Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Southern Altiplano: Glimpse of our Future in a Mirror of the Past


A visit to Bolivia’s southern altiplano (the stoic highlands that lies between the eastern and western chains of the Andes) can be an unnerving experience. At an average of 3700m above sea level and filled with freezing winds, half-dead volcanoes, chemical-stained lakes too toxic to support most forms of animal life, twisted rocks deformed by the violent erosive powers of the unforgiving wind into shapes reminiscent of something from a Salvador Dali painting, roaming herds of wooly llamas and other creatures that somehow find a way to survive at altitudes most animals would balk at, and the rare colony of hardy Aymara who scratch their living growing quinoa and herding llamas or through more creative methods at the higher altitudes at which even those forms of flora and fauna cannot survive.


The chemical-stained lakes are the result of the peculiar geology of the Altiplano, which was formed millions of years ago when the Andes were pushed up from the pacific basin rim in a violent climb from seabed to sky. The cordilleras Oriental and Occidental (east and west mountain ranges of the Andes) rose together and the sediment that fell from each between them created a closed basin that was only slightly lower in altitude. Thus was born the altiplano. As a basin, what little rain that does fall in it gets trapped, never to make it to the ocean. Instead, rainfall settles in lakes and lagunas where it slowly evaporates over eons, eventually giving birth to the phenomena of mineral-sediment imbalance that paints the waters a stunning array of different colors. Blue-green arsenic, stark-white borax, sickened-yellow sulfur. Algae of some kind stains some of them a rustic red that the refection of the sun’s rays turns quite brilliant. And of course there is the amazing Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake.


At over 12,000 square kilometers, the Salar is by far the largest salt lake in the world, creating a giant and overpowering expanse of pure white that stretches to seemingly-endless horizon where the vague haze of distant mountains reminds one of the real world’s presence, so foreign to the alien landscape over the salt. The salt, at several meters of thickness at most spots, is strong enough to support the weight of 4WD Land cruisers throughout, and the occasional flatbed truck that has come to exploit the natural mineral wealth.


The rugged Aymara who live in small communities throughout the altiplano are an example of the resilience of those humans that happen to have been on the losing side of history’s resource wars and population migrations, making the most of the little natural resources that they happen to encounter through some form of unintended consequence-turned-good (or mixed) fortune. For example, mineral extraction from the lakes and lagunas is actually a large form of income for the surrounding Aymara communities that settled in the altiplano long before the Inca sent his armies to conquer them there, and an eternity before the Spanish rounded them under the mita system of forced labor to go die in the silver mines of Potosí. While at lower altitudes the option of cultivating quinoa (a highly nutritious native grain) and other forms of barely above-subsistence poor-soil and altitude-resistant crops remains, at around 4500m this option turns moot. Llama herding is also a common method of surviving, but even these rugged animals refuse to settle at the 5000m marks. What remains for the Aymara, pushed to these lands from thousands of years of retreat from successive encroachments, is the extraction of the frozen mineral sediments. Thus, many of the Aymara communities have organized themselves into cooperatives in order to facilitate the exploitation and shipment of the different mineral deposits for their use in the modern cities that lie far below in the more habitable lands. Borax and other bases for detergents, salt for food processing and commercial sale, and lithium.


It is rumored that the Salar contains the world’s largest lithium reserve in the world, something like 70% of the total extractable lithium on the planet. However, since the Salar is a nationally protected reserve under Bolivian law, the lithium that lies underneath its icy waters is not available for extraction. This doesn’t mean that Bolivians will remain without exploitable lithium, however, as manmade environmental change has unearthed another sizeable deposit. Lagos Uru Uru and Poopó are fed by the Río Desaguadero coming from Lago Titicaca, but in recent decades campesino and other marginalized communities have redirected the river’s stream to provide the water which they cannot get through state- or aid-funded projects. The result is that the twins lakes are drying up, creating a smaller man-made version of the Salar, along with matching latent lithium deposits. Since this relatively recent development is not natural in the legal sense of the word, the area is not protected as a national reserve, meaning the lithium is fair game. So, making the best of a man-made ecological disaster, the lithium is now being exploited as a development project.


And in this way there’s something oddly familiar about the surreal and stark environment of the southern altiplano, almost like a future-memory passed back through the strange particles that permeate the air, or a warning from the Aymara earth-goddess pachamama of what a future Bolivia might look like in the absence of any checks on man’s interference in its ecology. Or perhaps the apocalyptical feel of the area is a precognitive glimpse from our species’ shared future. For the sense of a land used-up, over-spent and age-worn bears an odd resemblance to the vision of the planets future expounded by those scientists (only around 95%+ or so) who maintain that our planet has reached a critical point in terms of the long-term sustainability of current human standards of living.


Indeed, the southern altiplano offers some interesting lessons of what such a future might look like for both the winners and the losers of this dystopian future earth. For we should remember that, just as there were winners and losers from Incan and Spanish colonization, there will be winners as well as losers from any coming ecocides. The winners are easy to identify, and their lifestyles are easy to predict: they will look pretty much the same as the gated-community “winners” of globalization today, living in armed suburban “green zones” amidst the chaos of de-industrialized urban wastelands and teeming peri-urban slums. But when we think of what the winners will look like, we should remember the words of award-winning BBC journalist Greg Palast, in the context of the recent California fires, when he reminded us that “disaster response is class war by other means.” Indeed, ecocide for many of the world’s poor and marginalized (and increasingly for the world’s middle classes as well) could mean a life similar in many ways to the bare existence visited in the freezing winds above the brightly colored lakes and salt flats of the southern altiplano: scratching a living amidst the chemical-stained ruins of a former green earth, extracting the unintended consequences of man-made ecological changes to sell to the rich “chosen ones” living in their militarized urban fantasy lands. Indeed, rather than being sinners or non-believers, the real identity of those who will be “left behind” by any coming ecocide will be those not lucky enough to be on the winning side of today’s patterns of global development.

James Read, The Rough Guide to Bolivia, (August 2002).

Samuelo, Tupiza Tours, (November, 2007).

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