13 January 2015

Final year PhD student Anne Toomey discusses mining, environmental protection and scientific research with park guards and community leaders in Madidi National Park, one of the most biologically and culturally diverse places on the planet.

We huddled together in the stationary pickup truck, shivering in our clothes that had gotten wet while crossing the Tuichi river earlier in the day.  I suggested returning on foot to the closest village, Pata, where we’d been offered beds in a local home, but as if on cue, the rain poured with even more intensity against the windows.

Five of us sat in the cabin of the truck – besides myself there was Cesar, a park guard born in the region, Karen, a biologist coordinating the monitoring programme in Madidi National Park, Marcos, the head of the park guards in Apolo, and Merry, the president of a mining cooperative located in the nearby community of Santa Rosa, who’d hopped in at Pata, where we’d stopped for a home cooked meal.

But alas, finally we reconciled ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going anywhere – the roads were far too slippery, the slopes bordering it too steep, and the fog too thick.

Different perspectives on the same problem

The conversation in the truck was at least lively.  Merry’s cooperative had recently been sanctioned with breaking environmental laws by the very park guards sitting in the truck and, somewhat seriously, somewhat kiddingly (as Marcos threatened to throw Merry out into the rain several times), they debated their different points of view. 

Mining was needed in the community, said Merry.  In the past outsiders had come to mine the gold in their area, and only recently had the community organized to exploit the resources themselves, instead of only serving as paid labour.  Not to mention that mining would bring better roads: the need for these was evident from the very situation in which we found ourselves – unable to go back down the mountain or continue on, despite being in a 4x4 heavy-duty pickup truck.

The park guards agreed with her on all counts, but said that they had to do things by the law – whether inside the protected area (as Merry’s community is) or outside, environmental laws apply, and for good reason.  Mercury contamination, for example, is a major threat to the health of both the human and animal communities that live along the rivers – and impacts are not just local.  The Tuichi River, where much of this mining takes place, empties into the Beni, which empties into the Madeira, which eventually becomes the Amazon.  Mercury travels.

Merry agreed and said they knew they needed technical help: not just to obtain the needed environmental licenses, but also to adopt techniques to lower the environmental impacts of their activity.

The park guards themselves are trying to promote the creation of a specific regulation for mining in the region.  Under national laws, mining is severely restricted in protected areas, and even small-scale, artisanal operations must obtain environmental licenses – a very time and money-consuming feat for communities with only basic understanding of national environmental laws and little access to legal and technical assistance.  Which is where the park guards come in.

Making regulation and research work at a local level

From what I’ve seen during the last year and a half living and working in Madidi, it is the park guards, more than any other group involved, that are trying to adapt existing laws to local realities, and to find ways to make conservation work for local people. During the countless times that we’ve discussed the subject of my own research, which is focused on how scientific research is perceived by local people, they’ve often expressed their frustration at the number of studies that have been carried out in Madidi that they weren’t aware of because the results haven’t been disseminated locally. 

In interviews and workshops the park guards have suggested that we develop a park-specific regulation for research.  Like the mining regulation, it would reflect local realities and perspectives, and would also serve as a tool for scientists to better communicate the importance of their work – whether their research is focused on new discoveries in biodiversity, or is more applied research from which local people might directly benefit.

As the rain poured down and we huddled ever closer, I thought what an interesting mix we made – two park guards, two scientists, one miner.  Arguing, laughing, shivering, snoring, cuddling.  We were all in that truck for different reasons, we’d all been brought to the region for different purposes, but in the end we were all just trying to do our best with the roles we had taken on, and see how they fit together along the way.

View a short video that the Madidi park guards and I have created together about their work in Madidi. Read my other blogs about my time researching in Bolivia.

Find out more about social science research at the Lancaster Environment Centre


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