Kneeling in a small clearing amid tropical trees, Baldemar Mazaro skillfully arranges a circle of sticks and a noose of cord in the community of San Miguel de Bala. He hands a branch to a tourist and asks her to prod the sticks as if the branch were the nose of an animal snuffling around, looking for food.
Suddenly the noose snaps whipping the branch out of the woman's hand and leaving it to dangle from a nearby sapling.
The tourists jump back, and Mazaro chuckles.
"That's how our parents and grandparents hunted," he says.
His is just a scaled-down model—a real trap would snag a large rodent, a small deer, or possibly even a peccary.
This part of San Miguel de Bala is off limits for hunting now, though. Partly overlapping Madidi National Park, Bolivia's iconic Amazonian protected area, the community is part of the Tacana Original Indigenous Territory (Tierra Comunitaria de Origen Tacana, or TCO Tacana), the land of one of the dozens of indigenous peoples living in Bolivia's Amazonian lowlands.
Instead of hunting animals for food, Mazaro now demonstrates the traps his forebears used. The park has become a tourist attraction, he says, providing an income for families and the community of San Miguel.
It also protects the headwaters of rivers that are vital to surrounding communities, and its creation helped control poachers and loggers who were taking advantage of the Tacana communities and their resources, he adds.
The relationship was rocky at first, say former Tacana community leaders who remember the early years.
The park was established without consultation of the people living there. The communities saw the park—with its constraints on hunting, fishing, and cutting of trees—as another in a series of land grabs by outsiders.
A road, a planned sugar mill, and timber concessions granted by the government in the 1980s had already drawn outsiders to the area, and settlers were snapping up the best land and hauling out the best trees, according to Aizar Terrazas.
Leaders began organizing and working to get title to their lands after Bolivia's indigenous people staged a protest march "for territory and dignity" in 1990. The Indigenous Council of the Tacana People (Consejo Indígena del Pueblo Tacana, CIPTA) was formed in 1993, and it received official land rights to about 389,000 hectares (961,239 acres) a decade later. An additional request is pending.
Madidi National Park, which was established in 1995, and surrounding protected areas form a corridor with the Tambopata Reserve and Bahuaja Sonene National Park in neighboring Peru. Altogether the corridor covers some 4.2 million hectares (10,378,426 acres) sweeping down from the Andes Mountains to the Amazonian plain in one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world.
The varied landscape provides habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife ranging from condors and Andean bears to jaguars and river otters. It is also home to more than 250,000 members of seven lowland Indigenous Peoples as well as Quechua and Aymara communities in the highlands.
Because Madidi and the neighboring protected areas of Apolobamba, Ixiamas, and Pilón Lajas in Bolivia are inhabited or overlapped by communities, an intricate land use and zoning system has divided the park into areas with highly protected status and others known as natural integrated management areas, where residents live and where they can use natural resources according to management plans.
The combination makes management complex, says park director David Pomier. According to him, his annual budget, equivalent to about $300,000, is not enough to cover the salaries for the 26 park guards responsible for Madidi's two million hectares (4,942,107 acres), as well as the administrative staff, community education, and development programs for local communities to increase their income and decrease pressure from illegal extraction of natural resources from the park.
Tourism an option, but not easy
San Miguel del Bala is one of several communities that have opted for ecotourism, taking advantage of the park's proximity to replace the income they once derived from hunting, fishing, or selling timber before the park was established.
From its office in Rurrenabaque—the nearest town with an airport and therefore, by default, the area's tourist capital—San Miguel offers short trips for tourists to visit the community, try their hand at pressing juice from sugar cane, learn about traditional handcrafts, and stay overnight in cabins close to hiking trails in the park's buffer zone.
The two-day trips give visitors a taste of the area's dramatic scenery, as they leave the flat Amazonian plain behind and motor slowly up the Tuichi River toward green, cloud-shrouded hills. Longer trips go farther upriver to a second lodge inside the park, where wildlife is more abundant.
The idea of a tourism venture first arose in 1998, three years after the park was created. It took another five years to bring it to fruition with assistance from several international non-profit groups, says Constantino Nay, general manager of the tourism operation.
"People asked who it was going to benefit, and how," he said. "They worried that we would lose our traditions."
Some community members work as guides, assistants, housekeepers, or boat pilots and receive a salary, and the tourism operation purchases products it needs from people in San Miguel.
Profits are divided up according to a system devised by the communities for all business enterprises, with some going back into the business, some to a community fund, and some to each family in the community. In a good year, each family in San Miguel receives between $400 and $500 from the tourism venture.
"But it's not easy to be a successful business," Nay says.
Keeping a highly seasonal tourism enterprise running without going into debt is a headache, he says.
In the marketplace, Nay competes with about two-dozen other companies offering everything from high-end to bare-bones service. In the community, he must deal with his neighbors' expectations of jobs or higher profit-sharing payouts.
Park director Pomier would like to see tourist ventures start up in more communities around the park, offering new routes and different services. Tourism would benefit the communities, as well as local governments and the park service, each of which receives a portion of the park entrance fee.
That income currently amounts to more than 25 percent of the park's budget, he said, but it is hard to predict. Severe flooding early this year kept tourists away, cutting heavily into the park income.
The flooding—abnormally high for several weeks—also washed away one of the buildings at San Miguel's lodge. It was rebuilt on higher ground, an extra cost for the tourism business. Along the Beni River, the water also stripped families of their crops and livestock, and in some cases their homes.
Emergency aid was slow to arrive and did not last long enough, Pomier says. That, in turn, put pressure on natural resources in the park, as people who had lost everything sought to meet their subsistence needs and replace their belongings from resources inside the protected area.
The disaster and its aftermath underscored the need for a mitigation plan, he says. And although local residents say the scale of the flooding was unprecedented, some observers worry that it may not be unusual in the future.
The disaster may have been, at least partly, a result of human miscalculation. Some studies indicate that dams downstream on the Madeira River in Brazil may have exacerbated the flooding because their design did not allow the huge amounts of water upstream to flow down as quickly as necessary.
Indigenous territory buffers against deforestation
The February floods made food security and economic opportunities a priority for community leaders, says Nicolás Cartagena, president of CIPTA.
"We went hungry, because we couldn't work and families had no money," he says.
He and other leaders would like to open plants to process fruits and other forest products, riding the acai fruit wave in neighboring Brazil.
Projects like that, however, require capital, training, and lots of time. But without employment opportunities, he says, young people abandon the communities for cities far from the TCO Tacana. Some work in tourism, but many are drawn into logging. Still, there are not enough jobs for all the teenagers who graduate from high school.
From the tourist and trading town of Rurrenabaque, where the Tuichi River meets the Beni, boats ferry passengers to San Buenaventura. From there, a dirt road skirts the Madidi Park, connecting to the towns of Tumupasa and Ixiamas.
This area is outside the park, a difference underscored every time a truck laden with tree trunks trundles past. The largest part of the TCO Tacana lies on this side of the El Bala and Mamuque mountain ranges, bordering the road and in the lowlands along the Beni River.
Here the TCO itself acts as a protected area, reflecting a growing number of studies that have found deforestation rates lower in indigenous territories than on surrounding land, and sometimes even lower than in government-managed parks.
A recent study by CIPTA and the Wildlife Conservation Society calculated an annual deforestation rate of 0.5 percent in the TCO Tacana between 2005 and 2010, compared to 3.7 percent along the road on non-TCO land and 2.3 percent on farms or other property outside the TCO. The study predicted that the TCO's land management will avoid the deforestation of 230,842 hectares (570,423 acres) by 2021, an area that would cover more than half of Rhode Island.
That is true even though timber remains the largest income-producing resource on community lands, Cartagena says. But internal regulations and zoning for activities such as farming and logging, along with timber management plans, keep deforestation in check. Nine communities have community forestry organizations, each with a management plan.
Women prepare meals for tourists visiting San Miguel del Bala through its community tourism operation.
Income could triple if the communities sold sawn wood, he says, but they lack the necessary infrastructure and equipment.
Other projects to generate income from natural resources have met with mixed success. A honey project didn't fly, he said. Cacao looks more promising, with a Bolivian chocolate manufacturer agreeing to buy the raw material and market the finished product as being from the indigenous territory.
Sale of Yacare caiman hides is a growing business for several dozen people from various communities, with the possibility of sales to international manufacturers, Cartagena says. The Yacare caiman (Caiman yacare), a relative of the crocodile, has the southernmost range of all crocodilians. Overhunting and poaching for its hide led to sharp drops in the population in various parts of South America, although it is rebounding as a result of conservation efforts .
In the 1990s, outsiders hired locals to hunt caimans around the Tacana communities. Because of that uncontrolled hunting, the WCS began working with the TCO in 1999 to see if there were places where sustainable hunting would be possible.
As a result, communities took stronger control of their territories, which benefited not just caiman populations but other resources, says Guido Miranda, WCS wildlife management coordinator.
A management plan drafted in 2006 and 2007 set quotas for about 35 lakes where locals could take 25 percent of the animals that were at least 1.8 meters long, estimated to be one percent of the total population of about 500,000 caimans in that area, Miranda says.
With a two- to three-week caiman season in September and October, community members have found it more profitable and efficient to manage the population and sell the hides in bulk rather than sell individually, as they did in the past.
At first, they salted the hides and sold them to middlemen. Then they began selling directly to a tannery. In 2010, they hired a tanning service so they could sell the processed hides themselves. Revenues were $13,000 that year, up from about $11,000 in 2008, Miranda says.
The market is cyclical, however, and income dropped last year. This year, the communities salted the hides and negotiated with a foreign buyer. They also began marketing the meat to restaurants in La Paz and Cochabamba under a government-run program that certifies that the caiman meat comes from sustainable sources, Miranda says.
The caiman management system has caught the eye of indigenous communities that would like to try it around the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in northeastern Peru, where they already manage turtles and some fish species.
More recent head counts show the population of caiman in the TCO Tacana is healthy, Miranda says. The most recent management plan increased the minimum size to two meters to avoid inadvertent capture of females.
One hazard is the accidental killing of black caimans, which are protected, but Miranda says experienced hunters generally do not confuse the two.
Despite the overall conservation efforts in the TCO Tacana, Neide Cartagena worries that changes could be on the horizon for the indigenous communities and the forests around them. Plans to pave the road to Ixiamas could result in more deforestation, as it has in other parts of the Amazon, although she says there will be a fund to mitigate the impacts.
There is also talk of a dam on the Tuichi River and drilling for oil in leases that overlap Madidi, but there are no details, according to Miranda.
Now that the Tacanas' land rights are mostly secure, Neide Cartagena is working to bolster her people's pride in their identity through a program to teach the Tacana language. Cartagena is a former vice president of CIPTA who now directs the TCO's Language and Culture Institute in Tumupasa.
Her daughters, playing in a mango tree outside her house, teach a visitor to count to 10 in Tacana. The children are the most enthusiastic, but teenagers are catching on, she says. Early this year, the institute started a course for government officials and schoolteachers.
"The idea is not to teach the language, but to teach in the language," she says. "We know it will be a process."
Language is tied to identity and to conservation, because as people have stopped using the language, they have lost the stories that shaped their parents' and grandparents' lives and their relationship with their environment, Cartagena says.
"The park conserves animals and plants," she says, glancing toward the cloud-shrouded hills that rise above the Amazonian plain. "Being close to Madidi is mostly an advantage. We indigenous people have always lived with nature."
Barbara Fraser, is an ICTMN correspondent and Mongabay.org Special Reporting Initiative Fellow. This article was produced under the Special Reporting Initiatives program.