Elizabeth Vincent works with the Center for Ecology and the Andean People (CEPA), a friend organization of Mennonite Central Committee.
In November this past year (2014) there was a calamitous wildlife die-off in Lago Poopo (Poh-po), a lake just to the south of Oruro, Bolivia. Local communities and the Technical University of Oruro have recorded that millions of fish and hundreds of birds washed up on the shores of the lake in a very short period of time. This die-off has directly affected at least five different communities around the lake who rely on fishing as their sole source of income, and has indirectly affected many more.
In the months that have followed, the national authorities have dismissed the event as a natural phenomenon caused by global climate change, and therefore, they have no responsibility nor can they do anything about it. However, a number of NGOs working in the region and many of the people who live in the affected communities do not solely blame climate change. Climate change is surely a part of the answer but the primary reason for the die-off is clear: mining contamination from state and privately owned mines.
It is common knowledge that Lake Poopo is a heavily contaminated lake. Tests of the water show high levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead as well as other heavy metals. In large part this is the result of very little regulation of the mines in the Oruro department. Even the waste storage and contamination facilities at the mines that have them tend to be old and faulty. One mine in particular dumps its unprocessed waste directly into a river that flows into Lake Poopo. While is still unclear why the die-off happened so suddenly, people are speculating that it is because the lake may have hit a critical level of contamination.
Almost overnight, several communities found their livelihoods severely threatened or completely gone and now have to figure out how to continue on. This led to a lot of raw emotion and confusion. The communities do not feel like they are receiving any support to move forward from the parties viewed as responsible. In total, approximately 1780 families are directly affected by the die off. For the several Uru communities, the oldest indigenous peoples in the Andes, their sole livelihood is fishing from the lake. In one Aymara community, Untavi, at least 50% of the population relied on fishing as their sole source of income. Six months on from the disaster there are still no fish in their region of the lake and the people are struggling to make ends meet. Before the die-off there was concern about the contamination in the fish but they were still widely marketed around the Bolivian highlands.
In response to these events and the outcry from the affected communities, the Center for Ecology and the Andean People (CEPA), which works closely with indigenous communities in the Altiplano, launched a campaign working with the affected communities and government ministries. This campaign involved lectures to raise awareness about the situation, working groups attempting to come up with sustainable solutions, and a summit to discuss ideas for how to move forward.
Leading up to the summit there were two days with lecture topics ranging from the effect of climate change, to the process of mineral extraction through dredging the lake and then selling them, to the cultural implications of the wildlife die-off. The purpose of these lectures was to provide the affected communities with a variety of perspectives on what is happening to the lake as well as to inform them on the different approaches which are being taken to study and preserve Lake Poopo. From these lectures the communities gained a broader picture of what is being or can be done for the lake. The hope was for the communities to draw on these lectures to inform their own ideas for solutions that would be brought forward at the summit.
At the summit, participants ranging from community members, government ministries, and a variety of NGOs formed four separate working groups before convening together with their best ideas. The four working groups consisted of Economic Development, Climate Change and Biodiversity, Scientific Methodologies, and Sociocultural and Legal History. From all of the ideas that were presented, the group decided that their primary solution consists in demanding of transparency, action, and accountability from the national and local government on how to revitalize the lake and the people’s livelihoods along with more regulation and oversight of the mines. The communities are committed to seeing demands met and will continue to struggle for their rights.
Moving forward, the hope of many community members and NGOs is to promote this disaster on a global level by connecting this issue with similar issues around the world. For example, they are considering linking this issue to the concern over fracking in the eastern United States in order to raise more international awareness. The hope is to inspire citizens to pressure the companies who are profiting from the exploitation causing the contamination to implement sustainable and responsible practices. Also, there is a desire for international pressure on foreign governments and Bolivia’s government to hold companies accountable for the consequences of their actions.
Hope is alive within the communities that the government and the international community will listen to their plea and will work together with them to help them preserve their culture and way of life.