Thursday, November 29, 2012

The 'other' side of Madidi - Apolo

This past September at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, it was announced that Madidi National Park, the protected area I’m working in, is likely to be the most biodiverse place on the planet.  This news surely made more waves in international scientific circles than it did here in Bolivia, where I only heard about it a couple of weeks ago in passing from a friend.  Indeed, even some of the park’s staff didn’t know anything about it.  

Mysterious Madidi - view from Apolo
However, the announcement will almost certainly affect the region – especially in terms of future research.  How many young scientists will be now setting their eyes on this area, where it is estimated that two-thirds of its biodiversity has yet to be discovered?  But as visions emerge of teams of researchers traveling up and down its remote rivers, climbing its giant trees, seeking to prove once and for all that is indeed IS the most biodiverse place on the planet, I ask myself – how will this help to protect it?  How will the discovery of yet another mammal or bird species directly lead to future conservation efforts in the park?  Surely, research will lead to more research, just as funding tends to attract more funding.  But for Madidi’s nearly 4,000 human inhabitants, many of whom live in extreme poverty, how will such investigations contribute to the development of sustainable livelihood strategies that support, rather than are in conflict with, efforts to protect this magnificent piece of planet earth?

The long, dusty road to Apolo
Yesterday I returned to La Paz after two weeks in the remote region of Apolo, the “other side” of Madidi.  Until now, I’ve focused on the well-paved path of most researchers to Madidi - the Beni river, the touristic region where foreigners flock in droves, accessible by a 45-minute flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque.  Apolo, in contrast, is an uncomfortable (albeit spectacularly scenic) 14-hour bus ride through the Altiplano, las Yungas, descending into the tropics of the Amazonia.  Here twenty-two ‘native peasant’ communities are located within the park boundaries, as well as one indigenous Leco community.  Although poverty exists throughout the park – in the Beni region as well – it is in this area that it is most extreme.  Even up until the 1980s, a local form of slavery, known as ‘habilito’ was practiced, in which land owners would exploit the campesinos through unending cycles of indebtedness.  According to statistics from the 2001 census, 98% of the population in the municipality of Apolo lives in conditions of poverty, and for the vast majority, such existence is on the margin.

Tobacco drying on traditional mud-brick home
As a result, the conservation of biodiversity is not exactly a local priority.  As very little tourism comes through, people live the best they can from the land – traditional swidden agriculture is practiced, with a focus on products that can be sold at the market in Apolo (coca leaves, tobacco), as well as for basic subsistence (yucca, corn, rice).  The only economic alternatives come at the expense of the natural environment – gold mining, for example, is viewed as one of the only possibilities for advancement – a chance to earn a bit of extra money to send one’s children to secondary school.  Previously there was talk of a road being built in the region that would crisscross the park, and more recently, there are rumors of oil explorations in the area.  These possibilities have been met with hopeful anticipation by the vast majority of the local population, who in past years, have taken up machetes and chainsaws against the park, even taking over the park guard offices in Apolo in 2010, in protest for what they see as their basic rights to development.

But despite these realities, when asking about research and conservation efforts in the region, I was more than often met with shakes of the head, shrugs of shoulders.  “Very few researchers come here,” I was told again and again.  And those that do?  More shrugs of shoulders.  “They don’t leave results behind.” 

Park guard photographing tracks of a tapir for the parkwide
intergral monitoring program, in which park guards collect
data on various ecological and social indicators.

Housed at the Madidi park guard station in Apolo, I searched the office in vain for past reports of any kind of research that had been done.  Few of the guards could tell me about previous scientific activities, aside from the discovery of an endemic bird - the Palkachulpa (Phibalura flavirostris) - in 2000.  I visited the mayor’s office, a local historian, and spoke with local indigenous and campesino communities – no one knew much about any past research, and some of those that had come had generated anger and mistrust due to empty promises given of ‘reporting back’.  One leco leader told me that his community had been "betrayed" by an anthropologist who had come from the United States to do research on traditional knowledge, and had never returned despite having an official research agreement with the indigenous organization.  More than anything, it was apparent that the region had been pretty much neglected.

Madidi park vehicle crossing the Marchariapo river.
In the wet season this crossing is impassable.
So my question of “Who decides what research should be done,” began to expand…  And I have found myself asking not just “what”, but “where”?  Who determines where the greatest threats lie, and who decides where more information is needed?  Because on a cursory glance, it seems that this region, much more so that the ecotouristic hub of Rurrenabaque and the Beni communities, is in great need of more information, more technical support for local communities, more understanding of how to address the present and future threats of mining and oil drilling.

In this home in the village of Palillos, I was unable to
communicate with the Quechua-speaking owners.
Happily, that didn't prevent them from offering me
several delicious cups of freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice.

So why then the lack of research in the region?  One answer might point to the difficulty of working in Quechua, especially for foreign researchers.  I gave a couple of drawn-out, Bolivian-style (say something, and then repeat it five times) speeches at meetings with local leaders, only to realize afterwards that less than half had any idea of what I was saying.  Another possible region might be the remoteness of the area.  One community, Asariamas, is located in the largest remaining area of tropical dry forest of the Andes-Amazon, yet in the wet season it is only accessible via a muddy two-day journey on foot.  A third reason might be the ‘campesino’ rather than ‘indigenous’ status of the resident communities.  It is much less sexy to researchers (and the foreign institutions that fund them) to work with peasants than with ‘natives’ – even if that label is just that – a label.  Indeed, in ten years time these communities might all become ‘leco’, affiliated with the Leco indigenous organization that is vying for allegiance with the longer-standing Federation of Campesinos – but that decision will be much more based on politics and economics than anything to do with cultural roots.

The beauty of las yungas - another reason researchers
should come to the Apolo region
Why does it matter that there is or isn’t research done in a given region?  I suppose I see the role of the researcher as going beyond simply collecting information and publishing articles, and as one than can have a catalytic, transformative impact.  If it is not those of us who have the time and funding to investigate what is happening in a profound way, and to report on our findings, then who will?  Who will go into these communities and find out the real stories, who will look at existing laws and policies and identify their weak spots, who will bring to light the gaps between what is supposedly being done and what is actually happening?  In a nutshell, what the hell is the point of publishing academic papers, if the ones who are making the decisions don’t have access to the information?

Questions and more questions, and in two weeks time I finish my first field season in Bolivia and head back home for a while.  But before I go I’ll be setting things up for next year.  In light of all I’ve learned these past months, I’ve decided to change my methodology.  Instead of working with only one or two communities in the park to do a ‘community science’ project, I’ll be carrying out a regional analysis of the past, present and future of research in the region – mostly via community workshops.  I hope to be able to answer the question of to what extent research has directly supported conservation and sustainable livelihoods in the park, as well as to identify opportunities to ensure that future research is more locally relevant and participatory.

Six months have really flown by here in Bolivia...  Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat and lovely Lancaster awaits, but some part of me is already looking forward to being back in this land of discoveries, mysteries, wonder, that has somehow lodged itself deep into my bones...

Feeling tough in Apolo -
ready for my next field season in 2013!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"They're taking away our knowledge..."

Map of Pilón Lajas, created as a biosphere reserve
by UNESCO in 1977,  declared a protected area
and indigenous communal lands by the Bolivian
government in 1992. Map is copyright
Wilman appeared from around the house, a long bow in his left hand, a notched arrow in his right, looking somewhat guarded upon seeing Mandu and I sitting on his porch.   Earlier in the day I’d approached Wilman to ask if we might come and speak with him, briefly explaining that I had come to Asunción de Quiquibey to learn more about how research could be of use to the community.  Wilman sat down upon a shaped tree stump somewhat reluctantly, and explained that he’d been on his way to go fishing, which explained the bow and arrow.  However, he didn’t have any gasoline for his peke, so ni modo, he said.  Too bad for him, I thought, but good luck for us.

Mandu and I had arrived a couple of days earlier to the Tsimane’-Moseten community of Asunción de Quiquibey, located in the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Lands, an approximate three hour boat ride upriver from Rurrenabaque.  Armando (known everywhere and to everyone as Mandu) had worked in Asunción many years before, where he’d done research on traditional knowledge of medicinal animals for his undergraduate thesis, and had returned to create a book for the community.  A self-declared ethnobiologist, he has completed degrees in both biology and anthropology but believes that real learning comes from experience – from being in a community, speaking with the locals and getting to know their way of life. 

Mandu playing soccer with kids.
Although Mandu had previously lived in Asunción for several months and knew many of the comunarios by name, many years had passed since his last visit.  I’d hoped that with him at my side, we’d have easy access to the Moseten-speaking" locals, who are famously wary of strangers – especially strangers with lots of questions.  But trust is hard to gain and is easily lost, and our attempts to speak with the comunarios were often met with silence – or sometimes even closed doors.  However, several of the local leaders – both young and old – remembered Mandu well, which was key for being able to get some information about past and present research efforts in the community. 

Our talk with Wilman was representative of many that we had in our few days in Asuncion.  He said that many researchers (often known in Bolivia as ‘tesistas’) have come to do various kinds of studies in the community for their degrees.  He mentioned a study of medicinal plants and another that looked at animal tracks, neither of which had left the results behind.  “Some people say they’re taking away our knowledge,” he said.  But when we asked if the community felt they could reject a researcher – for example, if they didn’t feel that the research would be of any benefit to the community – he seemed somewhat confused.  The only real requirement was that those who came to the community should have a document with two signatures – one from the director of the Pilón Lajas reserve, and the other from the president of the Tsimane’ Moseten indigenous council.  If they had both signatures, the community was expected to collaborate with those who came.

Don Clemente Caimani (in center) with actor Edward Norton
upon receiving the Equator Initiative Prize in 2010.
Don Clemente is from Asunción de Quiquibey
and is currently the vice-president of the Tsimane' Moseten
Indigenous Council, to whom the prize was awarded
for their efforts in conservation.
Copyright for photo:
Mandu and I tried to explain that it was within their right as comunarios to refuse to talk with anyone who comes if they don’t want to, and Wilman seemed to agree, but the previous day I’d spoken with an older man who told me that they it would be ‘very difficult’ to reject those who came – “One must answer their questions,” he said.  I suspected he was also including myself. Part of the difficulty is that among the Tsimane’s, conflict is greatly feared, which makes it almost impossible for the local people to displease outsiders by refusing to collaborate with them.  Mandu told me that in other Tsimane’ communities he’s worked in, river traders will take great advantage of this cultural norm by charging the local people many times over for the same product, knowing that they need only to exhibit anger to get the locals to pay up.  More shockingly, it seems that some anthropologists are adopting similar strategies – imposing study after study in certain communities, even some very ethically-questionable ‘natural experiments’, knowing full-well how difficult it is for the Tsimane’ people to refuse to participate.

Reading the Society of Ethnobiology's 'Code of Ethics'
during one of many hours of downtime in Asunción.
Given that in the mornings people are in their chacos,
 at lunch they are eating, and in the afternoon they
are resting, Mandu and I had all day to read and think!
To Mandu and myself, who were only in the community for five days, many of the locals seemed to adopt a kind of passive resistance, not openly refusing to speak with us, but being quiet and vague when we tried to explain our purpose and ask to speak further with them.  I thought this a good strategy (albeit frustrating for us!), but Mandu said the problem is that many researchers don’t ask for consent, but rather oblige the people to collaborate – knocking on doors with their questionnaire and not leaving until they’d filled it out.  Wilman told us that previously, several scientists had come to have the hunters fill out registers of their hunts – part of the self-monitoring project mentioned in a previous post.  He said that although in the latter years of the project, the comunarios understood the objectives and gained something from the experience, at first they simply hunted as many animals as possible to fill out the register quickly.  

Some other conversations we had over the next few days were equally illustrative of how local people understand (or don’t understand) what research is.   One man told me that the studies that come only help to enable the tesistas to obtain their degrees.  He said that they come from the city or other countries to learn, because they don’t know about life ‘en el campo’.  But research doesn’t make much sense to him, he said.  “We know about things here.”  Other stories emerged as well.  Several comunarios mentioned a biologist who’d come to do a study of the Chonta palm.  Apparently he was trying to measure its rate of growth, but the comunarios said he was measuring the wrong part of the tree.  “He put his rulers on the outside sections – but they don’t grow,” one man laughed as he related the story.  “The chonta grows from the inside up and outward – so his study was all wrong.”  We asked if they’d told the scientist of his mistake, as he’d apparently been in the community for many months.  They shook their heads and grinned.  “Nah, we let him do his study, we never said anything.”

Houses in Asunción.  Typically the kitchen is in a separate
structure away from the main living quarters.
Perhaps it was best that they’d kept their opinions to themselves, as Mandu told me of experiences in which scientists become very defensive – even angry – when their expertise is put into question by local knowledge.  He told me about an encounter with two biologists in Mexico who’d come to set up camera traps near a community where he was working.  The scientists hired locals to carry their equipment, but weren’t interested in their ideas about where to put the cameras, despite the fact that they hunted in the area and knew where the animals went.  When after several weeks, the biologists had few pictures and Mandu suggested that they ask their guides for ideas about where to put the cameras, they got very angry.  “We’re scientists from the UNAN – an internationally respected institute!” they retorted.  “How could they know where to put the cameras better than we do?”

But the fact is that the local people will always know more about local conditions and realities than those of us who come from cities and learn from books.  So what do researchers like Mandu and myself have to offer?  Perhaps a great deal, it turns out.

“Research is like a weapon,” one community leader told us.  If the results of research are designed to be of use to the community, and are left in local hands, such information is of great importance and interest.  As hunters and fishers who live directly from the land, the comunarios of Asunción have a great stake in the health of local ecosystems and natural resources in their region.  They are also greatly concerned about the rate at which traditional culture is disappearing.  One young man lamented the loss of certain games he played as a child – making toy bows and arrows, for example, or learning how to trap doves.  These games directly enabled the skills needed for hunting for sustenance as an adult, but now children were more interested in playing with toy cars, or even with their parent’s cell phones.

Mandu talking with Don Jose, a community leader,
about the bows and arrows he makes - both for traditional
use in hunting as well as for selling to tourists.
Mandu and I talked about the possibility of returning to the community in the future to develop and train local ‘research teams’, in which the community directs and participates in all phases of the research process – deciding what to study, how to study it, and making sure that the results are of direct relevance to the community.  Mandu has been working for several years with these kind of research teams, and in one Tsimane’ community the locals chose to do a comprehensive study of all of the plants used to produce bows and arrows, as well as a video on their hunting techniques.  What is especially interesting here is that the topic that this particular community selected would also be of interest to many scientists – confirming a growing realization that us ‘outsiders’ might have more common interests with locals than might seem on first appearances.  Indeed, in asking a couple of people what kind of study they would like to do in their community, the topics mentioned were ones that would be happily supported by biologists – “a study of animals!” exclaimed one man.  “A register of local birds,” suggested another. 

So why not turn research on its head?  Why not simply show up in communities and ask people what would be of use to them, and then do that?  Perhaps this is the real question. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A week with los Josesanos

“Come!  Sit!  He’s talking to the wind,” whispered the old woman.  “Sometimes it becomes furioso and blows hard.  We must talk to it to calm its rage.”

Storm approaching in the surrounding mountains.
It was my second night in the village and somehow I’d found myself the subject of a ch’alla, a traditional ritual of healing through payment to the gods – specifically to the Pachamama, the earth goddess on whom all life depends.  I sat with the old woman in the candlelight and waited for the curandero, or shaman, to reenter the house, and wondered at my luck.  I had only come to speak with the old couple about local traditions, and had explained my research as context for our conversation, when he told me he was going to do “el secreto”, so that things would go well with my work.

I’d spent the previous week in Rurre worrying about this new phase of my research, which involves visiting several of the communities located within the Madidi park, building trust, and understanding the perspectives of the inhabitants with regards to scientific research and conservation.  It had taken me several months to get access to this particular community, San Jose de Uchupiamonas, a Tacana-Quechua village located a solid day’s walk in the interior of Madidi.  An indigenous community with its own territory, there were layers of red tape to sift through and numerous leaders to get approval from.  San Jose – a village of 700 people – has a president, a ‘corregidor’, a cacique, a mayor – not to mention countless local leaders of various local institutions – the school, the civic committee, the women’s group, among others.

Crosses stand at the heads of key trails in San Jose.
During the missions they were placed to frighten
'savages' and indicate that the village was peaceful.
And then there was the question of what would happen when I actually arrived.  I was given a bed in the house of one of the local leaders, Don Senon, where his wife, Emilina, would cook my meals and otherwise take care of me.  But other than that, I was pretty much left on my own to find people who were willing to speak with me, and I was worried about how I would be received. But the night of the cha’lla I had a dream that I was walking along a river, fell in, and drowned in the current.  But only part of me did.  Because another self – another Anne – came to the rescue.  Suddenly I was not the self drowned in the river, rather I was the rescuer.  I swam into the river and dragged myself to the shore, where I performed CPR until the drowned self came back to life with great gasps of breath.  And then we were one Anne again – and then I awoke.

From that morning on things seemed to fall into place.  I was able to speak in-depth with several of the community leaders, and soon I found that people were almost as interested in me as I in them.  San Jose has a long history of both isolation and exchange, where on one hand they have been neglected by the nearest municipalities in obtaining basic services and a road to connect their community to the rest of the country, but on the other hand the village was historically a point of exchange and communication between the highland Quechuas and Aymaras and the lowland Amazonian tribes.  The people themselves are a mix of ethnicities – Tacana culture and spiritual beliefs are strong, Quechua is spoken by most adults, and other traditions passed down from Spanish and even Japanese ancestors have survived to the current day.    

Chalalan is located 3 hours down the rio Tuichi,
which is a problem as it requires the community
guides to live in the urban tourist hub of Rurre.
Since the 90s, this community has also been a focal point for ecotourism.  In 1992, even before the creation of the Madidi park, several international funders invested 1.5 million dollars in the development of Chalalan, a luxury ecotourism project, which was originally managed by Conservation International before passing over to the 100% ownership of the community in 2001.  Although the resort itself is located several hours downriver from the community, tourists often visit San Jose for the day, and international volunteers teach English to children, so foreigners are a common sight for the locals. It seems that this international exchange has been mostly positive for the inhabitants of San Jose (not the least because they charge their visitors for accommodation and meals), which surely helped to pave the way for my ease of getting to know the Josesanos.  A walk through the village resulted in countless friendly ‘Buenas tardes’, and by the end of the week most people were greeting me by name.  

Among the questions I hoped to answer during my stay were: How is the relationship between your community and the national park management?  What has been the experience of the community with previous researchers and scientists?  And most importantly: What kind of research would be of most use to the community? Some of the questions were not easy to answer, especially those dealing with research.  To scientists, the concept and raison d’etre of doing research is straightforward.  Come up with a question, design a methodology, collect and analyze the data, publish the results.  

A 'chaco' with corn, yucca and beans
But to people who have always lived closely with nature and have learned to adapt their ways of life to the changes in their environment.  Such changes are observed, adjusted to over time – but they aren’t measured the way scientists would measure them.  The idea that scientists are paid grants to investigate things that the local people already know from centuries of living in close contact with the land – for example, the period of reproduction of the coati, or the variety of corn that grows best in 'loose' soil – makes little sense.  They can tell you these things – why research them? 

So after the first couple of days I started changing my questions.  Instead of talking about research, I began asking about the needs of the community – concerns, problems, threats.  I asked if biologists had ever come.  Perhaps because of the confusion regarding ‘research’, people didn’t always connect my questions about investigations with the biologists who worked in the region.  “Yes, there were biologists last year,” they’d say.  “They were putting beetles in nets and catching birds to photograph them.”  But when I asked if the biologists had explained what they were doing, or if they’d left the results of their work with the community, the answer was invariably no. 

Don Senon is a community leader who has
worked with many biologists in Chalalan.
More than a missed opportunity, to me this lack of communication and exchange between scientists and local people raises ethical issues, especially if scientific research is being conducted in the vicinity of communities.  According to Bolivian law, local people must be consulted in the ‘co-management’ of their natural resources, which particularly applies in contexts where communities are located within protected areas.  As most high-level management decisions are based on rigorous scientific studies – for example, how must land to protect for the preservation of a given species, and how to zonify human activities in ‘integrated management areas’ – without some basic awareness and knowledge of scientific research, communities cannot effectively participate.  In the Bolivian national park system, rules and regulations are listed in technical documents created by scientific consultants, which are cited when disputes arise between the locals and park management.  But how can these communities respond to documents they don’t understand, and most likely have never seen?

This lack of technical knowledge is not unnoted by the local leaders, who expressed their need to be able to understand how certain activities will impact their culture and natural resources, and their inability to be able to put forward ‘counter-proposals’, based on their own findings.  This is especially crucial in the present political climate, where the national government under Evo Morales is looking to lowland indigenous territories and protected areas as ripe for the exploitation of natural resources – particularly through ‘mega projects’, such as oil and gas drilling.  “If we don’t have the information, how can we protect ourselves?” remarked one community leader I spoke with.

The road is impassable when it rains.  I entered the
community in this jeep, which later got stuck on the way
out for 24 hours, after a downpour.
The most pressing need according to all those with whom I spoke was the development of a better road, which would enable them to develop a ‘community-tourism’ project right within San Jose.  Although Chalalan provides income to many families, those who work there must live outside the community in the urban town of Rurrenabaque, the tourist-hub of the region.  Many Josesanos are concerned that the community is getting smaller – “People are leaving because there is no road, no way to make a living.”  For the community it is a question of their rights as Bolivians to be able to develop and advance in the way they see fit. 

However, this raises big questions for the park management and for conservationists in general.  Generally roads are considered the enemy of protected areas – almost synonymous with deforestation and human settlement.  But does this have to be the case?  A young woman in San Jose told me that her community did not want a ‘big, paved’ road.  She said that they are aware of the dangers posed by colonists and logging companies.  Rather, they wanted a ‘camino turistico’ – a road that would allow tourists to come to their community a few times a week, in a regulated manner.  And as the road would lie within two indigenous territories, as well as cut through a park of Madidi’s ‘integrated management area’, there would be the additional protection of park guards to limit illegal human activities.

Regardless, the solution is not a simple one and is rife with ethical considerations.  Perhaps what is needed is more information – a kind of environmental/social impact assessment - something researchers and scientists could help to provide.  And again, herein lies an opportunity for communication, collaboration and participation – to allow the community to have a say in how such information is collected, and ultimately be able to make informed decisions based on the results.

Traditional pascana - a place for storing, resting and
As the week progressed I was introduced to slices of daily life for the Josesanos.  Several families took me to visit their ‘chacos’, where they plant crops such as yucca, corn, rice, sugarcane and plantains, each variety requiring a different type of soil.  The agriculture here is traditional ‘slash-and-burn’, but has proved locally sustainable, as the community has been farming the surrounding lands for almost four hundred years.  My host, Senon, took me to his family’s ‘pascana’ – a traditional openair structure used for the storage of grains and for spending the night on hunting trips – and we pressed some sugarcane for juice in the traditional ‘trapiche’.
Carrying bananas back to the community.

By the end of the week my worries prior to coming to San Jose were long forgotten.  The night before I left to return to Rurre I spoke to my hosts about the dream I’d had earlier in the week, right after the ch’alla.  Don Senon nodded, “Sometimes it’s necessary to refortalecerse – to put strength back into our bones.”

Feeling like a 'complete' Anne again!


Monday, October 1, 2012

With the lagarteros - Part Two

I’d barely entered into a dream when I heard Eduardo calling for Gustavo and me to get up.  He was already rushing around, ready to head back to the lake where we’d left the lagartos piled in the boat.  The sun was already getting hot and the animals needed to be measured and skinned before the tropical heat began the process of decaying.  Unfortunately, I was feeling rather sick to my stomach and decided to stay behind (the culprit later turned out to be a yucca drink called chive that I’d had the night before on the boat).  I spent a miserable day in my sweltering tent with vomit and fever, but was reasonably recovered by the time the others returned with the lagarto skins.  I watched from a distance (my stomach still not being quite up to dead lagarto parts) as the men salted the skins for preservation and the women washed the meat taken from the tail with river water.  It was dusk by the time they’d finished their activities and sat down for dinner.  Eduardo had hoped to go hunting again that night, but everyone was too tired, so it was settled that they’d rest that night and start afresh the following day.  Besides, another group of hunters had come downriver from a neighboring community to hunt and would need help to drag their boat to the lake in the morning. 

Matusha Aid'a - The Tacana name for 'lagarto'
(Caiman yacare), and the name of the Tacana
association of lagarteros.
The next morning I woke up feeling completely recovered and full of energy.  After a breakfast of rice mixed with lagarto meat, Gustavo and I set off with our tents for the lake, dropped them in a pile and headed back down the trail to help the other group drag their boat, which weighed close to 1500lbs, along the trail.  Not having a trailer for the job, the men placed logs spaced at a distance of 3 meters from one another, then lined up along a rope tied to the front of a boat.  Attached to the rope were several sticks, on either side of which two men would line up and then run the boat forward along the logs like a team of huskies.  Gustavo and I joined in, and I felt a bit like one of Santa’s reindeer, with the heavy boat gliding along behind.  The process was exhausting and painstakingly slow, however, as we kept having to reposition the logs in front of the boat as we advanced. 

Close to the lake, I abandoned the group to carry some equipment to the campsite, heading off along the trail on my own.  I wasn’t gone fifteen minutes, and when I returned they grinned and said, “El Tigre!”  They’d all seen a jaguar that came running from the direction I’d gone off on – I must’ve walked right past it without noticing! For Gustavo, who’d been working as a biologist in Bolivia for more than a decade, it was the first time he’d seen a jaguar in the flesh.  “It must’ve been eating the remains of the lagartos,” he said, referring to the skeletons left behind the previous day.

Gustavo shows one of the younger hunters
how to register the data to be recorded as
part of the scientific monitoring of the project.
The boat finally in the water, we set up camp on the lake and rested in our tents while waiting for the rest of the hunters to show up.  This time I would be going in the boat with the group of hunters from the neighboring community, most of whom had never hunted lagarto before.  As various types of crocodilian species – black caiman as well as caiman yacare – were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 80s during the animal skin boom, only in recent years has the Bolivian government allowed a strictly controlled harvest of a determined number of animals, and so for many of the younger hunters this was a new activity.  In the case of the Tacana territory, this year's harvest is for 630 individuals, which according to the WCS biologists monitoring the project, represents approximately one percent of the resident population.  The lifting of this ban, however, only applies to the caiman yacare, and hunting of the black caiman (a species that is much larger and slower to reproduce) remains illegal. 

My lagartera outfit.
The thrill of the hunt had somewhat worn out for me, and once back on the lake, I fought to keep my eyes open.  My exhaustion must have won out, because it wasn’t until the first loud Crack! of the shotgun that I jumped up in my seat, having somehow fallen asleep on my hard wooden plank.  This time I was sitting up front and much closer to the action, and had to dodge around the men to make room for them to pull the reptile on board.  The hunt was less successful that night, and only four animals were taken by the time the men admitted defeat and headed back to camp.  As it was still early in the night, most of them decided to head off to a different part of the lake, but Gustavo and I decided to stay behind to get some sleep.  My camping mat barely softened the lumpy, root-filled ground, but I put my head down and was out for the count.

The next morning the families of both hunting groups arrived – women and children – and sharpened their knives for the skinning.  The animals were first dragged on to the bank, where Gustavo numbered them on their snouts according to the order in which they were killed.  They then weighed and measured each individual, recorded the sex (all were male, as the females tend to be smaller and so are rarely caught), and once the skins were peeled off, Gustavo weighed each piece of tail meat that was to be taken for consumption.  Some of the women also collected the fat, with which they would make a medicinal oil (supposedly good for the lungs), and once the skeletons had been picked over by birds and beasts, there was the possibility of returning to collect the teeth for artisan jewelry-making.
Weighing the lagartos - the heaviest weighed in at 145lbs

Measuring the length - some were close to 3 meters in length
Gus weighs the tail meat.

A 'lagartera' skins the animal.
While the men and women skinned the animals and separated the meat, I went around with my notebook, asking questions.  As the topic of my doctoral research is ‘community science’, I was very interested not only in observing the lagarto hunt and how it was monitored, but also in interviewing the community members who had participated in a separate WCS ‘self-monitoring’ project of hunting and fishing, that had previously been operating in these communities.  In this project, the hunters and fishers themselves were trained to fill out data sheets indicating various details of their hunts and catches: species, sex, weight, amount of hours spent and method of hunting, etc.  Despite the fact that the organization had done numerous evaluations of the scientific and economic implications of the resulting information – for example, which species were found in abundance and what was the total monetary value of the bushmeat consumed per family – there was little information describing the perceptions of the participants themselves regarding their engagement in the project.  What did they get out of participating?  Was the resulting data of use to their communities?  Did the project change the way they hunted and fished?  What did they learn about concepts such as ‘conservation’ and ‘sustainability’, if anything?

Though the hunters and their wives were shy (and I was a bit nervous), they were willing to talk about their experiences with the project, which seemed to have been on the whole, very positive.  In these remote communities, there is little opportunity to “learn something new”, as several of the hunters put it.  Their participation in the registering of data from their hunts and catches not only taught them “how to measure and weigh”, but also about the different populations of animals in the forest – which species there were more of, which there were fewer of, and which were disappearing altogether.  Some of the hunters used words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘extinction’, marking what must have been a close accompaniment from scientists, whose ‘conservation-based’ worldview, which tends to separate nature from humanity, does not often make sense to those who live directly from the land. 

Las Pampas - where the animals are found.
All of this could be seen as very positive, as a key challenge of conservation biologists is how to raise awareness among local people about the importance of protecting natural resources of such biologically diverse ecosystems as are found in the Amazon.  However, whether or not such positive feelings towards conservation among the hunters resulted in corresponding behavioral changes is another matter.  Several of the young hunters that I interviewed listed several species that they “no longer hunt”: endangered species such as tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and spider monkeys (Ateles chamek).  But on other moments on the trip I saw evidence that they did indeed continue to hunt these animals.  Later that day one of the lagarteros mentioned that during the previous year’s lagarto harvest they’d killed a tapir, which had provided them with meat for an entire week.  And the family members of another hunter told me that they did still hunt and eat spider monkeys. 

After the morning’s work was done, we headed back to Eduardo’s house to salt the skins and meat.  Both groups of hunters and their families, along with Gustavo, headed off again that same night to the opposite side of the lake – two hours away in motorized boat.  I stayed behind in the community, as the next day I was expecting a ride back down to Carmen del Emero with the newly elected leaders of the Takana indigenous territory.  They were visiting all of the communities downriver to introduce themselves to their constituency, and I hoped to interview at least twenty more participants in the self-monitoring projects, which had been carried out in the same communities the Takana leadership would be stopping in.  As transportation is scarce on this part of the Beni river, and there was no way of communicating with the outside world from where I was, I had my fingers crossed that they would indeed be passing by the next day and that they would remember to stop for me. 

Rio Beni at sunrise
But whatever happened, I knew that I had to just trust that things would work out.  Or perhaps as Gustavo put it, “You just have to go with the flow in these places.”  There’s really no way to plan, nothing set in stone.  On my own for a change, I walked across the beach and waded into the quickly-moving waters of the Beni, savoring the coolness upon my skin.  Sardines nibbled at my feet and some larger fish splashed to the surface a few yards away, but I felt alive, safe, at peace.  The Amazon might hold countless dangers among its living, breathing diversity of flora and fauna, but I was beginning to learn that the more exhilarating moments are not those with sharp teeth and blood, but rather the quiet ones, where the jungle ceases to be ‘out there’, and begins to touch something deeper, something on the inside.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

With the largarteros - Part One

A 48 foot long anaconda.  Black caimans that measure one meter across.  Men who fight jaguars with their bare hands.  After 2 weeks with fishers and hunters along the Beni river, the incredible begins to seem like the truth.  Percy Fawcett, an English geographer and explorer who traveled these lands a century ago, once said that in the Amazon, the true stories are more unbelievable than the myths…  For my part, I’ve begun to wonder if in the jungle, anything at all might be possible.

I started my journey on September 13th, two full days after our planned departure date – a new record (in my experience) for getting off to a slow start.  The problem, as usual, was gasoline.  Not only did we need approximately 400 liters to ensure our boat got down and back up the river, but there was the additional necessity of acquiring several hundred liters for the lagateros (caiman hunters), who would need it to travel to distant lakes for the harvest in their motorized canoes.  

Gustavo, the biologist
This time my river companions were Gustavo, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who would be serving as a tecnico along with Noelia, a volunteer with the same organization.  Also helping out was Don Azar Medina, the coordinator of natural resources for the Tacana indigenous council (CIPTA for its acronym in Spanish), and Don Jesus Leal, the president of the regional lagartero’s association (see previous post).  Having left later in the day than intended, our first night we found ourselves between settlements along the river and had to camp on a sandy, mosquito-plagued beach.  That night we were hit by a lightning storm, the winds strong enough to have made away with our tents if we hadn’t been inside of them, the canvas fabric no match for the torrential rain.  In the morning, as we shook out our sopping sleeping bags, Don Azar gave us the additional interesting news that a jaguar had been prowling around our tents shortly before the rain hit. 

We headed off again at dawn and made it to Carmen del Emero, the furthest (and largest) community downriver in the Tacana territory, before nightfall.  The lagarto hunt was getting off to a slow start, with almost half of the hunters being absent – some were in Rurrenabaque, gathering supplies and getting their rifles fixed, while others had simply decided not to participate.  As both Noelia and Don Azar would be staying with the two groups of lagarteros in Carmen del Emero, I decided to go several hours back upriver with Gustavo to a community called Cachichira, where there would be room for me in the canoe to directly observe the lagarto hunt. 

Don Eduardo - a real joker!
Once back at Cachichira, Gustavo organized with Don Eduardo, the leader of one of the hunting groups, that the following evening, Saturday the 15th, would be the first night of the hunt.  In Tacana culture Fridays and Tuesdays are bad days for hunting – starting the cosecha on a Friday would be a guarantee for bad luck.  The 15th also happened to be my birthday – to celebrate, Don Eduardo and his family took Gustavo and myself to their family hunting grounds, where there was a vernal pool full of  two species of mud-dwelling fish - buchere (Hoplosternum littorale callichthyidae) and zapato (Pterygoplichthys multiradiatus loricariidae).  The fishing method was one I had never seen before – the family entered the pool with small nets, in which they caught the fish, and then tossed them with their bare hands onto the muddy bank, where Gustavo and I picked them up and placed them in sacks.  We collected more than 100 fish in this way, several of which we ate cooked in the embers of a fire lit right beside the pond.  The rest we brought back to the house, which Eduardo’s wife, Sarela, stewed into a salty soup. 

That night we set off for the lake, a 45-minute walk from the house, where the men would be hunting for lagartos.  In past times, a ritual to the Pachamama or to the amo of the lagartos (La Fiera - the giant anaconda), would have been carried out, but now the only requirement is the taking of coca leaves (called boleando for the shape of the ‘bola’ or ‘ball’ the leaves form in one’s cheek when chewed).  The moon was absent and the stars filled the dark sky above us as we pushed silently through the reeds and into the lake.  I was filled with a sense of anticipation – what would it be like to witness the killing of not just one animal, but many?  For the first hour we glided along with no success – this part of the lake was filled with lagartos that were too small for the taking – the hunters could tell the approximate size of the animal by the length of its snout, which typically is the only part visible above water.  I was beginning to wonder whether there would be any hunting after all, when we came across our first victim.  The rowers brought the boat within a few feet of the lagarto, Eduardo took aim with his rifle, and crack!  The bullet hit its mark, the lagarto sank into the water, Eduardo grasped rapidly for the wooden ‘hook’ to search for the body, but it was too late – our first kill was lost in the depths of the lake.  Not a good omen, I thought to myself.  Though perhaps it could be seen as a gift, a sacrifice to the Pachamama.

Holding the snout tight.
The men didn’t seem overly concerned either way.  On we rowed across the lake, this time to a section where all of the lagartos were of a good size.  Once again we pulled up to a lagarto, who despite the beam of the flashlight upon it and the closeness of the canoe, didn’t seem to be aware of our presence.  Eduardo took aim, fired – crack!  As the animal turned belly up, Gustavo, who was sitting up front with Eduardo, grabbed for one of its feet, and then its snout, which Eduardo held tightly closed together while another of the hunters finished the kill – three hard hits with the hachet to the brain – a necessary precaution, as these reptiles are capable of remaining alive (and dangerous) even with a bullet in their head.  One of the hunters told me a story of a black caiman – several meters in length – suddenly regaining consciousness to run back into the lake several hours after having been shot and its skin peeled off.

Bringing the kill onboard.
For the next few hours we proceeded in this way – the lagarto shot in the head, hits with the hachet, dragging the body into the boat, where the tails moved feebly at my feet. Occasionally Eduardo would miss his mark by an inch or two, and the reptile would launch itself out of the water, snapping at the air - sometimes a bit too close to the canoe for my comfort.  Slowly the boat filled with blood, and I tried to connect in my mind the aims of the conservation movement with this activity.  From the perspective of an anthropologist (which is one of the academic fields of my research), the relationship between Gustavo (the scientist) with the hunters was fascinating.  Not only was he there to take notes (the precise time of each kill), as well as to ensure that the lagarteros didn’t throw aside any too-small animals they shot by accident, but he aided with the hunt by helping to pull the animals into the boat.  Even myself, an onlooker for all purposes, was required to bolear and smoke cigarettes with the men and to help push the boat when we got stuck in the weeds, at times wading through the piranha and snake-filled water in total darkness.

Caimans in the boat.
We returned back to the bank of the lake at 4am with a total of 15 lagartos – a good number for a night’s hunt – and set off to walk the 45 minutes back to Eduardo’s house.  On the way to the lake I’d stepped carefully, concerned about snakes, but heading back I was so tired that I dragged myself along, barely looking at my feet.  At one point Eduardo disappeared into the trees with his rifle, having spotted something else to hunt – a deer perhaps.  He seemed as alert as ever, and I recalled that we’d all have to be up again at dawn, to return to the lake to measure and skin the lagartos – at most we’d catch 3 hours of rest.  But even as I lay down in my tent, I stared up through the mesh of the mosquito netting wondering with countless unanswered questions.  How would La Fiera, the amo of the lagartos, feel about all of this hunting?  Were such sustainable harvests the future of conservation?  What role did science play in all of this?

A rooster crowed.  The mosquitoes droned.  Sleep.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bautizo in the Rio Beni

August 21, 2012

A month has passed since my last post, during which time I was enjoying the delightful process of obtaining a visa to do my research in Bolivia.  The weeks in La Paz of officials, stamped documents, bribes and dental exams (don’t ask) were too fun-filled and action-packed to put into words, so I’ll skip ahead to last Wednesday, when I finally returned to Rurrenabaque just in time to head off on a trip downriver into the Tacana indigenous territory. 

This time my companions were Guido and Gustavo, two biologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with Don Giovani, the vice-president of the Tacana indigenous council, and Don Jesus, the president of the regional ‘lagarteros’ association.  A lagartero is someone who participates in the harvesting of caimans, specifically of the caiman yacare – a species of Crocodilian that can grow to 2.5 meters in length – known as ‘matus’a’ in the Tacana language, and 'lagarto grande' in Spanish.  The hunting of matus’a and other species of caimans is a traditional activity among indigenous communities in the Bolivian Amazon, in which all parts of the animal are harvested – hides, meat, fat, and even teeth and feet for use in the elaboration of handicrafts.

The local harvest takes place during two to three weeks in late September and is regulated by the association in order to guarantee a sustainable and cost-efficient operation, and a yearly quota of caimans to be hunted is set by the Vice Minister of the Environment for each region.  The purpose of this particular trip was to hand out the remaining payments owed to the community lagarteros from previous harvests, as well as to set a date for this year’s hunt.  As part of my research will involve working with hunters and fishers who have participated in the various fauna monitoring projects in the Tacana territory, I was invited to come along on the trip to introduce myself to the communities and ask for their permission to return to conduct interviews.  

Fishing with a line
Illegal timber camp
Our final destination was a community called Carmen del Emero, a full ten hours downriver, but on the way we stopped at communities along the riverbank to pick up more passengers, all members of the association and local lagarteros.  We picked up Dona Tere and her husband, Frederico, at a timber camp, where they were making the traditional boats to the region called pekepekes, which are rustic canoes fitted with outboard motors.  In addition to the many timber operations along the river, we saw many other kinds of traditional and nontraditional activities.

Near Rurrenabaque there were people mining for gold in artisanal fashion, sifting through silt and rocks with pans, as well as cranes collecting rocks with which to pave the road to La Paz, and throughout the journey we passed countless fishermen and women.  Many of these fishers were Esse Ejjas, an indigenous group that lives in nomadic fashion, traveling up and down the river in pekepekes and camping on the beaches at night.  There is only one permanent Esse Ejja community along the river, and little is known about this tribe, whose Tacana neighbors still commonly refer to as ‘las chamas’, or barbarians. 

Esse Ejja camp
We traveled several hours until reaching the tiny village of Copacabana, home to a grand total of two families and about two hundred million hungry mosquitoes.  The sun had already set when we arrived, and we wasted no time in setting up for the night and covering every inch of exposed skin in deet.  The others were accustomed to the cloud of insects, but I had to resort to pulling out my head net, which I placed on my head like a bubble, to manage to get my tent up and my gear packed inside.  There was no electricity in our host, Don Crisanto's, home, but we sat around in a candle-lit room, and I listened to the locals discuss some of the major problems along the river, which mainly consisted of illegal logging and unregulated hunting and fishing.  One of the lagarteros told a story about finding a freshly killed tapir, from which only a leg had been removed.  He confronted its hunters in a camp not far away and chided them for their wastefulness.  “We are the defenders of this land,” he said.  “If we don’t set the laws, who will?”

Sunset on the rio Beni
Up the next day long before dawn, we set off again downriver, pausing at each community to collect additional passengers, before finally reaching our destination late in the afternoon.  Carmen del Emero was the largest of the communities we had seen so far, and one of the last permanent settlements along the river before reaching Riberalta, a solid two-day journey away.  After a meal of stewed Pacú fish and rice, we gathered for the meeting, which Guido, Don Jesus and Don Giovani were leading.  More than half of the territory’s twenty-five lagarteros were in attendance, and Guido set about explaining (through a generator-powered powerpoint presentation) how the earnings of the previous years’ harvests were obtained and distributed.  Before the creation of the association, the sale of the caiman skin and meat was typically through intermediaries, who would pay as little as possible for the valuable hides.  But in the last two years the lagateros have organized to work directly with a regional tannery, which has greatly increased local profit margins.  

Meeting in Carmen del Emero
The meeting lasted several hours but proved to be fruitful in the end.  Despite expressed misgivings among the association’s members which had emerged due to a very delayed payment from the 2010 harvest, those present decided to continue with the scheme of working directly with the tanneries, even though this would mean not receiving income from their work until a minimum of seven months after the harvest.  They also set a date for this September’s hunt to coincide with the new moon, which guaranteed darker nights (as the hunt takes place after dark), and organized several groups of five members each.  The evening was successful for my own work as well, as the organizers introduced me in the meeting and allowed me to speak for several minutes about my research objectives and ask for their support.

Eduardo with his 'huevos'
That night we slept like logs, but were up again long before dawn to make the return journey back to Rurrenabaque.  Spirits were high with a bit of money in everyone’s pockets and the prospect of getting some turtle eggs along the way, which are greatly prized by the locals – the previous day we had spotted countless telltale tracks heading up the riverbanks.  Guido shook his head in resignation as the majority of the boat’s passengers debarked in one of the communities to bring on board what must have amounted to over a thousand eggs.  “Well, much better that the Tacanas get the eggs in their territory than outsiders collect them for sale in Rurre,” he said, but whether or not such a harvest was sustainable was unclear.  Previously, it was common to find beaches lines with dead turtles as the locals would kill the mothers to extract their eggs, but at least it seemed that this practice was dying.

The entire trip Don Giovani and myself had been subject to threats of our ‘bautizo’, as it was the first time down the river for both of us, and to let us return without having made the plunge was a guarantee for bad luck on future trips.  Finally our co-passengers selected a particularly sandy beach and dragged us both into the water, and as the sun was strong and hot, we submitted willingly, momentarily forgetting the many crocodiles we had passed along the banks, not to mention stingrays and piranhas.  But the marine life had scattered temporarily, and we paddled around for a bit – fully dressed – before returning to the boat and back upriver.  

Dona Erlinda - "Will you be back for the harvest?"

As we dropped everyone off in their respective communities, I was asked repeatedly if I would be back for the harvest, in three week’s time.  “I think so,” I said, trying to imagine my mother’s reaction when I told her I was going to go crocodile hunting for a couple of weeks in the Amazon.  On the other hand, how could I not go!