Indigenous Peoples

The Yuqui people of Bolivia fight for survival against logging and Covid-19

The Yuqui people of the Bolivian Amazon fight not only to survive in the face of settlers, logging and Covid-19, but to preserve their culture and identity.

The community is located some 260 kilometers from the city of Cochabamba. Reaching it requires passing through several towns inhabited by settlers, people who have migrated from other parts of Bolivia. The territory is officially called TCO Yuqui-CIRI – Tierra Comunitaria de Origen (TCO) means Community Land of Origin (now TIOC).

Here, at least three different indigenous peoples coexist; the Yuqui, Yuracarés and Trinitarios.

Community Lands of Origin in Bolivia

There are 298 TCOs (or TIOCs) in the country and they represent about a quarter of the Bolivian Amazon. They territories are destined for indigenous peoples, and their main characteristic is the so-called “collective right over the land” as opposed to individual property.

The Yuqui-CIRI TCO spreads over a total of 115,924.86 hectares. This may sound like a lot of land for only a few thousands native inhabitants, but its size should be put into perspective, as the underlying idea is for the Yuqui to continue to preserve their culture and way of life as hunters and gatherers, just as they’ve been doing for hundreds of years.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
Protecting their territory from illegal activities is extremely important to the Yuqui people of Bolivia © Sara Aliaga Ticona

A new enemy lurking

With a population of only 346, the Yuqui are one of the smallest indigenous groups in Bolivia. They’re considered highly vulnerable and are just in the initial stages of contact with the outside world, according to anthropologists and the Bolivian lowland indigenous organisation, CIDOB.

With a faint look painted across her face, Carmen Isategua (35), a former cacique mayor (the highest indigenous authority in the Yuqui community) recalls how Covid-19 made the community sick. “But we haven’t died because we’re strong,” she adds.

According to official data from the community’s doctor, as of the end of February there had been 23 cases of Covid-19 in the community. The threat of the pandemic has come to worry even the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which in June issued a warning about the well-being the Yuqui people: the pandemic “could represent a serious risk to the survival of that specific indigenous people,” it communicated via Twitter.

Families accompany the sick to hospital

Carmen Isategua explains that when a Yuqui is admitted to a hospital outside the community, it’s customary for them to be accompanied by their family until they’re discharged. The Abba – which in the Yuqui language Biaye means a person from outside the community – don’t let this happen, which is upsetting.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
A coronavirus emergency unit located in the Yuqui community © Sara Aliaga Ticona

“When we get sick, not just one person leaves, the whole family goes to care for the afflicted, because that’s our custom. On the other hand, when the Abba get sick, they leave their relatives. We’re not like that. They get sick and we stay with them. We look at what is being done to them, we follow up on them, we stay next to them,” Isategua says with a firm tone.

Furthermore, the nomadic essence of this people is still intact to this day. It’s almost impossible to know where a Yuqui can be found tomorrow; they’re free and don’t follow modern societies’ logics. Time in the Yuqui village of Bia Recuaté seems to flow differently. Everything follows a different rhythm and way of planning.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
Oscar Ie Evay (65) is one of the oldest members of the Yuqui community. He gets his food from hunting in the jungle © Sara Aliaga Ticona

Death: a collective affair

The Yuqui also have a collective and profound vision of death compared to urban societies. A person’s passing becomes a collective sorrow involving the entire community. As a show of respect and pain for the mourning, the Yuqui people may stop eating for days.

“It’s sad to remember, very painful,” explains Jhonathan Isategua (52), a former cacique. “A brother that we lose here… is like losing a hundred Yuquis”.

The arrival of Covid-19 has caused a lot of fear in the community and, as many other indigenous peoples in the Amazon, the Yuqui adopted the strategy of voluntary isolation deep in the jungle, therefore avoiding contact with outsiders.

A brother that we lose here… is like losing a hundred Yuquis.

Jhonathan Isategua, former Yuqui cacique

However, this also led to a food crisis. Since leaders couldn’t leave the community to buy food, people weren’t able to eat properly. Before the arrival of the coronavirus, some community members also suffered from different underlying diseases, such as tuberculosis, anemia and mycosis, which made them more vulnerable in the shadow of the pandemic.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
The Yuqui resist against logging in the Amazon © Sara Aliaga Ticona

Fighting over electricity

While the community tries to preserve its hunting, fishing and gathering traditions, they also supplement their diet with other things. But Bia Recuaté, located in the heart of the hot jungle, doesn’t have electricity to store food.

The only “intermittent” connection point for electric current and the internet is an extension cord with three plugs in a small corridor of a classroom in the community’s school. Health personnel and residents with cell phones come here to charge their devices and try to pick up a scarce signal.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
The Yuqui community in the Bolivian Amazon © Sara Aliaga Ticona

The Yuqui are divided on whether electricity should be made more widely available. Some members, mostly young people, think it’s vital. On the other hand, the cacique mayor says having electricity would affect the community’s economy as some families wouldn’t be able to pay the monthly bills.

However, the community doctor Gimena Torrico thinks drinking water is actually a more pressing issue. “Even though they have water from the Chimoré River, it can only be used for bathing and washing clothes,” she says. The river is polluted with sewage from nearby towns, and drinking it would mean risking contracting stomach diseases.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
Three Yuqui inhabitants find an illegally logged tree within their territory © Sara Aliaga Ticona

Threats by neighbours and illegal activities

Since they’re part of the same territory, the Yuqui and Yuracaré peoples share forest resources, whose use has been planned sustainably, within the TCO Yuqui-CIRI. USAID (the US government’s aid agency), a group of forest engineers and Indigenous Forest Organisation (OIF) Yagua Samu – in charge of administering the forest management plan and census – have offered support by calculating how many trees, and which ones, can be cut down to preserve the balance of the jungle. The management plan is also monitored in collaboration with the Bolivian land and forest oversight and social control authority (ABT).

But this management has been paralysed as a result of various disagreements and conflicts between the Yuqui and Yuracaré peoples over reports of illegal logging, coca production and drug trafficking.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
A Yuqui child fishes to get food for the family © Sara Aliaga Ticona

“They work with illegal things,” according to Jhonathan Isategua. “We’ve put up a checkpoint and have seized packages of coca. We’ve had a lot of problems with that. We don’t want illegal things within our territory. They also have an illegal airstrip for these kinds of things. That isn’t our culture. Our culture is to hunt and live within the territory and take care of it because we live here. We’re fighting for that”.

In July 2020, the Yuqui people made an official appeal concerning the presence of drug trafficking in their territory and the presence of an illegal airstrip within the TCO. In August, the Bolivian Police’s Mobile Rural Patrol Unit (Umopar) intervened, according to official reports, to remove the clandestine airstrip.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
The Yuqui people continue resisting © Sara Aliaga Ticona

The Yuqui people, an example of resistance

All this has led to an emergency situation for the Yuqui, since health and education programmes depend on money from the management plan. For example, the funds are used to run an orphanage where some thirty children live, some of whom lost their parents to a tuberculosis epidemic. Others have been left to stay in the community while their parents are working elsewhere.

Our culture is to hunt and live within the territory and to take care of it because we live here.

Jhonathan Isategua 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Yuqui also had to buy their own medicine due to the government’s late intervention. Covid-19 is just the latest in a long series of threats to this indigenous town in the Bolivian Amazon. The Yuqui, however, have overcome many trials. They’re an example of resistance, and despite being a small group, their strength doesn’t go unnoticed.

The Yuqui of Bolivia
The sun rises over the indigenous Yuqui territory © Sara Aliaga Ticona

They fight against extractive interests like illegal logging and it’s inspiring that they carry surnames that come from the flora and fauna around them; this is their way of resisting and continuing to preserve their legacy. The Yuquis get lost in the forest from one moment to another and dream about a tomorrow within the jungle. It’s as much a part of them, as they are of it.

This story was produced with support by the Rainforest Journalism Fund in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center.

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