Llamas, lakes and lightning. If I had to sum up our cycle through Bolivia in just three words these nouns immediately spring to mind.
Up on the barren yet beautiful Altiplano, it’s not uncommon to feel tangibly mortal, dodging cartoon-shaped bolts of lightning cast earthwards by a Latino version of Thor. Our first such experience occurred only hours after crossing over the Bolivian border when we found ourselves seeking shelter for the night in the covered entrance of an Andean graveyard (#creepsville). Scary but just a one-off we thought as the unfathomably dark sky flashed more frenetically than a Ministry of Sound dance floor. Alas no, it was a gentle induction to things to come.
I had been curious and excited in equal parts to cross into Bolivia, I knew we would be in for a drastic change. So far our experience of Latin America had consisted of over five thousand kilometers of the comparatively wealthy nations of Argentina and Chile. But more than that, Bolivia was hailed for being the first country in the world to give nature equal rights to humans with the 2010 Law of Mother Earth. How had this been applied in practice and would it reflect in the health of the country’s ecosystems? I was about to learn a lot and not only about lighting avoidance strategies.
First appearances were not good. Rubbish floated in waterways and lined the roadsides in scattered but ubiquitous deposits before accumulating into dense tracts on the outskirts of towns, where dogs rummaged and fought over edible treasures. For some reason, nappies seemed to be the number one roadside offender, especially in the most remote areas. Did Bolivians partake in Saturday morning drives to the Altiplano to cast their children’s soiled undies onto the roadside we mused? Some further research confirmed the obvious, as a low-middle income country waste disposal systems are not developed enough to protect public health let alone the environment.
Outside of the capital, open dumps with zero environmental precautions, supervision or documentation are de rigueur. While in lofty La Paz only 8% of waste is recycled, mostly by an informal army of waste pickers consisting of society’s most vulnerable: the poor and elderly. These unintentional heroes divert an estimated 40 tonnes of waste per day from landfill albeit at great cost to their health and wellbeing.
Llamas were the more pleasantly common sight as we huffed and puffed our way up some 4000m onto the Altiplano. During one particularly violent sky siege, we watched a herd of these banana eared beasts demurely grazing as if the blueberry sized hailstones were nothing more than an April shower. Like many of the other herds we had passed they were adorned with colourful woolen tassels, a New Year’s custom to enhance their fertility. For many Aymara people of the high Andean plateau, life remains very traditional, think simple adobe huts, small crops of quinoa and mobile phones of course. The environment and the earth deity known as Pachamama are at the centre life and humans are considered equal, not superior to other entities.
But despite their reverence for Mother Earth, there is little these Bolivians can do to halt the gross release of CO2 by more developed nations. La Paz based glaciologist, Edson Ramirez, suggests temperatures are on course to rise a further 3.5-4C over the next 100 years. This would turn much of Bolivia into a desert.
This is not some problem for future Bolivia, radical environmental change is happening right now. We experienced this first hand as we rolled our bikes to a halt on the shores of Lago Poopó (once Bolivia’s second biggest lake) only to find that the thousand km2 body of water had all but dried up. This inconvenient truth felt like being slapped in the face by one of the rotten fish left scattered over the lake bed when it dried up in 2015. I can’t begin to imagine how it felt for the Urus-Muratos people who, for time immemorial fished on what now resembles the cracked surface of an overcooked brownie. Many families have been forced to move to nearby cities to try and eek a living as laborers or to the nearby Salar de Uyuni to fill bags of salt for minimal wages. As with nearly all ecological disasters, there is no single cause to blame, though the main culprits are cited as rising temperatures, increasing drought and the poorly managed diversion of water into agriculture and nearby mines.
Somewhat subdued we peddled onward towards the famous Lago Titicaca. As the largest lake in South America (and the highest navigable body of water in the world) we were fairly confident that no-one had pulled the plug on this giant bathtub yet.
We rounded a corner and there it was in all its startlingly sapphire glory. Things were looking up, could this be Eden in the Bolivian highlands? We soon found ourselves parked alongside three cars on a rickety looking wooden raft chugging across the narrow Strait of Tiquina. I can’t say the craft filled me with confidence but looking to my left I saw the wide eyes of coach passenger staring back at me from a raft so small it made ours feel like a cruise liner. Just ten minutes later we were safely deposited on the opposite bank and began the steady climb up and over the hills to the Titicaca tourist town of Copacabana. As the gateway to the islands of the Sun and the Moon it is swarmed by tourists who flutter through its streets occasionally being caught in the sticky webs of overzealous restauranteurs, boat ticket touts or market stalls.
Just kilometers from the Peruvian border we diverted through a small lakeside village to find out more about the peculiarly named and even more curious looking “scrotum” or Titicaca water frog. Having knocked on nearly every green door in the town we finally found the man we sought. Señor Kantuta invited us in for a delicious lunch of broad bean soup before paddling us out to a floating reed platform he had constructed close to his trout farm. Over the sound of wooden oars splashing in and out of the water, he told us about this uniquely adapted amphibian. The large flaps of skin which make it look like, well, a scrotum, enable it to breathe underwater rendering it the world’s largest truly aquatic frog.
When we asked Señor Kantuta if the water from the lake had become increasing polluted he shrugged and said that the waters were still clean, unfortunately, this is a major and dangerous misconception held by many rural lakeside residents. Waste from upstream mines and cities such as El Alto flows steadily into the lake. On top of the stream of raw sewage, rubbish and industrial waste a 2014 study reported levels of mercury, cadmium and copper in the lake’s fish to be higher than those advised for human consumption. Pollution is not the only threat to the endangered frog. Believed to be both a health food and an aphrodisiac the frogs are hunted and transported to cities to be eaten in regional dishes.
Over the border in Peru one lady is all too aware of these issues and has taken matters into her own hands. In late 2016 local environmentalist, Maruja Inquilla, arrived in the main square of Puno, the regional capital, with a bucket of 100 dead frogs after some 10,000 of the endangered amphibians were found dead in a tributary of Lake Titicaca. This was clearly the lady we needed to speak to but other than brief mentions in online articles we could see no way to make contact.
It called for some good old Sherlocking! Just one day later we found ourselves crossing a river of rubbish into the small agricultural town of Coata. We soon tracked down Maruja’s sister but were dismayed to find out that despite all our detective work we had just missed the lady in question who had headed to Lima to speak with politicians. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to wait around, we were due to meet my parents in Cusco in just a few days and unbeknownst to me, my wild frog chase was causing havoc with Sam’s proposal plans. We spent the night on the floor of the Justice of the Peace’s office and fell asleep to the sound of pigs rootling through the spoils of the days market on the other side of the door.
It’s hard to measure just how much of a difference the Bolivian Law of Earth has made. After a smattering of articles about its introduction in 2010, I couldn’t find much follow up. On asking locals we received a whole range of responses both negative and positive and something in-between.
What I can say is that I have never met a more hard-working, genuine and modest folk than those of the high Andes. In the harshest of climates, they toil from sunrise to sunset and on their days off celebrate with more energy than an elephant bull in musk (anyone who has seen Andean parade will attest to this). Whether thanks to legislation or the tireless efforts of people like Maruja change is underway. In 2010, Bolivia ranked 137th out of 163 countries in annual environmental performance index by Yale and Columbia universities, this year it ranked 93rd. Something is happening. Furthermore, Bolivian and Peruvian governments recently pledged US$500million towards cleaning up the lake.
For frog’s sake, let’s hope they deliver on this one!
WASTE NOT WANT NOT: WHAT CAN WE DO?
- FIND OUT MORE AND SUPPORT: The Bolivian Amphibian Initiative is working hard to rescue the critically endangered Titicaca Water Frog from the edge of extinction. Find out more about their work on their website or donate here.
- SAY NO TO DISPOSABLE PLASTIC at home or on holiday it’s easy to carry a cup, cloth bag, fork and if you’re really on it a Tupperware… et voila, you are a supermarket and takeout ready.
- COMPOST: When our waste goes to landfill in bin bags it can’t decompose properly and as it breaks down it releases the damaging greenhouse gas methane. When we compost at home it can decompose aerobically, releasing far less harmful gasses and the added bonus is you get great fertilizer for your garden. Don’t have a garden? Fear not, there are many great urban composters available and many local allotments or community gardens that will be more than happy to accept yummy scraps!
This article is part of a series on sustainability in South America by Emily and Sam of Two By Bamboo. Cycling 10,000km from Patagonia to Colombia on worryingly wonky homemade bamboo bikes, their mission is to share the stories of the movers, shakers, recyclers and makers of the continent.
Biologist turned producer Emily worked on a number of documentaries for BBC and Discovery Channel in the UK before moving down under where she joined SBS as an impact producer. By sharing the stories of amazing humans and animals she meets, Emily hopes to inspire herself and others to make more positive choices for our planet.
Read more at twobybamboo.com