Nature reserves

Joint administration

Bolivia’s sparse highlands are rich in natural and cultural treasures that are protected in national parks such as the one home to the Sajama volcano. Not least, the biodiversity of such fragile environments has to be protected. Advisers from the GTZ and KfW have jointly drawn up concepts with the indigenous inhabitants to strengthen the commitment of the local people to protect and develop the natural reserves – and profit from them.

[ By Martin Lux and Jürgen Czerwenka ]

More than 60 % of Bolivians belong to one of the country’s 36 indigenous communities. The native people were long exploited, but the revolution in 1952 marked a turning point. Since then, their standing in society has risen in the highlands. Only at the end of the 20th century did their situation similarly improve in the Bolivian lowlands.

The central battle was for the descendants of Spanish colonialists to recognise the Indigenes’ traditional lands and their right to use the natural resources. Today, national legislations follow standards of international law, as established in the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Convention 169 and in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007.

Bolivia is a culturally diverse nation and rich in natural resources. The country is also characterised by a variety of ecosystems: the Amazon basin in the east and north, the Altiplano and the Andes mountains in the south and west. Roughly one-fifth of the country’s area has been turned into nature reserves.

In the past 10 years, the native people have called for a complete reorganisation of Bolivian society, a process that culminated in the election of President Evo Morales, a member of the Aymara people from the highlands. His policies aim for more respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, closer integration between the different social classes and more opportunities for community development. His stance has affected the administration of nature reserves. Local residents are now involved and can profit from the management and use of the resources.

The new approach to the nature reserves became part of the constitution in 2009. Nonetheless, it harbours potential conflicts. The aim on the one hand is to protect natural resources and on the other hand, to protect the rights of the inhabitants to use these resources. Models that allow the state and the people to jointly administer the nature reserves mitigate that conflict. They take the economic, social, cultural and environmental purposes of the reserves into account.

A harsh envrionment

Sajama National Park is located in eastern Bolivia near the Chilean border. Declared a natural reserve in 1939, it is the country’s oldest national park. Its glaciers and the 6,542 metre high Nevado Sajama volcano dominate the park. The park’s lowest point lies at approximately 4,200 metres.

Up to 5,200 metres, forests are surrounded by savannah. The grassy landscape is home to the vicuña, the wild ancestor of the llamas. Its fur is dense and fine enough to allow the animals to easily live in temperatures that can go down to minus 20° Celsius. There are thermal springs, geysers and salt lakes in the park, as well as old forts, colonial churches and chullpas, centuries-old stone tombs of the Aymara people.

The Aymara continue to live according to their cultural traditions. Families, religion and the connections of the people to the land define these traditional communities. Some 1,500 people live in the park; they live by their values. Their Spartan lifestyle depends on llamas and alpacas. The climate is too harsh to grow crops.

People’s park

Long before the park was founded, the Aymara lived in the region around Sajama. That is not uncommon in Bolivia. All protected areas in the country are inhabited. That means, however, that nature conservation is not possible against the will of the local people. It is necessary to take their traditional rights, existing value systems and social organisation into account.

The GTZ and KfW have supported the sustainable development of Sajama National Park for more than 10 years. In cooperation with the local people and the park management, a plan to administer the nature reserve was drawn up and land ownership issues were clarified. Concepts to promote tourism and the local economy have been developed and implemented. Shelters, lodging and offices for park service were built, and also vehicles provided.

The development of a joint administration of the reserve by park service officials and indigenous people has led to a profound shift in their relationship and in people’s understanding of themselves. Even those who used to oppose the park now consider it an opportunity. The park service sees itself as a partner in protecting and developing the area. Local people have helped crack down on violations and stop poachers.

Crucial for success was respect for traditional ways of decision making and cultural values. Conservation authorities recognise that the national park belongs to the people who live there, and the inhabitants feel responsible for the park.

The success of tourism and vicuña management has convinced local residents of the usefulness of nature protection measures. Solving land rights issues did not come without conflict, however, the Aymaras were able to settle their traditional borders between themselves. A sustainable use of water resources, crucial for raising cattle and wild animals, has become viable.

The sustainable management of vicuñas is a good example for sustainable resource use. For a long time, vicuñas were seen as rivals of llamas and alpacas and nearly became extinct. Vicuñas depend on the same food as llamas. Their wool is very fine and sells well too. Since 2004, the park communities have found ways to make economic use of the vicuñas in a sustainable fashion.

Once a year, they gather all the animals to measure, weigh and tag them. Only the strongest animals with enough wool – they make up around one quarter of the population – are shorn. An animal provides 100 to 250 grams of wool. On the world market, a kilo of such wool is worth about $ 500. No one gets rich, but families appreciate the additional income of up to $ 250 per year.

Since advantages are obvious, the attitude towards vicuñas has completely shifted. Organisation of the village and relationships between villagers have also benefited from the new system. The model developed in Sajama is already considered exemplary for a national protection policy towards vicuñas.

The GTZ and KfW have also helped to develop tourism. Nowadays local residents run a small independent hotel in Tomarapi at the foot of the Sajama volcano. The participating families have learned to understand the needs of international tourists and how to host them. They have also established contacts with travel agencies. The agencies needed to be confident that the Indigene people would deliver on promised services. To run tourist operations, one needs business and accounting skills. What counts is not just the revenue side; profits also need to be shared fairly and transparently.

Tours in the national park and the environs, such as to Manasaya’s hot springs, now start from Tomarapi. Local people have been supported in building pools and changing rooms, toilets and walls to stop the winds. The receipts for the tickets that tourists pay serve as proof for the earnings for the village community.

The Rio Lauca tourist route takes visitors to cultural and natural sites, such as salt lagoons with their innumerable flamingos and beautiful chullpas, 500-year-old tombs of Aymara nobles, decorated with multicoloured clay. The walls simply needed a little renovation. Local tourist guides earn most of their incomes with alpaca and llama breeding, but complement them with those tours.

A lot of advice and support was necessary to ensure that the project would not only bring environmentally friendly revenues, but also contribute to a deeper appreciation of the natural and cultural heritage by the local people.


Promotion of Sajama National Park is only one example of how the KfW and GTZ work to help manage the Bolivian national park system. The national conservation authority – which headed efforts to set up the Sajama project – is now able to manage basic park administration tasks. It also develops administrative concepts, lays them down into law and implements them.

National policies must be based upon experiences at the local level. At the same time, innovative local initiatives are in need of support at the national level. International cooperation through long-term advisory services and financial support helps the protection of natural resources and national parks take a new lease on life in Bolivia. This also shows in the importance that for the first time is given to the protection of natural resources and national parks in the new Constitution.

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