Beni; Surviving the Crosswinds of Conservation

Article excerpt

The beni biosphere reserve (BBR), home of the Chimane Indians and the first protected area to become fully implemented in Bolivia, is leading the way for the conservation of the natural and cultural resources in this extremely diverse Andean country.

In 1988 when I was working for the Bolivia Program at.conservation International a friend gave me a copy of a newly published book, Pueblo de leyenda, written by Rodolfo Pinto. The author took me by surprise. Through parallel stories, a thousand years apart, he talked about the Beni, the so called "region of winds" in Moxeno language. He told a story about the land of Paititi, populated by vigorous and hard working indigenous people who harvested their living off the luscious tropical forests and savannas of Moxos. At the same time, he told the story of the Beni of our days, as seen by a professional explorer, a Quixote who came to find the testimony of a nation rich in history and suffering. I could not help but feel part of both stories.

Our conservation work in the Beni, I thought then, was a battle of times, cultures and peoples trying to come together in one legendary place, in the same environment but with so many one-sided visions. Somehow the cause for nature's and people's future had been divided, and the goals seemed separate. I remember quoting from Pueblo de leyenda, "It is hard to start a fire with one stick of wood, if we could just get all the firewood together in one pile ... boy, we'd be cooking."

Now, four years later, tremendous strides have been taken for the conservation of the natural resources of Bolivia. Bolivians are successfully setting national priorities for conservation and a framework for conservation investments has been instituted. At the same time, historical events have furthered the indigenous cause in the country.

THE LAY Of THE LAND

Landlocked in the heart of South America, Bolivia is a nation of astounding contrasts and breathtaking landscapes encompassing tropical, subtropical, and montane life zones. Roughly three times the size of California (1.1 million km2), Bolivia contains snowcapped mountains in the West and salt lakes and dry forests in the central Altiplano. In this region, legendary civilizations such as the Tiwanaku (500 BC) and the Inca empire (1200 AD) flourished. East of the Andes, cloud forest and a mosaic of grassland savannas, rivers, and tropical forest constitute 70 percent of the country.

Bolivia's diverse ecology is matched by the diversity of its culture. Its population, estimated at six million in 1980, is concentrated largely in the highlands. Mestizo, Aymara, and Quechua represent roughly 80 percent of Bolivia's population, with approximately 15 percent of European ancestry. The highlanders were, and still are, highly organized societies, unlike the fifty-five ethnic groups in the eastern lowland which comprise approximately 5 percent of the country's population and have been traditionally isolated from one another.

Biologically, Bolivia is one of the richest nations in the world with a plant diversity of 18,000 known species, and a wealth of avifauna, harboring up to one third of all the bird species found in the neotropics. Economically, however, (according to World Bank data) Bolivia is the poorest country of South America, with the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, and an infant mortality second only to Haiti's and almost double that of Guatemala.

The threats facing biodiversity in Bolivia are numerous. Forest and soil resources of the eastern slope of the Andes and lowlands are under increasing pressure as migrants move from the highlands, partly in response to the deterioration of agricultural soils at upper elevations. Unequal land distribution and, more recently, the collapse of the tin mining industry (which formerly contributed 70 percent of the country's GNP) has resulted in more pressure on the lowlands as local peoples increasingly rely on cattle ranching, mahogany extraction, and drug trafficking as economic alternatives to meet their basic needs. …