Friday, 1 June 2012

A dark side to Bolivia?

Arriving at Cochabamba airport, we got a taxi to our hotel.  The taxi driver seemed nice enough, but turned out to be a maniac behind the wheel, driving at what seemed like 70mph along the city streets.  With no seatbelts as well, I did not cope well with the journey.  He was very smiley when unloading our bags from the taxi, so I can only assume that he thought we would be pleased with the speed at which he had got us there!

We were due to leave at 5.00am the next morning and it was 10.00pm already.  Herman was going to travel back with the vehicle from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, with his brother Carlos driving all night.  I was dubious that they would make it in time, but, as planned, Herman was waiting for us outside the hotel at 5.00am, looking pretty bright for someone who had slept in a vehicle.

First stop was high yungus cloud forest at 3,850m, where we had great views of the endemic Black-Throated Thistletail as well as White-Browed Conebill and Rufous-Bellied Bush-Tyrant.  We then drove further down the mountainside to middle yungas cloud forest, where we saw Versicoloured Barbet, Bolivian Tapaculo, Sclater’s Tyrannulet and Barred Fruiteater and had another lovely campside lunch. 

We then drove further down the mountainside, into the Villa Tunari valley.  Here we went through a permanent checkpoint across the road, which is supposed to stop narco trafficking along this road.  We were allowed though without a search of our vehicle.  The Villa Tunari area is one of two districts In Bolivia where coca growing is legal and only those who live there have permits to sell this crop.  In other parts of Bolivia, you may only grow coca leaves for personal use and can not sell.  However, the processing of coca into any substance is illegal.  Most people have told us that narco trafficking has increased massively under the present government.  The road from Cochabamba to Villa Tunari also continues to Santa Cruz.  With a good road from Villa Tunari to both Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Sandro was telling us that drug taking in these two cities has become a big problem.  He was saying the government had recently outlawed cheap large bottles of high alcohol percentage spirits which he thinks will lead to higher drug taking as it will be much cheaper than alcohol.  Many believe that those high up in government and in the military are involved in narco trafficking and believe that it drugsare going to kill the lives of young people in Bolivia.  There are proposals for a new road from Villa Tunari directly north to San Ignacio de Moxos, in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon, cutting directly through a national park with primary habitat and nothing but a few indigenous communities who are strongly against.  A new road would directly connect Villa Tunari to Trinidad and Rurrenabaque and on to Brazil by road or boat.  Most believe that the real reason for the road is to facilitate narco trafficing to Brazil and the rest of the world. 

About 10 minutes down the road from the checkpoint, we reached a village where we tried to turn right up the hillside on various tracks to reach low yungus forest higher on the hillside.  However, the tracks all said no entry.  We tried to turn into a track which they had used many times to access the forest and the last time in the last 6 months.  As we turned into the track, a man and woman shouted from the other side of the road that we could not go up the track.  When Sandro said that he had been up there lots of times, they said that if we went up the road they would barricade it.  We therefore had no option but to carry on to Villa Tunari, feeling pretty frustrated.  There would be no reason for the locals to not want anyone to go up there other than that there are cocaine making factories up there, polluting the environment and probably resulting in habitat loss, but with no one to see.  So close to the checkpoint, there can be no way that the authorities do not know about their existence.  It’s hard to really consider the human and environmental cost of cocaine production when sitting at home in UK.

Sandro told us that last year, travelling back from Villa Tunari, they had two vans full of marijuana in front of them heading towards the checkpoint.  They thought that there was no way that they would get through, but when they got to the checkpoint, both vehicles had vanished, clearly smuggled through.  He said that when he was conscripted into the military and serving in Villa Tunari,  they were ordered to load up a huge lorry with boxes.  At the time, being young and naïve he had no idea what it was, but it was only later that he realised that they were boxes packed with cocaine.

On this note, we were glad when our night’s stay in Villa Tunari was over and the next morning we headed back up the mountain, missing out lower yungus forest and making our first stop middle yungus.  However, it was 8.30am before we managed to get to any suitable habitat as the first place we stopped had been cleared of it’s primary forest.  It was not the first place this had happened during our trip and it was sad to see such recent and rapid destruction of habitat.

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