Rough Waters for Peru's Floating Islands

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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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