Thursday, November 29, 2012

The 'other' side of Madidi - Apolo

This past September at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, it was announced that Madidi National Park, the protected area I’m working in, is likely to be the most biodiverse place on the planet.  This news surely made more waves in international scientific circles than it did here in Bolivia, where I only heard about it a couple of weeks ago in passing from a friend.  Indeed, even some of the park’s staff didn’t know anything about it.  

Mysterious Madidi - view from Apolo
However, the announcement will almost certainly affect the region – especially in terms of future research.  How many young scientists will be now setting their eyes on this area, where it is estimated that two-thirds of its biodiversity has yet to be discovered?  But as visions emerge of teams of researchers traveling up and down its remote rivers, climbing its giant trees, seeking to prove once and for all that is indeed IS the most biodiverse place on the planet, I ask myself – how will this help to protect it?  How will the discovery of yet another mammal or bird species directly lead to future conservation efforts in the park?  Surely, research will lead to more research, just as funding tends to attract more funding.  But for Madidi’s nearly 4,000 human inhabitants, many of whom live in extreme poverty, how will such investigations contribute to the development of sustainable livelihood strategies that support, rather than are in conflict with, efforts to protect this magnificent piece of planet earth?

The long, dusty road to Apolo
Yesterday I returned to La Paz after two weeks in the remote region of Apolo, the “other side” of Madidi.  Until now, I’ve focused on the well-paved path of most researchers to Madidi - the Beni river, the touristic region where foreigners flock in droves, accessible by a 45-minute flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque.  Apolo, in contrast, is an uncomfortable (albeit spectacularly scenic) 14-hour bus ride through the Altiplano, las Yungas, descending into the tropics of the Amazonia.  Here twenty-two ‘native peasant’ communities are located within the park boundaries, as well as one indigenous Leco community.  Although poverty exists throughout the park – in the Beni region as well – it is in this area that it is most extreme.  Even up until the 1980s, a local form of slavery, known as ‘habilito’ was practiced, in which land owners would exploit the campesinos through unending cycles of indebtedness.  According to statistics from the 2001 census, 98% of the population in the municipality of Apolo lives in conditions of poverty, and for the vast majority, such existence is on the margin.

Tobacco drying on traditional mud-brick home
As a result, the conservation of biodiversity is not exactly a local priority.  As very little tourism comes through, people live the best they can from the land – traditional swidden agriculture is practiced, with a focus on products that can be sold at the market in Apolo (coca leaves, tobacco), as well as for basic subsistence (yucca, corn, rice).  The only economic alternatives come at the expense of the natural environment – gold mining, for example, is viewed as one of the only possibilities for advancement – a chance to earn a bit of extra money to send one’s children to secondary school.  Previously there was talk of a road being built in the region that would crisscross the park, and more recently, there are rumors of oil explorations in the area.  These possibilities have been met with hopeful anticipation by the vast majority of the local population, who in past years, have taken up machetes and chainsaws against the park, even taking over the park guard offices in Apolo in 2010, in protest for what they see as their basic rights to development.

But despite these realities, when asking about research and conservation efforts in the region, I was more than often met with shakes of the head, shrugs of shoulders.  “Very few researchers come here,” I was told again and again.  And those that do?  More shrugs of shoulders.  “They don’t leave results behind.” 

Park guard photographing tracks of a tapir for the parkwide
intergral monitoring program, in which park guards collect
data on various ecological and social indicators.

Housed at the Madidi park guard station in Apolo, I searched the office in vain for past reports of any kind of research that had been done.  Few of the guards could tell me about previous scientific activities, aside from the discovery of an endemic bird - the Palkachulpa (Phibalura flavirostris) - in 2000.  I visited the mayor’s office, a local historian, and spoke with local indigenous and campesino communities – no one knew much about any past research, and some of those that had come had generated anger and mistrust due to empty promises given of ‘reporting back’.  One leco leader told me that his community had been "betrayed" by an anthropologist who had come from the United States to do research on traditional knowledge, and had never returned despite having an official research agreement with the indigenous organization.  More than anything, it was apparent that the region had been pretty much neglected.

Madidi park vehicle crossing the Marchariapo river.
In the wet season this crossing is impassable.
So my question of “Who decides what research should be done,” began to expand…  And I have found myself asking not just “what”, but “where”?  Who determines where the greatest threats lie, and who decides where more information is needed?  Because on a cursory glance, it seems that this region, much more so that the ecotouristic hub of Rurrenabaque and the Beni communities, is in great need of more information, more technical support for local communities, more understanding of how to address the present and future threats of mining and oil drilling.

In this home in the village of Palillos, I was unable to
communicate with the Quechua-speaking owners.
Happily, that didn't prevent them from offering me
several delicious cups of freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice.

So why then the lack of research in the region?  One answer might point to the difficulty of working in Quechua, especially for foreign researchers.  I gave a couple of drawn-out, Bolivian-style (say something, and then repeat it five times) speeches at meetings with local leaders, only to realize afterwards that less than half had any idea of what I was saying.  Another possible region might be the remoteness of the area.  One community, Asariamas, is located in the largest remaining area of tropical dry forest of the Andes-Amazon, yet in the wet season it is only accessible via a muddy two-day journey on foot.  A third reason might be the ‘campesino’ rather than ‘indigenous’ status of the resident communities.  It is much less sexy to researchers (and the foreign institutions that fund them) to work with peasants than with ‘natives’ – even if that label is just that – a label.  Indeed, in ten years time these communities might all become ‘leco’, affiliated with the Leco indigenous organization that is vying for allegiance with the longer-standing Federation of Campesinos – but that decision will be much more based on politics and economics than anything to do with cultural roots.

The beauty of las yungas - another reason researchers
should come to the Apolo region
Why does it matter that there is or isn’t research done in a given region?  I suppose I see the role of the researcher as going beyond simply collecting information and publishing articles, and as one than can have a catalytic, transformative impact.  If it is not those of us who have the time and funding to investigate what is happening in a profound way, and to report on our findings, then who will?  Who will go into these communities and find out the real stories, who will look at existing laws and policies and identify their weak spots, who will bring to light the gaps between what is supposedly being done and what is actually happening?  In a nutshell, what the hell is the point of publishing academic papers, if the ones who are making the decisions don’t have access to the information?

Questions and more questions, and in two weeks time I finish my first field season in Bolivia and head back home for a while.  But before I go I’ll be setting things up for next year.  In light of all I’ve learned these past months, I’ve decided to change my methodology.  Instead of working with only one or two communities in the park to do a ‘community science’ project, I’ll be carrying out a regional analysis of the past, present and future of research in the region – mostly via community workshops.  I hope to be able to answer the question of to what extent research has directly supported conservation and sustainable livelihoods in the park, as well as to identify opportunities to ensure that future research is more locally relevant and participatory.

Six months have really flown by here in Bolivia...  Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat and lovely Lancaster awaits, but some part of me is already looking forward to being back in this land of discoveries, mysteries, wonder, that has somehow lodged itself deep into my bones...

Feeling tough in Apolo -
ready for my next field season in 2013!