The Tsimane Mosetene people in Bolivia’s Amazon jungle region have found a tool to preserve their habitat and way of life: a community ecotourism project that won a United Nations-sponsored international award. The Mapajo Indigenous Community Ecotourism Company "is the result of a decision reached by the women and men of the Tsimane community, to have a source of income in order to educate our children, because we saw that it was impossible to do so with our small-scale agricultural production," one of the community’s leaders, Lucía Canare, told IPS News.
The active participation of women in the ecotourism project is a big step for this native community, where gender roles have traditionally been strictly differentiated, decision-making has been the domain of men, and polygamy is a waning but still persistent custom.
The ecotourism company is named in honour of the giant Mapajo tree, a sacred tree that grows 40 metres high and provides protective cover for many other species of trees used for their wood in the Amazon rainforest.
Canare is head of the kitchen in the indigenous lodge, where traditional dishes are served based on food grown in the family gardens planted in small clearings carved out of the jungle. Rice, cassava, plantains, peanuts, beans, chilli peppers and sugar cane are grown in the gardens, which the women tend to early in the mornings, after serving their families breakfast. The men, meanwhile, bring in food from hunting and fishing. To all of this are added the fruits of the rainforest.
In Rurrenabaque, the most inhabited of the four municipalities where the Tsimane Mosetene (also known as Chiman Moseten) people live, it is clear how weak the connection is between these communities and the outside world.
Although the town is located just 410 km northeast of La Paz, it takes between 12 and 18 hours to make the trip by road. And it takes another two to three hours to get to Asunción del Quiquivey by boat, along the river.
The village, which is near the banks of the Quiquivey River, a tributary of the Beni River, is home to just under 300 people. Rivers are a central part of the life of the Tsimane and Mosetene people, two ethnic groups that joined together in 1991 in the Tsimane Mosetene Regional Council (CRTM), which groups 22 native communities made up of some 2,000 people.
In 1997, life changed in Pilón de Lajas, the district where the Tsimane and Mosetene people live. The CRTM achieved one of their chief demands: the official declaration of their territory as a Tierra Comunitaria de Origen or communally-owned native territory, which gives them full rights over their 4,000 square kilometres of rainforest.
It took 10 years before current President Evo Morales finally formally granted the CRTM collective title to their land, which has enabled them to create and strengthen productive initiatives, such as the harvesting and use of jatata palm fronds.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had already designated Pilón de Lajas – adjacent to the enormous Madidi National Park – a biosphere reserve in 1977.
The Tsimane Mosetene Indians have always lived in harmony with nature. Few of them leave the area to live elsewhere, and food insecurity is not a problem, as their communities are located in the biosphere reserve’s buffer zone where they use the natural products around them to barter and trade with their neighbours living at higher altitudes.