Climate Change Claims a Lake, and a Way of Life

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LLAPALLAPANI, Bolivia — The water receded and the fish died. They surfaced by the tens of thousands, belly-up, and the stench drifted in the air for weeks.

The birds that had fed on the fish had little choice but to abandon Lake Poopó, once Bolivia’s second-largest but now just a dry, salty expanse. Many of the Uru-Murato people, who had lived off its waters for generations, left as well, joining a new global march of refugees fleeing not war or persecution, but climate change.

“The lake was our mother and our father,” said Adrián Quispe, one of five brothers who were working as fishermen and raising families here in Llapallapani. “Without this lake, where do we go?”


Agustina Rios Moya, 22, with her daughter in the ruins of a family house.

After surviving decades of water diversion and cyclical El Niño droughts in the Andes, Lake Poopó basically disappeared in December. The ripple effects go beyond the loss of livelihood for the Quispes and hundreds of other fishing families, beyond the migration of people forced to leave homes that are no longer viable.

The vanishing of Lake Poopó threatens the very identity of the Uru-Murato people, the oldest indigenous group in the area. They adapted over generations to the conquests of the Inca and the Spanish, but seem unable to adjust to the abrupt upheaval climate change has caused.

Only 636 Uru-Murato are estimated to remain in Llapallapani and two nearby villages. Since the fish died off in 2014, scores have left to work in lead mines or salt flats up to 200 miles away; those who stayed behind scrape by as farmers or otherwise survive on what used to be the shore.

Emilio Huanaco, an indigenous judicial official, is down to his last bottles of flamingo fat, used for centuries to alleviate arthritis. He has never used medication for his aching knee.

Eva Choque, 33, sat next to her adobe home drying meat for the first time on a clothesline. She and her four children ate only fish before.


One thought on “Climate Change Claims a Lake, and a Way of Life

  1. Jerry,
    Thanks for this, even tho’ it’s devistating. In the ’70s I rode the train that ran along the eastern shorel of Lago Poopo, in places atop trestles through the lake bed, water on both sides. We we on the water or beside it for a long time, an hour, perhaps longer. Flocks of flamingoes were within view, the occasional small fishing boat made of totora reeds. In 1986, we had similar views from Isluga at the western, Chilean side of the vast Coipasa and Uyni solaris, also drying up. So sad to loose that, in just a few years.
    Jack [July 2016]

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