “No,” says Samuel. “And what should a woman do if she is hit?” Asks the grandma. “Report him,” Samu confirm. “And where will he end up?” The two conclude: “In jail.”

JEAN: Narda’s mother was killed when she was seven. Her grandmother raised her and it was that woman, generations ahead of her time in the steamy Amazon basin, who ignited Narda’s righteous fire.

NARDA: My grandmother always said to me: You don’t have to bow down for anyone. Don’t be scared of demanding your rights. And if you see someone fall, you give them your hand and help them up. If you see someone being stepped on, you push aside the one and you help the other lift himself up.

JEAN: Narda doesn’t have a granddaughter yet. And yes, Samu will take her battles far. But it’s different, she concedes. I wonder whether Narda’s legacy is, perhaps much broader than her own bloodline.

NARDA: You know, before, all the union presidents were men. Not any more, now there are women. Before, you wouldn’t see a woman outside working in the streets as a vendor, because it was just a man’s work to earn a wage. Not anymore. Now women leave the house to look for an income. Many are single mothers and they earn their own wage. There are women’s organizations and in protests women are now always present. We are winning this battle. Little by little, but the battle is being won.


The story is part of a weeklong series on the lives of women and girls in Bolivia and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico called Ground Shifters: Stories of Women Changing Unseen Worlds. The series is a collaboration between WBEZ and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media at Columbia College-Chicago. 

Series Executive Producer, Steve Bynum. Series Producer/Creative Advisor, Jane Saks.

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