Japanese farmers start over in Bolivia undaunted by tough life

The years immediately after World War II were difficult for Japanese farmers. So in 1954 when the Bolivian government offered them free land, Tokusho Miyagi's family was one of 80 from the Japanese island of Okinawa that decided to start over again in South America. In leaving behind Japan's postwar economic depression, Mr. Miyagi found himself with 124 acres of potentially rich farmland in Bolivia, but with no roads, electricity, or mechanized farm equipment. ``When I arrived here to begin my new future, I thought: `I've gone back in time 100 years,''' he said recently.

But with loans and technical assistance from the United States and Japanese governments, the immigrants gradually moved back to the future. Miyagi, who had a half acre on Okinawa, now has 430 acres here in eastern Bolivia and uses some of the most advanced farming techniques seen in this underdeveloped country.

Long gone are the wooden poles he initially used to harvest rice here. Last year, with an Inter-American Bank loan, he bought a Massey-Ferguson tractor that towers over him.

``I never thought we'd improve our lives so quickly,'' said Miyagi, speaking in Japanese and sitting in the living room of his cement home that boasts a refrigerator, a Sony Betamax, and a Sony Trinitron color TV set.

This is not a success story only for the 195 families living in the self-sufficient colony. The pioneering farming techniques the Japanese have introduced have improved crop yields throughout Bolivia, where more than 1 million people - one-sixth of the country's population - go hungry every day.

Although prospering now, the 22 waves of immigrants who came here after World War II experienced much more hardship than the nearly 1 million Japanese who settled in neighboring Brazil, Peru, and Argentina.

Not only did they have to start from scratch in Bolivia, but they have had to endure political and economic instability unmatched by any other Latin American nation.

The poorest country in South America, Bolivia has had 21 changes of government since the original 400 people settled here 33 years ago, including four presidents in both 1979 and 1982. In 1985, inflation skyrocketed to 24,000 percent, the seventh-highest rate recorded in history.

When the immigrants arrived, their biggest concern was finding tools and seeds to begin planting crops and building roads to transport their goods to market. The land was an untamed tropical forest inhabited by pumas, wild pigs, alligators, and piranhas.

In their first six months, a mysterious epidemic killed 15 settlers. Many immigrants fled to Brazil and Peru or returned to Japan.

Those who stayed planted rice, using wooden poles. They traveled about the swampy terrain on horseback.

Over the next 15 years, Okinawa Colony slowly took shape. Farmers obtained better implements and cleared fields, and a dirt road was built connecting the community with Santa Cruz, Bolivia's second-biggest city, which is a two-hour drive south and has 600,000 residents today.

But it wasn't until the early 1970s that the immigrants' lot began to improve, as they switched from rice to cotton and started using big mechanized equipment.

Spurring the changes were millions of dollars in loans and development projects by the US Agency for International Development (AID) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). (The Bolivian government has never had any money to spare.)

Modern tractors financed by foreign loans now plow the 10,000 acres of arable land.

Tokyo has financed the colony's two health clinics and three schools. A majority of the patients and children are Bolivians who work the immigrants' land.

``The government of Japan wants to help the sons of Japan have a good life in Bolivia,'' said Masachi Tokunaga, the assistant director in JICA's Bolivia office.

The colony, which has nearly 1,100 Japanese settlers, harvests corn, sugar cane, sorghum, and wheat. But its main crop is soybeans, which is processed into cooking oil and animal feed.

The settlers harvest of soybeans has among the highest yields per acre in the world. The immigrants accounted for the majority of the 10,000 metric tons of soybeans exported by Bolivia last year.

The colony continues to move forward. This month residents inaugurated their own processing plant, which will bring higher prices for their grain. It will be able to process 8,000 metric tons of grain a year, one-third of the 1987 harvest.

The plant, which is expected to begin turning a profit in 1989, cost $1.4 million and is being financed by loans from AID and the Brazilian government.

At what is perhaps Bolivia's most advanced experimental station, veterinarians and agronomists paid by Tokyo are studying ways to boost yields through changing crop rotation, varying mixtures of herbicides and insecticides and introducing new strains of corn and soybeans.

``We think we can triple the amount of milk that cows produce per day,'' said Masatoku Okuno, the experimental station's director, referring to another study. ``Increasing milk production would benefit not only the colony but all of Bolivia.''

Mr. Okuno is especially excited about plans to create a center in Okinawa for the introduction of artificial insemination. ``Bolivian cattle are of poor quality,'' he said. ``With artificial insemination, we can improve meat quality, fatten cattle more rapidly, and make cattle more resistant to disease. Maybe Bolivia could even begin exporting meat.''

Like many other residents, Mayasuki Kudaka, who farms 880 acres, speaks Japanese fluently and regularly returns to his land of birth. But he has no intention of leaving Bolivia.

``I don't feel that comfortable in Japan; the pace of life is so different there,'' he said, driving his Toyota jeep on one of the colony's all-weather dirt roads. ``Besides, there are so many possibilities here. Where else could I own so much land?

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