Rough Waters for Peru's Floating Islands

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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."

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