About a third of Bolivia lies within the Amazon basin. Here, people’s cultures and livelihoods intertwine with the biodiversity that thrive in the vast savannahs, swamps, and largely untamed tropical rainforests. Rivers are critical to both people and animals.
But as the Amazon’s countries seek wealth beyond biodiversity, the rivers that sustain everything are increasingly at risk. Already, dams constructed on the Madeira River in Brazil are having rippling impacts in Bolivia’s pristine Amazon.
Bolivia leads the world in area officially designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, including the Llanos de Moxos, which is the largest complex of Ramsar sites in the world. The 8 million hectares of near-pristine Amazon wilderness is a hotbed for biodiversity guarded by over a dozen protected areas and indigenous communities.
The Bolivian Amazon is critical habitat for a variety of wildlife including birds, fish, turtles, crocodiles, otters and river dolphins, in addition to terrestrial animals like jaguars, ocelots, tapirs and capybara. People depend on a healthy, flowing river as much as animals. In such remote, undeveloped places, the river provides everything: drinking water, fish for food, cleanliness.
While much of Bolivia appears pristine, unsustainable development is already taking its toll. Glaciers, important water reserves for the country, are disappearing at an alarming rate under the increased impacts of climate change. Thirsty mining operations deplete and pollute rivers. And dams proposed throughout the region threaten to turn the Amazon from a healthy network of well-connected rivers to a series of manmade reservoirs.
The tiny town of Versalles is nestled along the Itinez River amongst millions of hectares of pristine jungle. For the indigenous people living there, turtles are an important part of life. Turtles are an integral source of food: one large, fully grown Arrau turtle—which can reach up to 90kg—will feed the entire town. They also have cultural significance: villagers share stories of the turtle-like river goddess Tatijana, and include turtle hunting as part of their heritage. Given the importance of turtles, it’s no surprise the people of Versalles feel blessed. The beaches outside of town may host the single largest river turtle hatchery of the entire Amazon.
Unfortunately, for the past few years, many baby turtles die and nests rot long before the massive hatching occurs. The Itinez River level is rising, essentially drowning the animals. Community members and conservationists alike believe the rise the caused by recently constructed dams downstream in Brazil. Scientists have already found that water levels immediately behind the dams’ reservoirs had risen, and the impacts may reach all the way to Versalles. To save the turtles, local community members organize volunteer groups to go to the beaches each day and dig up as many nests as possible, freeing the turtles from their underground homes as early as safely possible.
Dolphins are important indicator species for the Amazon’s rivers. In Bolivia, the health and movements of the Indura Bolivanas can tell us something about the health and connectivity of the rivers in which they live. In 2017, for the first time ever, Bolivian river dolphins were tagged with GPS technology, providing scientists new insight on the animals and their habitats.
However, better document the specific impacts of dams in Bolivia, the Bolivian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Environment and Water, with the support of WWF, developed a system to monitor the impacts of the Jirau and Santo Antonio hydropower on the Madera River in Brazil on freshwater ecosystems in Bolivia. The Madera Basin is the largest tributary of the Amazon Basin in Bolivia.