For generations, the homeland of Bolivia’s Uru people wasn’t land at all. It was the surface of Lake Poopó, a broad, shallow body of water in the highlands of southwestern Bolivia. Now the lake has dried up, and an Uru remnant struggles for survival onshore.
The Uru, or “people of the water,” are native to Peru and Bolivia. Some Uru still live on Lake Titicaca, astride the Bolivia-Peru border. Visitors to that area can tour one of about 120 traditional Uru island habitats. But tourists must literally watch their steps: The Uru build their own islands from dried reeds.
The totora plant is a type of bulrush—perhaps similar to baby Moses’ floating basket in Exodus 2. Uru builders lash totora roots together with ropes to form giant “pallets.” They cover these in layers of totora reeds. The layers might be as thick as six feet! After that, builders anchor the buoyant pallets with ropes and drive long poles into the lake’s bottom. Historically, if an enemy came to attack, the Uru simply pulled up the poles and drifted away.
The reedy residences work well. But every two weeks to three months, depending on weather, the reeds rot away. The Uru add new reeds to the top. The floating islands—which hold from two to 10 families—last about 30 years before builders must start from scratch.
In years past, the Uru harvested food from the water surrounding them. “They collected eggs, fished, hunted flamingos and birds,” says Abdón Choque, leader of Punaca, a shore town of about 180 people.
Punaca Mayor Rufino Choque says some Uru began settling on the lakeshore several decades ago as the lake began shrinking. But five years ago, Bolivia’s second-largest lake dried up completely. Scientists blame shrinking glaciers, diversions of the river for farming, and pollution.
Now the Lake Poopó Uru are left along the fringes of the former shoreline in three small settlements of about 635 people. They scrabble to make a living—and to save their culture.
“We are ancient [as a people], but we have no territory. Now we have no source of work, nothing,” says Rufino.
Some of the women make straw crafts to sell. But with no land for farming, the young men become laborers in nearby towns or more distant cities. “They see the money, and they don’t return,” says Abdón.
“Our grandfathers thought the lake would last all their lives,” laments Luis Valero, a local Uru leader. “Now my people are near extinction because our source of life has been lost.”
In Him [Jesus] we live and move and have our being. — Acts 17:28