Reclaiming the Past: Inhabitants of the Beni Region Bolivia Are Reviving Ancient Techniques of Water Resource Management

Article excerpt

Beneath our airplane, the Beni River stretches out like a green ocean between the Andes mountain range and the Guapore River. Tufts of white clouds race over the plains of Moxo, a great treeless savannah in eastern Bolivia.

From October to April, the rainy season here brings shallow but massive flooding to the lower plains areas. Water from the melting Andean glaciers to the north and west joins rain runoff and descends eastward, causing rivers to overflow and turning 40,000 to 55,000 square miles into temporary wetlands. The dry season from May to September is a dramatic reversal. The water evaporates and the fields become a flat desert with isolated patches of grass and bush. The dry cracked landscape of drought splits open under the sun. In this season, natural and man-made fires are frequent. Right now, it's the dry season. Through the windows of our little plane, a sky saturated with dust and smoke frustrates our cameras' hunt for images.

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We are flying in search of archeological evidence of one of history's greatest examples of human intervention in landscape. Three thousand years ago, the Beni culture--ancestors of today's Arahuaco people--took advantage of the seasonal flooding to design an ingenious agricultural system. They made huge mounds of land and built their villages upon these hills. Then, they put in a system of canals alongside elevated roads as an alternate means of transportation. They built artificial lakes, giant fish farms, and countless raised fields for food crops in order to make sure their millions of inhabitants would have an abundance of food. And they did for many years until a tragic drought caused their great migration.

Oscar Saavedra, the Director of the Kenneth Lee Foundation is on board the plane with me. "We decided to call them 'hydraulic cultures,'" he says, "because they were specialists in water management and in the administration of abundance and scarcity. The ancient inhabitants of the Beni had a different way of thinking. They used strategies for taming water resources to build a new kind of agriculture that resulted in a true civilization."

I am enthralled by these endless flatlands that resemble a green ocean. The expanse is dotted with artificial lakes and decorated with parallel lines of long raised beds built thousands of years ago. "It's incredible what these ancient people were able to do," Saavedra says. "Agriculture on these raised fields called camellones took up two and a half million acres all over the department. Imagine the extent of that, with the same kind of structures we are seeing down below. It was smart, practical agriculture. The Beni wouldn't have been the same without it."

Traces of human intervention are etched into the skin of the Bolivian Amazon: thousands of linear designs that were once productive camellones and remains of the immense reserves of water--lakes, canals, and artificial ponds. The houses were constructed in a system above ground level on hills built with a massive amount of human labor. We are occasionally surprised by pyramids and other platforms.

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The entire department, of Beni measures 85,000 square miles and the Beni people in this area built more than 3.000 miles of dikes, joining roads and canals. Even today during the flooding season, fish use these artificial channels for migration and they turn these lagoons into huge food reservoirs." Saavedra says.

The system they created allowed the ancient Beni people to have water all year long for their artificial lagoons and for watering their crops. It also made it possible for them to survive the terrible floods, disasters reminiscent of some of our modern day catastrophes. "It's a new philosophy that comes from the past, and it provides some answers for us today to help us face current and future crises," Saavedra says. …