Juan Carlos Antezana has organized an activist youth-led movement, which is spreading throughout Bolivia and engaging young people in life-affirming activities to defend the environment and protect wildlife.
The New Idea
Juan Carlos Antezana believes that informed and engaged Bolivian youths can successfully persuade their society to take better care of life in all its forms and safeguard opportunities for future generations in their country. He is organizing the first national Bolivian youth movement, Inti Wara Yasi (Sun, Star, Moon), to defend the lives of animals, plants, trees and even human beings. For the first time, brigades of young volunteers are cleaning rivers, lakes and parks, organizing protests and marching to denounce illegal logging by timber companies. They plan their own interventions and raise the money to fund them. All the while, they target their actions for maximum coverage by the media, in order to make others care and to bring them along. For producing environmental awareness, there has never been anything like Inti Wara Yasi in the entire Andean region. Instead of spending their free time watching television or getting involved with drugs or violence, the members of Inti Wara Yasi are busy making a difference. To date, at a total cost of $300 per month, about 2,000 fifteen-to twenty-year-olds from five of Bolivia's nine regions have joined the movement. Even the name of the organization reflects the diversity of the members: each of the words in Inti Wara Yasi comes from a different indigenous language-Quechua, Aymara and Chiriwara, respectively.
Inti Wara Yasi has targeted its promotional efforts at low-income youth. As the organization grows, children from all different backgrounds and socio-economic classes are joining the movement-even the Bolivian President's teenaged granddaughter, who saw them on television.
As in other parts of the world, drug and alcohol abuse and gang violence are on the rise among Bolivian youth. The processes of urbanization and modernization weaken family and community structures and moral codes, often with dire consequences for children. Television is everywhere, even in the most remote indigenous hamlets. Often children are left on their own because their parents are preoccupied by economic survival. All children yearn for adult attention, care and role models; if they lack self-respect and feel unimportant, they can fall too easily into the many vices of today's societies. In Bolivia in the 1990s, those include illegal trading in cocaine and guns. Meanwhile, Bolivian society, like others, endangers the future by tolerating continued destruction of the Earth's environment. In Bolivia, 140,000 hectares of forest are destroyed each year by timber companies and by slash-and-burn agriculture. Bolivian laws to protect forests and wild animals and to regulate pollution are inadequate and rarely enforced. Biodiversity is threatened: wild animal habitats are destroyed. The animals themselves are killed for their meat or captured and used for a purpose, sometimes as scarecrows. Most people are too poor to simply take care of animals as pets. Moreover, most Bolivians are poorly informed about environmental degradation and what they can do about it; as a consequence, their indifference continues to contribute to it.
A key to Juan Carlos's strategy is the decentralized, youth-led organizational structure he is creating. It empowers the young members by encouraging local initiative and leadership. Inti Wara Yasi is organized into brigades of 5 to 30 adolescents who have a natural affinity for one another, such as a group of friends or a school class. Juan Carlos and other leaders start new brigades by approaching groups of kids playing on the street or by speaking to high school classes about Inti Wara Yasi and inviting them to attend a local clean-up event. Each brigade chooses a commander from among its members. Each January, representatives from all over the country meet to review their progress, expand their environmental knowledge, elect new leadership and plan the coming year's activities. Together they plan a series of consciousness-raising activities such as a clean-up which will be carried out on the same day by all of the brigades around the country. At the local level, brigades meet regularly to plan and execute interventions in their community, such as organizing a community clean-up day or protesting illegal hunting of wild animals. In one instance, a local brigade purchased, with money they had earned themselves, a puma with burned feet; it had been part of a circus act where it jumped through flame. The brigade negotiated with the owner, purchased the animal, took care of it while it healed and then placed it in a national park. Juan Carlos's technique of training brigade members to develop their own leadership results in groups that know how to identify an important issue, organize and make decisions and start new groups.
Given its breadth, geographical dispersion and the fact that the movement targets low-income children, it would not be surprising if funding were an insurmountable issue. But Juan Carlos and the youth are extremely resourceful at developing fundraising strategies. For transport to their national meeting they have solicited free tickets from truck and bus companies, and they manage free lodging at schools or day-care centers. For other projects, the members canvas places where the public gathers, such as Carnival celebrations and markets. They sell raffle tickets or snacks they have made, explain their work to vendors and shoppers and request donations, which they promptly re-invest in ice cream to re-sell at a profit.
They also involve the business community. Besides requesting donations in cash or kind, Juan Carlos is asking banks to cover the fixed costs of ecological refuges for injured animals; universities to supply printed environmental educational material; and travel companies to sponsor tourist area clean-ups. Hotel managers, delighted to provide their services to clients who want to know where to hike and where to find local birds, have become advocates for Inti Wara Yasi and set aside space for the youth to put up signs about their organization and solicit funds. In the process, Juan Carlos has captured young people who might have taken a different path-such as those in the Chapari Region, Bolivia's biggest cocaine-growing area, where Juan Carlos lives and there is a strong Inti Wara Yasi group-and turned them into guides in the tourist trade.
Juan Carlos has expertly cultivated the media to promote Inti Wara Yasi. Reporters have been there when the members bought the puma or marched about illegal logging or shut themselves in cages to protest animal abuse. Juan Carlos always has a monkey or a parrot on his shoulder; the youth and animals are very attractive. The power of those images contributes to Juan Carlos's goal to oblige the government to strengthen and comply with environmental protection laws.
Although the movement has grown rapidly, Juan Carlos will not rest until it spreads throughout Bolivia. He plans to set up five ecological refuges in different parts of the country in addition to one the group has purchased in Chipari, next to a park. Inti Wara Yasi's work is a natural base for environmental education in schools, and local teachers often ask the members to speak to their classes: Juan Carlos supplies materials and lessons to schools in Chipari. Ultimately, Juan Carlos hopes to have 70 percent of Bolivian youth mobilized to defend the environment-and themselves.
Juan Carlos was born and raised in a middle class family in La Paz, Bolivia. His sensitivity and love of animals and children have been evident throughout his life. As a young child, Juan Carlos's protectiveness toward animals twice caused him to sever relationships: once when he freed a caged bird and a friend ran over it with a toy truck; and again when he tried to stop twenty boys who had been paid by a neighbor to kill a stray cat. He traces his strong commitment to poor children to another childhood experience: he was deeply affected when his closest childhood companion, an orphan girl who his family was raising, was returned to a home after committing some childish transgression. He still suffers wondering what became of her. Since childhood, Juan Carlos has known he wanted to devote his life to the well-being of others. He experimented with jobs as a surveyor and analyst at the Ministry of Labor, as an art teacher and as director of an educational radio program, while doing volunteer work with hospitalized mental patients.
Returning to Bolivia after a stint in Ecuador and Peru, Juan Carlos fell in love with the children in the shantytown neighborhoods on the outskirts of La Paz. He organized games and hiking trips for them and taught them how to earn a little money from gardening, repairing shoes and sewing. He quickly became a role model-a role he takes very seriously-and, feeling that he had found his calling, he changed his professional focus to children and youth, taking a job as a Youth Residence director.
Juan Carlos's environmental focus stems from 1992 when he led a group of children along an Incan trail. There they saw where hundreds of trees had been burned. One child entered a peasant's home and found a starving caged bird with clipped wings. As a result of the trip, the group of youths resolved to "defend our brothers the trees and animals" and the first brigade of Inti Wara Yasi was born. Children from the informal groups that Juan Carlos had worked with previously joined immediately. Juan Carlos saw the potential in the idea and developed his vision of a national movement. A television interview sparked invitations to address high schools in La Paz. From there, Inti Wara Yasi's membership grew into the soon-to-be national organization it is today.