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Refugee farm August 29th, 2021 by

Vea la versi√≥n en espa√Īol a continuaci√≥n

It takes skill and knowledge to be a farmer. Hard work alone won’t always make you a farmer, as shown by an experiment in Bolivia in the early 1940s.

In 1938 and 1939, when most of the world‚Äôs countries were closing their borders to the victims of Nazism in Central Europe, Bolivian consulates were one of the few places where refugees could get a visa. Many were ‚Äúagricultural visas,‚ÄĚ and others were obtained by making extra payments to consular officials.

In Hotel Bolivia, Leo Spitzer tells the story of the thousands of people who found a safe haven in Bolivia. Spitzer is well placed to write the story. He is a professional historian, born in La Paz in 1939 to a family recently arrived from Austria. Although the refugees arrived penniless and traumatized, once in Bolivia they received some help from organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, based in New York), and from Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, a Jewish immigrant who had left his village near Frankfurt in the 1920s to become one of Bolivia’s three wealthy tin barons.

Hochschild was sensitive to what we would now call optics. He thought the German-speaking refugees were too visible in what were then Bolivia’s two big cities, La Paz and Cochabamba. Many refugees had opened small businesses. Spitzer’s own father, Eugen, ran a successful plumbing and electrical shop near the Plaza del Estudiante, in the heart of La Paz.

The tin baron feared that seeing so many recently arrived foreigners might spark anti-Semitism, especially since it was becoming something of a scandal that the consulates had demanded bribes. It turned out that Hochschild’s worries were exaggerated. The Bolivians were neither very welcoming, nor very hostile. They patronized the newcomers’ shops and allowed them to set up their own school, where children were taught in German.

Nevertheless, the concerned Hochschild convinced the JDC to buy three haciendas, some 1,000 hectares of mountainous land in a place called Charobamba, near the small town of Coroico, just 100 km from La Paz, but three thousand meters lower, down a narrow, winding, treacherous road.

The colony was called Buena Tierra (Good Land) and it got off to a good start in 1940. The settlers had a clinic, staffed with a refugee doctor and nurse. The settlers met often for social events, and they were organized. They received a stipend of about 1,000 bolivianos ($23, which was worth more in the 1940s). This bit of money allowed the would-be farmers to survive as they built themselves small adobe houses with cement floors and sheet metal roofs.

Unfortunately, few if any of the settlers had experience with agriculture or even with rural life. One year they were strolling down the avenues of Vienna, and the next year they were blasting a road with dynamite from Charobamba to Coroico.  Their guide for farming was an Italian-Argentine agronomist, Felipe Bonoli, who tried to repeat his success of leading an Italian colony on the temperate plains of Argentina, but the steep, tropical hillsides of Charobamba were another matter, and Bonoli soon left. A German agronomist, Otto Braun, fared no better and left in 1942 after a year after trying to teach the colonists to plant coffee and bananas, crops that Braun had no experience with. Finally, Tierra Buena hired two local farmers, Luis Solís and Luis Gamarra, and the colony did begin producing small amounts of citrus, coffee and bananas, but these are all perennial crops, and the settlers seem to have been frustrated that they took so long to bear fruit.

At the height of the experience, in 1943 there were 180 adult refugees living and working in Tierra Buena, and some hired laborers, Aymara-speaking people (some from the area, and others from Lake Titicaca). But as the World War II ended, most of the colonists returned to the city, applied for visas, and emigrated, mainly to the United States, Palestine, Chile and Brazil.

One colonist did stay. Hans Homburger lived in Tierra Buena until the farm was disbanded in 1960. By then it was being successfully farmed by the former laborers, who worked on the farm for two days a week in exchange for the right to use some of the land to grow their own crops. With their farming skills, and local knowledge, the former employees were able to make hard work pay off, and they harvested fruit and coffee to sell.

It takes more than hard work and enthusiasm to be a successful farmer. Farming takes skill and know-how, much of which must be local, and grounded in practice.

Further reading

Spitzer, Leo 2019 Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism. Plunkett Lake Press. (Especially Chapter 4).

UN REFUGIO AGR√ćCOLA

Por Jeff Bentley, 22 de agosto del 2021}

Ser agricultor quiere habilidad y conocimiento. El trabajo duro por sí solo no siempre es suficiente, como demuestra un experimento hecho en Bolivia a principios de la década de 1940.

En 1938 y 1939, cuando la mayor√≠a de los pa√≠ses del mundo cerraban sus fronteras a las v√≠ctimas del nazismo en Europa Central, los consulados bolivianos eran uno de los pocos lugares donde los refugiados pod√≠an obtener una visa. Muchas eran “visas agr√≠colas” y otras se obtuvieron con una coima al funcionario consular.

En Hotel Bolivia, Leo Spitzer cuenta la historia de los miles de personas que encontraron un refugio en Bolivia. Spitzer est√° bien situado para escribir esta historia. Es un historiador profesional, nacido en La Paz en 1939 en una familia reci√©n llegada de Austria. Aunque los refugiados llegaron sin dinero y traumatizados, una vez en Bolivia recibieron cierta ayuda de organizaciones como el Comit√© Conjunto Jud√≠o Americano de Distribuci√≥n (JDC, con sede en Nueva York), y de Mauricio (Moritz) Hochschild, un inmigrante jud√≠o que hab√≠a dejado su pueblo cerca de Frankfurt en la d√©cada de 1920 para convertirse en uno de los tres ricos barones del esta√Īo de Bolivia.

Hochschild era sensible a lo que ahora llamar√≠amos la √≥ptica. Pensaba que los refugiados de habla alemana eran demasiado visibles en las dos grandes ciudades de Bolivia, La Paz y Cochabamba. Muchos refugiados hab√≠an abierto peque√Īos negocios. El propio padre de Spitzer, Eugen, ten√≠a una exitosa tienda de plomer√≠a y electricidad cerca de la Plaza del Estudiante, en el coraz√≥n de La Paz.

El bar√≥n del esta√Īo tem√≠a que la presencia de tantos extranjeros reci√©n llegados pudiera desencadenar el antisemitismo, sobre todo porque se estaba convirtiendo en un esc√°ndalo el hecho de que los oficiales hab√≠an vendido las visas con un sobreprecio. Result√≥ que las preocupaciones de Hochschild eran exageradas. Los bolivianos no eran ni muy acogedores ni muy hostiles. Patrocinaron las tiendas de los reci√©n llegados y les permitieron establecer su propia escuela, en la que se ense√Īaba a los ni√Īos en alem√°n.

Sin embargo, el preocupado Hochschild convenci√≥ al JDC para que comprara tres haciendas, unas mil hect√°reas de tierra monta√Īosa en un lugar llamado Charobamba, cerca de la peque√Īa ciudad de Coroico, a s√≥lo 100 km de La Paz, pero tres mil metros m√°s abajo, por una carretera estrecha, sinuosa y traicionera.

La colonia se llam√≥ Tierra Buena y comenz√≥ bien en el 1940. Los colonos ten√≠an una cl√≠nica, atendida por un m√©dico y una enfermera refugiados. Los colonos se reun√≠an a menudo para celebrar actos sociales y estaban organizados. Recib√≠an un estipendio de unos 1.000 bolivianos (23 d√≥lares, que val√≠an m√°s en la d√©cada de 1940). Este dinero les permit√≠a sobrevivir mientras constru√≠an peque√Īas casas de adobe con pisos de cemento y techos de calamina corrugada.

Infelizmente, pocos o ninguno de los colonos ten√≠an experiencia en la agricultura o incluso en la vida rural. Un a√Īo paseaban por las avenidas de Viena y al a√Īo siguiente constru√≠an una carretera a dinamitazos desde Charobamba hasta Coroico.¬† Su gu√≠a para la agricultura era un agr√≥nomo italo-argentino, Felipe Bonoli, que intent√≥ repetir su √©xito al frente de una colonia italiana en las pampas templadas de Argentina, pero las empinadas laderas tropicales de Charobamba eran otra cosa, y Bonoli pronto se march√≥. A un agr√≥nomo alem√°n, Otto Braun, no le fue mejor y se fue en 1942 tras un a√Īo de intentar ense√Īar a los colonos a plantar caf√© y pl√°tanos, cultivos en los que Braun no ten√≠a experiencia. Finalmente, Tierra Buena contrat√≥ a dos agricultores locales, Luis Sol√≠s y Luis Gamarra, y la colonia empez√≥ a producir peque√Īas cantidades de c√≠tricos, caf√© y pl√°tanos, pero todos son cultivos perennes, y los colonos parecen haberse sentido frustrados porque tardaran tanto en dar fruto.

En su apogeo, en 1943 había 180 refugiados adultos viviendo y trabajando en Tierra Buena, y algunos trabajadores contratados, gente de habla aymara (algunos de la zona y otros del Lago Titicaca). Pero al terminar la Segunda Guerra Mundial, la mayoría de los colonos regresaron a la ciudad, solicitaron visados y emigraron, principalmente a Estados Unidos, Palestina, Chile y Brasil.

Un colono se quedó. Hans Homburger vivió en Buena Tierra hasta que la finca se disolvió en 1960. Para entonces, los antiguos jornaleros la explotaban con éxito, trabajando en la granja dos días a la semana a cambio del derecho a usar parte de la tierra para cultivar sus propios productos. Con sus habilidades agrícolas y sus conocimientos locales, los antiguos empleados consiguieron que el trabajo duro diera sus frutos, y cosecharon fruta y café para vender.

Se necesita algo más que trabajo duro y entusiasmo para ser un agricultor de éxito. La agricultura requiere destreza y conocimientos, muchos de los cuales deben ser locales y estar basados en la práctica.

Lectura adicional

Spitzer, Leo 2021 Hotel Bolivia: La Cultura de la Memoria en un Refugio del Nazismo. La Paz: Plural Editores. (Especialmente el Capítulo 4).

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