Barbara Fraser
Tourists try their hand at pressing juice from sugar cane in San Miguel del Bala, in the Tacana indigenous territory.

Partnering for Conservation Benefits Tacana People, Bolivian Park

Barbara Fraser

Kneeling in a small clearing amid tropical trees, Baldemar Mazaro skillfully arranges a circle of sticks and a noose of cord in the community of San Miguel de Bala. He hands a branch to a tourist and asks her to prod the sticks as if the branch were the nose of an animal snuffling around, looking for food.

Suddenly the noose snaps whipping the branch out of the woman's hand and leaving it to dangle from a nearby sapling.

The tourists jump back, and Mazaro chuckles.

"That's how our parents and grandparents hunted," he says.

His is just a scaled-down model—a real trap would snag a large rodent, a small deer, or possibly even a peccary.

This part of San Miguel de Bala is off limits for hunting now, though. Partly overlapping Madidi National Park, Bolivia's iconic Amazonian protected area, the community is part of the Tacana Original Indigenous Territory (Tierra Comunitaria de Origen Tacana, or TCO Tacana), the land of one of the dozens of indigenous peoples living in Bolivia's Amazonian lowlands.

Instead of hunting animals for food, Mazaro now demonstrates the traps his forebears used. The park has become a tourist attraction, he says, providing an income for families and the community of San Miguel.

It also protects the headwaters of rivers that are vital to surrounding communities, and its creation helped control poachers and loggers who were taking advantage of the Tacana communities and their resources, he adds.

The relationship was rocky at first, say former Tacana community leaders who remember the early years.

The park was established without consultation of the people living there. The communities saw the park—with its constraints on hunting, fishing, and cutting of trees—as another in a series of land grabs by outsiders.

A road, a planned sugar mill, and timber concessions granted by the government in the 1980s had already drawn outsiders to the area, and settlers were snapping up the best land and hauling out the best trees, according to Aizar Terrazas.

Leaders began organizing and working to get title to their lands after Bolivia's indigenous people staged a protest march "for territory and dignity" in 1990. The Indigenous Council of the Tacana People (Consejo Indígena del Pueblo Tacana, CIPTA) was formed in 1993, and it received official land rights to about 389,000 hectares (961,239 acres) a decade later. An additional request is pending.

Madidi National Park, which was established in 1995, and surrounding protected areas form a corridor with the Tambopata Reserve and Bahuaja Sonene National Park in neighboring Peru. Altogether the corridor covers some 4.2 million hectares (10,378,426 acres) sweeping down from the Andes Mountains to the Amazonian plain in one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world.

The varied landscape provides habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife ranging from condors and Andean bears to jaguars and river otters. It is also home to more than 250,000 members of seven lowland Indigenous Peoples as well as Quechua and Aymara communities in the highlands.

Because Madidi and the neighboring protected areas of Apolobamba, Ixiamas, and Pilón Lajas in Bolivia are inhabited or overlapped by communities, an intricate land use and zoning system has divided the park into areas with highly protected status and others known as natural integrated management areas, where residents live and where they can use natural resources according to management plans.

The combination makes management complex, says park director David Pomier. According to him, his annual budget, equivalent to about $300,000, is not enough to cover the salaries for the 26 park guards responsible for Madidi's two million hectares (4,942,107 acres), as well as the administrative staff, community education, and development programs for local communities to increase their income and decrease pressure from illegal extraction of natural resources from the park.

Tourism an option, but not easy

San Miguel del Bala is one of several communities that have opted for ecotourism, taking advantage of the park's proximity to replace the income they once derived from hunting, fishing, or selling timber before the park was established.

From its office in Rurrenabaque—the nearest town with an airport and therefore, by default, the area's tourist capital—San Miguel offers short trips for tourists to visit the community, try their hand at pressing juice from sugar cane, learn about traditional handcrafts, and stay overnight in cabins close to hiking trails in the park's buffer zone.

The two-day trips give visitors a taste of the area's dramatic scenery, as they leave the flat Amazonian plain behind and motor slowly up the Tuichi River toward green, cloud-shrouded hills. Longer trips go farther upriver to a second lodge inside the park, where wildlife is more abundant.

The idea of a tourism venture first arose in 1998, three years after the park was created. It took another five years to bring it to fruition with assistance from several international non-profit groups, says Constantino Nay, general manager of the tourism operation.

"People asked who it was going to benefit, and how," he said. "They worried that we would lose our traditions."

Some community members work as guides, assistants, housekeepers, or boat pilots and receive a salary, and the tourism operation purchases products it needs from people in San Miguel.

Profits are divided up according to a system devised by the communities for all business enterprises, with some going back into the business, some to a community fund, and some to each family in the community. In a good year, each family in San Miguel receives between $400 and $500 from the tourism venture.

"But it's not easy to be a successful business," Nay says.

Keeping a highly seasonal tourism enterprise running without going into debt is a headache, he says.

In the marketplace, Nay competes with about two-dozen other companies offering everything from high-end to bare-bones service. In the community, he must deal with his neighbors' expectations of jobs or higher profit-sharing payouts.

Park director Pomier would like to see tourist ventures start up in more communities around the park, offering new routes and different services. Tourism would benefit the communities, as well as local governments and the park service, each of which receives a portion of the park entrance fee.

That income currently amounts to more than 25 percent of the park's budget, he said, but it is hard to predict. Severe flooding early this year kept tourists away, cutting heavily into the park income.

The flooding—abnormally high for several weeks—also washed away one of the buildings at San Miguel's lodge. It was rebuilt on higher ground, an extra cost for the tourism business. Along the Beni River, the water also stripped families of their crops and livestock, and in some cases their homes.

Emergency aid was slow to arrive and did not last long enough, Pomier says. That, in turn, put pressure on natural resources in the park, as people who had lost everything sought to meet their subsistence needs and replace their belongings from resources inside the protected area.

The disaster and its aftermath underscored the need for a mitigation plan, he says. And although local residents say the scale of the flooding was unprecedented, some observers worry that it may not be unusual in the future.


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E.Sommer's picture
Submitted by E.Sommer on
Note that the article is split up into 2 pages. The name of the general manager of the "San Miguel del Bala Community Eco-Lodge & Eco-Tourism" is Constantino Nay. Constantino is spelt Constantino, not Constantinto. (The extra letter "t" is a mistake). See The tag "Constantinto Nay" should also be corrected to "Constantino Nay". Using the right tag: you will find the article "Environmental Wisdom: Keeping Indigenous Stories Alive" of 2/22/15 by Barbara Fraser.

E.Sommer's picture
Submitted by E.Sommer on
Thanks for correcting the spelling of the name Constantino Nay. And for correcting the tag. I have now found out that the name of the village San Miguel del Bala is written in 2 ways in the article: With and without the letter "l" in the word "del". The correct spelling is "del": San Miguel del Bala. See Also the name of the tag should be corrected to "San Miguel del Bala". The word "del" is a contraction of "de el". "Bala" means "bullet" or "cannon ball". The landmark is the ’shot hole’ in the nearby mountain range that is visible from the lodge.