In an informal settlement in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, people are relying on community savings and using formal banking services to deal with the economic impacts of Covid-19. María Eugenia Torrico Ferrufino reports.
This is the thirty-ninth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.
Cochabamba, lying in the valleys of the Andes mountain range, is the fourth largest city and a municipality of Bolivia. Cochabamba is home to a number of informal settlements characterised by poor housing, scarce water resources, limited sanitation and inadequate infrastructure. Improper development and poor living conditions lead to serious health and environmental issues in the area.
Emiliana Mamani Vale is a Bolivian woman who lives in an informal settlement called Carolinas of District 8. She is a member of a community savings group called “Libertad”. She is also the president of a community-based organisation called “Tejiendo Ciudades” and manager of the local branch (Agente BCP) of a formal bank called Banco de Crédito de Bolivia – BCP.
Impact of Covid-19 on Bolivian informal communities
Emiliana and her community first learned about the global pandemic in March, when the entire world was stunned by the news. Initially, no one thought it was real and continued their regular work and social gathering. But eventually, they started noticing people wearing masks in the central markets of Cochabamba when the government announced a lockdown and made wearing masks and washing hands mandatory.
“Eventually many of our community members got sick. They thought they had caught a winter cold and it would pass. Even my own son got sick– he lost his smell and developed a fever. Like a rain that reaches everyone, the disease reached the settlement as well,” Emiliana shares.
“The economic impact of the lockdown was serious, as we could not leave home for work. We lived from day to day and if we could not leave, how could we earn money? There were families who did not have enough to eat; they had to sell their gas bottles, their furniture. There were women who were alone –how can a woman be active if she has not eaten?” she adds.
Using community savings to tackle the crisis
In response to the crisis, Emiliana and other community women reverted back to their community savings group. “During the lockdown, almost everyone made use of our community savings to maintain hygiene protocols. Some women have withdrawn money from their savings to buy food and water” she says. Seeing the benefits of having community savings, they thought of opening more groups.
“We have learnt that savings help to take care of basic needs. Now we can say that if we do not have money, we will support each other through our savings,” she proudly shares.
Formal banking services help buffer the economic shocks
Emiliana is also the manager of a community bank (a branch of a formal bank) called “Agente BCP”, which has started advertising to people to open accounts. “The government has said that they will pay a “Hunger Bonus” into the bank accounts. Many women have gone to the banks for the first time to collect their bonus,” she adds.
Emiliana is now working with the bank to make their services more accessible and inclusive. They are encouraging people to start using internet banking with their cell phone. Since the opening of a branch of the bank in district 8 of Carolinas, they have not only served the bank account holders, but also those living in the neighborhood.
“We have called the bank manager and asked him to provide us with more training on the use of savings books, and electronic wallets. He kindly organised a meeting with us where he explained all these banking options,” she further adds.
With a bank account and internet banking service, many people are now paying electricity bills and recharging their phones at home . “During the quarantine period, customers have increased because no one has had to leave their house. Since this is the only bank in the district, they can even call us to assist them,” she notes.
Seeing the success of Emiliana and her beneficiaries, many community members are now interested in opening a bank account. Having a bank account not only helps them to better manage the crisis, but they also earn interest on the capital they deposit.
Being organised through the community based organisation called “Tejiendo Ciudades” helped Emiliana and other members to get to know each other and support each other when needed. “We want to open more savings groups in all neighbourhoods of District 8 because women suffer when they have nothing and we have to support each other,” she proposes.
Emiliana and her team’s effort to help marginal communities is praiseworthy. But they received very little support from the local government. “No one helped us, neither the government nor the Mayor. They have only given us a “Family Food Basket” and a “Hunger Bonus”. The only thing the Mayor’s office did is to authorise markets in the settlements to buy groceries. We have a water crisis in the settlements, and the Mayor gave us a free water tank only once. How are we supposed to maintain hygiene protocols with very little water?” she concludes.
The experiences of Emiliana and the organisation Tejiendo Ciudades are common for women living in poverty in informal settlements, who must first solve the material needs of life. However, these women have developed survival strategies like the mobilisation of resources, and community work, solidarity networks or family structures that allow them to face adversity. The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened poverty and other ongoing crises, and in the case of Bolivia it has been aggravated by political conflicts that affect democracy. At the local level, there has been a deterioration in material and financial resource availability and a decrease in quality of life, and especially for female-headed households. In this situation, conflicts emerge over territorial issues, such as disputes over land use, lack of infrastructure or conditions of inequity and vulnerability, all of which hinder or impede sustainable development. The challenges are too many and it is necessary to involve public and private actors who understand that the urban poor must be heard and cared for.
About the interviewer
María Eugenia Torrico Ferrufino is a Bolivian sociologist and conciliatory lawyer. She specialises in urban management, community participation and dispute resolution in the extrajudicial field. She also provides technical assistance to the grassroots community organisation “Tejiendo Ciudades”.
About the interviewee
Emiliana Mamani Vale, aged 43, is a Bolivian woman who lives in the informal settlement called Carolinas of District 8 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. She is the president of a community-based organisation called “Tejiendo Ciudades” which is a network of poor urban communities, mostly women, who work in Bolivia promoting community savings, the value of information and the implementation of social housing improvement projects. She is also a member of a community savings group called “Libertad” and manager of the local branch (Agente BCP) of a formal bank called Banco de Crédito de Bolivia – BCP.