By Rainer W. Bussmann (Cuya Mëbi Kokatsá) and Narel Y. Paniagua Zambrana (Mëa Mahani Tara)
Late February, 2014—It has rained for weeks now, and the rivers everywhere in Bolivia have risen to record levels. The Beni area, where our project is located, has received 200 percent more rainfall than usual. This morning the water has finally reached the last dry ground in Chácobo territory, and it keeps rising. Kako has recovered his canoe, packed up his family of seven, three of his eight dogs, a handful of the recently born piglets, a few chickens and a few belongings, and is heading South towards the city of Riberalta to find shelter. The mother pig and the remaining dogs are left behind to fend for themselves. By now, the water in the village is three feet high. It will rise another three feet by nightfall. Nobody in the tribes’ history recalls the water ever rising so fast and to such heights—the Chácobo villages are located more than a hundred feet over normal water level, and have never before been inundated. This might be the last straw for a tribe that has weathered disasters for centuries.
Bolivia and the Chácobo
In October 2011, we visited the Chácobo for the first time to conduct interviews about the use of palms in the community. After living with the tribe for some time, we were awarded Chácobo names, and as such made part of the community. In the process of our work we expected to observe profound changes in traditional knowledge as compared to what was reported earlier. This led us to plan for a longer-term project to research how Chácobo life and knowledge has changed over the last hundred years. Our present work, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, represents the start of a follow-up ethnobotanical inventory of the tribe, to see if the profound changes of the last decades have caused tribal members to lose much of their traditional knowledge.
Over the past century, indigenous groups in Bolivia have faced many challenges. Beginning with the rubber boom of the early 1900s, many indigenous people faced exploitation and displacement by outsiders who were more concerned about turning a profit than about protecting the environment and societies they encountered. Besides immediate threats to the safety and livelihood of indigenous people, many tribes had to fight through severe epidemics, as the sudden influx of foreigners exposed them to new diseases.
All of these tribes were forced to adapt to changing conditions. While many traditions remain, the lifestyle of the Chácobo is dramatically different than it was in the past. In the 1980’s, cassava was clearly the most important food for Chácobo, who planted seven varieties and would begin harvesting the plant in May. Five varieties are still in use today, and in most homes, you can still find jibé, large clay pans used to roast cassava flour. Rice has now become the staple food, and a large part of the rice crop is sold. Years ago, Brazil nuts were an important part of the Chácobo’s diet. Today, Brazil nuts are collected primarily for sale, not for food, and they provide the main source of income for many Chácobo. During the nut harvest between January and March, almost the entire Chácobo population migrates to the South of the territory, where the largest concentration of Brazil nut trees is encountered.
The floods this spring came exactly at the time of year when cassava begins to sprout, and when rice is ready to be harvested. Because of the severity of the floods, the Chácobo have lost their entire harvest for a year. Most of their livestock have drowned, and many houses were destroyed. To make things worse, the flooding prevented the normal migration to collect Brazil nuts, taking away an important source of income, and leaving Chácobo families without any financial means of coping with the flood damages. Even the ethnobotanical garden that was created under our Sacred Seeds program to help the Chácobo cultivate and maintain traditionally important plants has been destroyed. Almost all members of the tribe are now in makeshift shelters in the local town of Riberalta, where the water stands a foot deep in the main square.
Fast forward to May 2014—Finally the waters are falling, and many Chácobo families try to return to their villages—to destroyed homes, drowned livestock, and lost harvests. Much help will be needed to rebuild their lives.
If you would like to help, please donate online through our Sacred Seeds Program at http://wlbcenter.org/ss_donate.htm with the donation purpose “Chácobo Relief Program” or send a check to:
Missouri Botanical Garden
“Chácobo Relief Program”
St. Louis, Mo 63166
Missouri Botanical Garden is a 501c(3) Charitable Trust, and your donations are tax deductible.
The fieldwork with the Chácobo is supported by NGS through National Geographic Society Grant #9244-13.