Wednesday, August 8, 2012

People of the Reeds

A floating reed island of the Uros.

 To the Uros people, the totora reed is everything. Dominating a vast, multi-hundred square kilometer ecosystem outside the Bay of Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the totora reed finds just about every use you could imagine due to the innovation of the Uros of the last many hundred years. The houses, islands, and yes boats are made out of the incredible plant.

For the next few weeks, I am living on Isla Kantati, a five family island in the main huddle of remaining Uros Islands just outside of Puno. Victor, one of the owners of the island, and I, will construct a bulsa totora. We will construct it not in an entirely traditional manner, but rather in the manner that is used by the Uros people today, what modern materials, ways of designing, and uses exists, will all be extremely interesting in terms of what they say about cultural survival and dramatic change.

But one thing hasn't changed. The usefulness, and cultural importance of the totora. So in the last few days, we undertook the first step of the process, harvesting the totora in the vast homelands of the Uros.

Victor looking over a good day's harvest to Totora reeds.

 The process begins with searching. For an entire day we scan the reeds looking for bunches that are green (for flexibility), tall and thick, as well as in abundance of those categories in which ever area we harvest. To test for flexibility, Victor wraps a reed around his hand, and if it doesn't break, then it is good enough. For height, it must be taller then he is, standing in his boat. Modern wooden boats with motors, and poles for pushing along in shallow areas, are used to harvest rather than traditional reed boats.
Victor and his brother moving through the reeds looking for the perfect harvest.

Before we take anything, some of our drinking water is given to the deity of the lake by dropping it directly into the water, for respect and good luck. A long eucalyptus pole from the mountains is used, with a knife attached to the end, traditionally bone and sharpened stick, to cut the reeds out of the water, just above the roots. Within six months, the reeds grow back and are ready for another harvest.

 The traditional hunting, fishing and harvesting lands of the Uros were challenged in the late 70's by the national government, who in the name of conservation, made it illegal to harvest totora reeds in the entire swath of land outside of Puno. In a series of protests and actions, the Uros people were able to maintain their traditional harvesting rights, which in many cases seek to protect and foster healthy growth of the totora reeds. A rigorous system of harvesting rights as well as institutionalized patrolmen among the Uros consider conservation into the traditional processes. Yet with drastic cultural changes, it is unclear what the greater impact harvesting has on the ecosystem.

Drying for 2-3 days to use for their flexibility for the boat's tips.

 As the reeds we harvested dry over the next few days, though not to much so as to maintain their water given elasticity for the very ends of the boat, we will begin designing and constructing the main hull of the boat. What remains of the Uros bulsa totora tradition will be illuminated the next time you hear from me.


  1. Could you find out a bit more about the floating island? How thick is it? What makes it float? What kind of upkeep is needed to keep it floating? How does it fare in storms?

    Very cool stuff

  2. Austin,

    Awesome questions. I could have many post about these topics, but with so much to cover, ill explain a little bit here. The construction process of the floating islands begins with the harvesting of the totora roots. These roots are extremely buoyant and are transported in up to 3 meter blocks. They are then tied together to form the island shapes and covered with 1 meter thick of totora reeds. This means about 4 meters in total. Three times a month new reeds are placed on top of the old reeds as they decompose, making it somewhat thicker. With this process, islands have been said to last up to 100 years. There are anchors for every island, whether eucalyptus poles attached with ropes in the shadows or ropes and rocks. Some of the larger islands have up to 15 anchors. The Peruvian Uros joke that they fear waking up on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, so they really put their anchors in tight. Sometimes it is extremely windy and stormy, and in extreme cases, islands can come loose, but not often at all. With waves and boat wake, the very edges of the island move a little, but over all it is very good design.