Rivers that sing and beings that resist: the untamed hope in the Bolivian Amazon

Amidst the majesty of the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, Ignacia Montero, Luis Carlos Rocha, and Benedicto Durán, fight with determination to preserve their cultural legacy and the rich biodiversity of the Bolivian Amazon heartland. Resistance against extinction takes on new meaning in this region, where nature and tradition intertwine.

September 15th, 2023

This story is produced and published with financial support from the Google News Initiative News Equity Fund.

Ignacia Montero Tomichá gazes at the mirror of the Itenez river from Bella Vista, the Guarasugwe indigenous community where she grew up. The reflections of the sunset mix with the sound of rafts pushed by a chatty little engine that seems to never tire. Beside her, her husband, Luis Carlos Rocha Frey, with whom she has built not only a wooden house amidst the dense forest but also a legacy. Ignacia, with her nimble fingers, writes words in a notebook, words that carry the essence of her people, words that the elders whisper with nostalgia. She is determined: the Guarasugwe language will not become extinct as long as she can contribute her bit to do something about it.

Luis Carlos, with his firm gaze, is the chief of Bella Vista. Although born in Brazilian lands, his heart beats to the rhythm of the Bolivian jungle. He describes Bella Vista as a paradise, where fresh air and serene life intertwine. In this Eden, eight families share stories around the fire, cast nets into the river at sunset, and delight in the spectacles that nature offers every evening.

On the other hand, Benedicto Durán, a 59-year-old man, has traveled every corner of this forest. Born in Piso Firme, he knows the secrets the jungle keeps in its shadows. Together with his wife Manuela Frey, from the Guarasugwe village, they have made the farmland their home, cultivating bananas, cassava, rice, and corn. His feet are familiar with the texture of the ground, as they are always traveling, collecting the fruits the forest provides and waiting for the fishing season.

Within the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, rivers like the Itenez and the Paraguá meander through lands inhabited by ancestral indigenous people.

The Bolivian Amazon is much more than rivers and forests; it is the home of ancient cultures, of guardians like Ignacia, Luis Carlos, and Benedicto, who, with their lives and actions, reaffirm to the world the importance of preserving not only the lungs of the planet but also the roots and traditions that have sustained them for generations. It is a call to value the linguistic, cultural, and natural wealth that Bolivia and its people offer the world.

The Guarasugwe indigenous people of Bella Vista, located within the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon, is a sanctuary of life where the Itenez, Paraguá, and Paucerna rivers sing with their currents as they traverse a mystical land, inhabited by an ancient indigenous people who refuse to let the cross of extinction mark their future.

At the heart of Bolivia lies a vast space of ecological wealth and unparalleled beauty. The Noel Kempff Mercado National Park has become a gem that the world admires, and is passionately described by its director, Ramiro Claros, as «a wonderful universe.» It is not only the pure air and water that this park offers the planet. Within its vastness, waterfalls such as the Arcoíris and Federico Ahlfeld unfold, landscapes that seem taken from postcards.

Ignacia Montero Tomichá, guarded by the Itenez bay.

Nestled in northeastern Bolivia, this nature sanctuary unfolds like a living canvas encompassing the grandeur of the Amazon setting. The park stretches, wild, over more than 15,000 square kilometers, kissing the borders of Brazil, and harboring ecosystems ranging from lush tropical rainforests to savannas that vanish into the horizon.

The meandering rivers, like arteries of this living organism, reflect the blue sky and the leisurely sailing clouds. Here and there, waterfalls break the silence, bringing pure and fresh water.

It is not just a place in Bolivia; it is a piece of earthly paradise, a place where the earth whispers ancient tales and where every dawn seems to be the first. The Noel Kempff Mercado National Park is not just a spot on the map; it is a living testament to what nature can be when allowed to flourish without chains.

Among the natural jewels of this park, there’s another treasure that often stays out of the main focus: the Guarasugwe. These ancestral guardians, who have called these forests home for generations, become custodians of a biodiversity that shines during the long days. They protect wildlife and lush vegetation, not only because it’s their duty but because it’s an intrinsic part of their identity.

Ignacia Montero Tomichá, Luis Carlos Rocha, and Benedicto Durán, in their tours of the majestic Park, never cease to be amazed by the vast biodiversity this ecosystem harbors. They remember that here, in this green expanse, more than 2,700 species of higher plants dwell, among which stand centuries-old trees. On their walks, they can appreciate the robust woods of mara and cedar, eventually reaching a blanket of palms that spread with grace and diversity; from açaí to the imposing royal palm. However, it’s not only the flora that captures their eyes and interest. With more than 1,100 species of vertebrates recorded, the park is a genuine living museum. Of this number, at least 130 are mammals, where bats and rodents take the spotlight during starry nights. And for bird lovers, the place is simply an earthly paradise. Here coexist some 600 species that represent more than 20% of the birds of South America. A continuous song, mostly with Amazonian notes, is heard from dawn to dusk.

«Many researchers and bird enthusiasts come here,» says Ignacia, who after greeting, always says with great joy: «You can call me Nachita.»

The church of Bella Vista.

Nachita’s husband, Luis Carlos Rocha, a lover of rivers and navigation, emphasizes that we must not forget the aquatic world where fish and amphibians coexist, bringing life to the waters and soils of the park.

Guillermo Lino and Nelio Rocha are two essential names for Noel Kempff Mercado. These park rangers, with the skill that only years and passion can give, pilot outboard motor boats through the rivers, safeguarding the territory from constant threats such as forest fires and guarding the natural richness. In their daily work, the connection with the Guarasugwe is crucial. The latter, with their ancestral knowledge, provide guidance and wisdom.

One can feel the tranquility of Bella Vista, where one of the ranger camps is located. In this place, they share anecdotes, knowledge, and responsibilities. The Guarasugwe, with boundless generosity, reveal the secrets of the forest and the ancestral techniques to protect it.

Despite threats such as forest fires and indiscriminate hunting, the Guarasugwe maintain millennia-old resistance and desire for preservation.

The rivers of the Bolivian Amazon are not just bodies of water that move with vigor and splendor; they are living entities that sing melodies in an eternal song of coexistence and harmony. These currents tell stories of past and present civilizations, of resistances and struggles, and of hopes and dreams. As veins of Mother Earth, they nourish and sustain communities that, despite adversities, persist with determination, strengthened by their deep love for their homeland and their desire to preserve it for future generations.

The indomitable hope in the Bolivian Amazon is manifested in every face, every gesture, and every word spoken by the Guarasugwe people. Ignacia, Luis Carlos, Benedicto, and many others like them are bearers of this eternal flame of resistance and preservation. With the rivers as witnesses and allies, they challenge the passage of time, facing threats, such as forest fires, fishing, and indiscriminate hunting, which are causing species, including turtles and reptiles, to be endangered.

At dusk, the Itenez river turns golden, reflecting the last rays of the sun. The voices of the forest begin to rise. Ignacia closes her notebook, sealing the ancestral words she has recorded. Her gaze meets that of Luis Carlos, and in a complicit silence, they both feel the magnitude of their mission.

Benedicto, with a wise smile, joins them, sharing the moonlight that illuminates the hopeful faces of the Guarasugwe families. Stories, laughter, and songs intertwine under a starry blanket, while a raft continues its dance to the rhythm of the relentless little engine in the distance.

A whisper from the ancestors seems to rise from the depths of the forest, thanking those who keep the essence of the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park alive. In this corner of Bolivia, where nature and culture merge in an eternal dance, the promise of the Guarasugwe resonates: their legacy, their language, and their traditions will never be forgotten.





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