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Amid mass migration to cities, Bolivians learn to adapt to urbanization

Latin America and the Caribbean – where 78 percent of residents live in cities – is the world's most urbanized developing region.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2009

MOVING UP: The NGO CARE runs leadership workshops, like this one, to help indigenous women who moved to El Alto from the countryside learn skills to start small businesses.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor

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El Alto, Bolivia

El Alto is not a city that beckons.

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Sitting at 13,000 feet, the sun scorches every corner of this city, sprawled out on a plateau above La Paz. The roads teem with minivans letting out gusts of exhaust, choking already thin air. Bus drivers holler out routes, vendors barter, drivers honk horns – making for dizzying chaos.

Yet El Alto does lure. Thousands land on its doorstep each year. Today over 90 percent of its largely indigenous population comes from somewhere else – mostly the countryside.

If any city in the world is a migrant's city, it is this city, which is why it is a showcase of the future. According to the United Nations, more than half the world's population is now living in cities for the first time in history, as people move for jobs, education, and better services. By 2050, 70 percent of the world's population is expected to be urbanized.

This demographic shift poses challenges: creating new slums, overwhelming governments, and placing new demands on land and water. But most observers say the gloom-and-doom scenarios of the 1980s and '90s, in which cities were predicted to collapse and, as one expert put it, resemble the set of the darkly futuristic movie "Blade Runner," have given way to a sense of optimism. Governments, NGOs, and the migrants themselves, they say, are showing resilience in adapting to a more urbanized world.

"The cities are more crowded than ever. The problems are probably worse today.... But there is less of a sense of hopelessness now," says Robert Engelman, vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. and author of "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want."

"There has not been a passive response. There are innovative ways that people have learned how to deal with the problems."

On a recent day, a group of indigenous women participated in a workshop to develop leadership skills – a crucial component to one day becoming business owners, says CARE, the Atlanta-based NGO, which, among other things, helps poor women set up micro-businesses. All these women moved to El Alto – some from the highlands, some from the high plains – for a better life. Some relocated recently, others more than 20 years ago. Like most migrants here, their economic status is precarious. Many work as domestic servants or sell items such as soap or socks on street corners.

"The hardest thing is that you get here and everything requires money," says Isabel Aduviri, who is forming a macramé business with other women in this group. Her family of four makes ends meet because her mother still owns land in the countryside and shares the produce. But it was a trade-off she was willing to make. "In the countryside there is nothing," she says.

Latin America and the Caribbean is the world's most urbanized developing region, with 78 percent of residents living in cities. In Bolivia, the urban population grew by a million – from roughly 5 million to 6 million residents – from 1999 to 2006, according to the latest numbers from the national statistics office.

Most move for jobs, like Teodocio Mamani did recently. The farmer who worked the shores of Lake Titicaca his whole life relocated to El Alto and now works nights as a security guard. "We just couldn't make it anymore," he says, looking out at his new neighborhood, where houses under construction are sprawled out across the plains, with the Andes in the background.