I write from Apolo, Bolivia, where I’ve been somewhat stranded for the last few days due to a blockade erected halfway along the road to La Paz by coca leaf growers, who are protesting Evo’s plan to eradicate all illegally grown coca in the country. Two days ago I was actually sitting on a bus headed back to the city, but as the reports came in that the blockade had not yet been cleared, and some parts of the road had even been lined with dynamite, I decided to get off – a few more days in the tranquil town of Apolo seemed a lot better than a battle with angry protesters and an obstacle course of felled trees, ditches and explosives.
|The park guards put up these signs last year to mark the
entrance to Madidi along the roads that connect the various
communities. However, the original thatched roof of this
particular sign was initially burned by angry locals and
had to be replaced.
I can’t complain though. I’ve spent the last week at the Madidi park guard station in Apolo, where there is constant activity to keep a researcher like myself on her toes. It is the beginning of the dry season, the time when the conflicts in this region seem to heat up. Less than a month ago, the local worker’s union, which is the main organizing body for the campesino communities just north of the ranger station, issued a formal request for the rezoning of the protected area to allow for mining, and for the construction of roads that would crisscross the park. To the east, another road is being built to connect with the only Leco community within the protected area, where there is still great quantities of precious woods to be exploited. And to the west, community members were threatening to take over the ranger station in Puina to protest the paralysation of road building activities in that area by park staff.
|Marcos, 'El Jefe' of the park guards in Apolo.
A good example is in Sipia, a community that previously was very opposed to the park. Today some of the leaders came to visit the park office to speak with Marcos about obtaining an environmental license for a community carpentry business they want to set up using felled wood from their swidden agricultural plots. Although such licenses are, in theory, required for any project that makes use of natural resources in Bolivia, in practice it is only in protected areas where park guards enforce their adoption. Marcos says sometimes he feels completely alone, because while municipal governments promote development projects without taking into consideration environmental laws, the national protected area system drives a hard line to keep such development out of the park.
Marcos agreed to help the folks from Sipia through the
long and complicated process of obtaining the license, but afterwards confided to me that while though on one
hand these requests make him feel satisfied that their recent efforts to
communicate the importance of doing things legally and sustainably are bearing
fruit, on the other he is aware that his involvement could cause great
difficulties in the future, if the community’s petition gets rejected in the end. He has had this experience
in the past with a mining cooperative that wanted to do things legally, but
after investing much money and time in soliciting the license, they were rejected due to zoning issues, which he said made him feel like he had lied to
the communities. (There are currently 58 illegal mining operations in the park, some
using mercury, and it is extremely difficult for the park guards to control
their operations). The
central problem, it seems, is that the park was zoned without local input, and
several communities are even located on the border of or within the strictly
protected ‘national park’ designation, which by law prevents any activities
other than conservation and research.
|Flora in the Apolo region - the main interest
for the National Botanical institute, who
estimate that there at least 12,000 species
of vascular plants in Madidi, one-third of
which have yet to be discovered.
And so here I finally come to my own topic – that of research in the park. Madidi is an interesting case because the park was initially created and zoned almost exclusively by a team of scientists, who based much of their mapping of the area on the biological importance, rather than on considerations of local communities. As a result, the general perception of the local population is that “the park doesn’t want us to develop, they want to keep us in the stone age.” This perception has in the past led to the overtaking of the park office in Apolo for two years, during which time there was absolutely no control over the extraction of natural resources (see previous blog).
Which is why without the involvement and understanding of local communities, conservation doesn't stand a chance. And while although there is little research in the region as compared to the more popular Rurrenabaque area, science has the potential to be a force for change and communication with communities north of Apolo. On this trip I had the opportunity to speak with members of local communities and park guards who have worked with scientists in the region as guides. Although it was clear (as mentioned in last blog post) that most researchers did not leave results behind, community members who had worked directly with scientists reported positive experiences and opportunities for learning. One man from Sipia became visibly excited when I showed him a print out of a publication from the Herbario Nacional, the Bolivian botanical institute that operates in the region. He recognized some of the scientists in the photos and went through the publication page by page, talking in detail about his experience, the methods they used and what he learned.
|Poster on the Flora inventory project, run
by the Herbario National, found in the park
ranger station in the community of Santa
Cruz del Valle Ameno.
Anyway, off for another dinner of fried chicken and rice (pretty much the only thing available in Apolo after dark), and fingers crossed the protesters run out of dynamite by the weekend!