For many generations, the homeland of the waters here was not land at all: they were the salt waters of Lake Poopo.
When the Urus – “water people” – married, they would build a sort of island in the reed family and survive on what came out of the wide, deep lake in the high mountains of southwestern Bolivia.
“They collected eggs, fished, flamingos and hunted birds. When they fell in love, the couple built their own raft, ”said Abdón Choque, the leader of Punaca, a town of about 180 people.
Now the second largest lake in Bolivia is gone. It dried up about five years ago, shredded glaciers, fell victim to cropland diversion and pollution. Ponds reappear in places during the rainy season. The body of the lake, which used to cover an area of 1,000 square kilometers above sea level above 3,700 meters (12,139 feet) and at its highest level in 1986, had an area of 3,500 square kilometers.
Uruak on Poopo Lake is stuck in its old salt-covered coast in three small settlements, 635 people strive to find a way of life and also try to save their culture.
“Our grandfather thought the lake would last a lifetime, and now my town is on the verge of extinction because we have lost the source of our life,” said Luis Valero, head of the Uru communities around the lake.
Long before the lake was lost, the Uru-Cholo language also became extinct. The last speakers gradually died out and the younger generation was educated in Spanish and worked in other more common indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechua.
To save their identities, communities are trying to revitalize their mother tongue, or at least their closest sibling. Accompanied by the government and a local foundation, they have invited teachers from a branch of the Uru link to western Uru-Chipaya, near the Chilean border, to teach the language – one of Bolivia’s 36 officially recognized languages - to children.
“Everything changes at this time. But we are making an effort to maintain our culture, “Valero said.” Our children need to regain their language to differentiate themselves from their neighbors. “
“The instructors teach us the language with numbers, songs and greetings,” said Avelina Choque, a 21-year-old student who said she would like to teach math one day. “It’s a little hard to pronounce.”
The pandemic has added to that struggle. Teachers were unable to give face-to-face classes during the pandemic, leaving students to learn from texts, videos and radio shows.
Punaca Mayor Rufino Choque said the water began to settle on the shore of the lake a few decades ago, when the lake began to shrink, but by then most of the surrounding land was occupied.
“We’re old [as a people], but we have no territory. Now we don’t have a source of work, nothing, ”said the 61-year-old mayor, whose village is lined with a ribbon made of round gypsum blocks across a dirt street.
As they have no land for agriculture, young people are hired as workers, shepherds or miners in nearby villages or in more distant cities. “They see the money and they don’t get it back,” Abdón said. Some women make straw crafts.
The Uru people were predominant in a wider part of the region, and the branches remain around Lake Peru and Lake Titicaca in the north, around the Chilean border and near the Argentine border.