Issue - September 2007

September 2007

In this issue, Amy Pollock reviews the successes of Arnold Brower's school garden project, while Lucy Witter talks with the rector of an English school enrolling impoverished students; we hear form Save the Children about their reconciliation programme after the Cochabamba riots in more...

September 2007

The hazards of a walk in the park

Amy Stillman investigates the obstacles faced by Fundación Gaia Pacha in its goal to preserve Madidi National Park

by: Amy Stillman
Projects Abroad Volunteer
St. Andrews, United Kingdom

The 21st of September this year marks the 12th anniversary of the creation of Madidi National Park, home to a vast range of ecosystems and over 6,000 vegetables species, 5,000 species of animals, and 1,000 species of birds catalogued thus far. Yet the numbers continue to expand as new species are continually found within in the park.

For example, an exotic breed of titi monkey with bright orange fur and white tipped tail was discovered recently, named Callicebus Aureipalatii by the Casino Golden Palace through an online auction in 2005. Servicio Nacional de Areas Protegidas de Bolivia (SERNAP) manages over 16% of Bolivia´s national territory. Through coordination with the organization El Sistema Nacional de Areas Protegidas (SNAP), SERNAP acts as the primary protectorate of the Madidi Park, which amasses over 1.8 million hectares located in the western Bolivian Amazon. The Park is also the residence of three indigenous groups that have been living in the region for centuries: the Tacana, Quechua, and Araona.

These communities were able to form an agreement with United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) allowing them to live in the park and utilize the parks’ natural resources through a ´low impact´ policy promoting sustainable development and biodiversity. Overall the Madidi National Park represents one of the many social and environmentally-friendly innovations occurring in Bolivia since the early 1990´s. Finally the phenomenon of ecological awareness has begun to pierce the hearts and minds of the national and international community. Though unfortunately, it seems that congratulatory pats on the back are not exactly in order just yet. As this journalist was able to surmise after an interview with the coordinator of the Fundacion Gaia Pacha, Rodrigo Meruvia, there is much work to be done! After all, not everyone is ready to jump on the environmental bandwagon when interests such as livelihood, housing, and economic profitability are at stake.

Rodrigo Meruvia began working in the field of conservation 3 years ago, through the organization Salvemos al Madidi at Universidad Catolica Boliviana (UCB). After a year the members of this group branched out from the university to create Gaia Pancha, which has been running for nearly two years. The Fundacion Gaia Pacha is designed to aid in the conservation and protection of natural spaces in Bolivia. The chief ambitions of Gaia Pacha are to promote investigation, education, conservation, and stable socio-economic technology that can meet both the needs of the environment and Bolivia´s vast range of culturally marginalized societies. According to Rodrigo, the Madidi National Park along with many other officially protected, and non-protected areas across Bolivia have faced numerous obstacles in the way of conservation. These hindrances stem from independent groups, transnational business interests, and previous governmental plans to use the park for petroleum exploration and a hydro-electric dam.

The Madidi National Park faced one of its gravest threats in May this year when the ‘organizaciones campesinas,’ landless peasants from the neighboring territory of Apolo invaded the Anmi sector of the park in a protest for the creation of a more direct road between Apolo and Ixiamis. This would ultimately cut across the protected region of Anmi, enabling the locals to settle in the protected areas, as well as utilize the region for illegal logging and coca growing. It is believed that the protestors were also financially supported by wood exporting factories with key interests in using the park for logging. Roughly 600 protestors illegally occupied the park and cut down the highly expensive and endangered Mara wood, as well as threatening the lives of park guards and announcing that they would burn down the reserve if their needs were not met.

According to Rodrigo the protest occured because, “the government has not solved the problems of roads, schools and health for the communities in Apolo.” The groups also demanded the cancellation of the protection of the Tierras Comunitarias de Origen (TCO) groups within the park, despite the fact that it is their land and the external groups have no actual entitlement to it. The protestors called for a dialogue with the ministries in Apollo, and instead on May 28th they were met with police that forcibly removed them from the Anini area. In June, another protest occurred in which around 4,000 locals from Apollo waved Peruvian flags and demanded that the park and surrounding areas be annexed to neighboring Peru, as the Bolivian government was not responding to their needs.

The locals desire to utilize the lands of Madidi would ultimately lead to the destruction of this area, though it is a difficult situation as logging is one of the few practices that can allow poor communities to eck out a substinance living. Rodrigo explained that these needs were addressed by the government through the Movimiento Sin Tierra, through a strategy designed to give land to communities without enough space. While overtly this plan appears to be beneficial for these groups, the movement does not allow the communities themselves to choose the land they are given. These external communities are not content to share land of poor farming quality between at least 200 individuals, when the small communities in the Madidi National Park are given vast acres of fertile land.

The predicament presented by entrepreneur locals is not the only threat either. It is a well known fact that the areas under conservation present lucrative money-making enterprises if put in the hands of big businesses and governmental projects.

While the current Bolivian government has enforced the protection of Madidi National Park from the creation of a hydro-electric dam along the Beni River, this is not the case for conservation sites in many other areas. For example, the Pando region is facing pressure from Brazil to build a hydro-electric dam, which Rodrigo has told me “is not a need of Bolivia, but only the need of border countries.”

Within Bolivia there is “a pyramid of importance” Rodrigo explains, in which the lowest tier presents the credence of the government, the second is article 1333 of the Bolivian environmental laws, and the highest tier is occupied by the hydro-carbon laws. Hence it is not unheard of for environmental laws to fall by the wayside as oil exploitation agreements between Bolivia and neighboring countries take precedence. While the hydro-carbon laws sit smugly above Article 1333 the risk of petroleum exploration in the Madidi National Park is a looming possibility. Moreover, the efficiency of SERNAP in protecting the park is lacking in many respects as a result of poor organizational skills, communication, and the absence of leadership. This is at least partially attributable to the designs of transnational companies with an interest in sabotaging the park in order to exploit its natural resources.

Many big businesses prevent SERNAP from doing its job through underhanded pay-offs to indigenous communities in return for causing problems for the organization. Now that a very grim picture of Bolivia´s conservational woes has been pain-stakingly introduced to you, let me remind the reader that all hope is not lost in a quagmire of social, economic, and political muck.

The primary asset of Madidi National Parks conservation is its booming eco-tourist industry. In March 2000, National Geographic described Madidi National Park as one of the 20 most interesting tourist destinations on the planet. Over 500,000 tree-hugging tourists visit the park annually, supporting the greater part of Madidi´s internal economy. The business provided by the tourists encourages the communities within the park to maintain its upkeep, while it simultaneously provides them with improved living conditions. Though as Rodrigo is apt to point out, tourism in the park can be considered a double-edged sword if tourists are not properly supervised by park guards and SERNAP, as they are liable to damage the biodiversity of the region.

The best option to avoid these dangers is the method advanced by the Fundación Gaia Pancha: education. Today Gaia Pancha is relentlessly working to expand the awareness of the importance of the Madidi National Park, as well as improving environmental accountability across Bolivia through seminaries, presentations, and projects in schools. The Fundación Gaia Pancha has also worked with such groups as AGRECOL, FOBOMADE, ZOOPRAMA, and PROMIC to promote the benefits of biodiversity to the public. While the problems of maintaining the conservation of places like Madidi National Park can appear daunting when pitted against such behemoths as the ‘logic of the market,’ it is useful to remember another ideology presented by such organizations as Fundación Gaia Pancha: the logic of sustainability...

A plain of water named Cochabamba
The denseness of its groves, the great variety of birds, which are pleasant to sight and sound, plentiful mountains of cedars, and another kind of wood. This landscape is different to the nearby valley of Clisa which is six leagues southeast from the city (Oropeza)....
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