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Emergency in the Amazon—the Chácobo in Bolivia

A family sets out through the floodwaters to find shelter. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
A family sets out through the floodwaters to find shelter. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)

By Rainer W. Bussmann (Cuya Mëbi Kokatsá) and Narel Y. Paniagua Zambrana (Mëa Mahani Tara)

Late February, 2014—It has rained for weeks now, and the rivers everywhere in Bolivia have risen to record levels. The Beni area, where our project is located, has received 200 percent more rainfall than usual. This morning the water has finally reached the last dry ground in Chácobo territory, and it keeps rising. Kako has recovered his canoe, packed up his family of seven, three of his eight dogs, a handful of the recently born piglets, a few chickens and a few belongings, and is heading South towards the city of Riberalta to find shelter. The mother pig and the remaining dogs are left behind to fend for themselves. By now, the water in the village is three feet high. It will rise another three feet by nightfall. Nobody in the tribes’ history recalls the water ever rising so fast and to such heights—the Chácobo villages are located more than a hundred feet over normal water level, and have never before been inundated. This might be the last straw for a tribe that has weathered disasters for centuries.

Alto Ivon before the floods (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Alto Ivon before the floods. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Kids bathing in a Chácobo village. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Kids bathing in a Chácobo village. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)

Bolivia and the Chácobo

In October 2011, we visited the Chácobo for the first time to conduct interviews about the use of palms in the community. After living with the tribe for some time, we were awarded Chácobo names, and as such made part of the community. In the process of our work we expected to observe profound changes in traditional knowledge as compared to what was reported earlier. This led us to plan for a longer-term project to research how Chácobo life and knowledge has changed over the last hundred years. Our present work, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, represents the start of a follow-up ethnobotanical inventory of the tribe, to see if the profound changes of the last decades have caused tribal members to lose much of their traditional knowledge.

Traditional knowledge repatriated in the form of a written record that can serve as a reference for future generations. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Traditional knowledge repatriated. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Homes in a Chácobo village. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Homes in a Chácobo village. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)

Over the past century, indigenous groups in Bolivia have faced many challenges. Beginning with the rubber boom of the early 1900s, many indigenous people faced exploitation and displacement by outsiders who were more concerned about turning a profit than about protecting the environment and societies they encountered. Besides immediate threats to the safety and livelihood of indigenous people, many tribes had to fight through severe epidemics, as the sudden influx of foreigners exposed them to new diseases.

The traditional knowledge that has been lost includes knowledge of medicine and healing practices, increasing risks for indigenous communities that have limited access to other forms of healthcare. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
The traditional knowledge that has been lost includes knowledge of medicine and healing practices, increasing risks for indigenous communities that have limited access to other forms of healthcare. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
A Chácobo family gathers outside their home. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
A Chácobo family gathers outside their home. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)

All of these tribes were forced to adapt to changing conditions. While many traditions remain, the lifestyle of the Chácobo is dramatically different than it was in the past. In the 1980’s, cassava was clearly the most important food for Chácobo, who planted seven varieties and would begin harvesting the plant in May. Five varieties are still in use today, and in most homes, you can still find jibé, large clay pans used to roast cassava flour. Rice has now become the staple food, and a large part of the rice crop is sold. Years ago, Brazil nuts were an important part of the Chácobo’s diet. Today, Brazil nuts are collected primarily for sale, not for food, and they provide the main source of income for many Chácobo. During the nut harvest between January and March, almost the entire Chácobo population migrates to the South of the territory, where the largest concentration of Brazil nut trees is encountered.

A Chácobo woman weaves a basket out of leaves. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
A Chácobo woman weaves a basket out of leaves. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
A woman works in her home. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
A woman works in her home. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)

The floods this spring came exactly at the time of year when cassava begins to sprout, and when rice is ready to be harvested. Because of the severity of the floods, the Chácobo have lost their entire harvest for a year. Most of their livestock have drowned, and many houses were destroyed. To make things worse, the flooding prevented the normal migration to collect Brazil nuts, taking away an important source of income, and leaving Chácobo families without any financial means of coping with the flood damages. Even the ethnobotanical garden that was created under our Sacred Seeds program to help the Chácobo cultivate and maintain traditionally important plants has been destroyed. Almost all members of the tribe are now in makeshift shelters in the local town of Riberalta, where the water stands a foot deep in the main square.

A woman in her home. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
A woman in her home. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)

Fast forward to May 2014—Finally the waters are falling, and many Chácobo families try to return to their villages—to destroyed homes, drowned livestock, and lost harvests. Much help will be needed to rebuild their lives.

In the flood shelters, people find ways to make ends meet. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
In the flood shelters, people find ways to make ends meet. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Government help has been slow to arrive, and we have been doing what we can to help to feed the tribe members. So far, we have donated about two tons of food to the Chácobo, but more food and medicine is needed for months to come.
Flooding has devastated many Chácobo's homes. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Flooding has devastated many Chácobo’s homes. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)

If you would like to help, please donate online through our Sacred Seeds Program at http://wlbcenter.org/ss_donate.htm with the donation purpose “Chácobo Relief Program” or send a check to:

Rainer Bussmann
Missouri Botanical Garden
“Chácobo Relief Program”
P.O.Box 299
St. Louis, Mo 63166

Missouri Botanical Garden is a 501c(3) Charitable Trust, and your donations are tax deductible.

The fieldwork with the Chácobo is supported by NGS through National Geographic Society Grant #9244-13.

Bath time in a Chácobo village. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)
Bath time in a Chácobo village. (Photo by Rainer Bussman)