La Paz, Bolivia, July 30, 2019. Local communities along with a coalition of organizations request that the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty for the protection of wetlands, send an expert mission to evaluate the health of lakes Poopó and Uru Uru, and issue recommendations to the Bolivian government for the urgent recovery of these key ecosystems.
“The Ramsar Convention’s specialized knowledge on wetlands can be of great use to save lakes Poopó and Uru Uru,” said Carlos Lozano Acosta, senior attorney with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA).
These lakes are an important source of water for the plants and animals of the Central-Eastern Bolivian highlands, particularly for several endemic and migratory bird species. Lake Poopó is the second largest lake in Bolivia, after the iconic Lake Titicaca.
Together, the lakes host the largest number of flamingos in the Bolivian highlands and, quite possibly, in the entire high Andean region of South America. These highland ecosystems are also home to unique species such as the Titicaca grebe(Rollandia microptera), an endangered species of flightless bird.
The lives and livelihoods of peasant and indigenous populations—including Quechua, Aymara, and Uru Murato communities—depend on the preservation of lakes Poopó and Uru Uru. The Uru Murato are known as the “people of water” due to their dependence on the lakes, and are among the oldest native indigenous communities in Bolivia.
“It was precisely to preserve the lakes that, in 2002, the government registered Poopó and Uru Uru as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention,” explained Sergio Vásquez, director of the Andean Communication and Development Center (CENDA). “As such, we ask that Ramsar support the Bolivian government in the protection of these and other high Andean wetlands.”
In December 2015, the water levels of Lake Poopó were reduced to such a degree that the body of water actually disappeared, in what is now considered one of the largest environmental catastrophes in the country. The causes were various: sedimentation produced by mining activity; the diversion of the lake’s tributary rivers; and natural phenomenon aggravated by the climate crisis.
Although the lake’s levels have since increased in times of rain, the situation remains critical during the dry season.
“We’re requesting that Ramsar experts identify measures to strengthen the surveillance and monitoring of these ecosystems,” said Angela Cuenca, of the Coordinated Collective for Socio-Environmental Actions (CASA Collective). “We’d also like them to recommend mitigation and restoration actions for the damages caused by mining activities.”
The degradation of lakes Poopó and Uru Uru directly affects the wellbeing of the people who depend on them, causing harms to public health, particularly among women, girls and boys. The grave situation of the lakes forced the Uru Murato people, previously dedicated to fishing, to migrate for work in the mines, placing them among the region’s first climate refugees.
“We indigenous and rural women live and feel the effects of pollution and the lake’s disappearance, because we are responsible for feeding and sustaining our families,” explained Margarita Aquino, from the National Network of Women Defenders of Mother Earth (RENAMAT). “These water sources are vital for our communities and for Mother Earth.”
AIDA is an international nonprofit organization that uses the law to protect the environment, primarily in Latin America.