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BOLIVIA: In Search of the Toromona

José Luis Alcázar* - Tierramérica

TARIJA, Bolivia, Jun 9 2006 (IPS) - A scientific expedition will return this austral winter to the Madidi jungle in the Bolivian northeast in a bid to definitively certify the existence of the ancient tribe of Toromona, who are the origin of the Paititi legend, a southern Amazon version of the El Dorado myth.

In dialogue with Tierramérica, Pablo Cingolani, head of the expedition, explained the enormous scope of the effort to which he has been dedicated since 2000, when the incursions into the Madidi National Park jungles began, in search of the seemingly invisible Toromona.

The ancestors of this indigenous group, led by the legendary chief Tarano, kept the Spanish Conquistadors in check during the 16th and 17th centuries, preventing their settlement in the area.

But in addition to the Toromona, there are other “lost peoples” in the Bolivian Amazon, according to Cingolani.

These are “survivors of the genocide that accompanied rubber extraction in the forest from the mid-19th century until the First World War and, later, the devastating effects of indiscriminate exploitation of the natural resources of the Amazon,” he explained.

There have been three previous official expeditions, in 2000, 2001 and 2003, into the Madidi National Park, one of the world’s leading areas of biodiversity. The Bolivian Congress declared the expeditions “of national interest”.

With an area of 18,957 square kilometres, the reserve holds 733 species of fauna, plus 1,100 types of birds, which represent 90 percent of Bolivia’s bird species and 11 percent of the planet’s.

During his trips, Cingolani found evidence suggesting that within the Colorado (or Pukamayu) river valley lives an isolated indigenous group, identified as the Toromona, known only from historical accounts.

The Argentine scientist and journalist planned his trek to follow the route of British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, who traveled through the area in 1911 and disappeared in his attempt to find the Toromona. The same thing happened to Lars Hafskjold, of Norway, in the 1980s. The latest scientific excursions have also been attempts to find Hafskjold.

Cingolani said he is preparing the fourth official expedition to take place in the coming months, during the Bolivian winter, to complete his fieldwork “and present sufficient indications that prove the survival of the historic Toromona, respecting their right to isolation.”

It is a bid for “a definitive answer” to whether this group really exists, Alvaro Díez Astete, a renowned Bolivian anthropologist and the expedition’s second in command, told Tierramérica.

The situation of other indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in Bolivia’s lowlands will be taken up through the Madidi Foundation, according to Díez.

There are 33 indigenous tribes in Bolivia, with populations ranging from the millions – there are some 2.5 million Quechua and 1.5 million Aymara – to just a few remaining survivors, like the 11 Pacahuara. In the Amazon, Chaco and eastern regions of Bolivia are 29 indigenous groups (a total of around 300,000 people), 14 of which are in extremely critical situations as far as their survival.

Cingolani and Díez Astete, with the support of leading Belgian anthropologist Vincent Brackelaire, over the last five years have promoted an international campaign to protect indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.

The three experts hope this year to establish the International Alliance for the Protection of Isolated Indigenous Peoples, which is to include the United Nations, the Organisation of American States, the Amazon Basin Indigenous Organisations and the World Conservation Union, as well as the region’s governments.

Isolated peoples are living in the Amazon jungles of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, and in the Gran Chaco of Paraguay and Bolivia.

In late April, the World Rainforest Movement officially gave its support to the Madidi Expedition’s efforts to certify the existence of the Toromona and to ensure protection for their lives, culture and human rights.

But despite the regional and international support, Cingolani warned that the situation of the indigenous peoples inhabiting the Amazon – the world’s largest area of peoples without outside contact – is alarming: “All of them, without exception, are in danger of forced disappearance.”

Díez Astete said that “it is painfully ironic, as Brackelaire says, that numerous animal species in danger of extinction are better protected, thanks to CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species), than are the latest known peoples of the planet.”

The two expedition leaders hope that the government of President Evo Morales, “who because of his [indigenous] origins will surely have greater sensitivity,” and the upcoming Constituent Assembly will adopt measures to ensure the cultural preservation and isolation of the Toromona and other such groups.

(*José Luis Alcázar is a Tierramérica contributor. Originally published June 3 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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