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 PacĂș 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!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Road to Alto Madidi

Road to Alto Madidi

July 12, 2012

We left the Madidi National Park headquarters in San Buenaventura at almost 5pm on Monday.  Of course, the plan had been to leave right after lunch, but with the typical delays in this part of the world (obtaining gasoline, siphoning it into the truck, packing up the vehicle and gathering together everyone who was to go along), the journey was off to a good Bolivian start.  We were first headed to Ixiamas, a six-hour drive along a rutted dirt road, and then onwards for another five hours along even worse road to the remote ‘Alto Madidi’, where we were dropping off four park rangers at their guard station. 

Road to San Buenaventura - Alto Madidi
The entire journey was along the buffer zone of Madidi National Park, one of the most biodiverse protected areas in the world, home to endangered mammals such as the jaguar, spider monkey, white-lipped peccary, lowland tapir, Andean bear, and the giant otter, among others.  It encompasses five life zones in which several Amazonian and Andean indigenous groups reside, including the Tacana, Quechua, Leco and Uchupiamos peoples.  I am here to carry out research for my doctoral degree in Geography at the Lancaster Environment Centre, in England, which is aimed at determining the potential of ‘community science’ as a tool for the co-management of natural resources in areas of great biological and cultural diversity. ‘Community science’ refers to a process of inquiry in which the community members are engaged in the various steps of the scientific method (determining research questions, selecting methods, collecting and analyzing data, disseminating information), to ensure that the research carried out is of direct relevance to natural resources management in their community.  As the main focus of my research, I aim to accompany at least two of the thirty-one communities in the park through a process of community science, with the aim of determining whether engagement in such an exercise leads to more positive attitudes with regards the conservation of the protected area.

Tough going at times!
However, as a social scientist, I know that before I can actually ‘do’ anything, I must have a better understanding of the local context – the history, economy and politics of natural resource use the region and the diverse cultures of its various inhabitants.  To anthropologists, this stage is aptly referred to as ‘deep hanging out’, but I prefer to think of it as a necessary step ‘zero’ – taking the time to look and see before making assumptions and asking questions that may or may not be relevant.  Besides, working with people has little in common with conducting research on panthers or parrots.  While felines and birds don’t have much say as to whether or not they want to participate in a scientific study, people have full rights to decline to be involved in any activity a social scientist like myself can come up with.  Which is why this step ‘zero’ is so crucial – know what you are talking about, build trust, don’t ask irrelevant questions or repeat research that has already been done.  Sounds simple, perhaps, but in actuality it is a very complex and often slow process.

In the case of Madidi, where the nearest community within the park is a solid 8 hours via boat from where I’m living and the farthest away can take up to three days to reach, I have my work cut out for me.  Of course, during the five months I’ve allotted for this step zero, it won’t be possible for me to visit all thirty-one communities, but I do hope to at least see with my own eyes the vast differences of culture and landscape in the various regions of the park.

Lots of river crossings...
Which is what has brought me on the road to Ixiamas – not even inside the park, but along an important stretch of buffer zone that presents many threats to the integrity of the protected area.  Most of this area is contained within the Tacana indigenous territory – a lowland tribe that only received its land title in 2003.  Currently, the local economy in the region is centered on the logging industry, and entire communities depend upon the sale of hardwoods such as Almendrillo (Dipteryx micrantha), Tajibo (Tabeluia impetiginosa), and Mapajo (Ceiba samauma).  In Ixiamas alone there are more than 40 refineries, and we passed countless wood-bearing trucks along the way.  The economic history of the Madidi region is one of severe exploitation to the point of scarcity – one hundred years ago, the resource of importance was rubber, thirty years ago it was animal pelts, today we find ourselves in the midst of the ‘logging boom’, where species like mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and cedar (Cedrela odorata) have all but disappeared from land not under official protection.

The extraction of trees for timber production is not necessarily an environmentally damaging activity in itself – indeed, many traditional forestry operations can manage logged forest for hundreds of years or more.  But here the mentality is less focused on sustainability and more on ‘get rich quick’.  Hence the many heavy machines we passed on their way to carve a road into the jungle, plowing over anything in their path.  The further we drove, the more recent was the destruction – and more apparent how the timber extractors hadn’t bothered to limit the damage of their activity to the surrounding land.  Smaller trees were demolished in the process of extracting the larger ones, and much of the landscape along the road had the appearance of a hurricane having gone through. 

Madidi guardaparques
In the pickup truck with me were five park rangers and an extension officer for Cacao Madidi, a program through the national park service that provides seeds and technical assistance to producers of organic chocolate in the area.  However, along the way we picked up many additional passengers – locals who otherwise would walk for several hours to reach their destination.  The cacao extension officer, Eloy, told me that transportation in these areas was so scarce that entire crops of rice and yucca would spoil before the farmers could bring them to market in Ixiamas, the nearest urban area.

We had a full load when we came upon a family of Chimanes, a lowland indigenous group with a long history of persecution at the hands of the Spanish colonizers and then the mixed-blood mestizos.  However, this tribe still retains many of its traditions, and its people travel as nomads from place to place, hunting and gathering what they can find in the area before moving on.  The traditional homeland of the Chimanes is further to the southeast, near San Borja, but increasing pressure from land-seeking colonos, as colonizing settlers are typically referred to here, has pushed them into less populated places elsewhere.  The father of this particular family explained to us in Spanish that they were headed to el Rio Madidi to fish – “good fishing there,” he assured us.  Ironically, the area he was referring to was within the limits of the National Park – and he was asking for a lift from the park rangers who were headed there to patrol the area! 

The head of the park rangers calmly explained to him that that fishing and hunting was prohibited along that river, as it was part of a protected area.  Despite many attempts at awareness campaigns, including the many ‘buffer zone’ signs along the road between San Buenaventura and Ixiamas, not everyone is aware of the National Park, which was only created in 1995.  And among those who do know of its existence are not sure of its purpose – who owns it?  For what reason?  What is the point of conserving such a great area of land just as it is – without using it for anything?  The concept of ‘conservation’ doesn’t always make much sense to people whose relationship to the land is much more integral than that of ‘more developed’ countries, where there is an explicit divide between people and nature.  A clear example of this is the National Park system in the United States, where human settlements and exploitative activities are strictly prohibited.  But in many economically-poor regions of the world, especially those found within the Amazon basin, there is a great overlap between areas of great biological and cultural diversity.  And evicting people from their homelands to create national parks is not only unethical, it may be ultimately destructive to the overall health of the nation’s natural and cultural heritage.  So in places like Bolivia, the local people are a necessary and important part of the national park system, and thus must be involved in the decision-making processes regarding natural resources management. 

End of the road - and the place of the butterflies
As we made our way to Alto Madidi, I was fascinated to see how the landscape changed the further north we drove.  The pastureland south of Ixiamas was replaced with thick forest, and animals became plentiful.  I saw more mammal species on the 22 hour roundtrip drive than I saw in two years that I lived in Costa Rica and Nicaragua – among them Geoffroy’s Cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), two species of edentates – an anteater (likely the southern Tamandua tetradactyla), and a small armadillo, as well as three species of monkeys, indicating the health of the surrounding ecosystem and the vicinity of the park.  The park rangers were happy for me to accompany them to their station, a four-hour walk from the butterfly-filled end-of-the-road where we dropped them off.  Alas, they were to stay in this remote area for two weeks, and there was no way for me to return to San Buenaventura on my own – during the last few hours of the journey the only vehicles we passed were motorcycles, and even these were scarce and overloaded with passengers and foodstuffs. 

Back to Rurre - crossing the rio Beni
“Next time,” we promised each other, and I am eager to keep my word.  It is said that Alto Madidi is the place to go to see “El Tigre”, as locals refer to the feared jaguar.  But for now it's back to the mountains of La Paz, one of Bolivia's capital cities and the highest in the world.  I'm off to dive into a much less interesting adventure - navigating Bolivia's incredibly bureaucratic immigration system to obtain a visa that will allow me to stay in the country for longer than the 90 days alloted to citizens from the United States.  Forget jaguars and piranas - my blood is already pumping fast at the thought of the amount of paperwork awaiting me in the city...!