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!|
|Lots of river crossings...|
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.
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|
|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...!