Building Bridges Across Chasms

Toni Ruttiman travels the world, connecting people and communities through his bridge-building mission

Toni Ruttiman is a tour de force. Although completely self-taught, he is orchestrating the construction of around 90 small suspension bridges throughout South America and Asia. His materials are in transit: pipes from Brazil and Italy, steel plates from Argentina, cable car ropes from the Alps and wire from Houston. Local teams are primed and ready to assemble them. Once built, these bridges will benefit around 250,000 people in Ecuador, Laos and Burma.

Toni’s work is very different from the larger infrastructure improvements funded by the UN and World Bank. He builds the bridges for pedestrians to create vital connections for isolated communities. They provide river- and ravine-crossings to link villages with schools, markets and medical centres. Toni usually builds in the wake of a natural disaster or where there is a specific need. He has been affectionately dubbed “Toni el Suizo” (Swiss Toni) by the locals he encourages to volunteer. When he was building in Pailin, Cambodia, a last outpost of the Khmer Rouge, 30 of the men cementing the foundations were disabled or had a prosthetic limb. Toni also refuses all government grants, relying on individual Swiss donors for funds and on businesses such as Tenaris, an Argentine steel company, for free materials. He himself does no fundraising, has no home, car or website, and does not pay himself a salary.

It all started in 1987, when Toni, having been turned down for national service because of a skin condition, left his home town of Pontresina, Switzerland, for Ecuador, to help in the wake of an earthquake north of Quito. He spent all his savings on the plane ticket. After three days of travel through difficult Amazonian terrain, Toni arrived at the village of Flor del Valle and concluded that what would really help those affected was a bridge.

Currently in Burma, Toni shows no sign of slowing down, despite contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome in 2002. The often-fatal disease attacks the body’s nervous system. Although he has recovered, he still walks with a slight limp. Characteristically, Toni’s emphasis remains on many people working together. He says: “Happiness is to see individuals of goodwill work together for a common goal.”

The bridge that holds the most symbolic significance for him is one built across the Rio Lempa valley, between Honduras and El Salvador. The people of these two once-warring nations bridged the valley, and their differences, by working together. Toni explains: “Building bridges for poor people is the way I express my love for this world and the people who live in it.”

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