Rough Waters for Peru's Floating Islands

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Channel
July 3, 2003
A chilly wind follows the dawn that is painting its way across the
Andes. Nestled along the mountainous border of Bolivia and Peru at 3,820
meters (12,530 feet), Lake Titicaca—one of the highest navigable
lakes in the world—is a mirror of bright hues—and the scene of
a conflict.

Dotting the western corner of the lake only a few kilometers from Titicaca's major Peruvian port town, Puno, are what appear to be giant golden patties, some half the size of a football field. Made of buoyant totora reeds, they are called the Islas Flotantes, or Floating Islands.

Centuries ago the small indigenous Uros tribe conceived of the islands as a way to isolate and protect themselves from rival tribes, the Collas and the Incas. The Uros people harvested the reeds in the shallows of the lake, bundled them together tightly and built floating island platforms complete with reed houses and canoes.

Their lives have been intertwined with the totora reed ever since—but recent developments are challenging that traditional lifestyle.

"The issues facing the people living on the floating islands are multifold," says anthropologist Arrufo Alcantara Hernandez, director of the faculty of social sciences at the Universidad Nacional del Altiplano in Puno. "The waters of the Uros have been overfished by commercial fishermen, tourists are affecting their traditional culture and sewage from Puno is causing environmental and health problems."

Ending Isolation

On most mornings Uros men like Carlos Lujano go out fishing at dawn. After a few hours Lujano paddles his reed boat back to his island, Isla Uross Tupiri I. Ten years ago his usual catch would have been enough to feed his family for a day. Today it's only enough for a meal. Less that a mile away, commercial fishing boats steam out of Puno, followed by thick clouds of black diesel smoke.

"For generations my people fished—but now there's not enough fish to survive on," says Lujano, who is vice president of his island and one of the few formally educated members of the tribe.

Lujano and his community of more than 300 have found another way to survive: tourism. Foreigners visiting the floating islands have become big business.

"A routine visit includes a tour out of Puno on a motorboat with about 10 tourists," says Oscar Kispie, captain of the boat Pose, who has brought visitors to the floating islands for 15 years. "We drop them off, let them walk around and buy handicrafts from the women, then pack them back on the boat."

The amount of tourists grows every year, says Melchora, one of the elderly Uros women who sell miniature reed boats and wool blankets. "At first only a few Uros chiefs permitted tourists onto their islands," she says. "Now nearly all the islands take tourists."

Authentic floating island living is becoming increasingly uncommon. Most islands have their own motorboats and radios. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori gave each island two solar panels as a gift during a visit in the 1990s.

Pesticides and Pollution Harm People and Plants

Of course modernization has a price. Lujano says one of his primary concerns is raw sewage disposal into the lake from Puno—a matter brought to his attention by visiting doctors. Health issues, especially in children younger than 5 years old, are pressing.

"There is a higher infant mortality rate on the floating islands than in Puno," Lujano says. He admits the swelling tourist industry now seems a necessary part of the tribe's new way of life: "The tourists bring us money so we can buy modern medicine to keep our children healthy."

Another factor making Uros children sick could be the recent introduction of pesticides to farms near Puno, according to Dr. Robert Dunbar, a professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University, who first visited Lake Titicaca in 1986 and continues to conduct studies there.

"When it rains or lake levels swamp nearby farmlands, the pesticides get into the lake," Dunbar says. "Inevitably the fish and drinking water of the Uros people get affected."

Sewage and pesticides aren't causing sickness in just the human population: Totora reeds are not growing to the lengths they once did.

"Since the floating islands are constantly being added to from the top as the bottom layers rot and fall away, shorter reeds mean more work for us just to keep our islands afloat," Lujano says. "And of course, if the sewage gets really bad and starts killing off the reeds, our whole way of life could be devastated."

Despite the immediate obstacles, Hernandez remains confident that the Uros people and their culture will remain intact.

"They've successfully dealt with many serious challenges over the last few centuries," he says. "I think if the Uros people use foresight and care, they'll be able to overcome their problems and balance their traditional lifestyles with the modern world."

National Geographic Today, 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news journal available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it.

Got a high-speed connection? Watch National Geographic Today in streaming video.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.