Monday, May 31, 2010

Out There with the Beams – May 2010

It's hard to believe another school year has come and gone. As Isaiah and Luciana head into a much anticipated summer break, Vanessa and I are preparing for several volunteer teams that will be visiting Bolivia in June and July. Brazos Pointe Fellowship will be returning June 12th with a mission team that will help us both in the Ruth and Naomi Transition Home and in an Agua Yaku well drilling project. Vanessa will head up a team of seven men and women from Brazos Pointe who are coming to paint the transition home and also share their experiences working with a similar home for unwed in Texas. The transition home currently has two girls in residence, Juanita and Marina. Be praying for them and also that other young women who could benefit from this ministry will find their way through the doors. We have four empty beds waiting for new girls. It seems that after an initial interview so many girls are not willing to make a commitment to follow the house rules, and the counselling and discipleship classes that the program requires. It is a wonderful opportunity for young women to continue their education, further their spiritual development, and build a solid foundation of financial independence and emotional maturity, but because of an emotionally troubled past, so many choose the easy route of falling into the arms of the first boy who shows an interest.

Warren McCaig and I will be going with eight team members to drill a well in Villa Hermosa, a Yuracare village near San Lorenzo de Moxos in the department of Beni. We have been wanting to expand Agua Yaku into Beni for some time now, and this trip will give us a great way to kick it off. In an exploratory trip last week, Warren and I drove eight hours to Trinidad, the capital city of Beni, and then a further six hours to San Lorenzo do Moxos where we met Natividad, a Bolivian missionary who has been pastoring and starting new churches in rural communities for decades. He heard about our well drilling project and invited us to drill some much needed wells in the indigenous communities where he has been working. By night fall we were traveling up a crocodile infested jungle river in a dugout canoe. The only practical way to get into or out of Villa Hermosa is by boat. We hitched a ride with a neighboring farmer who was delivering emergency food relief supplies to Villa Hermosa. Earlier this year the river flooded and all the villages along its course lost their crops for the year. The World Food Program (WFP) is helping see them through the difficult months. The promised four hour journey soon turned into seven. We stopped on the shore and 1:00 AM and camped on the shore for the night before continuing another hour the following morning. I won't recount the entire journey here. Visit our Agua Yaku blog at: for a more complete summary of the trip. I'm sure the team will have a great mission experience and will be helping bring clean water to a much needed area.

As we mentioned in a previous letter, Agua Yaku lost a major donor that had planned on funding new work teaching SODIS (Solar disinfection) of contaminated water. Thankfully several donors have visited our project recently and will be picking up some of the shortfall in our budget. We are moving ahead with the SODIS training as a component of our ministry. Several weeks ago we attempted to drill a well in an Ayoreo community near San Jose de Chiquitos. Unfortunately, the terrain is too rocky and we were not successful in drilling a well. We did however teach water disinfection using SODIS and will be following up with a rainwater catchment project in the community. Check out the Agua Yaku blog for a complete report.

Thanks so much to everyone who is partnering with us in our ministry here in Bolivia. We covet your prayers and your financial support. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions about our ministry. If you are not already a supporter, we hope you will consider becoming one. Check out the "how to send donations" section below.


Danny and Vanessa Beams

EFCCM missionaries in Bolivia

Friday, May 28, 2010

An Exploratory well drilling trip to San Lorenzo de Moxos

Agua Yaku has a volunteer team coming from Brazos Pointe Fellowship in Lake Jackson, Texas on June 12th. Warren and I went out this week on a survey trip to set up a place for the team to drill. Our local Agua Yaku team, Neto and Fernando, are out drilling a number of wells in a farming community near Pailon, only about four hours from Santa Cruz. We could take the team out there. Certainly a good project and well worth participating in, but I fear that might be a bit boring. Pailon is flat, dry, hot scrubby country where the wind blows our tents apart on a regular basis. Seeking an alternative location that might be a bit more fun for the team, we contacted a national missionary, Natividad Ichu, living in an isolated river community, San Lorenzo de Moxos, in the department of Beni, east of Santa Cruz. We have been wanting to expand Agua Yaku into the Beni region for some time. Beni is primarily flat and from what we have heard our drilling technique will work practically anywhere. Unlike the Chaco and areas south where there is little rainfall, Beni receives an abundance of rainfall and courses with numerous streams and rivers. Water availability is usually not a problem; however, finding clean water is a problem. Most larger communities with road access already have a descent water system, for example San Lorenzo de Moxos, with about 1,500 residents has a deep well, a water tower and a distribution system that pipes water to each home. However, many communities are only accessible via rivers. These communities are almost always small hamlets of a dozen or so indigenous or mestizo families. They sometimes have an elementary school and a teacher paid by the State. Larger communities may have a church and/or a health post. The economy is organized around small plot subsistence agriculture (usually corn, rice, bananas, yuca, etc). They may earn some cash from selling bananas, citrus, and cacao or from selling lumber. Because everything has to be brought in or taken out by river, the cost of bringing necessities in or products out to market can be prohibitive. Very few of these small communities have deep wells because it is impossible to get the big heavy truck drilling rigs back into the roadless communities. Our manual drilling technique is ideal for these areas because we can easily transport the tools and equipment we drill with in the dugout canoes and wooden barges so commonly used on these rivers. Agua Yaku has already successfully drilled a number of wells on the Chimore, Chapare, and Ichilo rivers in the eastern part of Cochabamba. Now we will be entering through Trinidad and traveling up the rivers back towards the Andes.

Even as we set out on our exploratory journey, Warren and I weren't sure where exactly we were going or how long it would take to get there. The first day we drove eight hours to Trinidad, the capital city of Beni. Trinidad is a dirty bustling city where the streets are overrun with cheap Chinese motorcycles and honking taxis. It definitely feels like a frontier town, a jumping off point on the edge of the Amazon wilderness. The Momore river, passing nearby, is the largest tributary of the Amazon River. That night we met with some local church leaders and business men. Over the best steak dinner of my life, we discussed our water project, and their Christian radio project and new church plants. I literally kept stuffing steak in my mouth until I could not squeeze in another bite. I wobbled away from the table and slept uncomfortably in the spare bedroom in the home of some generous church members. After learning that it was still another six hour drive to San Lorenzo de Moxos over rough dirt roads, we decided to leave super early before the city even woke up. By 6:00 AM we were out of town and crossing the Momore River on a ferry—really just a simple barge built out of rough hewn wooden planks and powered by a small boat with an outboard motor tied along the side.

We passed quickly through the beautiful colonial town of San Ignacio de Moxos and made our way on back roads to San Lorenzo, arriving around noon. Luckily, being the dry season, it was possible to drive overland all the way to San Lorenzo. For many months each year both San Ignacio and San Lorenzo are completely cut off from the rest of Bolivia. The only way in or out is by air or by boat. We didn't have exact directions to Natividad's house, but were told to simply mention his name to anyone on the street and they would direct us. We did and they did. Natividad lives in a humble home next to the evangelical church. Natividad pastors the local congregation and as well works as a missionary, planting churches in many smaller communities along the rivers. He set us up for lunch and a room in the home of a church member—there are no restaurants, hotels or even humble guest houses in San Lorenzo—and then went out searching for the connections that would make a community visit up river possible. Because it is the dry season, many of the rivers are too low to travel on even by canoe.

The first community he knew of that needed a well would take too many portages on the river or would be a six to eight hour hike. Ouch! When we were about to admit defeat, thinking this area would be too inaccessible for our intrepid Texas team, when Natividad met Limber, a friend and local leader from the Yuracare community of Villa Hermosa, on the plaza of San Lorenzo. Limber was in town collecting half a ton food rations being donated to his community by the WFP (World Food Program). Earlier this year Villa Hermosa and every other community along these rivers were flooded and the residents completely lost their crops for the year. Disaster relief in the form of food aid from the WFP is being distributed in these communities as a way to insure the residents do not starve until their next crop can be planted and harvested. It just so happened that Villa Hermosa needed a water well and Limber was traveling back home that same evening. We could come along in the canoe if we liked to see if a well drilling trip would be possible. We helped load the donated food into the back of our Land Cruiser and drove it down to the river "port." I say "port" but it was really just a river bank along a canal that fed from the river into a shallow lagoon about five kilometers from town. As we were loading the ten meter long dugout canoe, we met the owner, Teofilo. Teofilo said the canoe can carry about 2500 kilos of cargo. He was already headed upriver to his own farm and agreed to take Limber and the food supplies back to Villa Hermosa. We offered to contribute the 60 liters of gasoline necessary for the 120 km trip to Villa Hermosa and back. While we were loading the boat we met a group of Chimani Indians from Asunta, a village five days travel upriver. The Chimani were also collecting WFP food rations. Ten days on the river seems like a long way to travel for a half dozen bags of rice and flour. The Chimani women and children did not seem to speak a word of Spanish and acted quite fearful of the white foreigners (us). The Chimani still live primarily has hunters and gatherers. There were a number of long bows and spear-like arrows sitting round their camp. The women were roasting piranha and monkey over a campfire.

After the boat was loaded with rice, flour, beans, and cooking oil, we reloaded the Land Cruiser with the Chimani's green bananas (which they were taking into town to sell), and drove back into town to leave the vehicle parked safely in Natividad's yard. Limber and several others from Villa Hermosa said they would be traveling back home seven hours by horseback and would meet us the following morning to unload the boat. After a five kilometer hike back to the river through dark woods, we were finally on our way upriver by 7:00 PM. Teofilo had a fairly powerful 40 hp outboard, but he was afraid to give it much gas because the bearings were worn out and he could not find replacement parts. He assured us it would only be a four hour journey upriver to Villa Hermosa. We settled uncomfortably on top of the cargo and began shining our flashlights out into the underbrush. After only a few minutes of searching we had already spotted dozens of pairs of glowing eyes—caimans and crocodiles along the water's edge. Warren drifted off to sleep by nine, but I couldn't find a comfortable enough position to relax, so I listened to the hum of motor and scanned the moonlit shore for faunal movement. The hours passed slowly. Finally around 1:00 AM, after six hours on the water Teofilo pulled ashore and announced that there was too much brush in the river to continue on in the dark. We would camp along the shore for the night and continue on to Villa Hermosa the following morning. Warren and I scrambled up the muddy bank with our tent and personal gear and hastily set up camp. Teofilo, his two young sons and Felix a nephew disappeared into the woods. Only later in the night did I reflect on the fact that we might have set up our tent on the same bank that some large crocodile called home.

At day break we heard some rustling outside the tent. Teofilo was ready to get back on the river. Turns out we had camped at Teofilo's farm. Felix and the boys were going to stay behind to pick oranges while Warren, Teofilo and I continued on to Villa Hermosa. After another hour on the river we arrived at the village where we scrambled up the muddy bank and hiked the half kilometer to the village. Villa Hermosa is built on the highest ground in the area. Even so, the community floods almost every year. Earlier this year the community was flooded for weeks and they lost all of their crops. They showed me the water mark on the houses. There had been about two feet of water in the houses for weeks on end and no dry ground anywhere in sight. I asked Limber what they did during the flood. "What could we do?" he asked. "We had nowhere to go. We sat and slept on top of our furniture in our houses, ate bananas, and waited for the water to go down."

As we walked into the village a dozen dogs began barking letting everyone know of our arrival. Every member of the community came out to see who the visitors were. They knew Teofilo of course, but they didn't know what to make of a pair of tall white gringos. Limber still had not shown up on horseback so they hadn't been expecting us. We saw a half dozen stick and thatch houses loosely organized around a bare dirt plaza. The school was a thatched roof structure with open walls, a couple of benches, a chalk board, and a Bolivian flag. We met the teacher, a dozen men and women, and about as many kids. They said that nine families now live in the community, about fifty people altogether. The community walked in mass down to the river and we began unloading the heavy bags of food. The men threw the 120 lb bags of flour and rice onto their shoulders and confidently climbed the muddy bank. After everything was on shore the men shouldered the heavy bags for the ten minute hike back to the community. The kids and women carried smaller boxes and bottles of cooking oil. Ashamedly, I walked back empty-handed, mumbling something about a chronic back condition. The bulk of the food was wheat flour. About the only thing you can make with flour is bread. I didn't see an oven in the community so I asked one of the women how they would eat the flour? She said they would eat it just like it is. I didn't really understand but she demonstrated by pretending to scoop some into her mouth. I asked if they might build an adobe brick oven so they could make bread, or perhaps make fry bread in oil. She said they might.

Even though the community lost all of their crops for the year, they still have an abundance of meat and fish. Teofilo said the river and the forest provide all that they can eat. While the Yuracare are not simply nomadic hunters and gatherers like the Chimani. They do rely heavily on fish and wild animals hunted from the forest for a large portion of their diet. They eat a variety of fish as well as wild pig, jochi (a large rodent), wild turkeys, armadillo, monkey, tapir, anteater—practically any animal they can kill. They do not hunt with bows and arrows like the Chimani, but rather with ancient looking 22 caliber rifles and shotguns. They also have a few domesticated animals. I saw two cows and several dozen chickens, ducks, and pigs running around.

The school provides classes only through fifth grade. The closest high school would be in San Lorenzo. The teacher in Villa Hermosa, Juan Marcelo, is a young guy in his mid-twenties from Trinidad. He said he has been teaching in the community for three years. He said they did have seventeen students but now they only have twelve. I noticed the school has a kitchen. Sometimes the government provides food to insure that each student eats a good breakfast at school. Marcelo said they were not providing breakfast this year. Because of some confusion or miscommunication, Villa Hermosa had been left off of the list and has not been receiving food from the government for the breakfast program. Limber, the Corregidor (local authority) we met the day before still had not arrived on horseback. His wife, Regina, welcomed us into their home and quickly cooked up a heaping plate of masaco, green bananas fried in oil and mashed with a good bit of salt. We did not have supper the evening before or breakfast, so the masaco
was a welcome gift. She served it with hot chocolate made from locally grown cacao beans.

After breakfast, we met briefly with the teacher and all the adults of the community to explain the reason for our visit and the possibility of returning with a volunteer team to drill a well. They all seemed excited about the possibility of a well with a hand pump and promised to help with the labor. They are currently drinking water directly from the river, or from pools of stagnant water left over from the flooding. Now that it is the dry season, the pools have been drying up. They also showed us a shallow hand dug well about two meters deep where they draw out water with a rope tied to a bucket. The Yuracare in this community have been drinking dirty water their whole lives. I'm sure they live with endemic water-related diseases. Water from the river, from stagnant pools, or from such shallow wells is definitely contaminated with parasites, viruses and with fecal coliform bacteria from the livestock, wild animals and even their own fecal waste. A deep well with clean water will without a doubt improve the health and quality of life. If they will combine the use of clean water with proper hygiene (hand washing) and sanitation (use of latrines), they will quickly see even further improvements in health.

We left Villa Hermosa a little before noon with the promise of returning in two weeks time with the volunteer team. Back on the river with Teofilo and traveling with the current, we began making good time back to San Lorenzo. Along the way, we picked up Felix, the boys and a load of oranges and lumber at Teofilo's farm. The number of birds and other wildlife along the river was simply staggering. As the sun came out we saw more and more crocodiles along the banks for the river—literally hundreds of them. We saw half a dozen monster crocs that must have been at least twelve feet or longer. Interestingly, the Yuracare said they never, ever get in the river to swim or bathe. They only take bucket baths. I will follow their advice.

You can see a complete photo gallery of our trip at:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Agua Yaku well drilling trip to an Ayoreo village near San Jose de Chiquitos

Warren and I just returned from an exploratory well drilling trip to a small Ayoreo community near San Jose de Chiquitos in the Chiquitano region of Santa Cruz called Familia Unida Ayorea, or FUA for short. In English the name means United Ayoreo Family. The community is also called Nueva Jerusalen (New Jerusalem) by the local mestizo population. SAM (South American Mission) missionaries have been working with the Ayoreo for several decades in Bolivia. Ken Massey, a SAM missionary working in FUA, shared with us the problem of water scarcity in the area. This part of the Chiquitania is in dry forest ecoregion. The area is covered in short scrubby trees and it does not rain much at all compared to the nearby Amazon rain forest. Even worse there is almost no surface water such as rivers, lakes, or springs. Any useable water in this area will come from either wells or rainwater catchment. Most of the Chiquitania region is covered by an escarpment of granite called the Brazilian shield. Simply put, it is impossible for us to drill through the Brazilian shield with our drilling method. The only practical way to drill through the rock is with a large cable-tool drill rig. A local driller in San Jose charges $90 a meter to drill in the area and estimates that a well in this community would need to be at least 130 meters deep. A quick calculation yields a cost of $12,000—well beyond the budget or Agua Yaku or the community. We have had some success in the Chiquitania drilling shallow wells, say 15 to 25 meters that sit on top of the Brazilian shield and collect water in an aquifer on top of the rock. We didn't know what we would find in FUA, but it was our hope that we could drill an inexpensive shallow well that would produce enough water with a hand pump to supply the community.

FUA is a community of about 50 people that recently broke off from Santa Teresita, a neighboring Ayoreo community. The Bolivian government has given land concessions to all indigenous people groups in Bolivia. Unfortunately, most concessions are in marginally productive or isolated regions of the country, making it difficult and to scratch out a living. Santa Teresita, located in a 22,000 hectare Ayoreo reserve, was originally set up by the Catholic church. I have not visited Santa Teresita so I do not know anything about the history of the community. The SAM missionaries said that in order to avoid further conflict, the evangelical Christians who were living in Santa Teresita decided to leave and begin their own community. They chose to settle on top of a hill, seven kilometers up an old logging road from the highway. They chose the site because the forest wasn't too thick, making clearing the land for farming a bit easier. One critical need they did not consider was water. Maybe 500 meters from the community a small arroyo channels water during heavy rains, but it does not run even intermittently most of the year. The community attempted to dig a collecting pool in one of the depressions. They were able to collect a bit of muddy water, but it soon became the gathering place for local wild pigs and was too impossibly filthy to even consider drinking. The only other ways they have been able to get water into the community is by paying to have it trucked it in from other communities, or by collecting rainwater from the couple of tin roofs in the village. When water is trucked in they can store it in a 1000 liter plastic tank they have on the ground. The SAM mission is helping build a church and the local government is building small brick school. The family dwellings are made of local materials—sticks, rough timber slabs, palm thatch roofs, etc. When we visited the community the plastic tank was empty and there appeared to be almost no water in the community. Leading health organizations estimate that people need a minimum of 25 liters of clean water per day. Anything below this is considered water poverty. Surviving on the minimum standards, FUA should be consuming more than 1250 liters (more than one tank) per day. Now, they are doing well if they can fill the tank once a week. Just to put this in perspective, the average person in the U.S. consumes 600 liters of water each day. If FUA were populated by Americans, we would need 30 tanks of water a day.

Agua Yaku traveled to FUA with our manual drilling rig on the slim hope that we could drill a shallow well and install a hand pump that would at least increase water availability for this community. We set up the drilling rig on an embankment just above where the community had dung the water pit in the arroyo. Several dozen adults and children from the community, Agua Yaku, and SAM enthusiastically carried equipment, tools, and water down to the site. After several hours of hard work drilling through clay and thin layers of sand we hit hard rock at about five meters. Sadly, five meters is not deep enough to install a hand pump and the layers of sand where too thin to collect water through the filter. On the surface it may have seemed like a failed attempt at drilling a well, but we actually gained valuable knowledge about the geology of the area and now the community can proceed with plans for a deeper well, confident in the knowledge that a less expensive practical alternative for subterranean water does not exist. The alcaldea, local government, has promised to drill a deep well in FUA. The only question is whether this is an empty promise, or if it will actually be completed in the near future. It would not be a wise use of resources for missionaries to invest $12,000 in a privately drilled well if the government already has funds designated for the same project. We recommended that SAM invest a smaller amount in the construction of tin roofs and rainwater catchment systems for the church, the school, and each family dwelling in the community. This could supply a good portion of the communities water needs, and could be supplemented with water brought in by truck during the drier months. Perhaps in the coming months or years the alcaldea will come through with the promised deep well.

We returned to FUA the following day to clean up the drilling site and collect our equipment. First we met with the school teacher, the kids, and as many adults as were around to train them on how to disinfect their drinking water using the SODIS method. SODIS (which stands for SOlar DISinfection) is a simple way to insure safe drinking water using two liter plastic soda bottles and the sun. We explained that by simply filling two liter bottles with water and setting them in the sun for one day, ultraviolet radiation and heat will kill 100% of the organisms (bacteria, viruses, and parasites) that can make you sick. It is essentially the same as boiling water, but does not require fuel for the fire and is safer and easier than boiling water. As long as the bottles are sealed after they have been in the sun for a day, the water will remain safe until it is consumed. SODIS gives people who do not have access to safe drinking water an inexpensive and convenient way to improve their water quality. Even if they collect surface water from rivers, streams, ponds, etc., SODIS can assure them they are drinking clean water. If the water is turbid (muddy), they can pour it through a simple bio-sand filter and then treat it with SODIS. Even though rainwater may be clean when it falls from the sky, it can become contaminated as it sits in open barrels and is transferred with dirty containers and utensils. If people with suspect water sources learn to rigorously use SODIS to treat their drinking water they can greatly reduce the number of water-borne illnesses. To help put unsafe drinking water in global perspective, unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of all diseases and kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Worldwide, 42,000 deaths occur every week from unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions. Children are the most vulnerable—90% of water-related deaths occur among children under five years old. Encouragingly, most of these deaths are preventable. Studies have shown that clean water alone can reduce water-related deaths by 21%, sanitation (proper disposal of excrement) alone can reduce water-related deaths by 37%, and hand washing alone can reduce water-related deaths by 45%. While Agua Yaku is committed to improving access to water for families and communities through drilling wells or other systems of surface water collection, we also emphasize the importance of ensuring that water sources are safe to drink, and that proper sanitation and hygiene is taught in schools, churches, and homes. SODIS is one component that we will be adding to all of our Agua Yaku training.

The Ayoreo students and parents all confirmed the importance of clean water and promised to begin treating their drinking water using the SODIS method. The teacher said she would follow up with the training and begin to promote it daily among the students. We left several dozen empty bottles and two SODIS tables with the teacher. Before the crowd disbursed we asked for a hand in dismantling the drilling rig and carrying the equipment back up to the community where we could load it on our truck. All of the adults wandered back to their homes and only a handful of small children followed us back down to the well site. We eventually got everything loaded and were soon back on the road for the six hour trip back to Santa Cruz.

To see a complete photo gallery from our trip visit:

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Update on Nathaniel's trip to Europe

Nathaniel has had some tough luck since arriving in Europe to compete with the US Junior National Cyling Team in several stage races. His first race was last Saturday, a Kermesse in Belgium. Borrowed some wheels from the team that had a worn cassette. It didn't align correctly with his new chain. When he stood up to sprint and test the cassette the chain skipped cogs and jammed, sending him immediately over the handlebars and into the pavement. He got some serious road rash on the back of his hands and several other places. Needless to say he didn't get to start the race that day. Now he and the team are in the Czech Republic competing in a big junior stage race called Course de la Paiz. It is five road stages and one time trial over five days. Nathaniel's hand has been hurting him considerably. The cuts were quite deep and he cannot make a fist or hang onto the handlebars without a good deal of pain. Yesterday he was training with the team on the course and fell again on a slick oily patch on a roundabout. More road rash. Then today was the start of the stage race. Not even 5 k into the race he was involved in a crash at the base of a big climb. After getting back on his bike he tried to get back up to the peleton but never made it back to the main group. He finished in a group of about 15 other riders 10 minutes behind the main bunch. Tomorrow's a new race! Keep trying Nathaniel. Your luck will turn.