Reviving Uru Uru Lake: Tradition, collaboration and renewal in the heart of Bolivia

I am Dayana, an Indigenous Aymara woman hailing from the bottomlands of the Altiplano in Bolivia. As a young woman engaging in ecosystem restoration, I feel extremely proud of my Indigenous roots.

My grandparents always told me that our DNA, as Indigenous people, is rooted on Mother Earth. We are connected to her with our hearts, souls and minds. We view nature as our Mother because all we have is thanks to her; our food, our culture and our livelihoods. 

We have learned our typical music and dance from the chirping of our flamingos. The llamas and cows provide us with meat and milk. As a community, we always follow the principle of balance: we know that excessive consumption has negative effects on our landscapes.

My grandparents have imprinted upon my generation the desire to continuously seek harmony and nurture a relationship based on respect and care for  nature. Their words still echo in my mind:  “If we do not care about our natural resources, lakes, mountains, and animals, it means we are breaking the harmony with Mother Earth.”

I remember how when we were children, we used to play in front of the pristine waters of Uru Uru Lake, pretending to catch fish. As a child, I was fortunate to witness the convergence of sunset and dawn, to see the radiant glow reflected in the crystal-clear waters of Uru Uru Lake, illuminated by the first and last rays of the sun.

Unfortunately, over the years, the harmony, peace, and sense of community I grew up with were broken. Our sacred lake was being slowly killed by the illegal encroachments of mining corporations on our ancestral lands, a lack of awareness from people from the city, who dump their garbage into Uru Uru Lake, and the effects of climate change.

As time went by, children were prohibited from playing around Uru Uru Lake due to the foul odors emitted by the lake’s polluted waters, which started to affect their health, causing stomach aches in some. The polluted soils and waters were not appropriate for crops or rearing livestock – the primary sources of income for our community.

Sadly, this forced many to become climate migrants. When arriving in urban centers, instead of finding opportunities, many members of my community faced discrimination and could not find employment.

I was heartbroken to see how the sense of community I grew up with was ceasing to exist – and how the next generation would not have the same luck of playing in front of Uru Uru Lake or seeing its unique sunsets and dawns. 

In times when survival is the ultimate goal, it’s not easy to think of other human rights. I witnessed how many of my Indigenous sisters lost their power to decide the paths of their lives due to the economic impacts of mining, plastic pollution and climate change on our community. Many were forced to marry early and later experienced domestic violence. 

Reclaiming communal joy through restoration

The desire to revive the spirit and joy of our community inspired me to spearhead change. In my final year at university, I was resolved in my decision to embody the principle of Ayni, an Indigenous philosophy that underscores the need for reciprocity. I decided to leverage my education to collaborate with two young Indigenous members of our community, Andre and Tupa, in devising a plan to restore our beloved Uru Uru Lake, drawing upon the traditional wisdom passed down by our ancestors.

In this process, we came up with the idea of using Totoras, aquatic plants native to our community. Historically, our ancestors utilized Totoras to construct homes and boats, as well as using it as medicine and to feed livestock. As we inherited traditions and customs, our parents passed on the wisdom of Totora’s decontaminating properties of heavy metals and contaminants dissolved in water.

That’s why, honoring our ancestors’ knowledge and applying scientific principles of phytoremediation, we decided to use the Totoras to bring life back to Uru Uru Lake. But we still had many questions: how could we prevent them from drowning when they were still seedlings? 

An idea came to us: we could build floating rafts using plastic bottles that had been discarded in the lake. Building the first raft was challenging, and we faced difficulties in achieving a steady structure.

During this initial phase, the support of our community was vital, as we received different suggestions to build resistant floating rafts, helping us strengthen the structure of these rafts by placing sticks on both sides, weaving them with ropes, and adding mesh fabric on their centers.  After this collective brainstorm, we were thrilled to see the drafts working perfectly.
I remember very well the day we planted the Totoras: we started in the morning to avoid  the foul odors of the polluted waters, but we had to work until dark. The next day, we experienced stomach aches, but we resorted to drinking Muña tea, our natural medicine, to heal us.

Daya placing the Totora on the rafts made with recycled materials installed along the “black water” channels that run off contaminants to Uru Uru Lake. Photo credit: Odaliz Mamani

Totoras floating on the black waters performing the hardest and altruistic job of decontaminating runoff.
Photo credit: Odaliz Mamani

Another challenge we faced was avoiding having the cows eat the Totoras. Sadly, the Totoras we placed in Uru Uru Lake are not healthy for them as they are growing in polluted waters, with the goal of decontaminating them.

Despite these difficulties, we witnessed the Totoras taking root in the polluted waters and flourishing with greenery. This was a celebration of Mother Earth’s miraculous healing powers. It was a profound moment that highlighted the significance of our Indigenous knowledge and the power of nature-based solutions. We celebrated the growth of Totoras as if we had won the World Cup; as our contribution to preserving our planet, our shared home.

The following year after planting our first Totoras, our Indigenous sisters proposed creating a community garden to raise awareness on the importance of recycling and to increase the project’s sustainability, enabling us to afford the workwear and fences to cover the Totoras. The dream of a community garden came true, also giving us an opportunity to recycle organic and inorganic waste.

Henceforth, we have planted roughly 3,000 totoras, our community garden has different fruit and vegetable species, and we have organized six community dialogues.

Totoras growing stunningly and sturdily decontaminating the contaminated channels.
Photo credit: Dayana Blanco

We feel honored to have been nominated by the Global Landscapes Forum as one of the 2024 Restoration Stewards. This year, we are committed to implementing more floating rafts, organizing community dialogues that extend to schools, and introducing additional species of fruits and vegetables in our community garden.

As part of the Restoration Stewards Program, we want to reach different audiences to show the work that the Uru Uru Team has been doing and engage with decision makers to assist us in protecting the lake.

Most importantly, we want to show the world how we, as Indigenous Peoples, have been pioneering nature-based solutions rooted in our traditional knowledge to restore our ecosystems. 

Meet the Uru Uru Team

Students and community members ready for the year plantation day. Photo credit: Dayana Blanco

Our Indigenous Aymara leaders at the Uru Uru Team have been conducting extremely hard work to recover harmony and foster balance between all living things inhabiting the lake. Our vision is a future where flamingos soar freely, children play without fear, and our Indigenous traditions endure for generations to come.

Segundina Rojas takes charge of the community garden. As a young Indigenous mother, she finds inspiration in her son, driving her to work diligently for the future and the well-being of Uru Uru lake and the wawas (which means babies in Aymara).

Mabel Calahuana is responsible for building the floating rafts using recycled plastic bottles. Mabel aspires to empower Indigenous women to access climate justice and make decisions autonomously without being forced into becoming climate migrants or marrying at an early age.

Gabriela Tronconi is responsible for coordinating community dialogues and nonviolent campaigns to urge authorities to address issues caused by mining corporations. During these gatherings, she advocates for greater involvement of young Indigenous people in the project and educates them about the adverse effects of mining activities, plastic pollution, and climate change. Her dream is for the voices of Indigenous communities to be included in decision-making processes concerning their territories, allowing them to have the final say.

Odaliz Mamani, the youngest member of our community, plays a crucial role in our efforts by managing our social media presence. Through various platforms, she shares our work with the world. Her dream goes beyond simply highlighting the significance of Uru Uru Lake as a Ramsar Site. She envisions a future where the pristine waters of Uru Uru Lake can reflect the shadows of the Totoras, where all plastic bottles found dumped in Uru Uru Lake can be converted into floating rafts, and the flamingos can chirp without fear and sadness.

I, Dayana Blanco, am responsible for planting and monitoring the growth of the Totoras, in addition to organizing groups to safeguard them from being consumed by cattle or destroyed by illegal settlers. Ultimately, my dream is to shed light on the significance of Indigenous knowledge, as a form of science capable of promptly combating threats posed by polluting industries in Indigenous communities and the effects of climate change.

Join us on our journey to restore our sacred Uru Uru Lake!

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Generation restorationrestoration stewardsYouth

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