Lake Poopó, chronicle of a death foretold?
Lake Poopó is a shallow, saline lake situated in the Andean highlands of Bolivia at an altitude of about 3,700 meters. It constitutes the country’s second largest lake, after Lake Titicaca. While the lake’s size has always been subject to extreme variability, its surface during stable, dryer seasons used to span 1000 km2. Late 2015, however, Lake Poopó’s vast body of water dried up almost completely. The desertification is the outcome of slow natural processes in combination with anthropogenic climate change factors. Mining, irrigation, and urbanisation in the broader basin have led to a loss in water quantity and quality (Marti-Cardona & Torres-Batlló, 2021). Poor water management has dramatically sped up the area’s natural salinization. The lake is situated within an endorheic basin, which means that its water has no outflow to the ocean, and can only evaporate. Salt and waste are trapped in the retained water, condemning the lake to a future as a salt flat.
The dramatic transformation of the lake directly affects the livelihoods of the communities living in the basin, with many migrating in search for work. The impact is particularly significant in the indigenous communities of the Uru Qot Z’oñi people (Perreault, 2020). Known as ’people of the lake’, and generally referred to as ‘Uru-Murato’, this ethnic minority group maintains a very intimate bond with this body of water, economically and spiritually. However, throughout their history this identification with the lake has been used as an excluse to deny these communities land rights, leading to dispossession and displacement (Barra Saavedra, Lara Barrientos & Coca Cruz, 2011). Through centuries-long processes of colonial and inter-ethnic discrimination, exploitation and assimilation, only three small communities still survive on the former shores of the shrunken lake, disconnected from other Uru ethnic sub-groups, the Uru-Chipaya and Uru-Iruhito. The lake’s announced death seems to seal the fate of the Uru Qot Z’oñi communities as well, on the brink of becoming climate refugees. In their strategy to guarantee the entangled survival of their people and the lake, they managed to have their ‘knowledge, wisdom and ways of life linked to water as traditional living spaces and ways of subsistence’ declared Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019 by the Bolivian state.
This blog assesses how the link between the Qot Z’oñi people and the lake has been ‘naturalized’ and eventually ‘heritagized’ in a contradictory context of climate change and environmental policies, discrimination and indigenous revitalization. While this complex history deserves a more in-depth elaboration, the aim of this blog is to briefly cover how the exploitation and contamination of Lake Poopó has deprived the Uru from their most basic means of subsistence, leading to the extreme drought of 2015. Considering different stakeholders’ responses to the lake’s transformation since the late 20th century, the blog finally reflects on what role “heritage”, memory and related artistic and ritual practices play in the Qot Z’oñi’s efforts to recover and gain recognition of their identity and their ways of life.
As the people inhabiting the Andean central high plateau the longest, the Uru people self-identify and are generally acknowledged as Qot Z’oñi or ‘people of the lake’. This ethnic identity seems to be supported by colonial accounts, Uru memory and mythology, and ethnographic observations of the Uru as fishers and hunter-gatherers of aquatic plants and birds and their eggs. However, ethnohistorical research suggests that this apparently “natural” bond with the lake obscures a more complex history through which Uru communities gradually lost their lands, and thereby their agricultural and pastoral practices (Barra Saavedra et al., 2011).
Through the assignment of fiscal categories and a process of “othering”, an initially heterogeneous Uru population was gradually excluded from land access and reduced to an ever smaller group of poor, marginalized families (Wachtel, 1978). In order to remain outside the reach of discriminatory colonial politics and inter-ethnic exploitation, the Uru families appropriated Lake Poopó as their refuge. The high reed vegetation named totora allowed them to retreat in a kind of marronage community, providing shelter and a means to construct houses and floating islands on the lake.
The intimate bond with the lake became a survival strategy, yet as the lake basin integrated deeper, albeit weakly, within an emerging state apparatus and market economy, this bond came under growing pressure. Throughout the 19th century, the lake’s fluctuating water levels seriously tested that survival strategy and drew the Uru closer into the logic of on-land settlement and labour exploitation (Mamani Humérez & Reyes Zárate, 2005). Episodes of drought motivated neighbouring Aymara communities to seize the “new” land for cultivation, initiating long cycles of conflict over land and at times forcing Uru to migrate and assimilate with dominant ethnic groups.
By the 1930-40s, the last group of Uru still remaining on Lake Poopó were forced to settle on land (Miranda, Moricio, Alvarez & Barragán, 1992). Out of the lake, their intimate bond with the water continued to offer a justification to other communities to deny them access to land. In addition, they gradually lost control over their access to water resources due to competition over, reduction and contamination of those resources. In the decades after pejerrey (silverside) fish was introduced in the lake in the 1950s, surrounding communities set up enterprises that obtained fishing concessions, an economy that boomed in the 1980s (Rocha Olivio, 2002, p. 97). In the following decades, the lake started to suffer more frequently from serious drying cycles (Satgé et al., 2017). Moreover, the effects of water extraction for irrigation and contamination caused by urban and mining activities became more evident. Pollution levels disturbed the dynamics that had interwoven Uru and lake life, taking the adaptive potential of the Uru’s survival strategy to the edge.
The changes in Lake Poopó started to attract attention among scientists and public institutions in the late 1970s, and especially from the 1990s onwards (Coronado Pando, 2009). This led to the design of action plans to combat drought and desertification with financial and technical support from international cooperation, including a major EU programme, and new initiatives to monitor changes in the broader water basin system that interconnected with Lake Titicaca (OEA, 1996; Comisión de las Comunidades Europeas & República de Perú y Bolivia, 1993; Vazquez Ruiz, 2018). Under growing national and international attention, and as a way of protecting the area’s biodiversity and culture, Lake Poopó was declared National Heritage and Ecological Reserve in 2000 by the Bolivian state. In 2002, the site was designated as a conservation site under the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
Despite the research, the money and institutional arrangements, the heritage and conservation site was officially declared evaporated in December 2015. A year earlier, the massive death of aquatic fauna in the lake had already led to the declaration of Lake Poopó as a ‘natural disaster zone’ by the regional government, to enable authorities and international organizations to attract resources for the recovery of the lake’s water level and its biodiversity as well as communities’ livelihoods. However, few concrete initiatives followed. Around that time, the 14 million EU programme for the conservation and rehabilitation of the Poopó basin came to an end, unable to prevent the lake’s transformation to a ‘puddle’ on the brink of completely disappearing.
Just as during previous declines of the lake, the dramatic events in 2015 provoked scientific analyses, campaigns and popular media reports that tend to frame the fate of Lake Poopó and the Uru Qot Z’oñi as a rather linear tale of inevitable disappearance. Already in the 1990s, there was critique about how scientific and political responses to the desertification and contamination of the lake failed to consult and include Uru perspectives and experiences (Schwarz, 1996). Both the lake and the Qot Z’oñi tend to be reduced to passive residues of water and cultural practices respectively, detached from the intimate relations between not only water and humans, but also plants, animals, salt, and spiritual ‘presences’ (De Munter, Quintero & Rocha, 2019). Against such rather victimizing discourses, the remaining Qot Z’oñi community leaders and their families seek to revitalize their fragmented community organization and political representation. After establishing the ‘indigenous Uru nation’ in 1992 among different Uru groups, they initiated a demand for land titles before the National Institute for Land Reform in 1997, based on colonial documents that proved their control over the entire lake area. While unsuccessful, they gained access to some small patches of land around the lake thanks to land donations. This material reconstruction of their territory was accompanied by political mobilization and the recovery of ceremonial and artistic links with the lake. Since 2000, the Uru communities surrounding the lake have restored – and partially reinvented – the annual ritual offering to ‘Qucha Mama’, Mother Lake. Through artisanal crafts with different reed types that grow in and around the lake, the Uru families are generating a new, albeit precarious source of income, thereby demonstrating their rich knowledge of plant and animal life in and around the lake.
This process of revitalization and visibilization culminated in 2019 with the declaration of a law, co-designed among the communities and public institutions, to recognise their mutual bond with the lake as intangible heritage, thereby identifying the lake as a ‘traditional life space’ (Bolivia: Ley No 1255, 2019). ‘Heritage’ in this case encompasses knowledges, ancestral wisdom, subsistence practices, and ecological resources including the landscape produced through those knowledges and practices. Reflecting recent developments around biocultural heritage management, the law offers a good example of how indigenous peoples seek to bridge entrenched dichotomies between cultural heritage and nature conservation by recovering and demanding recognition for ‘traditional’ resource management practices in specific landscapes (Bridgewater, Rotherham, & Rozzi, 2019). Often, such examples derive from science- and or state-initiated conservation projects that seek to integrate indigenous knowledges as directly imported from an inert past (Sarmiento & Hitchner, 2019). Different from the 2000 heritage status, the Uru leadership was the demanding party for this law and was directly involved in its formulation, attempting to create an instrument that allows them to steward their historical memory and their landscape.
Of course, opting for heritage status is a well-known pragmatic strategy to bolster indigenous rights claims and generate economic perspectives. Article 3 of the law states explicitly that it aims to
promote actions … oriented towards … strengthening cooperation measures at the municipal, regional, departmental and national levels, to ensure that the Uru Indigenous Nation fully exercises its civil, social, economic, political, cultural, linguistic, educational, health, environmental rights, [and] respect for its ancestral lands and territories, housing, tourism, and hunting and fishing of unprotected wild animals.
However, as of today these remain mostly symbolic words, as a regulation still needs to be elaborated to be able to implement the law.
The insecure future of the lake highlights the limits of heritage as a strategy for securing material and cultural rights. While Uru communities perceive the recognition of the site as Uru heritage as a means to defend their rights, it will not undo centuries of discrimination and othering, portraying the Uru as ‘savages’ and exploiting them in semi-enslaved relations. On top of landscape transformations depleting Uru heritage, the perpetuating unequal socio-economic relations with those communities constantly undermines the stewarding of Uru ‘traditional life space’. As the heritage status is explicitly linked to water, and not to a land-based territory, there will be every time ‘less’ heritage while the lake continues retreating. At the same time, the patches of dry land that appear tend to be seized by neighbouring indigenous non-Uru communities, even though this land is officially designated as state property.
It remains challenging to envision how heritage can help to disrupt the stark (inter-indigenous) inequalities and fragilities that have reorganized Lake Poopó into a sacrifice zone, and create openings towards ‘living together’. Yet, while this heritage of knowledge and practices is mostly a symbolic and nostalgic site for younger Uru generations—having never eaten fish from the lake, let alone been fishing in the lake—it nurtures a first step of reconciliation with their identity as ‘people of the lake’. It also forces authorities to recognize the Uru people and their culture, and sit around the table to support this process of revitalization, however still conditioning that process to its link with water without viable bases for recovering land rights.
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