Climate Change Refugees

23 Feb, 2018 | Georgina Bolam

Social issues and Nature

The plight of the Urus on the drying Lake Poopó

Lake Poopó, once the second largest fishing paradise in Bolivia, has become nothing but an expanse of dry and salty land. The water waned, 30 million fish died and rose to the surface belly up. For weeks the stench stagnated the air. But it is not just the fish that suffered. A large part of the indigenous Urus of Lake Poopó, who lived by the lake for centuries, were forced to leave, joining the world-wide evacuation of refugees who are not fleeing war or a natural disaster, but the devastating consequences of climate change. Facing a desolating situation, they have consequently become ‘the climate change refugees.’

The Urus of Lake Poopó have lived through centuries of displacement due to the forced migration of the Aymaras after the conquest of the Incas, and now the transformation of not only their livelihoods but of their homes. For generations they adapted, but it seems that they will not be able to adjust to the upheaval caused by the drought. Ruth Vilches, officer of Centro de Ecología y Pueblos Andinos (CEPA) tells us: ‘Their way of living has been eroded, they are discriminated against. They used to have their own language but now they only remember some words.’ This, in turn, has endangered their way of living and brings to question whether they will be able to overcome something as consequential and unavoidable as this to remain near the lake.

The Urus are not fleeing war or a natural disaster, but the devastating consequences of climate change.

There was a migration of Uru men to urban areas to work as carpenters and drivers. Some Urus went to the lake Uru-Uru, not as fishermen but as employees of the Aymara fishermen. Many went to work in the mines near Oruro and a lot have also gone to work in the salt mines near Uyuni. Out of the 1,200 Urus living near the lake, around half remain.

‘We were fishermen and that will always be a part of us.’ Don Felix, Uru elder

CEPA, however, is committed to helping them. CEPA, which is the Center for Ecology and Andean Communities, works in defense of indigenous rights, territory and resources. ‘The Uru are in a very special situation, there is no income,’ Vilches says. ‘ They used to live from fishing. They don’t have land. They don’t have another activity other than fishing. So CEPA is accompanying the three communities (Llapallapani, Villa Ñeque and Puñaka Tinta María) helping them replace the loss of their income with other productive activities. Now we are helping the women who want to make artisanal crafts from chillawa, a type of hay [...] but this, in reality, doesn’t provide much income.’ On account of Uru displacement, CEPA has ensured that authorities carry out small projects such as building solar panels and water tanks.

In the region, the Urus were known as ‘the people of the lake’ and without it, they are drastically adapting their way of life. The fishing season began on the shore of the lake with a ritual known as ‘remembrance.’ Around 40 Uru men spent a whole night chewing coca leaves and drinking liquor. Together they recited the names of the main fishing spots of Lake Poopó. In the morning, they made their way among the underground springs and threw sweets in the lake as a religious offering and that’s when fishing season began. Rituals such as this have, unfortunately, become a thing of the past.

Fishing has always been the Uru’s principal activity and dates back generations upon generations. Vilches, who approaches the communities directly and personally, understands that their experiences and beliefs are what makes this indigenous community so special. ‘When we talk to the elders,’ she recalls, ‘they tell us how they lived on their boats. One elder, Don Felix told us: “We basically lived on the lake – I’d bring my little boat – here was the kitchen, here is where we slept… Everything was on the boat.” And I admire them. Don Felix can name 34-different bird species. [...] They were very close to the lake, physically and emotionally.’

According to the elders, ‘the lake always dried up’ but what should have taken 1,000 years took 4 and the difference now is that conditions have changed, it’s not like 40 years ago. This situation may have been easily preventable. Lake Poopó collected a lot of sediment such as dirt, rocks and rubbish from Rio Desaguadero, and as Lake Poopó has no exit, this built up over time – stopping the fish from reproducing. On top of this, chemicals from the heavy metal mines were emptied into Lake Poopó and there has been a severe lack of rain in the area due to climate change, which has caused the lake to dry up. With all these forewarning signs, it’s disturbing that something wasn’t done sooner.

Vilches explains that ‘it was already always anticipated… I imagine the previous and current leaders should have taken actions to prevent the drought. They could have drained and cleaned the lake. They should have foreseen this.’ Recent efforts from the government involved bringing food and materials to the Uru people after the disappearance of the lake. Due the 2013 march for better living conditions, the Uru received one ambulance, schools and homes, but ‘there was still no structural care from the governments,’ Vilches notes. ‘We always knew the lake was going to dry.’

The issues, however, go further than just the lake. ‘Their culture and their social relations and political structures have been disintegrating. There is conflict within the families, between the three communities and with the public authorities,’ says Vilches.

Unlike the Aymara communities of the lake, who all belong to the same municipality, the three Uru communities were separated in 1984 by law, which has prevented them from being unified. The drying up of the lake has only exacerbated underlying tensions between the Urus, having unintended effects such as migration and the disintegration of social and political structures.

Even with these frequent adaptations, Vilches agrees that the Urus are far from losing their identity. ‘This is what surprises me,’ she says. Perhaps there is a silver lining in this situation in that, according to CEPA, even though the Uru have lost their most vital source of income, they have found ways to revive their identity. ‘They are still saying that they are Urus. It’s still present in their way of dressing, speaking and in their attitude.’

Furthermore, with the 2009 Constitution the Urus have more of a public presence, which allows them to strengthen their cultural identity. Vilches adds: ‘I think they have done so already because they have returned to the past. “This is how it was,” they say. “We were like this, our clothes were like this, our relationship to the lake was like this.” Their past is not set in stone, their past is ahead. In a way, their displacement has allowed them to retain their identity.’

Despite current situations, there is still hope for the Urus to remain near the lake. ‘I have the impression that the current rains will improve the water level in the lake and allow the fish to reproduce and the families to stay. I hope.’ The recent rains and the new schools have encouraged them to stay and remain connected to their past: ‘The Urus as a people, as a culture will stay. Their recent hardships have allowed them to reconnect with their past and say: “this is who we were, we were fishermen and that will always be a part of us.”’


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