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Some thoughts on tourism in the Bolivian jungle

The story of a 26-year-old Belgian woman
October 2010

I always associated the idea of Amazonia as a very faraway place full of adventures, headhunting natives, starving missionaries, guerillas and wild animals. It was an inaccessible universe reserved for the most fearless that represented a risk to life.

Taking advantage of living in Bolivia, I quickly became aware of the facilities, but tourists' tales disappointed me a little.

Most of the travelers I met in La Paz had been in Rurrenabaque (Rurre) and easily found the jungle thanks to the tours available in this fast-growing city that is located at the gateway to the rainforest.

In existence for barely 40 years, the city has developed with giant steps thanks to extensive tourism in the region. It seems that its history is strongly linked to Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli who was lost for three weeks in the Bolivian jungle in 1981.He survived without food, weapons and unaware of the dangers he was facing; he wrote about it in his book The Laws of the Jungle. It had an enormous influence on this small city that today is home to 17000 residents and more than 15000 visitors per year, mostly Israelis.

The easiest and most popular way to visit the area is to go to an agency that will take groups of eight for 40 Euros apiece on a three-day tour, all inclusive, to get to know the wildlife hidden in Amazonia.

En face de Rurre, de l'autre coté du fleuve, le département de la PazAt first, this type of tourist activity lead to some abuse to wild animals. Fortunately, creation of the famous Madidi Park National Reserve in 1995 and the less well-known, but no less interesting, Pilón Lajas Park (Reserva de la Biosfera y Tierra Comunitaria de Origen Pilón Lajas) in 1997, as well as other enterprises, have given rise to tourism that respects the environment and the aboriginal communities.

Tourism in the region is used on behalf of conservation and maintenance of resources since Rurrenabaque would lose its attraction without its magnificent ecosystem.

Today (2010), construction is underway on a highway and bridge (financed by the IDB) that will cross the city, disfiguring it and transforming it into a thoroughfare, which would undermine tourism in the area and benefit logging poachers. Town authorities are negotiating with the government to re-route this highway, but unfortunately initial talks were not positive. You can participate in this debate by signing the petition.

Tourism is big business, and in Rurre everything is done to meet the visitor's needs. The Pampas Tour, for example, guarantees that you will see local species (freshwater dolphins, caimans, piranhas, capybaras, etc.). Thanks to the animals housed in the city's Santa Rosa Reserve due to chaqueo, (land clearing by burning), agricultural development and farming, tourists can see a large number of things in a short time. In the jungle it is more difficult to see the animals, which sometimes disappoints visitors. 

So, my idea of the virgin jungle that is hostile, full of extraordinary animals and plants was shattered because of such organized tourism. I was looking forward to the opportunity for an "authentic" experience in this area of Bolivia, but it no longer held a mystical attraction for me.

After living in the Andes for a little over a year among the mountains, glacial, snow-covered peaks and crossing the Altiplano, I had the opportunity to go to Rurre, by-passing the travel agencies. Carlos, a neighbor on my floor, works in an office that supports community tourism development.

It is impossible to develop projects on community land in Bolivia without the participation and authorization of community residents. Keeping this in mind, sustainable tourism in Bolivia means working together with the residents, which also means generating income for the communities so that they will not devote themselves to illegal activities, such as poaching game and fish or indiscriminate logging. There are already some community tourism initiatives (Chalalan, San miguel de Bala), and in view of their successes, it would be interesting to develop these types of projects.   Even though the communities are part of the tourist attraction, they do not benefit from it, only the private travel agencies, whose owners are usually foreigners.  

There are three different ethnic groups in Beni: Mosetenes, Tsimanes and Tacanas. The latter are sedentary (settled in the territory for a long time and dedicated to agriculture and livestock production) with much influence from the Jesuits.

The modern world has little influence on the Mosetenes and Tsimanes which have been settled for barely 30 years. They were originally hunters, living in small, hidden groups and obtaining their nourishment from the fruits of the forest. Nowadays, these communities are organized in groups of 35 families at the most, and they live in large, beautiful bamboo houses. They farm some corn, cassava, plantains, cacao, sugar cane, coconut, etc., and sell any surplus in the city. They do not raise livestock, but live by hunting and fishing.

Since my friend has to make visits to some communities in order to organize roundtable discussions for his research, he asked us to go with him. Of course, we accepted enthusiastically.

Sadly some mishaps interfered with our plans for the trip, but we finally settled on visiting three communities that are not far from the city (about 3 hours) and gave up on going to more distant communities (16 hours of travel) that are better preserved.

The first community we visited was Asunción de Quiquibay (on the banks of the Quiquibay River), which has cabins for tourists that were built using Canadian aid, although they are now abandoned. It appears that the administration was not qualified, although showers and private baths were installed to improve service.

We slept in the community's school and were surprised by the residents, especially the children who were very kind. They helped us get settled in and showed us how the electricity worked. It seems they do not attend school - at least not while we were there for several weekdays.

In the afternoon, an old fellow gave us a tour and pointed out the sounds to hear in the jungle. We went down a path made for tourists several times that is full of cut trees, and on more than one occasion I felt lost.

We collected coconuts in Asunción, although it was not easy. We were rewarded with the delicious, refreshing juice from the fruit that was perfect for the humid heat, which we also fought off by swimming in the Quiquibay River. Contrary to popular belief, piranhas live in lakes and not rivers, so if you take care, there is no danger.

The second community we visited was Charque which is better developed even though it has only been in existence three years. There is more agricultural activity, and tourism is better run. An agreement with a tourist agency pays for the right to enter the community.

Its school, for example, has joined with the national educational system, and the students (19 of all ages) attend every day. It is two years old and works perfectly: the students arrive on time and line up, sing the national anthem and quietly go to the classroom.

The third community, Flores del Carmen, is reached by a two-hour walk (five minutes by car). The residents do not take part in tourism as a community; travel agents do not participate in community development. Thanks to its proximity to a city, it has basic services: drinking water, showers, baths, electricity and satellite dish.

Overall, I did not find the people to be welcoming. Out of curiosity we boldly knocked on some doors to chat. Obviously one cannot create ties in three days, and I do not subscribe to the logic of wanting everything immediately, simulating spontaneity because of having paid.

This trip was enriching and somewhat demystifying. I would love to have the opportunity to return to the Amazonian jungle (at a good time) in order to get to know the wildlife in the area better and in order to have closer contact with the people. 


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