Indigenous Livelihoods at Bolivia’s Highest Mountain

Posted by on Jan 15, 2015

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A new study conducted at Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia, shows that local indigenous populations have been able to adapt to the changes in water resources that result from glacier retreat. Other environmental changes, as well as shifting economic and political circumstances, have also shaped their responses. Villarroel and her coauthors describe the area in detail in their recent paper in the journal “Mountain Research and Development.”

Wetland in Sajama National Park (source: Lorini/AguaSustentable)

Wetland in Sajama National Park (source: Lorini/AguaSustentable)

With an elevation of 6542 meters, Sajama, an extinct volcanic cone, rises more than two kilometers above the surrounding plains, known as the altiplano. Precipitation is concentrated in a short rainy season in this semi-arid region. The vegetation varies with elevation and topography, with large areas of grassland, sections with shrubs, and some wetlands, which are concentrated along the streams that are fed by glacial melt and groundwater from the mountain. Though the wetlands are relatively small in area, they have great economic and ecological importance, because the herbs, sedges and grasses that grow in them remain green throughout the year.

The indigenous Aymara of the altiplano have long practiced livelihoods that are suited to this environment, centered on the raising of alpacas, a native ruminant that was domesticated millennia ago in the Andes. They carefully maintain irrigation channels that distribute water from the streams, expanding wetland areas. Though profoundly influenced by Spanish colonial rule and by the policies of the national governments of Bolivia, the Aymara have a high degree of self-government, in which communities govern the affairs of the many hamlets that compose them, through structures of customary leaders and assemblies. These communities gained recognition in the 1950s, and received additional support in the 1990s through constitutional reforms and the creation of a national council of indigenous communities.

Villarroel and her coauthors have traced the shifting patterns of water use and alpaca herding through “rights mapping methodology,” integrating the methods of the Nobel prizewinner Elinor Ostrom for studying natural resource management with participatory mapping based on Google Earth images. They found that the Aymara communities around Sajama had for decades practiced communal grazing. Households had free access to the community’s grasslands, which provide grazing during the rainy season. They also were able to graze their animals on the wetlands associated with their hamlets.

Alpacas at Sajama (source: twiga269/Flickr)

Alpacas at Sajama (source: twiga269/Flickr)

Pasture has become a scarce resource in the last two or three decades, as the water supply in streams has decreased because of glacier retreat. The population of the communities has also grown, increasing demand for pasture. Overgrazing had become a problem. In response, the communities shifted to delimiting grassland areas to which particular households have access, and individual hamlets have fenced off the wetlands. In this way, they can better limit the number of alpacas that graze in any area. They also organize meetings between hamlets and between communities to resolve disputes over access to water from streams. In addition, many households now purchase alfalfa and barley, trucked in from moister regions of Bolivia, to use as supplementary fodder. A number of the men leave the region for several months a year, earning wages to pay for this fodder.

Irrigation canal in a wetland in the Bolivian altiplano (source: Coppock/Rangelands)

Irrigation canal in a wetland in the Bolivian altiplano (source: Coppock/Rangelands)

The Sajama National Park has also influenced the response to water scarcity. Founded in 1939 as Bolivia’s first national park, it began active conservation management only in 1995, virtually eliminating alpaca grazing in the higher grasslands, and reducing hunting as well. These restrictions have led to the growth of populations of pumas and foxes, predators of the alpacas, and have brought about a resurgence of the vicuña, which had become locally endangered.

The loss of access to this area has placed further pressure on the other grasslands and on the wetlands, but it has also brought a new income source to the communities. They conduct annual round-ups of vicuña herds, in which the animals are shorn and then let free, in a kind of “catch and release” program. The wool commands a high price on the world market, and provides a supplementary livelihood. The participation of Aymara communities in the management committees of the park seems likely to assure that this arrangement will continue. Though this and other forms of market involvement allow the Aymara communities to continue other forms of traditional livelihood and self-governance, it adds another source of vulnerability as well, as Villarroel and her coauthors point out. It exposes local populations to price fluctuations, and may provide incentives to weaken community control of resources, at a time when further glacier retreat could water scarcity more acute. The future may well bring additional challenges to these resilient communities.

GlacierHub has also covered the involvement of indigenous communities in national park management in Peru.

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