Peace and Goodwill in Boots and Hardhats

A team of lineworkers from electric cooperatives in Virginia and Maryland travels thousands of miles to bring light and hope to the residents of several remote villages.

November-December 2019

Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Executive Editor

Bolivia is a land of breathtaking contrasts. Lowlands barely 300 feet above sea level. Sky-scraping peaks more than four miles high. Extremes in weather, from equatorial heat to arctic cold.

This South American country is mountainous in a way that we in the East can’t fathom, and Coloradoans can but envy. The mighty Andes reach to the sky here, in parallel ranges towering over 20,000 feet.

Nestled between these Andean heights is the Altiplano, or “high plateau.” A flat depression 80 miles wide and 500 miles long, its elevation of 12,000 feet would make it a rooftop almost anywhere in North America. In this part of Bolivia, though, it’s merely a floor. Cold winds blow through this bowl year-round, eroding the dry soils of its slopes and hills. Coarse grasses, low shrubs, cacti and mosses cover this rocky region, grazed by llamas and alpacas.

Yet, despite a landscape with few adornments, the Altiplano has been well-populated for at least 1,400 years. Crops have been successfully grown here, and animals successfully grazed, from the time of the ancient Andean peoples, to the Aymara Indians, to the Incas, to the Spanish conquistadors who invaded in the early 1500s.

Centuries later, railroads were built, and cities grew up: Oruro, Uyuni, Tupiza, El Alto. And also La Paz, the capital of Bolivia’s executive branch and legislature.

At night, if you fly over these cities — or view a satellite image from space — you see clusters of light, tiny sparkles in an ocean of darkness, an ocean of lonesome, empty plains.

Sprinkled across Altiplano’s plains, though, is a patchwork of small villages, their modest brick and adobe houses filled with life, but not light.

But light came to life in September, when a team of 15 volunteer lineworkers from electric cooperatives in Virginia and Maryland labored through long days under difficult conditions to electrify five villages in Bolivia’s Oruro region.

For the villagers in Achoco … Coniri … Jalsuri … Lagua Cruz … and Puqui, the tireless efforts of these 15 American heroes brought them light and hope for a better life. For many of these villagers, electric service for now means a single CFL bulb, hanging from a low ceiling, providing instant light, brighter light, better light than candles or kerosene or wood can provide.

The association that publishes Cooperative Living magazine helped to coordinate this trip, part of a long-time effort by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to electrify rural areas in developing nations. Funding support for the trip was provided by the Cooperative Finance Corp. and the National Cooperative Services Corp. It was a cooperative effort made possible also by the generosity of the electric cooperatives that provided these brave young men. The on-site coordinator for the trip was a seasoned lineworker, John Medved of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.

In addition to overseeing the projects, John kept a diary during the trip. In it, he notes the array of challenges they overcame: few tools; no bucket trucks; drastic swings in temperature; needing to roll 2,000 pounds of wire onto a trailer and having a tractor pull it a mile to the work site; finding a doctor to remove cacti spines; a bus carrying the lineworkers to the job site getting stuck in mud flats; and on the day of departure for home, the bus not cranking due to the 18-degree weather.

His final entry, though, sums it all up: “Not only are the lives of the villagers changed, but the impact of this adventure has changed us.”

In this cynical age, it’s easy to be wary of missions and motives and plans and people.

But for 17 days in September, 15 young men in boots and hardhats voluntarily made an 8,000-mile round trip to a land with few amenities, to undertake a job filled with difficulties, to benefit strangers whom they’re unlikely ever to see again.

All of which provides a great example of peace and goodwill during a time of year when we gather to celebrate both.