There are places in our world that defy and expand one’s notion of what is possible, that leave you speechless and forever changed for having been there. Not since the forests of Chilean Patagonia had we entered such a land, a land whose essence eludes verbal capture. Madidi National Park is one of the most magical and wondrous places we have been to. As such, it has taken a few days to muster up the keystrokes that may capture a hint of our experience there. Now back in the chilly highlands of La Paz, we’ll do our best to recall our time in the warm, tropical rainforests of Madidi National Park.
The Madidi reserve is situated at the base of the Yungas mountain range, on the peripheral of the broader Amazonian basin. It is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, and is home to countless species of flora and fauna. Madidi National Park received its protected status in the mid 1990’s and is also a special region of indigenous control. There are 8 tribes living within the boundaries of Madidi and the bordering Pilon Lajas natural reserve. Paramount among them are the people of San Jose De Uchupiamonas, a small village of about 140 families located in the northern portion of Madidi. The people of San Jose are responsible for the largest share of lands located in Madidi National Park. The indigenous people of Madidi retain the most intimate knowledge of the park’s natural wonders, and I believe it is they who will ultimately decide its future.
Madidi is accessed by boat from the river town of Rurrenabaque, or Rurre as the locals call it. We arrived in Rurre via a chain of collectivos from Sapecho. Collectivos are generally small vans that depart from point A for point B when filled with passengers. While in the central Yungas town of Palos Blancos, we waited over an hour for one final passenger interested in traveling to Yucuma, the next stop along the way to Rurre. It turned out that final passenger was a genuinely fantastic guy named Andreas, who was traveling from his home in La Paz to complete research for a master’s thesis concerning indigenous rights and the looming threat to protected areas from Bolivia’s national energy production company.
We spent the next few days with Andreas, meeting people in town and discussing his work. I cannot publish any details here, but suffice to say, there are some genuinely disturbing activities occurring in Bolivia with regard to the exploration of gas and oil in protected areas, and even more troubling, the rights of indigenous minorities, the media, or other concerned groups in voicing their opposition.
Bolivia is not alone in this trend. Throughout the Andean nations, the eastern lowlands sloping up to the mountainous foothills are believed to hold large deposits of fossil fuels. The people living in the Amazon are minorities within each of their nations, with little access to resources or representation in their respective capitals. However, in Madidi and in Bolivia, there is some hope for the future. To this point I shall return.
After a prolonged search through the different tour operators in Rurre, we parted ways with Andreas to head into the jungle. We selected Berraco Del Madidi, a company owned by three brothers from the San Jose De Uchupiamonas community, operated with the intent of providing a source of revenue for San Jose that will share the benefit of environmental conservation. The Berraco “eco-lodge” is located 5 hours away from Rurrenabaque by boat, in the heart of Madidi and the ancestral Uchupiamonas lands about three hours downstream from San Jose on the Rio Tuichi. We stayed there for three days and two nights, in tents placed in wonderfully constructed lean-to’s set back in the jungle. Our guide was Leo, the eldest of the three brothers, and one of the most fascinating people we have met. Over the course of our stay, we learned a great deal about the forest and the culture and traditions of his people.
The jungle around the lodge is a “primary” tropical rainforest that has never been inhabited by people. The experience of entering the jungle is multi-sensory and expansive. First, there is the heat. The overwhelming heat and humidity speed the process of decomposition on the forest floor and lend the jungle a strong perfume of greenery and organic matter. Second, there is the sound of water trickling through the canopy, of countless insects buzzing to-and-fro, and of the animals calling to each other from near and afar. Visually, there are two different planes of perspective in the rainforest. Photography is quite difficult from the forest floor, as the base of the jungle resides in a permanent dusk-like twilight, with small pockets of extremely bright tropical sun permeating the canopy some 150 feet overhead. We spent much of our time looking up at the “second plane” of vision in the jungle, spotting various birds and the odd monkey or two.
When I was a younger chap, I used to spend a fair amount of time recording noise-art. To the designer’s ear, the wall of sound is not a singular cacophony but, rather, a delicately constructed cross-section of tones. So it is in the jungle, where my untrained ear and confused eye could not discern one thing from another. Leo, on the other hand, could place every sound to its source and guided us off the trails, through a dense tangle of vines and undergrowth where we could achieve a line of vision. Leo’s knowledge of the forest is amazing, a mix of sensory instinct, personal experience, and generational wisdom passed down through the years. He regaled us with old stories from the forest, taught us how to navigate without trails, and provided detailed descriptions of the biological traits from each plant and animal we encountered. We took walks through the jungle both during the day and the dark of night, traversing different ecologies along the way. As Lex discusses in her post, we learned a great deal about the medicinal uses of different plants, even experiencing it firsthand. Altogether, the jungles of Madidi possess an overwhelmingly strong spiritual energy. Not the type of spirituality that resides in the anxious human mind, but, rather, a sense of awareness of the collective presence of so many living things, of so much mystery and so much knowledge. I suppose it is hard to explain, but walking through the jungle with Leo this week, we felt ourselves in the presence of something vast and beyond conception.
The people who live in the forest communities understand their environment in a way that cannot be taught in a school or understood by outsiders. It is a special way of life and one that they hold a great amount of pride in. However, it is a hard life, and they do not receive much support from the Bolivian government. The people of San Jose only recently received potable water, a project organized by a New Yorker who visited first as a tourist, then returned home to galvanize the support of the international NGO’s. Without the work of international organizations, the tribes of Madidi will be ever more susceptive to the false promises and devil’s bargain offered by the petroleros, who are now more interested in their land than ever before.
It is difficult for community leaders to encourage a long-term vision when there are extremely pressing needs in the present. In the days to come, we will be meeting again with Andreas to develop a plan to work together in the future in order to aid the people of San Jose and to help protect the future of Madidi National Park. It is not hard to help, when you are working with people who have very little by way of material possessions. Truly, the old adage that “every little bit counts” applies in whole to this situation.
If the local people do not stand tall and united, all the world may lose the treasure that is Madidi. There is a case to be made that protecting these lands and preserving the indigenous way of life is in the best interest of everybody. So it has passed for us, having visited this amazing and wonderful place, that we are dedicated now to helping out in whatever small way we can.
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Great post- I’m am so enjoying the dual lex and mark posts. Did you get any video in the jungle? I would love to see some video added to your work.
“A land whose essence eludes verbal capture” ….You do have a way with words. So descriptive and captivating for the reader. I really enjoyed reading this.
Lex: You are so much braver than I am……………..those spiders
were really scary.
You’re a good sport.
love mom w.
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