Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 7, 1997

Oxfam America's
alternative spring
break: Helping
Hands In The
Rain Forest

Leslie Rice
News and Information
For a lot of college students, spring break is a welcome reprieve from term papers and dark, wintry afternoons spent in laboratories. It is a week to be spent on a sun-soaked beach in Florida, with a few good friends and a tiki bar nearby.

But this year, one Hopkins junior opted for a different kind of vacation. For her spring break, Valerie Bazelais traveled to the Bolivian Amazon to volunteer alongside its indigenous people, harvesting rice, working at a lumber mill and preparing food for a village festival.

Bazelais was one of six American college students picked from 1,600 applicants to take the trip sponsored by Oxfam America, a nonprofit group that works to tackle hunger and poverty in the world by sponsoring grassroots solutions and programs. For five days, Bazelais worked with members of a small village in the rain forest who are in the midst of a fight for the survival of their home, which is being leveled around them.

"We don't expect these students to make a major impact in these places when they're only there for five days," says Anwyn Hurxthal, a spokesperson for the Boston-based Oxfam America. "What we're promoting with these 'alternative spring breaks' is educational outreach--we want to show college students some of the grassroots work that is being done with Oxfam funding. We try to show them the link between environmental destruction and hunger. Everyone has read or seen pictures of the fading rain forest, but it is quite another thing to meet people fighting for their existence because the rain forest is becoming extinct."

Bazelais says the experience was one of the most powerful of her life, and she has already begun some of the work to start a local Oxfam chapter at Hopkins.

During her short stay in the Bolivian rain forest, Bazelais lived in a community of about 20 families, one of dozens of small neighboring villages of indigenous forest dwellers. In that time, she lived with the village's mayor and his family.

"It was by no means the most beautiful house in the community, and the mayor was by no means any better off than anyone else in the village," Bazelais says. "But what I found really wonderful about this village is that these people don't place much value on what you have but on what you can give back to the community. Wealth is measured by your input to the rest of the village. Any profit will go to someone who is sick or in trouble, or toward the purchase of something that will make the village stronger."

Bazelais says she was struck again and again by the cohesiveness of the village--how everyone was willing to give all they had for the good of the group. On one rather humbling day, Bazelais and a student from Tufts University went with a small group to carry wood across a river. The wood would be used at the small community-owned lumber mill. During the outing, Bazelais and her friend realized they were more a burden than a help.

"It was hard work, I couldn't chop wood to save my life," she says. "The girl from Tufts was having a really hard time getting this one basket of wood over the river, she was afraid of falling. So this woman who was eight months pregnant picked up the basket, lifted it onto her head and walked through the river.

"We just watched her in amazement, and later we asked her if what she had just done was hard. The woman said that yes, it was hard, it was very hard, but she had to get it across the river, it was something that had to be done."

Bazelais also observed a local seed exchange program in the community that was started with Oxfam funding.

"For centuries, this group has practiced a slash and burn agricultural policy, which allows them to only be able to use the soil of a place for a year or two," explains Bazelais. "This policy will keep them in one place much longer. It will give them more legal ground to stand on as they compete against the lumber companies for the land, even though they've lived in the rain forest for centuries and centuries."

Perhaps the most moving experience of the trip, Bazelais says, was hearing about how a few years ago, the men of the village took a daring and courageous stand against a lumber company that was about to destroy their land. Those men, about 60 of them, stood in front of their village facing bulldozers and hundreds of workers and Bolivian police with rifles.

"Eventually the police, the lumber company just withdrew, and the entire thing ended peacefully," she says. "They kept their land. The men told us how scared they were the entire time but they still stood their ground. They realize how fragile their way of life is right now. And they realize that it is up to them to keep it together if they want to have something to give their children when they're gone."

When she graduates from Hopkins, Bazelais, who is majoring in public health, plans to go to graduate school and earn a doctorate in that field. Her dream is to one day work in health care in the Third World.

Although her parents would probably be far happier if their daughter were to become a doctor and work here in the States, it is perhaps because of them that she wants to work among the world's poorest people. When she was 5 years old, her parents left Haiti and settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. Ever since, her parents have struggled to provide for Bazelais and her brother the kinds of opportunities they themselves didn't have. But on trips to visit grandparents, Bazelais was indelibly marked by the poverty of her parents' country. It has been her resolve ever since to fight hunger and sickness where her skills would be needed most.

For her summer vacation, Bazelais is trying to raise money to go on one of two trips she saw advertised on the bulletin boards at the School of Hygiene and Public Health: doing field work in maternal and child health in Zimbabwe or working with the homeless in Cameroon.

"Both of them sound wonderful," she says happily. "Don't you think?"

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