‘If there is no water, the Chipaya have no life’

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Rory Carroll speaks to members of the Uru Chipaya tribe, whose lifestyle in the Bolivian Andes is being threatened by the effects of global warming

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Story Transcript

RORY CARROLL, THE GUARDIAN: It’s difficult to believe, but in this desert used to be a huge lake. The water nourished a landscape of trees and meadows. Then the water evaporated, leaving a wilderness of salt. Nothing grows here. This is high up in the Bolivian Andes. The Incas, and later the Spanish, tried to claim this territory, but they didn’t last long. The environment was too harsh; they packed up and moved on. There is one exception. The Uru Chipaya people had lived and survived in these highlands for thousands of years. They are thought to be the oldest surviving culture in the Andes. Their secret? The river Lauca. They use it to flush salt from the soil, leaving its just about fertile enough for crops and livestock. But now there’s a problem. The river is drying up. In the past 50 years, it has gone from being a torrent to a stream to a trickle.

FELIX QUISPE, CHIEF OF THE URU CHIPAYA (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Over here used to be all water area, and there were ducks, crabs, reeds growing in the water. That’s what was here. I remember that. What are we going to do? We are water people. At times it doesn’t rain. There is no pasture for animals, no rainfall, drought.

CARROLL: Scientists say global warming is hitting the Andes hard. Glaciers are melting, rivers are drying, drought is spreading. For the Uru Chipaya, it’s a disaster. They face extinction.

VICENTA CONDORI, FARMER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We have nothing to eat. That’s why our children are all emigrating. We have no little ones left. We want help.

JUAN CONDORI, VICENTA’S HUSBAND (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We are at risk of extinction. The Chipaya could cease to exist within the next 50 years. The most important thing is water. If there is no water, the Chipaya have no life.

CARROLL: For the Uru, everything depends on this, the river Lauca. It keeps their animals alive and waters their crops. They consider it sacred. But look at it. It’s drying up. Changing weather patterns have turned what was once a torrent into a trickle. The Uru worry that as the river slowly disappears, so will they.

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