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!

1 comment:

  1. Great to hear all about your exciting adventures Anne. I'll email you some (less exotic) tales from the sheep farm! B xxx