Friday, September 7, 2012

The Last Canoe: Visiting the Tacana Community of San Miguel De Bala

Simon, a local Tacana forest guide, headed up river towards Madidi Park. In the background you can see the Bullet Hills (look for the divit in the mountain) or Bala, which gave the community its modern name.
We´re riding the hybrid canoe-plank boat up the steamy Beni River, away from the tourist sieve of Rurrenabaque. The thousand species of birds, lurking behind the even more numerous species of trees, just hints at its complexity through the one or two king fishers or herons that watch us. Heading towards the Tacana (a numerous pre-Incan indigenous group of the western Amazon basin) community of San Miguel de Bala, I have the lucky opportunity to see successful community-based conservation (CBC) in action. With the collaboration of the 50 or so families who inhabit the edge of what is now Madidi National Park, an eco-lodge has been set up to bring income in community while promote the protection of resources and ecological integrity.

The common area at the lodge where visitors can learn about Tacana history, culture, and local nature or enjoy a nap in a hammock. 

A school and hamlet of houses in the center of San Miguel de Bala
For the Tacana´s a great deal of cultural change over the last few centuries has taken place. With the advent of Christianity in the region, hence the name San Miguel, the community made a major transition to  sedentary, from a previous nomadic hunter and gather life style, as would have existed for a thousand years previously and with trade with the Incas in the 15th Century. The Rio Beni, a oft traveled river due to gold mining, logging, and transportation to other parts of the Amazon made contact between cultures in this region very common, not to mention contact with the various other indigenous groups in the region.

Then in the 90´s, with the rise of extraction of natural resources, activists, government officials, and the various indigenous communities worked together to create the Madidi National Park and a few other preserves in the area in hopes that it would generate income while also protecting the resources so critical to the people of these communities.


Antonia, a Tacana community members weaves an egg collecting basket in  5 minutes. A traditional technique of palm frond weaving.

Loss of traditional lands and the influence of other cultures inevitably creates changes in any culture. The Tacana language is essential moribund, unused within the community. Traditional ways of subsistence have been replaced by agriculture, along with changes in fishing methods and the use of other different building processes. Yet this does not make the Tacana any less Tacana, and a great deal of traditional knowledge on medicine, hunting, fishing, and foresty is still in pragmatic use.

On the beach of the Rio Beni sits one of the last (the only I could find) of the fully dugout canoes from the Suliman tree. Now used as the bottom piece for other styles of boats, the knowledge for tree selection and shaping the hull survives. Style and form have simply changed with time and new processes.

A gorgeous curve on ¨the last canoe¨

Simply being in these forests, spending time next to the constant flow of the powerful Beni, walking through the synphony of the jungle, I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the essential ideas and beautiful of this landscape. I found a Colomerito seed which had the elemental shape of the canoe. It reminded me of the universality of the canoe´s shape, dancing with the same laws of nature in every context of water, in every environment on our beautiful planet. Yet it is made of which ever plant or animal can also flourish in this environment. The indigenous whom create canoes, or created canoes, for their survival in oft hospitable environments turned them Eden-esque, tapping this idea - this form.

A seed in the form of a canoe, the seed of the idea of a canoe




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