Engineers in Action: Bolivia Suspension Bridge; Bolivian Small-Scale Project Decentralization

Besecky, Sarah, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Gomez, Jose, EN-CEE, University of Virginia

Every year, rural Bolivians are separated from important resources due to inadequate infrastructure. Through the design of a suspension footbridge, the technical topic addresses the needs of Coilolo, a rural Bolivian community, that has limited access for six months of the year due to the flooding of the Coilolo River. The science, technology, and society (STS) topic provides a framework to analyze the impacts of small-scale infrastructure projects in rural Bolivia following the passage of the Law of Popular Participation (LPP). The technical and STS topics are tightly coupled as the technical topic shows the direct construction of infrastructure, in the form of a suspension footbridge, in a rural community. It will have a positive economic impact for community members through increased access to economic and educational opportunities.
The technical report outlines the process taken by a team of eight civil engineering students to design a suspension bridge across a floodplain. The construction of the footbridge will connect both sides of the river, improving transportation to markets and educational opportunities, particularly through increased access to schools during the rainy season. The bridge was designed in partnership with Engineers in Action (EIA) Bridge Program, a non-profit organization that connects communities in need in rural Bolivia and Eswatini with university students to collaboratively design and construct suspension footbridges across impassable rivers.
Constructing the bridge was technically possible and economically desirable. In order to reach the final bridge design, the process involved many plan changes in order to meet the design requirements provided by EIA. The team looked at the economic feasibility of potential design changes in order to better understand their impacts on the constructability of the project. The technical report includes the final custom design, construction plans, and bill of quantities.
The decision to research the impact of the small-scale infrastructure projects on rural communities came from the objective to better understand what the EIA projects provided to these communities. From there, the research took on the added task to understand whether the LPP was successful in addressing the country’s dire economic state, particularly in low income and economically depressed rural communities. The paper analyzes the economic, cultural, and educational impact of the LPP through a combined view of Actor Network Theory and the Social Construction of Technology framework to understand the impact of actors within overlapping linear networks.
The passage of the LPP put funds into the hands of rural communities that had not previously received funding from the national government. This created a unique opportunity for citizens to provide input on the infrastructure projects being completed in their communities. The paper looks at trends in Bolivia in the nearly 30 years since the implementation of the LPP. The research highlights the continued economic disparities between rural and urban Bolivia. However, it also brings to light the significant improvement of literacy rates in rural areas, putting Bolivia on-par with the rest of South America.
While there is still a long way to go for rural Bolivia, the future is bright. The LPP has shown promise over the last 30 years and will continue to influence Bolivia for the next 30 years. The STS research indicated that building a bridge would be a tremendous help to the Coilolo community by providing year-round access to markets and schools. Great benefits can be derived by building bridges for small villages in Bolivia. By improving access to economic and educational opportunities, the construction of the footbridge in Coilolo will aid in the growth of rural Bolivia over the next 30 years.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Engineers in Action, Social Construction of Technology, Law of Popular Participation, Infrastructure

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
Technical Advisor: Jose Gomez
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Glenn Broderick, Katherine Foley, Gabby Ford, Cooper Hamby, Tim Maxwell, Terence Moriarty, Wyatt Yoder

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