Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Communities, conflicts and botanical surveys

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.

However, in the face of these many threats to the integrity of the “most biodiverse place on earth”, there was a constant stream of local community leaders visiting the park office to speak with Marcos Uzquiano, the Head park guard for the Apolo region, who knows that the issues facing the park are not as black and white as those sitting behind desks in governmental offices in La Paz might paint them to be.  “These communities were not consulted as to whether they wanted to be part of the park or not,” he told me, and believes that more needs to be done to work with rather than against their efforts to improve their quality of life through development.

The park guards looking at maps and photos of the region
in order to improve the monitoring of glaciers located in
the high altitude area of the park.  They told me that they
hope that this monitoring project will provide them with
information that they can share with the local populations
on changing water levels. 
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.  

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.
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.

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).

Santa Cruz del Valle Ameno, one of several communities
that is home to the endangered 'Palkachupa' bird (Phibalura 
boliviana).  This endemic species was recently rediscovered,
and several locals were hired as guides to assist scientists
with related research.

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.
"We know some things, and they know others.  It was an exchange."  When I showed him another guide of medicinal plants that had been made by a researcher from the Herbario for another community, he exclaimed, “This is what I want for my community!”  As we looked through the guide, he shared his knowledge of the various plants with me in detail, saying that the information was incomplete, and explaining how the guide could be improved so it would be of better use.  The great thing is that many scientists working in the region seem to be aware of the need to further involve the local communities, and interested in finding better ways to communicate are share information.  I found the same with the park guards, who lamented the fact that research results only rarely reach the Madidi park offices (especially in Apolo), as otherwise they could ‘socialize’ the information on their visits to the local communities.  Obviously much will have to happen before such an ideal scenario can become reality, but at least, from what I've seen, the willingness and interest isn't lacking.  

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!

Presenting the results from my first field season and plan
       for this year to the Madidi park guards.  One key 'product' I
hope my research will provide is a guide for future
researchers in the region, with topics of interest identified
by local stakeholders, such as park staff and local communities.


  1. Wonderful to see the beginning of another season of research and communication!

  2. ¡Wow, qué experiencia! Keep on the great work and the blogging :-)


  3. Glad to see you're up to some really interesting and important work! Keep the blog coming! :)