Bolivia's sprawling La Paz has been dubbed "The City in the Clouds" for good reason — resting at 12,000 feet above sea level, it's the highest elevated capital in the world.
So what do you call a rural community some 2,000 feet above La Paz? In many ways, the tiny hamlets of the Bolivian Altiplano defy description. The region is at once enchanting and forbidding. First-time visitors marvel at the Altiplano's vast open landscapes, its alpaca herds and its breathtaking (literally, at 14,000 feet) views of the perpetually snow-capped Andes.
Still, there are daily reminders that this is tough land. Forget your sunblock and your skin will pay a painful price, even in chilly weather. Sudden cloudbursts can wash out mountain back roads within minutes. And Altiplano residents know if they miss the gas man making his weekly rounds through the community they'll have to go a week without.
It's also impossible to grow a good tomato, cucumber or almost any other type of vegetable you would find stocked in the local produce section. The climate here is simply too harsh to sustain such crops. For Altiplano residents — including many Latter-day Saints — such scarcities of vitamin-rich vegetables can exact a lifelong toll on their physical health, intellectual development and spiritual growth.
"The majority of the people eat only meat products and potatoes, and they really don't have any other types of foods such as vegetables, which are needed for them to receive vitamins," said Elizabeth Garcia, administrator of the Church's Benson Institute Office in Bolivia. Humanitarian workers such as Sister Garcia and her colleagues in the Church's Welfare Department were eager to incorporate invigorating vegetables into the Altiplano diet. So plans were developed about two years ago to assist the local members and many of their neighbors by building underground greenhouses outside their homes.
The greenhouses allow families "to grow green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, peppers or any other sort of vegetable they would want in [an environment] where the temperature stays consistent," said Wade Sperry, an agronomist working as a field operations manager for the Welfare Department.
Utilizing simple building materials and training provided by the Benson Institute, the Altiplano members constructed the greenhouses and, for the first time, started growing and eating cucumbers, lettuce, beets and other healthful plants. Some 100 greenhouses have been built so far.
The greenhouses are relatively simple to build and easy to maintain, Brother Sperry said. Most are about five feet deep, five to six feet wide and 10 to 15 feet long. After the hole is dug, a wooden frame is constructed that typically rises about two feet above the ground. Fiberglass or plastic is then stretched across the top of the frame to form a roof.
Greenhouse farming is new to most here, so the Church provides all the training needed to grow a county fair-worthy crop.
"You teach the people here that they need 10 hours of sunlight to grow a good vegetable," Brother Sperry said. "They have to orient their greenhouse so the sun crosses lengthwise across the greenhouse. Different vegetables are planted at different depths. If you get the depth wrong they won't grow right."
The Church also provided new greenhouse owners with sufficient seed to produce a maiden harvest large enough to feed their families — and yield a few extra vegetables to sell so they could purchase the next round of seeds. Principles of self-sufficiency are championed in all aspects of the greenhouse project.
The Church's Altiplano program extends beyond building, operating and maintaining a greenhouse. For many here, vegetables remain an exotic food. "They have to get used to eating vegetables — they're not used to the flavor," Brother Sperry said.
So, Benson Institute workers such as Sister Garcia, Gustavo Vargas and others have worked with the greenhouse owners, teaching them to make salads and how to cook their vegetables using salt and herbs. They also teach the families, including the young children, about ways nutrition works and how it can make them bigger, stronger, faster, smarter and even more spiritual.
Bernita Choque and her husband, Ignacio, have a large family. With nine children and another on the way, Sister Choque knows well it's important to keep her children well fed, healthy and happy. Their family greenhouse, she said, has helped make that possible.
"My children needed this type of nutrition; we're so happy and grateful for the help of the Benson Institute," she said. "The children are happier and healthier. They don't seem to get sick much."
Sister Choque added she's blended vegetables into her family's diet. She often tosses together a spinach salad and enjoys cooking vegetable soup.
Altiplano resident Eulogio Ticona is not a member, but he's quick to add the Church has been instrumental in improving his young family's health by helping him build an above-ground greenhouse. His only son, Joel, 3, is being raised on a typical Altiplano diet supplemented with carrots, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers and other vegetables.
"I believe [the vegetables] are helping him with his intelligence," said Mr. Ticona. "He's learning his numbers and other things quickly. He's growing quickly."
Brother Sperry is certain that a program designed to improve physical health is also boosting the spiritual vigor of the members here. Greenhouses make excellent year-round classrooms for learning the Law of the Harvest.
"Whenever you get down and work in the soil and see the product of your labor growing and providing food, it adds a lot to one's spiritual strength," Brother Sperry said. The Altiplano greenhouses also provide families with daily opportunities to work together, shoulder-to-shoulder. Children of all ages learn they have a role in sustaining and helping their family.
"Everyone helps," said Sister Choque. "The little boys bring in water. They all help to collect the vegetables. Everyone helps."
While the Church's Welfare Department has been pivotal in building the greenhouses, the local leaders will determine the project's sustainability. Bishops, branch presidents and Relief Society leaders will play the deciding role in the program's long-term success, Brother Sperry said.
"It's satisfying," he added, "that the Church is providing the opportunity for these families to do this."