This grain could free Bolivia from Butch Cassidy

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What did I know about Bolivia before I went this week? What Hollywood told me: that it took the entire Bolivian army to hunt down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Actually it was just a handful of soldiers who finished off the American outlaws. Gordon and I are in Bolivia at the invitation of the Bolivian ambassador to the UK, who wants us to see if there are any small-scale economic initiatives we can come up with as an alternative to the coca-growing that is consuming Latin America's agriculture. Our visit coincides with a general election. A successful rural revolt in the 1950s meant Bolivia has had a better stab at democracy than many of its neighbours. There are elections every five years. The front-runner for president this time appears to be an ex-dictator, a strangely popular choice, but the consensus is that he will be a necessary balance to some of the country's over-zealous reformers.

And if he doesn't work out? Bolivia has a fiercely pragmatic attitude to its leaders. The presidency once changed hands seven times in one year. While our friend was taking us round the Presidential Suite, he indicated the spots where presidents past had met their makers, including one who was defenestrated. Straight out the window.

The capital, La Paz, teems. It reminds me of Kathmandu. Everyone is trading on the street. The city is a good base for trips to Lake Titicaca, an enormous expanse of glassy blue water whose utter stillness and suggestion of untold depths do a lot to explain its mythic status. The Bolivians say they've got the Titi. The Caca is on the Peruvian side - where the pollution is.

Here the Jesuit-led church is activist. It defends the poor and speaks out for social justice. And the people it speaks out for most are rural workers, the people who may very well be growing the food of the future. It's called quinua, a cous-cous-like grain which has been eaten locally for 5,000 years. Packed with amino acids and vitamins, it has attracted the attention of big American companies. I have a feeling quinua is about to become fashionable in the West, which would give Bolivia a chance to backseat Butch and the Kid in the global consciousness.

IN MY teens and early twenties, I never thought twice about hitchhiking anywhere. Youth is fearless. I thumbed round the Middle East, trusting to a pepper-pot to protect me if rides turned over-zealous. For years I wouldn't hesitate to pick up hitchers. But the other day I drove past two, which made me brood on how, with time, I've learned to be afraid. I feel shamed by that fear, and sad for the world that feeds it. The Wodaabe in Africa measure themselves by how they greet strangers. Arabs, and Muslims in general, believe that offering hospitality to strangers is the supreme act of love and courage. Now I come across an exhortation in YES!, my favourite new American magazine, to "Put up a stranger". It's third on a list of 37 ways the magazine recommends to become part of "the co-operative gift economy", which is all about doing favours for friends, neighbours, colleagues and, yes, even strangers. Suggestions range from buying food or supplies in bulk and sharing with friends to starting a community currency or skills exchange in your neighbourhood.

YES! calls itself "a journal of positive futures". Chairman of its board of directors is David Korten, who has nailed global corporations as "the most powerful instrument for concentrating power and wealth ever devised". They are one reason why the magazine's editor, Sarah van Gelder, makes a distinction between optimism and hope. While she sees few grounds for the former in global problems such as poverty, over-population and corporate greed, she feels there is plenty of room for the latter in imaginative individual responses which are "creating the DNA for a new civilisation". It's the perfect antidote to fear, because we're talking about evolution - or, at the very least, making the world a better place for hitchhikers.

A FEW years ago, The Body Shop fought and won a High Court case to protect its reputation against the allegations of a television programme, so I know exactly how Philip Barker is feeling now. He ran Christian Aid in Paddington for years. Yet he somehow ended up painted by a BBC documentary as an unscrupulous "Mayfair businessman" making money off the misery of Aids patients. In 1989, Barker was brought in by the directors of a pathology company that was promoting an Aids therapy called adoptive immunotherapy. The therapy's originator, a consultant haematologist named Dr James Sharp, was claiming great results, and Barker still believes he was sincere. But Sharp was charging large amounts of money, which led to questions from other doctors and journalists. Barker recommended Sharp's dismissal and put a stop to the treatment. (Sharp was later struck off the Medical Register.) Barker made fundamental changes to the company's modus operandi, but by then a "scoop" was brewing. The NHS was under threat of privatisation at the time. The story played like a cautionary tale of the private sector's lack of morals, where health care, even in life-and-death cases, could surrender to the profit principle.

Unfortunately, Philip Barker bore the brunt of the television "expose", even though he had cleaned house at the company. He sued the BBC and the New Statesman, where the story appeared in print, for malicious falsehood. The BBC succeeded in having the case dismissed on the grounds that malice wasn't proved. The Court of Appeal, however, has allowed him another hearing, which is scheduled for October. He remains confident, despite the horrendous physical and financial toll of the past few years, that he will be vindicated. Vindication in such cases rarely receives as much publicity as the initial vilification, but I doubt Philip Barker will be losing sleep over that.

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