AT CARGADERO we lost a horse to a jaguar. At Mojos we lost another to a venomous snake. By that point one of our mules had a botfly maggot wriggling in its chest, and another’s neck was caked with dried blood from the bite of a vampire bat.
We humans had been much luckier—a bit of altitude sickness in the Andes, minor gashes and bruises from slips on rocky trails, bites from throngs of ticks, flies, and mosquitoes. But compensations were all around us: breathtaking landscapes, abundant birdlife, utter wildness as far as the eye could travel.
With Rosamaria Ruiz, a Bolivian environmental activist, and Charles Munn, an American conservation biologist, I spent a month exploring a new Bolivian park called Madidi. Covering 4.7 million acres—a bit smaller than New Jersey—Madidi encompasses 19,000-foot glaciers in the west, rain forest in the east, pampas in the north, and huge expanses of cloud forest and temperate forest in between.
These varied habitats and their intersections nurture distinct flora and fauna, making the park one of the richest in the diversity of plant and animal life in South America. The continental United States and Canada hold about 700 species of birds; Madidi, with one-tenth of one percent as much area, contains an estimated 1,000 species.
A series of forest valleys in the park’s midsection is so rugged that no one lives there or even ventures into it. “What undescribed species of fauna and flora live in this lost world is anyone’s guess,” said Munn, who works out of Lima, Peru, for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Munn has been involved with Madidi since the Bolivian government hired him as a consultant in 1992 to help define the park. “Manu National Park in Peru is widely thought to be the best ecotourism destination in the Amazon,” he said, “but Madidi beats Manu hands down.”
Or will, once there are accommodations for tourists. Madidi has no roads. Its 1,600 or so inhabitants live in scattered villages accessible only by rough trails or rivers. Though the Bolivian government established the park in November 1995, it isn’t yet well-known even to scientists. Conservationists, tour operators, and Bolivian officials expect that to change soon as lodges go up and word gets out.
THE WESTERN GATEWAY to Madidi is Pelechuco, a small Andean town hemmed in by intimidating peaks wreathed with cloud. It was a dismal place whose mayor screamed commands at his constituents through loudspeakers on the square. Still, it intermittently offered electricity, plumbing, and a phone—the last such amenities we would see for a month.
Ruiz led Munn and me out of town in a chilly drizzle, bound for the village of Puina, two days east. Ruiz’s braided pigtail hung below her waist, and her cheek bulged with a wad of coca leaves. She has spent much of her life in the eastern part of Madidi. She now directs a small grassroots group called Eco-Bolivia and is Madidi’s fiercest protector. Though slight and soft-spoken, she once grabbed the barrel of a shotgun held by a logger illegally cutting trees in the park and told him to clear out.
At dusk we camped on a high, grassy plateau near several stone huts and a corral of llamas and alpacas. Our muleteers bought dried dung from the herders to make a fire. Ahead, a glacier caught the last daylight. At daybreak frost glazed our tents and shagged the llamas’ coats.
The trail climbed toward the glacier. Chests heaving, we stopped often to gulp the thinning oxygen. I filled my cheek with some of Ruiz’s coca leaves, but the mild alkaloid didn’t stop my legs from complaining. In late morning we reached the first of the day’s two high passes, the Cumbre de Sanches, just under 16,000 feet. (The area still hasn’t been accurately charted. Maps misplace some villages, include others that don’t exist, and reroute rivers.)
The second pass, Yanacocha, was higher and gloomier than Sanches, its slabs of black rock slippery with cloud mist. My head pounded from the altitude. We descended on wobbly legs into the wide valley of Utañani, stopping occasionally to watch viscachas scamper in the scree. With the ears of a rabbit, tail of a squirrel, and body of a groundhog, the viscacha looks like a rodent designed by a committee.
Puina was a Quechua community scattered for miles along a serpentine river. Ruiz hadn’t visited there since the park had been established, and she wanted to tell the villagers about their new rights and obligations. In 1992, financed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Ruiz had traveled for months by foot, mule, and balsa raft to ask the indigenous communities in the Madidi area to support a park. It was the first time anyone from outside had asked their opinion, so they considered her an ally and looked forward to her rare visits.
At the stone homestead of Evin Cusi Fernández we ate our first hot meal since Pelechuco. A puma had recently killed three of Cusi’s llamas, and Cusi had saved what he could from the kill, including a fetus that was drying on a stone wall. The fetus would bring a good price in Pelechuco as a charm to be buried in the corner of a new house.
The puma was another story. Under the park declaration Madidi’s inhabitants can continue to cut trees and hunt for their own use, but they can’t sell wood or meat from the park or shoot animals indiscriminately. Cusi won’t be compensated by the government for the loss of his llama, but if he gets the chance, he’ll shoot the llama-killing puma. Ruiz and Munn hope that someday, when tourism comes to Puina, the puma will be worth more to Cusi as a live attraction than as a dead pest.
Word of Ruiz’s arrival rolled down the valley with the news that there would be a community meeting in downtown Puina—two small cement-block buildings and a rocky soccer field with crooked tree trunks as goalposts.
In the unheated school 19 kids, aged 6 to 12, sat at long desks. Strangers rarely appeared here, so the teacher was delighted to see us. He was the sixth teacher posted to Puina this year. Each of his predecessors had quit after a few weeks, defeated by frustration and isolation. None of the teachers, including this one, knew Quechua, the Indian language spoken by the children. The teacher didn’t even know that Puina sat in a national park named Madidi.
“You’re lucky to live among condors, viscachas, and spectacled bears,” Ruiz told the children. “If you take care of them, tourists will come, and you’ll have jobs when you grow up.”
Meanwhile, about 30 villagers had gathered in the dirt plaza nearby. Ruiz stood on a stone bench as the evening fog drifted in, explaining how the communities in Madidi were supposed to benefit from any enterprise associated with the park, including tourism and mining. “Whatever riches are here should be for the people here,” she said. Tourism could pay for clean water, medical care, and better education.
We waited in the dark schoolhouse while the villagers discussed their future. After 45 minutes, we were summoned. The village’s head man formally announced that they wanted to organize with other communities, learn tourism, and work with Eco-Bolivia. Then he read aloud what had transpired at the meeting, as written down in the official community record. Everyone signed or marked the page, with hand-shaking all around.
And so Puina took the first step toward the remote dream of eco-tourism. Even if Ruiz can find funding for training, Puina isn’t likely to see any money for several years, until Madidi becomes better known and the village can accommodate tourists.
Ruiz believed that if the villagers understood that foreigners would pay to see wildlife and unspoiled landscapes, they would kill fewer animals, burn fewer trees to clear fields, and damage fewer rivers and mountains by mining. If they also learned how to provide guides, lodging, and transportation, they could control the flow of tourists through their homelands as well as profit from it.
To Ruiz and Munn, this community-based tourism represented the best way to balance protection and progress. Munn said that this idea had begun to work in a few places, including Manu. But the concept is hard to implement in remote areas such as Madidi, where the people need training in everything from speaking English to cooking for foreign tastes to changing a way of life their families have followed for many generations.
AFTER PUINA the terrain grew more lush as we descended into high cloud forest, one of the rarest habitats in the world; much of it has been destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture. Here in Madidi, cloud forest covered layer upon layer of mountains to the northern horizon, with no sign of humans. “You can see more high cloud forest from here than is left in all of Central America,” said Munn. But to the east the green was scarred by huge black patches of burned forest.
It was raining as we headed down a burned-over mountainside, stripped to our skivvies to cross the Río Mojos, and climbed steep switchbacks. Even the mules scrambled to keep their footing, urged upward by shouts from the muleteers. After five hours we reached the ragged village of Mojos. The Spanish had founded it in the 17th century as a reducción, a mission where Indians were forcibly settled, proselytized, and put to work. The settlement had once thrived on trade in corn and cattle, but almost no one used the arduous route to Mojos anymore. The church’s walls had long since crumbled, leaving only a stone tower with a crooked crucifix and two chipped bells without clappers. About 15 Quechua families lived here in huts of mud and bamboo.
I was awakened several times that night by the cries of an inconsolable child. In the morning Ruiz and I found two-year-old Juan Carlos Fernández in the arms of his weeping mother. He was limp and semiconscious from three days of vomiting and diarrhea. The brown skin around his mouth and nose was frosted with a ghastly pallor. The village healer had told the boy’s parents he would die that day.
Ruiz crushed an anti-diarrheal pill, mixed it with chlorinated water, and forced it into the child’s mouth. Then she made a rehydration solution with sugar, salt, and treated water, and pushed it into him spoonful by spoonful. After a long time Juan Carlos spluttered and protested weakly. Ruiz instructed his parents to spoon-feed him the solution all day and left several pills. When we checked him five hours later, his color had returned and the diarrhea had stopped. There would be a ceremony that night so the village healer could save face, but Juan Carlos would live because visitors with a dollar’s worth of pills happened to pass through Mojos.
“The indigenous people were basically slaves until 1952,” said Ruiz. That year the old order was partially displaced by a socialist party that nationalized mines, broke up the large estates, and gave all Bolivians the vote. Subsequent reforms strengthened Indian rights, but centuries of oppression had shaped a subservient mind-set that still cripples people in remote areas. They are easily skinned by outsiders. Ruiz was encouraging them to develop skills that could lead to economic independence and allow them to do things for themselves rather than wait for government help.
THE VILLAGERS of Asuriamas had recently done something for themselves—allowed loggers to take out a big haul of mahogany illegally for a cut of the profit.
About 30 families lived in Asuriamas, which lies on the Río Tuichi in the eastern lowlands of Madidi. Two dozen people came to Ruiz’s meeting and asked worried questions about the land rights of colonizers moving into their territory. (To prevent migration into the park, Madidi is reserved for the current inhabitants and their descendants.) I asked if any villagers knew about loggers illegally cutting mahogany in the nearby forests.
Finally Ubaldina Morales, a talkative, pugnacious woman in a billed cap, said, “All right, I’ll tell you everything.” The village’s fretful secretary-general spoke to her sharply in Quechua, but she told the story anyway.
Two 30-man mahogany crews were discovered downriver in May 1996. They had brought boats into the park from Rurrenabaque, a town downstream. The villagers agreed to accept about $1,100 for 55,000 board feet. The loggers stayed until November, then disappeared without making the final payment.
The people of Asuriamas knew that logging was illegal in Madidi, but the temptation of a fast buck was irresistible since they have so few other financial offers or possibilities. “Basically we just shrugged and said, ‘Go ahead,’ ” Morales told me. The secretary-general spoke earnestly to her in Quechua. She looked scornful. The room was humming. The schoolteacher spoke angrily to several people and abruptly left. Outside, he said the loggers had cut more like 300,000 board feet.
The mahogany logging worried Ruiz and Munn, but they pointed out that the direct damage was not too severe. Since mature trees grew widely separated, not in stands, cutting them didn’t raze a forest. Far more destructive was the loggers’ practice of killing forest animals for food. I asked Morales if the crews had done that. “Oh, yes, monkeys, deer, parrots, tapir—the works.” Commercial hunters also sold meat from Madidi in the bordering towns. Spider monkeys have been especially hard-hit.
DOWNRIVER FROM ASURIAMAS the Tuichi entered lush lowland forest. We were traveling by raft now, and late one afternoon we glided onto a long sand beach full of tapir tracks. Three red howler monkeys studied us and retreated, but a group of saddleback tamarins, their white eyebrows and goatees framing black faces, couldn’t resist the beach’s fig trees and fed there for another hour.
We were on the Tuichi to check its potential for white-water adventure. The ride had been fun but not risky until we reached a Class IV rapid that required investigation—and skillful paddling. It began with a drop, turned sharply left into a crowd of rocks, then gathered into another big rapid that smashed against a massive boulder in the middle of the river. Miss the turn, and you would hit the rocks on the shore. Miscalculate the turn, and you would hit the rocks in the river. Fail to straighten out after the turn, and you would hit the boulder broadside. Munn took one look and said, “I’m walking around it.” After 15 minutes of study Stephan Zumsteg, one of our river guides, announced, “It’s a good Class IV, but it’s runnable.” Our raft went first.
With Zumsteg shouting commands we shot over the drop and cranked around the turn. Digging furiously with our paddles, we skimmed past the rocks, then back-paddled until the raft swung downstream again. Zumsteg yelled, “Forward paddle!” and we zipped past the boulder into the clear, 15 seconds from when we started.
When the rapids petered out, we boarded two motorized longboats for the flat-water run to Rurrenabaque, a day and a half away. Along a shallow tributary we came upon a logging camp. Most of the loggers faded into the forest as we approached, but Eduardo Cortéz Bomber stayed to talk. A bearded young man in a Raiders cap, he and a crew of 25 had been cutting trees for four months and planned to stay for one more. He stood in front of a six-foot-high block of mahogany logs cut into slabs ten feet long by one foot square. When the rains raised the river, the crew would rope as many as 80 of these massive blocks together into a callapo and float them downriver to sell in Rurrenabaque. Cortéz expected to take out 100,000 board feet of mahogany worth about $50,000.
Sure, he knew logging was illegal here. "But the problem is that Bolivia is a very poor country.” No one tried to stop them. In fact, he said, the park guards occasionally visited the camp. And no, he wasn’t afraid that his mahogany would be confiscated in Rurrenabaque. “In Bolivia one can pay someone to make illegal things possible.” He said his crew had paid off the head of the park guards 45 days ago. He shrugged mournfully, as if he regretted a state of affairs that tolerated rogues like him. “I’m an ecologist,” he added. “I’m just taking out one load of mahogany, and then I’m finished forever.”
THE TOWNSPEOPLE of San José de Chupiamonas had longer-term plans. With financial and administrative help from Conservation International, a group that promotes biological diversity and environmentally sound enterprises in native communities, they were building a rustic lodge called Chalalan. The villagers had done all the construction, and gradually would assume full ownership as they learned the business of tourism. Profits from the lodge, which opened in June 1998, would go to community projects.
Conservation International had drawn attention to the Madidi area in 1991, starting the process that led to the park’s creation. A team of Conservation International scientists visited Madidi and reported a “diversity of flora and fauna that rivals the richest known sites on the globe.” They urged immediate protection. At first the Bolivian government planned a small park of 125,000 acres, but Munn, Ruiz, and others pushed for more land. The government eventually enlarged the park to 4.7 million acres, making it the central piece of a huge protected area that connects Ulla Ulla reserve on the southwest, indigenous territories on the east, and Peru’s Tambopata-Candamo reserve on the west—more than 19,000 square miles.
Ruiz had a happy homecoming at Caquiahuara, where Eco-Bolivia maintains a rustic research and security station. About a dozen Tacana Indians lived in thatch-roofed houses here. They had almost finished a small lodge for tourists on the other side of the river. Ruiz would train them how to run it.
From the top of a bluff overlooking the forest we marveled at swarms of big red-and-green macaws, chestnut-fronted macaws, and white-eyed parakeets gliding to their nests in the cliff just below. “This is the best place to see macaws in South America,” said Munn, a conservation biologist who knows about such things.
Because Ruiz is a hermit at heart, ten years ago she built a hut far from any trail on a marshy pond fed by the Río Hondo. She took me to this hidden water—hushed, lovely, and seething with biting flies and mosquitoes. “That’s one reason I think local people are best to protect these areas,” said Ruiz, “because it takes someone as crazy as I am to like being in them.”
As we drifted along, we saw hoatzins, macaws, anhingas, greater anis, purple gallinules, and a handsome black-collared hawk fishing for breakfast. Floréncio “Choco” Mano, a Tacana renowned for his forest skills, was fishing too. He perched barefoot on the front of our log boat, his bow nocked with an arrow, and scanned the shallows for the slow swirl of a feeding sábalo (shad). There! Mano’s arrow sang. We would have sábalo for supper.
Morning light revealed jaguar tracks on the river’s edge. A Tacana named Marcelo Quemevo led Munn, Ruiz, and me into the forest to a salt lick. We climbed to a platform, and Quemevo began calling in white-lipped peccaries, making a loud thock against the roof of his mouth with his tongue in imitation of the pigs’ habit of cracking their jaws. The answering thocks got closer, and then bristly black shapes materialized from the undergrowth, big males in the lead. There must have been 50 of them. One moment they were snuffling in the mud or lifting their rubbery noses to investigate us; the next, spooked, they had vanished in a tumult of crackling brush and frantic grunts.
Where the Río Hondo meets the Beni, we turned upriver toward Charque, a beautiful new lodge built entirely by local people that Munn predicted would become one of the top destinations in South America for birders and other tourists. The lodge embodies a partnership between Eco-Bolivia (51 percent) and an indigenous association (49 percent) made of Tacana, Moseten, and Chimane Indians. Ruiz expected that the families in the association would eventually earn their living from tourism—quite a switch from their traditional lives as nomads.
IN SAN BUENAVENTURA, a quiet town of rutted streets across the Río Beni from Rurrenabaque, Munn and I met with Ciro Oliver, director of Madidi National Park. Oliver explained that his first duty was to protect the park’s resources, but his annual budget was small—$198,000. He had only two patrol boats and 15 park guards, all in the eastern third of the park, but hoped to hire ten more.
When his office opened in January 1997, he said, “No one was in favor of the park because 90 percent of the people lived from wood exploitation.” By August the guards had found 48 lumber camps. To avoid violence, Oliver told the loggers that when the rivers rose, they could take out whatever they had already cut, “but not a single tree more.” Now the guards checked these camps every week. All logging had ceased except for the activities of two or three renegade groups. Oliver said that illegal lumber was confiscated when it reached Rurre. He scoffed at Eduardo Cortéz Bomber’s claims about bribery and complacent guards.
Oliver’s budget and resources certainly were dismal for such an immense and important park. Perhaps logging and hunting had slowed, but we had seen active lumber camps and callapos heading to Rurrenabaque and had watched mahogany being loaded onto trucks.
Ruiz had told me that Oliver, like most officials, resented her work in Madidi. When I asked about Eco-Bolivia, Oliver reacted strongly. “Rosamaria Ruiz promised a lot and lied a lot, and when she got financing, she forgot about the people she had promised. We have interviewed all the communities where she has worked, and none said anything positive.”
This contradicted everything I had seen. The villagers within Madidi invariably welcomed Rosamaria as a friend and champion. I suspected that most of Ruiz’s accusers lived outside the park and were motivated by frustrated greed or anxiety about educated Indians.
Gabriel Baracatt, the new director of Bolivia’s department of biodiversity, had been on the job for just over a month when we spoke by phone. He intended to strengthen protection in Madidi by hiring 40 more guards if he could find the financing. He also planned to inform the communities of their rights and potential benefits and wanted to train them to manage Madidi and develop tourism. These admirable goals were contradicted by his budget for the park—$240,000 a year.
In August 1998 the park’s future received a blow when the Bolivian National Congress passed a law authorizing a gigantic dam just upstream of Rurrenabaque. Hydroelectric power from the dam would be sold to Brazil. The dam would flood almost 750 square miles, displace native people, drown irreplaceable flora and fauna, and wipe out the new lodges at Chalalan, Caquiahuara, and Charque. Ruiz and others will fight to stop the project.
Next to Guyana, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. Most of its people worry more about survival than about the environment, and so its politicians face strong pressure to support policies that will provide immediate jobs and thus preserve votes, not wildlife.
The best hope for Madidi’s future may be in places such as Chalalan, Caquiahuara, and Charque, where the inhabitants are learning to be partners in the park’s future. If most of the park’s people protect the wildlife and forests and learn to manage tourism, Madidi will remain incomparable.
©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.