Bolivia visit turns French tourist into environmental leader

By Yolanda Salazar

La Paz, May 7 (EFE).- Frenchman Alexis Dessard arrived in Bolivia last year while pursuing his dream to travel around the world.

He had no plans for a lengthy stay, but a video he uploaded to social media urging people to clean up litter at a tourist site marked the start of his mission as environmental defender and social change agent in that Andean nation.

Dessard told Efe he began his globe-trotting with no concrete goal in mind and merely wanted to enjoy that experience amid the grim reality of the Covid-19 pandemic.

His initial idea was to start his round-the-world journey in Latin America, first traveling to Brazil and then Paraguay. The Frenchman’s plan to reach Argentina was stymied by that nation’s border closures, so he decided to head to Bolivia without major expectations.

While visiting a popular spot near the Uyuni Salt Flats where rusted-out trains once used by the mining industry lie abandoned, he decided to film a video showing trash strewn on the ground and urging people to help him pick it up.

To his great surprise, the video went viral on social media and a large group of around 1,000 people, including army soldiers, showed up on the day set aside for the clean-up effort.

“The Train Graveyard marked a new beginning for me. A thousand people arrived, and this turned into a big movement. So I have a responsibility now to keep this going,” Dessard said.

He then decided to continue his crusade against litter at the Uru Uru Lake in Bolivia’s Altiplano region, an internationally recognized Ramsar wetlands site where plastic bottles and other waste were blighting the landscape.

Hundreds of people, including members of environmental protection organizations and city governments, joined that effort and picked up tons of plastic waste that was subsequently sent to a company for recycling.

Dessard later turned his focus to the Rocha River in the central department of Cochabamba; Lake Titicaca, which straddles the Bolivia-Peru border; and the Valley of the Souls, a dense series of rock formations, enlisting local help with his clean-up drives in each instance.

“It’s all been like a dream. It’s too good to be true. I’m having a hard time understanding what’s happening because a bunch of people join (the initiatives): the army, firefighters, police, local governments, organizations and ordinary citizens, Dessard said.

The 25-year-old erstwhile tourist has discovered his purpose in Bolivia, put his wanderlust on pause and even become somewhat of a local celebrity.

People ask to take photos with him on the street, shake his hand or thank him for his environmental leadership, while Bolivia’s lower house of Congress has even recognized him for his campaigns.

Although clean-up programs remain his primary focus, Dessard also wants to contribute to other projects to combat street crime and violence against women.

“I now know it’s possible to bring people together. It’s possible to change things, and I’m going to devote the rest of my days to seeing how I can find solutions,” he said. EFE


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