PUNO, Peru – To the Peruvian government, she is Lake Titicaca, a major source of international tourist revenue and a potential source of oil.
To the Uro people, she is Qutamama, the Mother Lake, and worth fighting the Peruvian government for.
The Uros, ancestors of both the Quechua and the Aymara, consider themselves “the oldest people on Earth.” For centuries, the reed beds on Lake Titicaca’s shores have supplied the Uros with everything they need: material to build the floating islands they live on, their homes, boats, firewood and food.
The Peruvian government said the floating islands are part of the Titicaca National Reserve, a project created in 1978 without the Uros’ consent.
The Uros, 320 families on 44 islands, say the islands are theirs by ancestral right.
They say the only way to stop encroaching pollution and exploitation of their community by local tour agencies, and improve their financial situation, is to exercise that right.
In March, several hundred Uro men, women and children sailed to the nearby city of Puno in their traditional reed boats and demonstrated in the streets to prove their point. The Uros have also gone “on strike” and stopped tourists from visiting their islands, taken a national park guard and the district attorney hostage, and threatened to cut off the city of Puno’s water supply.
The Peruvian government has responded by arresting four Uro leaders and forming a “commission of dialogue” with the Uro community, which the Uros say has stalled.
Juan Coila Vilca, mayor of the Chulluni Uro community, was one of the four people arrested.
“The National Reserve basically wants us to be a ‘human zoo’ for tourists to come and stare at,” he said. “They receive all kinds of money from nongovernmental organizations but none of it has gone to development projects for us. They come to our islands with tanks of gas which they are supposed to use to tour the rest of the islands, sit around for awhile, sell the tanks of gas to us and then go home.”
Local tour agencies, Vilca charged, often cheat the Uros out of the 2 soles (about 70 cents) per tourist they charge the agencies for visits. By winning legal ownership rights to their islands, he said the Uros would be able to take over administration of all tours and profits from tourism.
Vilca said the Uros are now taking “an administrative route” to gain control of their territory, which will be followed by a lawsuit against the Peruvian government, and an international lawsuit under United Nations Article 169 if that fails.
The Uros, said tour guide Oscar Coila on a visit to the islands, were the first to bring tourists to the islands. Now their small boats can no longer compete with local agencies with larger and faster boats, and the people are sliding into poverty. The average Uro, he said, makes about 50 to 100 soles a month, about $15 to $30. Depletion of the local fish supply and pollution from gas-guzzling boats adds to the problem. From his small motor boat, he leaned into the reed bed and plucked out a tall reed, which was coated with petroleum. “This is what the local tour agencies are bringing to us,” he said.
Under Uro administration, Coila said, tourists would be ferried to the islands in nonpolluting boats. They could learn directly from the Uros about their traditions, instead of from a guide who may or may not be giving accurate information.
“We are like renters in our own territory,” said travel agent Carmen Quispe Lujano. “If the Peruvian government suddenly decides they want to give our territory to a multinational, there’s nothing we can do.”
David Aranibar, Quechuan and president of the Titicaca National Reserve, said the Uros are better protected against this possibility under the current arrangement.
“There is oil in Lake Titicaca,” he said. “The government is currently negotiating with a Russian oil company, Siberian. But the National Reserve will be left alone.”
The reserve, he said, works on development projects and ecology education, and is crucial in protecting the lake by regulating the various groups that compete for the lake’s resources, including local Aymara and Quechua indigenous communities as well as the urban fisherman who have increasingly moved in to use the lake. He agreed that pollution is a critical problem, not just from large tour boats but also from human and industrial waste. The Uros’ growing population, he claimed, is contributing to the problem.
He also agreed that local tour agencies don’t always give the Uros their fare share. But without the Uros’ willingness to work with the National Reserve, he said, the reserve can do nothing to help them.
As for development projects, Aranibar said, “The Uros have three schools, a kindergarten, a medical center. They have a different vision of development. They want us to hand them 100 soles.”
Aranibar said the Peruvian government is willing to give the Uros title to the reeds they use to make the floating islands, but not territorial rights.
One hundred and seventy thousand tourists visit the floating islands every year, Aranibar said. From their tourist income, craft sales and fishing, he estimated, 80 percent of Uros are making 100 to 150 soles, about $30 to $50, a day.
Representatives from other indigenous communities in the region, like Santiago Bentanzos of the Conservation Committees of Lake Titicaca, have denounced Vilca and the
Uros who support him as opportunists who wants to “privatize” the lake and prevent them from using the reed beds.
Tour guide Oscar Coila said Vilca, who will probably be replaced in the next mayoral election, is not the issue.
“We are tired of being treated like a living museum,” he said.
Coila does not rule out future demonstrations. He knows the risks.
“Someone will probably have to die before they begin to take us seriously,” he said.