Governance and Management of the Upper Acre River in Pando, Bolivia
Technical Report to the Working Forest in the Tropics Research Grants Program
Department of Anthropology
Local systems of river resource protection, including management of riparian areas, wetlands and floodplains, are important tools to understand in our attempts to protect water quality and forests in tropical areas. In addition, the incorporation of existing forms of resource governance into environmental policy at multiple levels is critical to the success of those policies, particularly in isolated areas where enforcement is logistically challenging.
From May-August, 2004, I conducted research in two communities located on the Upper Acre River in Pando, Bolivia. The overall objective of this research was to determine how the ethnically distinct communities of San Pedro de Bolpebra (composed of colonists from the southern Bolivian highlands) and San Miguel de Machineri (composed of indigenous settlers from Brazil) utilize and manage river resources, and whether features favorable to collective action for the protection of these resources exist. Specific objectives were:
1. To analyze how communities conceptualize and treat the river, and whether they view it
as an open-access resource or as a common-pool resource.
2. To analyze forms of social organization in this area that support or do not support
common property resource management.
3. To document any existing river or river resource protection strategies.
4. To analyze local opinions of water quality and of potential conservation techniques.
The methodology for this research consisted of three elements: household interviews, freelisting, and participatory mapping.
I conducted semi-structured interviews with each household: 21 households in San Pedro de Bolpebra and five households in San Miguel de Machineri. Interviews lasted between one and four hours and covered a wide range of topics, including personal and family history, socioeconomic indicators, livelihood strategies, resource management and governance, community dynamics, and opinions on water quality and natural resource protection.
A freelisting exercise was conducted with all but two adults (35 total) in San Pedro de Bolpebra and with all available heads of household (seven total) in San Miguel de Machineri. Freelisting is an anthropological technique designed to elicit a list of items that form a particular cultural domain. In this case, each person was asked to list all the natural resources that are found in rivers, streams and riparian areas. Ideally, once analyzed, these data will reflect each person’s level of familiarity with riverine and riparian resources. In addition, similarities and differences between the communities with regards to the quantity of items and order in which the items were listed may reflect the importance of those resources to each community.
Finally, I conducted a participatory mapping exercise with each household in which I asked them to draw the rivers and streams on their property, where their agricultural fields are located, where
specific crops are planted, and any riparian buffers that they had maintained near water bodies. In addition to providing a visual reflection of land-use patterns in these communities, these participatory maps will allow me to verify information collected during the interviews.
Though I have not completed analysis of the data, some results are clear. First, the Acre River and its tributaries are viewed by both communities as open access resources. Though some individuals in each community stated that they had engaged in informal discussions with other community members regarding management of riparian areas and protection of water quality, neither community had instituted any formal management rules to regulate the use of river resources or the protection of riparian buffer zones.
Second, it is possible that social organization within each community could support the
communal management of river resources. In my opinion, however, communal management is more likely to be successful in San Miguel than in San Pedro. San Miguel is a socially and ethnically homogenous indigenous community, composed entirely of families that are closely related to one another (first cousins, siblings, etc.). San Pedro’s population is more diverse;
conflicts based on socioeconomic status, access to land, and political corruption are relatively common. At a larger scale, the likelihood of spontaneous collective action for watershed protection is low at this time. Not only are the communities along Pando’s stretch of the Acre River ethnically diverse (which itself complicates collective action), but there is also an absence of the shared identity of being riverine communities. Only one person identified the location of their community by stating that it was on the banks of the Acre River. Communication between the communities is largely limited to celebrations and the occasional political meeting.
Third, when asked about river protection, almost every household identified the maintenance of riparian buffers on their land as an important strategy. In addition to keeping the water cool and clean, they said, riparian buffers prevented erosion and flooding. Interestingly, when the households in San Pedro de Bolpebra drew a map of their 500-hectare properties, many had deforested up to the banks of the streams that flow through the worked areas. Though the areas of clear-cutting were small (in most cases, agricultural fields are 1-5 hectares in size), a contradiction between belief and behavior was apparent. In San Miguel de Machineri, households were more likely to leave larger riparian buffers when clearing agricultural areas. Importantly, the trend in San Pedro will be to clear larger areas, as most households eventually hope to acquire cattle. In contrast, the residents of San Miguel employ a field rotation system, so after clearing 3-5 fields they will continue to reuse the same areas for food crops. Only one household in San Miguel has imminent plans to raise cattle.
Finally, when asked whether they believe that the Acre River is clean or dirty, all households identified it as dirty. Main pollutants included human and medical waste, dead domestic animals, motor oil and garbage. No one identified sediment as a pollutant. Tributary streams were considered cleaner than the river, largely because their banks are uninhabited. Water quantity is also an important issue. I was informed that over the last 30 years, the Acre River’s channel has become significantly shallower, impacting the ability of cargo boats to navigate the river in the dry season.
Role of Partners
Peter Cronkleton and Rolando Haches from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) were critical in helping me make contact with authorities in each community, including the mayor of the municipality of Bolpebra and the leader of the Yaminahua-Machineri indigenous territory.
The Fundación Jose Manuel Pando was my official host in Pando. The Foundation is well-known and my association with them gave my work needed legitimacy.
Finally, the staff of Centro de Investigación y Preservación de la Amazonía (CIPA) at the Universidad Amazónica de Pando was incredibly helpful. They provided me with numerous publications, access to research that they had conducted in my study sites, and satellite images of the area. CIPA’s director, Julio A. Rojas, would be an excellent contact for future WFT work in Pando.
A view of San Pedro de Bolpebra from the Brazilian side of the Acre River, May 2004.
The same view in August 2004. Much less water.
Looking upstream on the Acre River. Pando, Bolivia is on the left; Acre, Brazil is on the right. Note the difference in forest cover. Much of the Brazilian side has been converted to cattle pasture. There are plans to create a gravel highway through this region of Pando in the near future. If no management plan is put into place, Pando could suffer the same fate as Acre.
Participatory mapping in San Pedro de Bolpebra.
Confluence of the Arroyo San Miguel and the Acre River after a rainstorm. Note the heavy
sediment load in the Acre. After a few dry days, the waters are much more similar in color.
CIPA staff members and me in Cobija, Pando.