“They’re afraid of us now,” he told me, although looking at Abel Machaca’s kind, lined face doesn’t impose fear; his eyes and smile are more of an open invitation to friendship. His story, though—one of tenacity in the face of ongoing struggle—belies his soft-spoken nature. He is a Bolivian David staring down Goliath, a threat to power from the most unlikely of places.
Abel is a herdsman. He and his brother care for about 200 sheep and 60 head of cattle on the family land, the same where they were born and raised. Their land lies at the heart of one of Bolivia’s most environmentally contentious and vulnerable areas where the interests of mining and politics, combined with climate change and drought, all unhappily converge. Known as Yuracari, his community is nestled among a string of low hills near the small mining town of Poopó, almost equidistant between the Uru Uru and Poopó lakes, both recognized for their international ecological importance. Abel has watched from this front row seat his entire life as a drama of environmental deterioration and political apathy has unfolded before him.
He remembers the time during his childhood when the river ran freely and his family’s wells were sweet. When they didn’t have to worry about pasture for their livestock and the rains were more than enough. Today, the Desaguadero River that carries water from down from the famous Lake Titicaca falters and fades into the earth before it ever reaches Lake Poopó. Lake Poopó has all but disappeared, converted to a thousand square-kilometer expanse of blinding, white salt. His land, too, which used to be a healthy, rich russet color, now shows signs of sickness: ugly stains of white, lead and yellow from the salt and sulfur carried down from the mines. The wells they used to drink from have turned “spicy” and “undrinkable” and they have to rent out other pastures for their livestock part of the year.
Abel says he began to notice these changes as a boy, and they worried him. He studied hard and put himself through high school in the city of Oruro, about two hours away from his small community of Yuracari. Abel always had, in his words, “a dream of being able to help my entire region.” This vision even propelled him to pursue agronomy in the Universidad Mayor San Simon in Cochabamba, another six hours away from his home.
But despite this distance, his connection to his land and family never wavered. For years, he made the journey back to Poopó every 10 or 15 days to help his parents in the campo. His vision for “an improvement in the quality of life” of his community was never assimilated into an ambition for his own success or career; it was never a means of escape from his life as a farmer and herdsman. Indeed, when his father got sick and passed away, he left his studies and returned full-time to his community to help his mother. He never finished his degree.Instead, his decisions embody the Andean values of commitment to place, reciprocity in community and responsibility to family.
Although the youngest of his siblings, Abel began to assume more and more responsibilities for the care of his family’s land and his community. As evidence of environmental contamination advanced year after year, specifically with regard to community concerns regarding the presence of toxic heavy metals in their water and soil, he began to take formal steps to advocate for his community among the local political authorities and mining operations themselves. But the obstacles were great.
“We always protested to the mining companies,” he tells me, “but they never paid attention to us. They always took us as if we don’t know anything … With the naked eye, physically, it’s obvious that there’s contamination, but they always said, ‘Show me. What contamination?’ They were the ‘experts’ who could always turn us in circles.”
Abel needed a way to make them pay attention. He needed a way to “actually show that we are actually right.” But how to overcome the evasive tactics of the powerful to ignore the claims of the community—this is the question the Israelites asked about Goliath in despair. Abel is a man far from despair, however, and not having a university degree did not stop him from the “search to be able to show them that we were really contaminated with certain metals.”
He became one of the local leaders of his community, organizing and participating in political marches and campaigns for the protection of the environment and more responsible mining practices. At one march in particular, in 2013, Abel met someone who could help. Representatives from the Cochabamba organization Center for Communication and Andean Development (CENDA) were also there and interviewed Abel about his community and concerns.
As an authority in the community, Abel invited CENDA to Yuracari and asked for help in providing training and workshops to understand the environmental and mining laws to support their local advocacy. Eventually he developed an agreement with CENDA to continue working together. This was a concrete step—but it wasn’t enough. “What more could we do?” Abel asked himself. The question remained, “How can we demonstrate which metals or what chemical elements we are contaminated by?”
The idea emerged to develop a community-led environmental monitoring program of local waters so the community could collect the information they needed themselves. This was Abel’s slingshot. Experts in community water quality monitoring agreed to come from Peru to train Abel and other volunteers from Yuracari in using basic equipment to test water quality and interpret the results. CENDA provided Abel with a water quality testing kit of his own and he and others from his community began testing their community’s water every month.
“It’s been difficult,” Abel remembers. “The municipality makes it difficult for us to be monitors.” Instead of support, Abel and the others were at first met with resistance and confusion. When they went to the municipality saying they were going to monitor water quality, they were challenged: “Who authorized you?” they were asked.
“The technicians themselves thought they knew everything, that they were always right, not us,” Abel says. But despite the asymmetries of power, Abel pushed forward. “Over time we’ve kept practicing a lot, with workshops and training we’ve been getting stronger.”
Now, nine community members—five adults and four youth—are trained and actively participate in monitoring a network of locations throughout the watershed, above and below local mining operations. Abel was pleased when high school students from the nearby town of Totoral from the municipality of Antequera also joined the effort. He and the others compile results and report them to their municipalities, slowly earning recognition and respect. Abel was invited to present regarding his experience at a recent health conference in Oruro and is increasingly seen as a resource for other communities as someone who can answer questions about water quality.
Abel also works closely with MCC Bolivia’s partner, the Center for Ecology and Andean Peoples (CEPA), located in Oruro. CEPA supports Abel and other local leaders in their defense of the environment through political advocacy, technical community training, mining inspections and coordinating grassroots efforts among impacted communities. Long-term, with the support of organizations like CENDA, CEPA and MCC, Abel believes he can effect real change.
“The mining companies have their ways around all the demands we made. But not anymore … Now they listen to us,” he says. “In meetings that we have with the different government offices, we can easily explain our monitoring work and can say that these waters have poor quality … We’ve done it and we were right.”
When I ask how old he is, he smiles and shakes his head. “Oh, plenty of years, but that doesn’t matter.” Despite his age, he is full of energy and wants to see grassroots monitoring groups grow and expand throughout the region. All that matters he says, is that he is able to continue supporting communities to attain their right to information about their water and the environment. This is his new vision.
“Being a water quality monitor is satisfying,” he says. “So much can be achieved with information.”
Riley Mulhern, from Louisville, Colorado and the First Presbyterian Church in Boulder, Colorado, served in Oruro, Bolivia with the Center of Ecology and Andean Peoples (CEPA) as part of the Seed II program with MCC Bolivia.
Photographer Anna Vogt captured images of Abel Machada, his brother and their land near Yuracari, Bolivia.
This article originally appeared on MCC’s Latin America & Caribbean region website on November 28, 2018.