For many generations, the homeland of the Uru people was no land: they were the brackish waters of Lake Poopo.
The Uru – “water people” – built a kind of family reed island when they married and survived on what they could collect from the vast shallow lake in the southwestern highlands of the Bolivia.
“They caught eggs, fished and hunted flamingos and birds.” When they fell in love, the couple built their own raft, ”said Abdón Choque, leader of Punaca, a town of about 180 people.
Now what was Bolivia’s second largest lake is gone. It dried up about five years ago, a victim of declining glaciers, diversions of water for agriculture and pollution. The ponds reappear in the loci during the rainy season. The body of the lake, 3,700 meters (12,139 feet) above sea level used to cover an area of 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles) and at its highest level in 1986, had an area of 3,500 square kilometers ( 1,351sq miles).
The Poopo Lake urns are left clinging to their ancient salt-encrusted coastline in three small settlements, 635 people looking for ways to earn a living and struggling to save their culture as well.
“Our ancestors thought that the lake would last a lifetime, and now my people are near extinction because our source of life has been lost,” said Luis Valero, leader of the Uru communities around the lake. .
Shortly before the lake was lost, the language of the Uru-Cholo was also extinct. The last native speakers died slowly and the younger generations grew up in school in Spanish and worked in other more common indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechua.
To save their identity, communities are trying to revive their native language – or at least their closest brother. Aided by the government and a local foundation, they invited teachers from a connected branch of Uru, Uru-Chipaya near the Chilean border to the west, to teach that language – one of the 36 officially recognized Bolivian languages - to his children.
“Everything changes during this time. But we make efforts to maintain our culture, “Valero said.” Our children need to recover the language to distinguish us from our neighbors. “
“Instructors teach us the language with numbers, songs and greetings,” said Avelina Choque, a 21-year-old student who said she would one day like to teach math. “It’s a little hard to pronounce.”
The pandemic has added to this fight. Teachers were unable to hold classes in person during the pandemic, leaving students to learn from texts, videos and radio programs.
The mayor of Punaca, Rufino Choque, said the Uru began to settle on the shore of the lake several decades ago as the lake began to recede, although since then, most of the land around it to them they were occupied.
“We are ancient.” [as a people], but we have no territory. Now we have no source of work, nothing, ”said the 61-year-old mayor, whose town is made up of a strip of round houses, plastered along a dirt road.
With no land for agriculture, young people take themselves as workers, shepherds or miners in nearby cities or more distant cities. “They see the money and they don’t come back,” Abdón said. Some of the women make straw handicrafts.
The wider Uro people once dominated a large part of the region, and the branches remain around Peru and Lake Titicaca to the north, around the Chilean border and close to the Argentine border.