Bolivia: When the lake ran dry

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Bolivia: when the lake ran dry

Amy Booth visits an indigenous community in Bolivia. There are many problems and it is difficult to keep their culture alive.

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© Sarah John

‘My ancestors used to live in boats like this,’ the old man tells me sadly. He is showing me a very small boat, a similar shape to a Viking boat, but all made of reeds (strong grass). The Uri community used reeds that grew in a lake that has disappeared.’

We’re in the small Uru community of Puñaka. It is a few adobe (mud) houses together with a few modern homes (that a state aid project built). The old man can remember when Puñaka was at the edge of a very large lake, Lake Poopó, that was full of life. It was the second largest lake in Bolivia. There are many small metal fishing boats in the village – but there is no water and the boats are rusty. The lake has dried up almost completely because of drought and climate change.

I met Abdon, a friendly young man in a tracksuit in the nearby town of Poopó. He says sorry because he is not wearing his poncho. When we arrive in Puñaka, he puts on his traditional black and white poncho (coat) and reed hat. This shows the difference between town life and traditional lifestyles in Bolivia. There are many different indigenous cultures together with the city life.

We can see this double life in Puñaka. The community has suffered a lot from the drought in Bolivia and the lake disappearing. The Uru people traditionally live from the lake: fishing, hunting water birds, and making things from reeds. Their culture does not include having animals or building work. But now the lake has gone, many Urus had to leave to look for work.

Bernardo, one of the community leaders, tells me that there are 20 families in Puñaka, but only seven live there all the time. Many Bolivians in isolated places like this live there sometimes and live in a larger town sometimes if they have work and family there. It must be difficult to move between two lives: living many hours away from the nearest road, and living with sky-scrapers and fast-food chains.

Here in Puñaka, it is difficult to imagine an economy with money: there is no public transport to drive the half an hour from the main road, and it is not a paved road. We pass some land where someone has planted some potatoes, but they died. Maybe they died because of the drought, or from poisons in the water from mining, or bad soil.

Abdon wants to keep the Uru culture by bringing tourists to Puñaka. Santiago, the mayor, wants the government to help them start a brick or ceramics factory, to use the good earth from the bottom of the lake. He also wants artificial lakes for fish farming, but this is only an idea.

The Bolivian altiplano is beautiful. It looks like a different world, maybe because of the pollution and other effects of the mines: dirty water in little pools, and piles of earth. It is flat as far as you can see. Flamingos move from pool to pool, looking for food. It is easy to understand why the people I meet in Puñaka are worried that they will lose their old life. As Bolivia develops and changes it will be difficult to protect indigenous cultures next to the cities. But Abdon loves his culture and that gives me hope. He says he saw a parihuana bird fly into the mountains and disappear. That was a sign that the water will return to the lake. I hope he is right.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/columns/letters-from/2017/06/01/when-the-lake-ran-dry/

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).