Bolivian “man on the water” tries to survive the loss of the lake Latin American news

For generations, the homeland of the Ulu people here is not land at all: it is the salt water of Lake Popo.

The Ulu people—the “people on the water”—will build a family-like reed island after they get married and live on what they can harvest from the wide shallow lakes in the highlands of southwestern Bolivia.

“They collected eggs, fished, hunted flamingos and birds. When they fell in love, the couple built their own raft,” said Abdón Choque, the leader of Punakha, a town with about 180 people.

Now Bolivia’s second largest lake has disappeared. It dried up about five years ago and became a victim of shrinking glaciers, agricultural water changes and pollution. During the rainy season, ponds reappear in some places. The lake is 3,700 meters (12,139 feet) above sea level and has an area of ??1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles). When it reached its highest level in 1986, it had an area of ??3,500 square kilometers (1,351 square miles).

Ulu of Lake Popo is clinging to the salt-covered front coastline in three small settlements. 635 people fought to make a living and even fought to save their culture.

“Our grandfather thought this lake would last their lives, and now my people are on the verge of extinction because our source of life has disappeared,” said Luis Valero, the leader of the Ulu community on the lake.

Shortly before the lake disappeared, the language of the Ulu-Qiaoluo people also disappeared. The last native speakers are gradually dying out, and the younger generation is educated in Spain and works in other more common indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechua.

In order to preserve their identities, the community is trying to restore their native language-or at least their closest siblings. With the help of the government and local foundations, they invited teachers from the Uru language-related branch, namely Uru-Chipaya near the western Chilean border, to teach this language to their children-officially recognized by Bolivia One of 36 languages.

“In this era, everything is changing. But we are working hard to maintain our culture,” Valero said. “Our children must regain their language in order to distinguish us from our neighbors.”

“Teachers use numbers, songs and greetings to teach us language,” said Avelina Choque, a 21-year-old student who said she wanted to teach math one day. “Pronunciation is a bit difficult.”

The pandemic has intensified this struggle. During the pandemic, teachers cannot attend classes in person, and students can only learn from texts, videos and radio programs.

Punaca Mayor Rufino Choque said that decades ago, as the lake began to shrink, the Uru people began to settle on the shores of the lake, but at that time, most of the land around them had been occupied.

“We are ancient [as a people], But we have no territory. Now we have no source of work, nothing at all,” said the 61-year-old mayor, whose town consists of round plastered brick houses on a dirt street.

Since there is no arable land, these young people can only work as laborers, herders or miners in nearby towns or cities farther away. “They didn’t come back when they saw the money,” Abdón said. Some women use straw to make handicrafts.

The wider Uru people once ruled large areas of the region, and branches still exist in Peru and the northern border of Lake Titicaca, the borders of Chile, and the borders of Argentina.

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