November 18, 2014

Life at High Altitude: La Paz & Lake Titicaca

Bolivia! The final country on this semester-long adventure. We landed in La Paz on November 4th at 3:00 AM, after connecting flights in Madrid, Spain and Bogota, Colombia. After making our way through customs, our country coordinators greeted us with coca leaves to help us cope with the altitude – 11,913 feet above sea level. I was happy to be on altitude medication.

Besides chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea, the best thing to help us cope would be to drink plenty of water. Otherwise, a pounding headache would surely ensue. Simply walking up the stairs of our hotel we would feel out of breath.

We went on an excursion to Lake Titicaca for a couple days and visited the nearby Tiwanaku ruins in the altiplano. During our tour of the ruins we learned about how developed this pre-Incan civilization was.

To me, the most intriguing aspect of their culture is how they adapted to the harsh conditions of the antiplano. The Tiwanaku used a raised bed method of agriculture. They dug out channels that filled with groundwater and rainwater to maintain soil moisture. The channels of water also trap heat during the day and release heat over the crops planted on the raised beds, preventing a fatal frost. They also raised fish in between the crop beds; this served as an alternative source of food for the Tiwanaku families. The fish and grazing llamas and alpacas fertilized the beds with their manure. The mud from the bottom of the channels was also dug up to provide extra fertilizer. Crops such as quinoa and potatoes were grown using this method.

We also visited the minor portion of Lake Titicaca, which is heavily polluted by tanneries, industries, and lack of an adequate water treatment facility for the population of El Alto. This portion of the lake is covered in thick water lentils, which grow when there is an excess of nutrients in the water.

This intense process of eutrophication suffocates other aquatic life. There has been a major decrease in fish populations. Also, because of the toxic substances that are present, the cattle that graze in the area easily get sick from drinking the lake water or eating grasses covered in black soot. The water even causes rashes and burns on people who come in contact with it. The odor also becomes unmanageable.

People in the area propose covering the water (this was already done for a similar issue in La Paz) or simply diverting the pollution as solutions. Perhaps eliminating the problem at the source is not as attainable? Residents of the Laja area plan to take to the streets and stand as a roadblock on a highway to attract the attention of the government in dealing with this issue.

The people who sell cheese and milk are concerned that this contamination issue will affect their business in terms of how much they can produce and who will buy their product. Some residents are wary of journalists or visitors making this issue publicly known.

Speaking with land and cattle owners in this contaminated region served as a lesson in environmental justice and an example of how people can be marginalized in facing negative externalities. It was certainly disheartening to witness. It is strange to enter as an outsider, learn about the negative situation, and leave. I felt useless. I hope positive change occurs and a real solution is implemented. Will something come of the planned roadblock? How can they gain the government’s attention? The government knows it’s happening, but will they act?

(Unfortunately, my camera broke during this time. I’m trying to buy a new one. Pictures are coming soon!)

posted in Alexa Gatti

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