Calixta Mamani thinks with nostalgia of the tall, green cattails growing along the shores of Lake Poopó, in the arid central plateau of the Bolivian Andes. She once used the reeds as feed for her livestock.
"Now, everything has dried up,” she reflected. “There is no life here, the land no longer produces."
She thinks also of the birds—Titicaca grebes and Andean flamingos—and of the fish that were once so abundant in the area. "Now you don't see them anymore,” she lamented. “Everything, our culture, is gone."
The losses described by Calixta represent a plundering. The indigenous and rural communities living near Lake Poopó have been deprived, not only of their primary water source, but of their livelihood, their way of life, and their culture.
Bolivia's second largest lake, Poopó has been damaged by the diversion of rivers, the climate crisis, and mining activities—which have continued despite the pandemic—to the point of putting at risk all the life systems that depend on it.
Calixta is a member of the National Network of Women in Defense of Mother Earth (RENAMAT), an organization that defends the rights of indigenous and peasant women against the destructive impacts of extractive industries in the regions of Oruro, La Paz, and Potosí.
Responsible for grazing the animals, food preparation, and other household tasks, Calixta and other local women live with the lake on a daily basis. As a result, they more acutely suffer the effects of its degradation.
It’s because of the respectful relationship they have with Mother Earth and Mother Water that the communities around Lake Poopó are fighting to save it.
According to a report by the Collective for the Coordination of Socio-Environmental Actions (Colectivo CASA), complaints related to Lake Poopó’s contamination by mining activities date back to 1981, when researchers revealed that 120 lead, tin, and gold mines were discharging their waste directly into its waters.
The situation, which has continued over the years, has led to sedimentation. This means that considerable amounts of cadmium, zinc, arsenic, and lead have become sediment in the lake, making its waters unsuitable for human and animal consumption and of limited use for crop irrigation.
"With the passage of time and the advance of mining, the exploitation of minerals has intensified,” said Petrona Lima, from Ayllu San Agustín de Puñaca, municipality of Poopó, in a testimony collected by the Center for Andean Communication and Development (CENDA). “Little by little all this has been disappearing, water veins have been cut, and everything has come to be as it is now; it looks like everything is burned."
In an effort to preserve its biodiversity—which includes endemic and migratory birds and the largest number of flamingos in the Bolivian highlands—in 2002 Lake Poopó, along with Lake Uru Uru, was declared a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.
Despite this protection, the ecosystem remains in serious danger. In December 2015, water levels in Poopó reduced to such an extent that the body of water actually disappeared—an event considered one of Bolivia’s greatest environmental catastrophes. Although the lake managed to recover its flow during the rainy season, the situation remains critical in the dry months.
The degradation of the lake is also a result of the global climate crisis, which brings intense droughts and increased temperatures. If the global average temperature increased by 0.8°C due to climate change, in Lake Poopó the increase was 2.5°C, according to information published in 2015, accelerating the evaporation of its waters.
Another major source of the degradation of these high-Andean lakes is the diversion of two of the rivers that feed it: the Desaguadero and Mauri rivers. The former has decreased due to mining and agricultural operations, while the later, located on the border with Peru, has been diverted.
Currently threatening the Poopó Basin is the implementation of the second phase of a canal project that would divert more than 500 liters of water per second from the Mauri River to feed the agro-industry in Tacna, Peru. The implementation of the project’s first phase was one of the primary causes of the lake’s disappearance in 2015.
Rural communities, the Aymara and Quechua peoples, the Uru Murato—among Bolivia’s oldest native nations—all depend on the Poopó and Uru Uru lakes. The Uru Murato used to live from fishing, but the contamination of Poopó has forced them to migrate to work in the salt mines.
In addition to causing serious environmental damages, what’s happening to this ecosystem is a serious violation of affected peoples’ rights to water, health, territory, food, and work.
That’s why AIDA and local organizations have joined forces to defend Lake Poopó, its biodiversity, and the communities that depend on it. In July of last year, we asked the Ramsar Convention Secretariat to send a mission of experts to the country to assess the health of Lakes Poopó and Uru Uru and make recommendations to the government for their recovery.
This month, we launched the campaign #LagoPoopóEsVida to make the situation visible and to draw the attention of national and international authorities to the risks facing the lakes and its people.
Protecting Lake Poopó would be tantamount to saving lives and preserving one of Bolivia’s cultural cornerstones.