I’ll be the first to admit it’s a strange feeling to log onto www.time.com and read a story involving someone I know.
It’s even stranger to get to the end, do a little more searching for what is being said about this person elsewhere online, and come out feeling quite conflicted about the whole thing.
For those who are reading this post before going back and reading the links, I should clarify what I mean by “know.” I am currently spending five months doing volunteer work at the Stansberry Children’s Home and Daycare in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, and one of the people on the board of directors of Stansberry is Ron Larsen, a US-born cattle rancher who is fighting with the government to keep the thousands of acres of ranch. I can’t say I know him well, but I have met him a couple of times and engaged in run-of-the-mill chit-chat about who we both are and what we’re doing in Bolivia. He is thought of well around Stansberry, as far as I can tell. Several times Larsen has invited the kids, staff, and others in connection with the children’s home out to the ranch for extended weekends, where based on the pictures they take, the kids hike, sit around in hot tubs, eat lots of food, and all kinds of fun things they don’t stop talking about for weeks.
And now Larsen is accused of all kinds of nasty things I don’t like. The laundry list includes slavery, sedition, robbery, keeping government officials hostage, assault of unarmed government employees, and what seems to be the main thing: owning lots and lots of land that some believe should belong to the indigenous people of western Bolivia.
Whether it’s 141,000 acres or less than 25,000 acres, it’s a lot more than any poor indigenous person alone has, that’s for sure.
So while I’m inclined to feel sympathetic when people here at Stansberry tell me Larsen is hiding out and is afraid for his life, another part of me wonders if he is really as benevolent as I’ve been lead to believe. It’s not really about him as much as it’s about these big political discussions of private property rights, systems that create poverty, and choosing one’s own destiny. It takes a personal twist for me because I’ve seen Larsen express what looked for all the world like kindness and compassion toward the kids at the daycare. It’s also personal because I know the vast majority of the parents of the kids at the daycare came to Santa Cruz looking for work because there were few opportunities in their home communities in central and western Bolivia.
Whether Larsen is really guilty of all those accusations or not, the point that no one seems to dispute is a small amount of people own most of the land in Bolivia.
I’m torn between the capitalist/elitist and the humanitarian in me. I hear my parents and grandparents in one ear saying they have the right to keep the land they bought and prosper if able. I hear people like YARs in the other ear talking about systems of oppression that keep people down and with little chance to improve their situations. I like the image of the downtrodden trumping over The Man, but I hate it when that image is painted in blood.
The other voice I’m hearing is the vegan I wish to be someday, the voice that raises questions about the rightness of cattle ranching and industry centered around the use of non-human animals.
I own no land myself. My most expensive possession is my computer. I really don’t have a desire to own hundreds or thousands of acres. Still, I have probably a hundred times more earning potential than any of the daycare parents because I’m white, from the US, college-educated and well-connected to other people with similar earning potentials. If I needed to just up and leave on the next plane out of here, I could. The only other people here I know who could do that, too… would also be gringos. Maybe a couple of Bolivians. Most of the Bolivians I know either were born in Santa Cruz or spent their last dollars just trying to get to this city to vie for one job with thousands of applicants telling similar stories. Either way, what counts as “being financially well off” to them vs. to me are quite different. I went to a friend’s two-room home for dinner last night. I can’t think of anyone I know in the US who would be that proud of that small a space.
So, this is what is running through my head on election day. It’s pretty quiet around here since vehicle traffic, church services, and other things that would keep people away from the polls to vote on Santa Cruz’s autonomy is prohibited today. Another niggling thought in my mind is whether Stansberry’s connection with Larsen could also put people here at risk. Whatever the case is… I’m not leaving the grounds until I’m sure it’s safe.