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Bolivia: The Pampas del Heath

October 29, 2009

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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1) The view over the Heath River looking into Peru

What exactly are Westerners doing in the South American rain forest of Peru and Bolivia?  I don’t refer to oil interests and their extractive quests, but rather to the average person who decides to fly to the Amazon for a visit, to commune with nature, observe the exotic animals and perhaps get acquainted with the various Native American tribes who call the forest home.

Without a doubt, in most cases our intentions are faultless if uniformed.  How can we save the great jungles if we remain ignorant of their attributes?  So tourism companies build eco-lodges and the infrastructure required to operate these posts, where American, European, and representatives of other modern cultures may witness close at hand the pristine beauty of the land.

On the Heath River, which forms the border between Peru and Bolivia in the southeast, an organization I was once involved with built a lodge on Bolivian soil.  This border was first delineated by Percy Fawcett, the famous English explorer who was hired by the region’s governments to establish the frontier.  His ascent of the Heath River, which flows south into the Madre de Dios, a wide waterway originating in the Peruvian Andes, showed him a logical place to establish a line between the two countries.  In his account of the expedition titled Lost Trails, Lost Cities, he reported a terrific battle on the lower stretches of the Heath between his party and a tribe of fierce warriors who resented his incursion.  No surprise there.  But he fought the natives off with his superior firepower, probably ensuring a measure of enmity between the locals and European interlopers for many years to come.

Fast forward to present time.  Our organization became aware of the Pampas del Heath, a huge savannah located in the depths of the rain forest. The origin of these flatlands is still obscure.  Scientists theorize that perhaps the indigenous population once burned off tracts of forest to plant crops or to encourage edible wildlife to take up residence in the altered environment.  Whatever the origin of the landforms, these pampas are extraordinary places and have seldom been visited by outsiders.  Home to the Maned wolf, species of deer and other exotic animals, they exert a powerful influence over the surrounding landscape.

Therefore, we thought, why not build a lodge on the Bolivian side along the Heath River and only a short seven kilometer walk from the pampas?  What could go wrong?  Tourist would flock to see this jungle anomaly and have the opportunity to spot rare creatures while staying in relative comfort on a remote patch of land completely cut off from civilization.

The land we chose was very close to Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, a treasure beyond compare.  Because of its proximity to the eastern foothills of the Andes, the land in this part of Bolivia (and Peru) boasts the highest biodiversity of any area on the planet.  This is due to the silt that runs down the rivers from the mountains and is deposited along the rivers, giving nourishment to trees and plants that in their turn allow great quantities of unusual species to flourish.  Plants, birds, animals, insects, and the whole gamut of nature runs riot along the Heath River and its tributaries.  Not to mention the Madre de Dios into which the Heath flows.

First, we had to find local residents with whom to partner in building the lodge.  We raised their hopes to impossible levels.  They dreamed of outboard engines, foodstuffs unavailable in their isolated location, reams of tourists throwing money at the lodge, handicrafts selling like so many products at a Pier One franchise, and so on.

They were soon to be disabused of these notions.  First, because of the lodge’s proximity to the Madidi Park, illegal logging interests in La Paz were aghast at the thought of outsiders scrutinizing their activities along the river.  These companies, in cahoots with the government in La Paz, cut down old growth hardwoods and ship them out of the country faster than cash disappears from a bank during a well-executed heist.  Fortunes have been made in the logging industry, and as the saying goes, “Talk is cheap but money buys whiskey.”

Second, the labor to build the lodge did not provide a great number of jobs.  I mean, how many people does it take to slap together a bunch of thatched-roof huts?  Since the operation was a small one, few guides had to be hired, and of those, only the most knowledgeable could be chosen.

The area around the lodge is subject to ferocious storms in the rainy season.  This interesting phenomenon meant that visitors had a relatively small time frame in any given year to visit.  We also had to cut down a number of ancient trees around the camp in order to protect its building from falling giant timbers.  A bit of a clear-cut, to use the American term for such mowing down of forest tracts.

2) Standing in front of a freshly cut old-growth Ceiba tree near the lodge on the Heath River.  No, I didn’t chop it down: Photo by Davarian Hall

 

The next event that impeded our progress began when the Bolivian government reckoned that we did not have proper title to the land.  Of course, this was an excuse to keep our prying eyes away from the logging operations, but perhaps their conclusions contained an element of truth.

To cross the border to Bolivia one was obliged to stop at a miserable Customs post at the confluence of the Heath and Madre de Dios rivers.  Here, border guards suffering from terminal boredom fleeced travelers, demanding extravagant visa fees and other gratuities.  We escaped their grasping clutches by promising to return on our next visit bearing as gifts cases of beer and porno magazines.  Their hostility turned to helpfulness upon hearing our offer, but I felt sad about giving these officials false hope.

During my only visit to the lodge, I proudly stood on that freshly cut Ceiba tree, posing like a mad logger, proud of my implied destructive powers.  Did I exhibit the very attitude we were trying to educate tourists to change within themselves?  I’m only human, but I guess the urge to stand grandiosely over my immediate environment overwhelmed any sense of  eco-consciousness.

I did see some interesting critters while I was on the Heath.  Notable among them was a tree-dwelling anteater and some rare toucans. But the highlight of my jungle trek occurred when I noticed a solitary tiny footprint in the mud of the trail, made by a barefoot walker.  Since there were no adult tracks accompanying this print, and since no local would let a toddler walk in the jungle alone, I asked my guide, “What do you know about pygmies in these parts?”  He blanched and wouldn’t answer my question, but told me we had to depart immediately back to the river.

And so we returned from the pampa, where we had spent an hour under the height of the sun’s mid-day power . We saw nothing there, other than witnessing the strange existence of a huge treeless plain in the middle of the rain forest. The heat drove us quickly back into the shade of the canopy, and soon after I made the discovery of the footprint.

The redoubtable Col. Fawcett was convinced that pygmy tribes still wandered the rain forest in the early part of the twentieth century.  Perhaps they still hold a claim to the land today.  But if the Bolivian government gets a say in the matter, they’ll be exterminated as fast as their forebears who once lived at peace with the Amazon and its riches.

In the end, the Bolivian government seized The Heath River Lodge.  I am sure it has reverted back to the jungle in a working demonstration of natural selection.

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