Bolivia burning

An environmentalist’s vision in ashes


ruins in a forest, people nearbyChristine FennessyThe remains of the Charque Lodge

He took a chance going in broad daylight. There was no place to hide his boat. But Genero tells the teenaged driver to stay put, and signal him if he sees anyone coming up the river.

The river guide disappears into the tangled green hive of the jungle. He follows an old, overgrown path laced with vines and littered with dead trees. Sweat creeps down my back as I struggle to keep up with him. For 15 minutes he walks, occasionally pointing out broken bridges rotting at the bottom of gullies or shattered plastic sewage pipes.

He comes to a clearing and we stop.

A Radisson-esque lodge once stood there. It was built by Eco Bolivia, a foundation that once taught indigenous people their rights, how to protect the jungle and how to make a living from tourism. Painstakingly constructed by hand to accommodate 40 tourists, it took years to finish. Tucked among branches and leaves, its decks and wrap-around window netting provided a glimpse of life in the trees. It was a four-star vision for ecotourism – without the mud, mosquito bites and bed bugs of a backpacker hut. Families living along the river would educate their kids with money made from making beds, cooking food, and guiding treks into the forest.

Now, there are only the skeletal remains of a huge fire. Window frames lay twisted and mangled on the ground. Broken support beams are scattered like blackened bones. All that remains of Rosa Maria Ruiz’s vision for the Bolivian Amazon is a two-story brick outhouse.

The destruction of the Charque lodge was just one blow in a series Ruiz has suffered in her extraordinary fall from crusading environmentalist to maligned outsider. Her passion was the protection of the jungle. Her mission was to empower its inhabitants. Her vision was to attract tourists and inspire them. As they visited the lodges she built, she hoped they would come to learn about, and fall in love with, one of the most diverse places on earth – Madidi National Park in northwestern Bolivia.

Ruiz claims a corrupt government attacked that vision, turned the people against her and deprived tourists of the ecotourism adventure of a lifetime.The government’s response is simple: she broke the law.

Few things in Bolivia are certain. Presidents go bad, economies fall flat, peace is fleeting. The answers to why are never black and white. The story of Rosa Maria Ruiz and the fall of Eco Bolivia is passionate, angry and shrouded in gray. Ruiz sits in the hushed quiet of her ailing mother’s house in Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz. She speaks in a whisper. She is interrupted at times by her mother’s coughing fits, and she gets up repeatedly to tend to her. Her days are consumed by her mother’s sickness; her worldhas shrunk to a room the size of a railroad car.

Outside, the city is falling apart. It’s the beginning of June and the capital is in its third week of increasingly violent daily protest marches. Firecracker pops have turned into dynamite blasts. Harassment has become vandalism; jeers have become assaults. The police have turned to tear gas for crowd control. The protesters are mostly indigenous people and they have two demands: They want the Constitution rewritten to better represent them, and they’re demanding that Bolivia not cede control of its huge reserves of natural gas to foreign interests.

The protesters are society’s fringe, its disposable people, and they represent the 70 percent of the population that lives on less than $2 a day. They work in the sewers, sweep the streets, die young in the mines. They sell shoelaces, bloated hot water bottles or naked Barbie dolls on the sidewalks. They don’t want their country to sell out its resources. They want their lives to get better from the riches that will come from a country that protects its resources. Ruiz had once been a part of a similar struggle. And though the protesters will see some victory with the election of Evo Morales, thecounty’s first Indian president, Ruiz’s fight has been lost.

Ruiz remembers when her childhood home was sprayed with gunfire during one of Bolivia’s 200 coups. She remembers shooting sprees conducted by officials from helicopters. The conflict outside doesn’t faze her. She’spouring her energy into healing her 88-year old mother, Lucie Ruiz.

Lucie Ruiz was a crusader for human rights. She worked in a village in northern La Paz department called Apolo in the 1960s, a place with no access by road or by air. She witnessed local people virtually enslaved by wealthy landowners and convinced Bolivia’s human rights commission to investigate. She bought and sold quinine and produce at fair prices, undermining extortionists like Klaus Barbie, the Nazi war criminal who hid out in Bolivia. Barbie tried tohave her assassinated for it, says Ruiz.

Lucie continued to fight for “humble” people, rallying for roads that would ease their isolation and provide access to doctors, medicine andmarkets. The roads were eventually built with international funding.

She instilled her values in Ruiz, and made it clear that to stray from them was to become less than human. They were simple: never lie, cheat or steal.Always share what you have. Strive for justice.

Alternative to loggers

To some, the jungle is a place to be logged, mined, poached, burned and cultivated. It can also be explored, protected and patrolled. As a teenager, Ruiz began trying to persuade people living within the Madidi area to turn their land into a protected area. She had lived in the mountains of the altiplano and played in the labyrinths of Bolivia’s mines as a child, but the jungle was her true home. She cultivated her passion for solitude and independence there, disappearing for hours to explore its maze of human and animal trails. She watched it being chewed away by extractive industries and pleaded with the communities to fight back. But they were desperate for income, medicine and schools. Why shouldn’t they allow the logging companies in, to strip the forest of mahogany, to set fires to build roads? They promised income, employment, and an escape from poverty.

women in a street march, carrying a banner, wearing colorful traditional garbChristine FennessyThe capital was in its third week of increasingly violent demonstrations

But those promises never materialized. The companies brought in their own workers. Instead of buying food, the loggers turned their guns on the jungle and decimated local wildlife. Felled trees that didn’t meet the market standard were burned or left to rot. Logging roads provided an inlet for migration by those who burned the forest, sapped the soil of its strength and moved on, leaving wasted holes in their wake.

Ruiz’s stance against the loggers no longer seemed crazy. The residents of the Madidi area began to believe there might be more to gain from protection than from exploitation.

Once again, Ruiz put forth her plan of creating a park where destructive activities would be banned, the people’s rights acknowledged and the environment protected. But she needed the consent of all communities in the region, and the area she wanted to protect was vast. It began at 19,000 feet in the freezing Andean peaks and dropped down through cloud forest to rain forest and stretched onto the flat grasslands.

For a year, Ruiz traveled by foot, river and mule to these communities. Many hadn’t seen an outsider in over 30 years and had no idea what a “park” was. After she explained it to them, they all agreed it was a good plan.

In 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio introduced the idea that protected areas could make money through tourism – especially if they offered an astonishing array of plant and animal species. That same year, with personal savings and the support of her mother and a few other dedicated individuals, Ruiz created the non-profit foundation Eco Bolivia. Her long walk to the communities had exposed her to people living with no education, medicine or electricity. Few employment opportunities meant they often razed the very land they needed to survive.

The foundation had two goals: protect the land and improve the lives of its people. Ruiz knew tourism alone wouldn’t heal the impoverished area, but it could help. Ruiz’s plan was for Eco Bolivia to build and manage a network of ecolodges located on two different rivers. The foundation would train local people to operate the lodges, guide the tourists, and conduct protection work. Ruiz expected that within five years, at least one member of each family living on those rivers would be employed by Eco Bolivia.

Ruiz had difficulty convincing the Bolivian government to create a park the size of Maryland. “People weren’t too keen on a big park,” she remembers. She blames a government where politicians profited off destructive activities like logging, commercial hunting, gold mining and drug production. “Politicians were related directly or indirectly to the lumber industry and who knows how many other interests,” she says. “Exploiting natural resources is way to get rich quick.”

Ruiz’s struggle was boosted by a biological assessment of the Madidi region conducted by the non-governmental organization Conservation International. The study concluded it was the most diverse humid forest ecosystem in Bolivia. Ruiz then met with the World Bank, bringing satellite images from CI that revealed the effects of fires set by loggers and colonizers on the forest. The World Bank subsequently designated Madidi a priority conservation area.

At last, on Sept. 21, 1995, Bolivia signed the decree for Madidi National Park. It was 1.89 million hectares – about the size of New Jersey.

Ruiz didn’t wait for the park’s creation to begin Eco Bolivia’s work. For years, she had been building a complex of small lodges near her home in Caquiahuara on the Tuichi River. Construction continued under the guidance of Eco Bolivia. In 1993, local employees of Eco Bolivia began building the grand lodge at Charque, on the Beni River. Charque became the classroom for those learning the tools of the tourism trade and the science of protection. The lodge itself was built to be a place of inspiration for tourists. “We wanted to try to get people to fall in love with what they see there, and make a commitment to themselves to care for what we have there,” says Ruiz.

And what they had there was an avian and mammalian wonderland. Rising like a giant shark’s fin from the earth and looming above the river is a cliff where the macaws came to build their cave-like nests. Because Madidi National Park encompasses such a range of habitats, it contains huge biodiversity. It supports over 1,000 of the world’s total of 9,000 bird species and wildlife like jaguars, spectacled bears, maned wolves, tapirs and wild pigs.

Once the park was created, Ruiz looked forward to working with the new park administration. She figured her staff at Eco Bolivia would be hired as park guards. The lodges were almost ready for the tourists. Caquiahuara was now located within the borders of Madidi Park, Charque was next door, in the Pilon Lajas Reserve, a park that had been created in 1992 but whose administration and regulations didn’t exist until they were established simultaneously with those of Madidi. There was six months of work left on Charque. Once the network was running smoothly, she figured she could dissolve the foundation entirely.

Then Ruiz got the letter from the park service; her presence and activities within the park were illegal.

It was 1996 and her world had begun to come undone.

The government’s story

Those who work in La Paz for SERNAP, Bolivia’s national service of protected areas, react with exasperated sighs and rolled eyes to Ruiz’s name. They remember a very long battle against a woman who continues to this day to call them corrupt liars. They speak as a unified agency and their logic is precise and dispassionate: Ruiz didn’t own the land she worked on. She had no permits for the lodges she built. She’d conducted no studies to determine if those lodges had negative impacts on the environment.

Ruiz’s responses are precise and angry. She had settlement rights to Caquiahuara because she’d lived there since 1985, and a family friend had ceded her the land at Charque. Her lodges had all been built before the law requiring permits and impact studies came into affect. Laws can’t be applied retroactively, she insists.

Victor Hugo Inchausty thinks Ruiz had the opportunity to work things out with SERNAP but pride got in her way. “She felt the government was taking the rights that [she thought] belong to her because she was one of the most important promoters of the park, and now the government is taking the biggest role,” says Inchausty, who worked as chief of protected areas for SERNAP during the conflict. He says Ruiz started accusing the agency of trying to take over her operation.

people on a broad river beach with a narrow, long wooden boatChristine FennessyGenaro’s boat.

“The state didn’t want any operation,” he says. “They had enough problems trying to have enough park rangers.”

But Ruiz says she never wanted to be in charge. “I had no intent [for that]. I didn’t want to be a bureaucrat. I value my freedom too much.”

The indigenous people were also turning against Ruiz. They told SERNAP that she was getting rich off selling their image to the world, says Carola Hurtado, a former SERNAP lawyer. They complained in formal, stamped documents about seeing none of that money and they wanted her out – of both Madidi Park and the Pilon Lajas Reserve.

Ruiz explodes. “They should throw me in jail for that – that’s embezzled money!” There is absolutely no proof, she fumes, that she ever got such a cash windfall. She estimates the ruined pile that is now Charque took about $100,000 to build. That money, she says, came from the personal savings of Eco Bolivia board members and from private donors.

Ruiz believes the people turned against her because of a “defamation campaign” run by the park service. Park guards threatened her employees, told them it was “illegal” for them to work for her, and forged their signatures on documents denouncing her, she says. She has notarized statements from locals claiming they never signed such documents. Others told her they were forced to sign them or risk being expelled from their community.

No way, says Ivan Arnold, current director of Madidi Park. The agency is a public service and can’t use force on people. He wasn’t director then, but says, “I can guarantee you, no one was forced to do anything in SERNAP’s favor.”

But Ruiz says the driving force behind that campaign was money. Madidi is a hugely rich place, not just in macaws and mahogany, but also in gas and petroleum. Continued corruption has allowed the powerful to gain access to those riches while the indigenous receive nothing, says Ruiz. “Eco Bolivia would have raised an uproar over that,” she says, agitated. They would have fought to ensure the people shared in the profits reaped off their land.

“That’s the kind of empowerment we’re talking about, not weaving little baskets.”

She believes the communities turned against her because their leaders were bought off by those who wished to exploit the jungle’s resources.

A Franciscan brother named Ignacio Harding echoes this belief. Harding, an American, works in La Paz and has long supported the work of Ruiz and her mother in the area. “There’s almost no indigenous leader there we (the Franciscan church) can have confidence in,” he says.

Ruiz’s world unraveled fast. In September 2001, the communities held a river blockade. They strung canoes on a steel cable across a narrow stretch of the river leading into Madidi Park and banned Ruiz from ever returning. In December, an arson attempt at Charque almost killed three employees and two children as they slept. In April 2002, the Caquiahuara lodges were destroyed. The park service arrived, pronounced the lodges illegal and tore them down. Ruiz lost her home.

Two years later, Charque erupted in flames.

So far, no one has been arrested for setting an illegal bonfire in a national park.

And that’s the type of injustice Ruiz was brought up to loathe. People are afraid because something so obviously illegal has gone unpunished, says Ruiz. “It’s part of the climate of intimidation, part of the reason I yearn for justice to be made. It sets an abysmal, horrible precedent. Remember, they almost burned five people alive and nothing happened then. I don’t expect my infrastructure to be recovered, but that precedent imposed on Bolivians I find horrible.”

It seems support for Ruiz and her plight has vanished. She won’t reveal the names of people she says know what happened the night the lodge was torched. “Eventually I would like to,” she explains. “People were afraid of the repercussions. I don’t think it was the indigenous who planned this – I’m not interested in the people taking the blame.” She gives me a list of people to find in Rurrenabaque and San Buenaventura, the gateway towns into the parks, and communities to visit by boat in the Pilon Lajas Reserve, where Charque once stood. Maybe, she says, there will be people there willing to talk – or to brag.

Edgar Jauregui is on that list. He doesn’t know why Ruiz was driven out. He speculates the park service was jealous of her position as promoter of Madidi Park and declared “war” on her. Jauregui, who lives in San Buenaventura, was a government official at the time her lodges at Caquiahuara were ripped down. He says there was a “black hand” involved in what happened that day. He went to investigate, but the park guards wouldn’t allow him into the area.

He can’t attest to Ruiz’s relationship with the local people. He doesn’t think she held workshops at the Charque lodge, but he remembers she did try to establish projects with local leaders. Some people felt guilty about participating in the river blockade, he says. When asked why, he won’t elaborate. I’d just be spreading rumors about a situation with a lot of questions and very few answers, he says.

He will say SERNAP gave the communities gas and food during the blockade, adding: “There have always been problems with the park service.”

But SERNAP officials in La Paz say that’s not true. The park service is a public institution; it can’t participate in indigenous grievances.

Ruiz arranged for Genero to take me upriver into Pilon Lajas. He and two teenaged boys guide the shallow, wooden, oversized canoe through bursts of rapids and a maze of sandbars. Powered essentially by a lawn mower motor attached to a long shaft, it must be lifted over stretches where the water runs puddle deep. We don’t arrive at the first stop until nearly nightfall.

Genero says the people here are advocating for a road to be built through the park, but they didn’t burn Charque. We sit with Gonzalo, who tells us his community didn’t have a problem with Ruiz. She helped them out by giving them a boat and creating jobs, he says; their relationship existed in a “spirit of trust.” He says all he knows about what happened to her lodges or about her troubles with SERNAP comes from rumor. Then he switches gears and says the community upriver participated in burning Charque. It’s next on our list.

young woman, three girl children, and an older womanChristine FennessyCommunity members in Bisal.

He says many communities, including his, were supposed to benefit from the ecotourism idea. They had all pitched in to build a lodge downriver in a place called Asuncion. The idea was for tourists to spend a couple days there, then travel to Gonzalo’s community and to those further upriver, spreading their wealth. But the tourists never made it past Asuncion. So he and his people started logging, he says, because they needed money for school, food and medicine. The logging stopped when they were finally allowed to accept tourists. But they need to finish building their lodge, he says, and their boats need motors to transport the tourists.

My translator, Felipe, asks if he can videotape him while he talks but Gonzalo refuses. He doesn’t want people to see him talking about these things.

The next morning, as the boat pulls away from the bank, there is a change of plans. Gonzalo was suspicious about the questions regarding Ruiz. He told Genero he didn’t mind talking, but said asking those questions on this river could be dangerous – both the community upriver and Asuncion had participated in burning Charque. The upriver community could radio Asuncion if they feel threatened, said Genero.

Genero is from Asuncion, but it’s a place from which he’s been largely ostracized. Before Charque was destroyed, Asuncion was part of a meeting held between the communities and the park service. Genero says his father-in-law attended and an agreement was made to burn the lodge. Anyone who didn’t sign it, risked getting kicked out of his community. When Genero was approached to sign, he refused. He knew Ruiz from occasionally working as a driver for her, bringing people by river to meetings and classes at Charque, and said she’d done nothing wrong. The leaders of Asuncion accused him of turning against the community and its ecotourism project and working with “the enemy.” Genero still has a house there, but he’s moved his family downriver because he wants his children to have the freedom to think for themselves.

Ruiz has heard stories about what happened that night. People she didn’t know came from far off communities to party in town. They were “wined and dined” before setting off in three boats, “singing, bragging, drunk.” Genero was in Rurrenabaque that day; he confirms those stories are true.

Suddenly, some of those people were too close. No questions, no notebooks, says Genero. His normally smiling face has turned deadly serious. You are just tourists.

Otherwise we risked being boat jacked.

To break up the long ride, Genero stops the boat at a tiny settlement. Sober-faced children dressed in filthy bag-like clothing sit in silence next to their mothers. Tourists don’t come here. Few of these people speak Spanish; their language is a local Indian dialect. Genero says they have no education, no currency and no access to antibiotics. They have no motor for their boats. If they need to go to town, it takes them two to three days to get back upriver to this village. There is a sick man here who Genero may have to pick up on our way back downriver. He has an infection they cannot cure.

scene of river with mountains in backgroundChristine FennessyHeading down Qui Qui Bey

Hours later, we reach the community that may harbor arsonists. It’s surrounded by giant lumps of thick grasses growing where the forest used to be. Genero says they cleared the land for cattle they can’t afford. As they walk toward two enclosed huts, they’re greeted by the harsh barks of several emaciated dogs. Their ribs and backbones are so pronounced they look fake, like models for an anatomy class. Several women with hair like a black storm on their heads hold silent babies. Small children, their faces smeared and dirty, stare without moving. The tuneless hyper-whine of mosquitoes fills the air.

Genero leaves to talk with the leader’s son-in-law. He discovers the community’s radio is broken. We unearth notebooks from backpacks and take our questions to an ensemble of twelve men seated beneath a grove of trees. The men sit on a bucket-supported bench, their faces lost in the eerie shadows cast by the green glow of an upended flashlight. Teran asks vague questions leading up to Ruiz, but the men are occupied with stuffing their cheeks full of the coca I’d bought. They light cigarettes and their responses come in monosyllables. It feels awkward and somewhat ominous, until Teran turns, and in a low voice says I speak better Spanish than they do. They don’t understand him.

We had been cautioned to watch our words. Now it was clear it didn’t matter what we said.

The next day, we met with the leader, a big man with a golfball-sized cyst on his wrist. He shakes his head; he has no idea who burned Ruiz’s lodge. He dismisses questions about her, and leads us across the river to show off the community’s ecolodge. We climb a steep path to the top of a cliff. The lodge is the size of a garage, with choro walls – a thick woody plant that resembles bloated bamboo – and a hatata roof. The mosquitoes have open access through large gaps in the screens. A warped wooden sleeping platform rests on a dirt floor. Outside, the jungle was closing in. It looked abandoned and uninviting.

Two tourists had stayed there in the last year. It was too far upriver, the peoples’ boats had no motors, and sometimes, the river is just too shallow for travel.

When we leave, Genero says the reason nobody wanted to talk about Ruiz or Charque was because they feel guilt over what they did.

We encounter no trouble getting to Asuncion. Its people had once worked closely with Eco Bolivia, which had installed a water pipe for them. Ruiz says they’re the only community that has one.

When Genero asks permission for us to enter, the leader is furious. Jose Caimani tells Genero he has no right to work as a guide and bring tourists to the community. Over a year has passed since Genero incurred Caimani’s anger for not turning against Ruiz, yet resentment still lingers.

Genero waits for Caimani to leave and we walk quickly through the community. We pass the shed with the radio that consolidates river life into bursts of static talk. It sits near a desk Genero says was stolen from one of Ruiz’s lodges. He continues pointing out pieces of wooden furniture he says are also stolen. We see no tourists; the lodge is hidden in the jungle. The community is a ring of neat choro houses around a giant soccer field; it’s a scripted postcard of progressive jungle living.

Although no one is supposed to go there – it remains a crime scene of sorts – Genero asks if we want to see what’s left of the lodge at Charque.

Ruiz has a video someone made of Charque years ago. There are private bedrooms that open into a wooden hallway that leads to a sweeping common room. Hammocks dangle from support beams and there’s a nearly 270-degree view of the jungle through fine screens. Outside, a deck allows for viewing the macaws on the cliff 300 meters away. The lodge stands about 15 feet off the ground, propped on wooden beams. Narrow paths wind around it. Ruiz said the wood came from San Buenaventura, three hours downstream. It was carried in from the river, by hand, piece by piece. It took almost three years to build.

The aftermath

Ruiz has never seen the hole in the forest the fire made. Soon the trees will take over again, grow around the debris, and swallow the evidence of a vision she once had.

Genero says he’s seen another video – one shot by SERNAP the night the lodge was torched. It shows the faces of those who participated and he says the park service uses it to keep them quiet; both SERNAP and Asuncion have copies, he says. SERNAP officials in La Paz say no such video exists.

Who burned the lodge isn’t really a secret – the communities did it, says Juan Carlos Miranda, director of Pilon Lajas Park. He thinks they decided to during a meeting held in Rurrenabaque. SERNAP wasn’t involved, he says, and no one was charged because when SERNAP questioned them, everyone took responsibility. The La Paz officials, however, aren’t willing to cast blame on the local people. That fire was illegal, they say, and it’s still being investigated.

Years ago, Ruiz envisioned her lodges full of tourists, operated by locals and contributing to the protection of the place that stole her heart. Her fantasy, as she calls it, was to retire from Eco Bolivia, and continue exploring and doing conservation work in Bolivia and countries like Peru, Brazil and India where she says she’d received invitations to set up similar projects.

building ruins in a forest, people examining itChristine FennessyRemains of the kitchen at Charque

Today, she’s the manager of Madidi Travel, a tourism agency she created to be the commercial arm of Eco Bolivia, but sold after her troubles began. The agency is owned by a group of people that supported the work of Eco Bolivia and operates on a private reserve outside of the parks. Through the agency, she hopes to continue her work, but she won’t even guess about the future anymore. “I lost everything,” she says.

Those who live on the river remember Ruiz. But whether she was a pariah or a pioneer isn’t clear. No one condemned her, yet no one lamented her loss.

Ruiz believes they’re silent because they’re afraid. They don’t understand the law and they don’t know their rights, she says, and they were terrified that associating with her or Eco Bolivia would land them in jail. But that was a long time ago, and people still aren’t talking. “Why should they have to live in this climate of fear?” she asks. “Why can’t Eco Bolivia even be mentioned without a whole cloud of fear coming over them?”

Her vision would have transformed the entire area, Ruiz says. The parks were supposed to improve the peoples’ lives, but instead she says, they’re being denied the permits to work in tourism, and are resorting back to logging, mining and road building.

Ruiz’s mother died just after the political ruckus in La Paz quieted down. Ruiz says it took the priest a half hour to funnel the mourners from the church. As another piece of her world disappears, she becomes distracted, short and intolerant. She’s been in the city for too long, and it turns her into a person she dislikes. She says she can’t wait to get back to her work, to the jungle.

It’s the only place she’s ever felt safe.

Journalist Christine Fennessy lives in Pennsylvania

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