Bolivia: High And Dry

Via The Financial Times, a look at water tensions in Bolivia where mining-led development comes at a cost for nation’s fishing communities:

Boats of fishermen are seen on the dried Poopo lakebed in the Oruro Department, south of La Paz, Bolivia, December 17, 2015. Lake Poopo in Bolivia, the Andean nation's formerly second largest after the famed Titicaca, has dried up entirely. With the water now gone, animals have died off in the millions, according to studies. And the local families, having lost much of their sustenance, have been forced to migrate. REUTERS/David Mercado TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1Z73O

Fishing boats on the dried Poopó lake bed near La Paz in west Bolivia

Vicente Valero wears a poncho that tells the story of his ethnic group, the Uru-Murato, in multicoloured stripes. Thought to be one of the oldest cultures in the Andes, they survived as fishermen for millennia on the shores of the salty Lake Poopó, one of Bolivia’s largest water bodies, outlasting the Inca Empire and the Spanish Conquest.

But the lake that sustains them has dried up, threatening the livelihood of this fishing community and bringing environmental doom for several species, including pink flamingoes. “The blue stripe means the water we survive with. That water is now gone,” says the tribal chief.

He points at a black stripe on his poncho: “That was the darkness that draped everything before the light and the water. Now I fear, we are heading back there again.”

Almost a decade ago the UN warned that “indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, owing to their dependence upon the environment and its resources.” In Bolivia, largely an indigenous country, that is already happening.

In 1986, Lake Poopó, situated on a depression on the altiplano at 3,700m above sea level, spread across 3,100 sq km. It has shrunk to 5 sq km, leaving just a few puddles on a cracked lake bed pockmarked by dead vicunas and abandoned fishing boats.

“The lake is a victim of a perfect storm of climate change, El Niño and Bolivian development practices, mining in particular, that plays havoc with water in many ways,” explains Jim Shultz, an environmental activist and executive director of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Centre.

The level of the lake has long fluctuated, and it has dried up in the past. But many worry the water is gone for good this time due to higher temperatures, more sediment, and diversions by farmers and miners. Activists point the finger at the many co-operative miners, the big state-owned tin mine Huanuni, as well as a nearby operation by Glencore, that flank the lake. Glencore denies it is to blame.

Facing declining incomes as commodity prices slide, President Evo Morales, who was born and raised by Lake Poopó and pledged to protect the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, continues to drill the country in his quest to reduce extreme poverty rates to zero in the next decade. Yet this is hurting some of the poor indigenous groups he vowed to defend.

“Whatever they say, the government has based its political economy in extractive activities. They say we need to live off something,” says Limbert Sanchez, co-ordinator of the Oruro-based Centre for Ecology and Andean Peoples, “so this was bound to happen, and is now affecting communities”.

Bolivia still relies heavily on extractive industries such as natural gas and minerals to keep the economy humming. Mining exports rose from $1bn a year in 2006 to almost $4bn in 2014, while investments in the sector grew almost fourfold in the same period. More than 2.6m people were added to the ranks of the middle class under Mr Morales’ rule, and growth rates are still among the fastest in the region.

But the clash between the government’s mining-led development model and the country’s original inhabitants has been a flashpoint in Mr Morales’ presidency. Last year there was outrage when the government announced it would open up seven of Bolivia’s 22 protected areas for hydrocarbon exploration.

Now a government plan to revive the lake is falling victim to the downturn in Bolivia’s economy, as organisers of a 20-year plan for the water body struggle to gather the $100m they say they need for the first five-year phase amid declining state revenues.

In the meantime, communities are being uprooted. Félix Condori, another Uru authority, says that about half of the 750 Uru-Murato families — who according to mythology are “water beings”, not humans — have been forced to abandon their settlements and move to cities and villages in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina looking for work.

“There used to be plenty of water that provided us with everything we water people could possibly need,” says Mr Condori, mayor of the Uru-Murato village of Llapa Llapani. “Now there is no food to eat, the water is gone so the fish and birds are gone. That’s why our people are leaving, and we face extinction.”

One day in November 2014 the Uru-Murato lake hamlets woke up to millions of dead fish. Only a year later the lake had vanished. “No one listened,” says Adela Choque of Punaka, another Uru cluster of houses on the shoreline, which now relies on rations delivered by the government.

Sparse showers fell on what is left of Lake Poopó last month. Mr Valero, who stopped fishing eight months ago, thanked Mother Earth for the water: “This will get lost between the cracks of the lake bed,” he said. “It won’t help. But it’s nice of Pachamama to still think of us.” 

This entry was posted on Monday, March 14th, 2016 at 10:32 pm and is filed under Bolivia.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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