By Tracey Li and Natalia Zegarra.
“Even if you study somewhere far away from your home, you should realize that you can return to your home community afterwards and make a real impact there.”
Being able to study or travel away from home has many personal rewards. But it is when people use their experiences to return home and improve their communities that the social benefits begin to be reaped and those community members shine as examples for others to follow.
Manuel Gonzales, Director of Environmental Affairs for the local government of the city of Viacha that lies just southwest of La Paz in the heart of Bolivia’s Altiplano, is one such individual. Development Roast spoke with him about his experience studying to become an agronomic engineer at the at the Unidad Académica Campesina de Carmen Pampa (‘Rural Academic Unit of Carmen Pampa’, UAC-Carmen Pampa) and subsequently applying what his learnt in his home community*.
Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in the town of Viacha, where I currently work. My childhood was very peaceful and although my father died when I was born, I consider myself very lucky. My mother was a fighter, and her love and that of my siblings made my childhood very happy. I had plenty of opportunities to grow and develop as a person.
How did you hear about the UAC-Carmen Pampa?
Since I remember, I’ve always had a passion for nature. In 2003 I started studying at the Universidad Técnica de Oruro (Technical University of Oruru) but after a year I was convinced that a degree in agronomy should be more practical and studied in the context of the environment. I heard about the UAC-Carmen Pampa, which is located 45 minutes away from Coroico, and went to visit it. I was overwhelmed by the magnificent landscape of the surroundings and from that moment, I knew that I wanted to continue my studies there.
What was your experience at the UAC-Carmen Pampa like, and what was the best part for you?
At the university, all the students live together. It’s a unique experience – having the chance to share your life with and build relationships with so many people who are from different cultures and have different beliefs. It’s impressive to see how my classmates and friends, in spite of financial limitations, have managed to achieve so much professional development. Currently, many of us are contributing to progress in our home regions, and I think that this is the most important aspect that the UAC instilled in us: the concept of “a new ideology – change and development.” We are a new generation of professionals who are supporting the development of our country in a significant way: we influence, directly and indirectly, our families and neighbors and everyone who surrounds us.
You are now the director of the Environment Department for the local government of Viacha. How did you get this job, and what does it entail?
I was working on a consultancy job in the province of Ingavi, where the municipal of Viacha is located. While I was visiting my home town, I had the opportunity to meet with the mayor of Viacha and he mentioned to me that one of the fundamental problems in Viacha is the impact of industry on the environment. Since I was in the process of completing my postgraduate studies in Environmental Evaluation [studying how human activities affect the environment] at the time, he asked me if I would be interested in taking up the position of Director of Environmental Affairs.
Suddenly, I was able to implement some of the ideas that I had. And since I was born there, I have to mention something which I feel is very important: even if you study at the UAC-Carmen Pampa or somewhere far away from your home, you should realize that you can return to your home community afterwards and make an impact there. In Viacha, I have the full support of the community, and it makes me really happy that I can contribute to my home town.
I’m in charge of roughly 50 people, working in several diverse ares. Primarily, our work focuses on: collection and treatment of solid waste, conservation of green areas, cleaning of urban areas, care of forest areas, and general services. The topic of industry is fundamental since Viacha is an industrial city. We have an industrial park which includes the factory ‘Cemento Viacha’ [one of the largest cement factories in the country], as well as mining and brick factories, so it’s important for us to take into account the environmental effects. In this way I believe that we can take care of the needs of the community.
If you hadn’t studied at the UAC, what do you think you would be doing instead?
The truth is that since I was a child, I always wanted to study agronomy so I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve always loved plants and animals. When children are growing up, they always think, “I love my puppy – I want to look after him and protect him”, and when I see plants and nature, suddenly I feel like that again. For me, it turned out that I could study exactly what I loved the most – agronomy. If I hadn’t studied at the UAC, maybe I would have studied at some other university, but definitely I would have done something related to the environment.
Do you think that the priority for Bolivia is to develop activities that protect the environment and that you should apply everything you have studied? Or do you think that there is some alternative?
I don’t think that environmental activities are the most important aspect for Bolivia’s development, but the environment is definitely a fundamental topic which will contribute significantly to the country’s development. The environment is relevant to everyone. Suddenly, we are beginning to notice the effects of our harmful actions.
I think that more and more people, of all different ages, are beginning to change their attitudes towards the environment. For example, not dropping trash on the ground, using water responsibly, and recycling and reusing materials. It’s great to see everyone caring for the environment together. Education is the key, and we need to engage in more activities which help the environment. The topic of green and clean technologies is growing more and more, as is the care and protection of the environment.
I’m currently planning the creation of some pulmones verdes which are green spaces with trees and plants that are situated in or next to urban areas. We have plans for five of these areas so far, using forest trees. In the future, areas like these will balance out the environmental damage that we are doing. The issue is relevant not just to industry, but also to the population as a whole. So I think that I can say that my work contributes not just to the environment of my region, but to the entire country as a whole.
* UAC-Carmen Pampa is a satellite campus of the Catholic University of Bolivia created in 1992 to provide higher education to students from rural areas. Manuel also has a Master’s degree in Environmental Evaluation from the Universidad Tecnológica Boliviana (Technological University of Bolivia).
Do you know of any Bolivians who are making an impact in their communities and who deserve to be highlighted by Bolivia’s Best? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestion.