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!


1 comment:

  1. Fabulous - seems like you are finding your stride. Some really important work here. To be read by all researchers!