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“Many times I fear for my life,” says Darío Cartagena, a park ranger at the Madidi National Park, who every day faces illegal miners, poachers or drug traffickers who try to settle in this enormous protected area of almost 1.9 million hectares located to the north of the La Paz region, in the Bolivian Amazon.
Park ranger Dario Cartagena at the top of the hill near the checkpoint, located approximately 30 minutes’ walk away, a place where it is possible to capture a cell phone signal. Manuel Seoane
A machete, a GPS and a cell phone are the only tools used by Cartagena, 44, to control, guard and monitor the Madidi park, considered one of the most biodiverse in the world, with some 2,100 species of animals and 5,000 types of plants.
The task begins at the entry control in the Saridi sector where the rangers check the visitors, most of them tourists, but poachers who chase wild animals such as jaguars, pumas, monkeys, deer and wild pigs mix among them. They must also confront illegal activities such as extractivism and drug trafficking.
“If we don’t keep the Madidi later on, there will be no park. We are going to fight and even lose our lives to fulfill our job of protecting our reserves”, he affirms excitedly.
A small wooden house is the home of the park rangers during the 24 days that their shift in the park lasts. They go into lush forests and jungles where they face wild animals and endure high temperatures or copious rains. After finishing their shifts, they have 10 days off to see their families.
Aerial view of the Tuichi river. Manuel Seoane
The park rangers, who receive a salary between 400 and 500 dollars, affirm that carrying out their task of preserving and controlling such a large area has become very complicated due to the lack of support from the Bolivian government.
“There should be more support in every aspect. There is much talk about Mother Earth, but we see that not even the protected areas are well cared for, the whole country will be worse”, says Ciro Antonio González, a Madidi park ranger for 25 years.
“The park is beautiful but the life we live from day to day is very different. We hardly have government support, on the contrary, we don’t have fuel, we don’t have disbursements, there are no resources to maintain vehicles,” says his colleague Cartagena.
Illegal mining in the Madidi
Illegal mining has become the biggest headache for these workers. Every day dozens of people try to enter machinery to install a mining operation in order to extract gold from one of the pristine rivers that cross the area.
Park ranger Ciro Gonzales monitoring the water level of the San José de Uchupiamonas lagoon. Manuel Seoane
“We are verbally and physically run over, they have even threatened me with death. About two weeks ago, I intervened in a truck that was trying to enter the park with machinery to extract gold. These people did not have authorization, so I did not let them enter and they threatened me,” Cartagena said.
A controversial gold law approved this year by the Bolivian Congress allows the Central Bank to become one more buyer in the productive chain of this extractivist activity in order to increase the country’s gold reserves. The measure led to the arrival of more cooperative miners and peasants in the Bolivian Amazon, where illegal mining operations have been taking place for several years now.
There has been a ‘gold rush’ that has even attracted foreigners, who invade protected areas, and rivers are contaminated with mercury that is used to extract the precious metal. In July of last year, 22 people were arrested and tried in Bolivia for illegally extracting gold in the Amazon.
“The Government authorizes Chinese companies to operate. They loot the protected area where we have our resources such as gold”, says Cartagena. “I fear that with mining the same thing will happen with the wood that was cut until it was finished. With mining, they are going to devastate everything and there is going to be more contamination,” says González.
In the first quarter of 2023, metallic gold became Bolivia’s largest export product, reaching 757.2 million dollars, corresponding to 29.5% of total Bolivian exports (2,566 million), according to official figures.
Poaching and drug trafficking
The park is also threatened by poaching of animals such as the jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas and the third largest in the world, whose fangs are almost as valuable as gold since they are traded as jewelry in China.
Park rangers Dario Cartagena and Ciro Antonio Gonzales control the entry of people into the Madidi National Park and Protected Area. Manuel Seoane
“When we intervene in a boat in the river with people transporting species of animals, fish or bush meat, the park ranger verifies if it is illegal. If they do not have a hunting and fishing permit, then the cargo is confiscated, that is when the offender reacts and crashes into the park ranger,” says Cartagena.
“Once I was almost stabbed by a very dangerous hunter with a criminal record who grabbed me by the neck and threatened to cut me when we were intervening on him. I was very scared, but another colleague reduced it and prevented a tragedy”, says González.
Another danger they must face is drug trafficking. Both of them harden their faces and in a tone of great concern they affirm that inside the park there are clandestine runways for planes belonging to drug gangs. Even ranger camps have been abandoned for fear of being attacked by these gangs.
“It is not our competence to intervene in these people because it is very dangerous for us. We know how they work, who works, but we put our lives at risk by giving information about these activities,” Cartagena says.
Aerial view of the indigenous community of San José de Uchupiamonas. Manuel Seoane
Bolivia is considered by the UN as the third largest producer of coca leaf (leaf that is the base for the production of cocaine) behind Colombia and Peru. In 2021, coca leaf crops reached 30,500 hectares, 4% more than in 2020 (29,400 hectares).
Point of no return
Two weeks ago some 200 indigenous communities participated in a meeting in Rurrenabaque, a town located in the Beni region, where they agreed on the fears of both caretakers about the future of protected areas. The event was organized by the Panamazonic Social Forum (FOSPA-Bolivia). Among its objectives was to strengthen the proposals that are being built from the Pan Amazon Social Forum at the international level, towards the Summit of Presidents of the Amazon and the Assembly of the Peoples of the Earth for the Amazon that begins this Tuesday in Belem do For Brazil.
An indigenous authority from the community of San José de Uchupiamonas indicating the area through which the contamination arrives on the map of the indigenous territory. Manuel Seoane
The declaration For the Life of the Amazon was also issued, in which the jungle was declared a “climate emergency” and the authorities were required to ensure access to water and the protection of Amazonian rivers, forests and jungles threatened by “ extractive activities.
“There is a violation of Mother Nature that will contribute to climate change. It is a concern that the Amazon reaches a point of no return and that is going to be serious. Let’s imagine a destroyed jungle; This is going to change the living conditions of the whole world”, declared Fernando Limache, member of the International Committee of the Pan-Amazonian Social Forum (FOSPA).
At the Summit, the presidents of Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Guyana and Suriname, as well as the territory of French Guiana, will seek concrete and forceful actions in the face of the climate and biodiversity crisis, to preserve the main world water reserve. Developed nations will also be asked to finance the sustainability of tropical forests and deliver funds already committed.
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