(above) Mr Felix Condoni, Llapallapani's mayor and a former fisherman, with a boat in the dry bed of Lake Poop outside of Llapallapani, Bolivia, May 1, 2016. PHOTO: NYT


Climate change claims a Bolivian lake, and with it a way of life


By Nicholas Casey

LLAPALLAPANI (Bolivia) — The water receded and the fish died. They surfaced by the tens of thousands, belly-up, and the stench drifted in the air for weeks.

(below) Ms Severina Choque carries bundles of quinoa from the fields Llapallapani, Bolivia, May 4, 2016. Lake Poopo, once Bolivia's second-largest, is now just a dry, salty expanse. PHOTO: NYT

(below) Ms Erminia Miranda Moya packages salt from the Uyuni salt flats in Colchani, Bolivia, May 2, 2016. PHOTO: NYT

The birds that had fed on the fish had little choice but to abandon Lake Poopo, once Bolivia's second-largest but now just a dry, salty expanse. Many of the Uru-Murato people, who had lived off its waters for generations, left as well, joining a new global march of refugees fleeing not war or persecution, but climate change.

"The lake was our mother and our father," said Mr Adrin Quispe, one of five brothers who were working as fishermen and raising families here in Llapallapani. "Without this lake, where do we go?"

After surviving decades of water diversion and cyclical El Nino droughts in the Andes, Lake Poopo basically disappeared in December. The ripple effects go beyond the loss of livelihood for the Quispes and hundreds of other fishing families, beyond the migration of people forced to leave homes that are no longer viable.

The vanishing of Lake Poopo threatens the very identity of the Uru-Murato people, the oldest indigenous group in the area. They adapted over generations to the conquests of the Inca and the Spanish, but seem unable to adjust to the abrupt upheaval climate change has caused.

Only 636 Uru-Murato are estimated to remain in Llapallapani and two nearby villages. Since the fish died off in 2014, scores have left to work in lead mines or salt flats up to 320km away; those who stayed behind scrape by as farmers or otherwise survive on what used to be the shore.

Mr Emilio Huanaco, an indigenous judicial official, is down to his last bottles of flamingo fat, used for centuries to alleviate arthritis. He has never used medication for his aching knee.

Ms Eva Choque, 33, sat next to her adobe home drying meat for the first time on a clothesline. She and her four children ate only fish before.

They and their neighbours were known to nearly everyone in the area as "the people of the lake". Some adopted the last name Mauricio after the mauri, which is what they called a fish that used to fill their nets. They worshipped Saint Peter because he was a fisherman, ritually offering him fish each September at the water's edge, but that celebration ended when the fish died two years ago.

"This is a millenarian culture that has been here since the start," said Ms Carol Rocha Grimaldi, a Bolivian anthropologist whose office shows a satellite picture of a full lake, a scene no longer visible in real life. "But can the people of the lake exist without the lake?"
The lake has long been vulnerable.

It was 3,700m above sea level in the dry Bolivian high plains. Decades of water diversion and cyclical El Nino droughts had brought it to the brink many times over the years. On average, the lake warmed 0.23°C each decade since 1985.

Dr Milton Perez, an ecologist at Oruro Technical University, said scientists had known for decades that Lake Poopo fit the profile of what he called a dying lake. But the prognosis was in centuries, not years.

"We accepted the lake was going to die someday," Dr Perez said. "Now wasn't its time."

Lake Poopo is one of several lakes worldwide that are vanishing because of human causes. California's Mono Lake and Salton Sea were both diminished by water diversions; lakes in Canada and Mongolia are jeopardised by rising temperatures.

Generations of Uru had watched their lake's water recede and return in what had almost become a predictable cycle. In the 1990s, a dry spell hit that left only three small ponds and destroyed the fisheries for several years. But the lake eventually returned to its previous size.

It is hard to overstate how central fishing was to Uru life. When a New York Times photographer, Mr Josh Haner, and I asked Mr Quispe whether he had made his living as a fisherman, he gave us a strange look before answering, essentially, "What else is there?"

Men spent stretches as long as two weeks without returning to shore, wandering the lake to follow schools of karachi, a grey fish that looked like a sardine, or pejerrey, which had big scales and grew as long as Mr Quispe's arm.

Some wives worked alongside their husbands, to pull the nets and do the cooking, making the boats a kind of home.

Fishing season began on the lake's edge with a ritual called the Remembering. The Quispe brothers were among about 40 Llapallapani men who would pass a long night chewing coca leaf and drinking liquor. Together, the group recited the names of Lake Poopo's landmarks and how to find them.

"That night, we would ask for a safe journey, that there would be little wind, that there wouldn't be so much rain," Mr Quispe, 42, told us. "We remembered all night, and we chewed our coca."

In the morning, the men would paddle out above the underwater springs known as jansuris. They would toss sweets from the boat as a religious offering. Fishing season had begun.

We were talking on a cloudless morning with a breeze that might have been perfect for a boat ride in another time. Now, the wind only underscored how dry the landscape had become, as tumbleweeds rolled between the boats abandoned on the old lake bed.

The Uru passed down knowledge about living on and around the lake. Crowds of large black birds on the horizon were an easy sign that fish were congregated below. They counted three distinct winds that could help or hurt: one from the west, another from the east, and a kind of squall from the north called the saucar, which can sink boats.

"It awakens from the north and it doesn't calm down," Mr Quispe explained. "'The saucar is coming', we'd say. 'We can't go into the water until it calms!'"

The lake offered algae called huirahuira, which seemed to relieve coughs. Flamingos were like a pharmacy: In addition to the pink fat used to relieve rheumatism, the feathers fought fevers when burned and inhaled.

The villagers would catch and kill the flamingos in April, when the birds lost their feathers and were rendered flightless. The Uru used mirrors to cast sunlight in the birds' eyes, making them fall asleep temporarily, easy prey.

"We took so many of these from the lake," said Mr Huanaco, the judicial leader, pulling out a bright pink wing from the mud hut behind his home. The day seven years ago that he hunted the bird down, he had no idea it would be his last.

Dr Perez, the researcher, watched with alarm as several threatening trends developed, and began to understand that the lake could evaporate for good.

First, as quinoa became popular abroad, booming production of the grain diverted water upstream, lowering Lake Poopo's level. Second, mining sediment was quickly silting the lake from below.

And it was getting hotter. The temperature on the plateau had increased 0.9°C, from 1995 to 2005 alone, much faster than Bolivia's national average.

"We had the possibility that all these factors would hit with a synergy never seen before," Dr Perez said.

In the summer of 2014, a rotten smell hung in the air. The surface of the lake had fallen so low that when the saucar wind hit from the north, the gusts kicked up too much silt for the fish to survive.

"It was enough to make you cry, seeing the fish swimming dizzy or dead," Mr Gabino Cepeda, a 44-year-old fisherman who has turned to farming quinoa, told us. "But that was just the start. The flamingos are dead, the ducks are gone, everything else. We threw out our nets, there was nothing for us."

Mr Quispe and his brothers met one last time on the edge of the dead lake to perform the Remembering. They paddled out as they always had, but returned the same day because there were no fish.
The eldest, Tefilo, turned to his brothers.

"There is no work," he said. "I will figure out how to make money. And I will tell you how."

The next week, he left Llapallapani to work in a coal mine an hour's drive away.

Mr Pablo Flores, another Uru fisherman who left Llapallapani, starts a thankless workday before sunrise inside a mill on the edge of the world's largest salt flat, Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni. He takes blocks of unrefined salt, grinds them down into a pile as high as he is tall, and puts them into tiny bags, earning 25 cents for each full one.

Outside the mill, it is more arduous. In the vast salt flat near the town of Colchani, where two dozen Uru have resettled, day labourers head out with shovels in the backs of trucks. They gather the salt as the heat beats down on them from above and reflects up from the white expanse below.

"The Uru people aren't made for this," Mr Flores, 57, said. "I'm not made for this. We can't do this kind of work."

In his village, Puaka, Mr Flores was a respected elder. He was once its mayor, and people who knew him from that life still call him by the Spanish honourific "don." As a fisherman, he was always his own boss.

But at the salt mine, he feels like just another hired hand to exploit.

"This is a feudal system," he said. "I can sincerely say this is a bad place."

Looking over the heap of salt, he remembered an old legend, about a flood that destroyed the world except for the Uru, who escaped on their balsa rafts and hid on a hilltop when the water began to recede. Disasters were meant to take the form of deluge, not drought, he said.

Some Uru men have left alone, sending money back to relatives who remain on the lake. But others, like Flores, have taken their families into a new world that has already begun transforming life in ways large and small.

Fifteen Uru live in Machacamarca, a dusty town of several thousand that was once a stop along an old railroad line to the lake. Ms Mara Flores Ignacio and her two teenage children moved this spring into a rented apartment, a first for Ms Flores, whose adobe home in Llapallapani was handed down through generations.

"I am living in someone else's house," she said with a long sigh.

To pay the rent, Flores makes straw handicrafts that she sells to tourists in the state capital, Oruro, at a Saturday market. There are hats, baskets, bracelets, earrings and small boats like the ones the Uru used to navigate Lake Poopo.

Back in Llapallapani, Mr Cepeda, the fisherman-turned-farmer, wants out, too. But he doesn't have the money.

When the fish died, Mr Cepeda staked his hopes on quinoa, an ancient crop in the Andes that is now in vogue in Western countries.

He had inherited 2 hectares of land from his father. He did not quite know how to plant quinoa, but he scattered the seeds in the ground and hoped for the best.

Instead of luck, Cepeda got a devastating frost, which struck in March. Picking up a handful of the quinoa, he showed us his meager harvest, mostly pulverized. It blew away from his palm. Only a few grains remained that weren't dust.

The lake had always been what mattered to the Uru, not the ground, Cepeda told us. But that was changing.

"We fight each other now," he said. "Here is my land. But someone says,'Now you are encroaching.' And then someone else says, 'No, that's mine.'"

Mr Francisco Flores, now 26, was a child when his grandparents told him about the day the Uru-Murato first tasted meat.

It was the start of the 20th century, and the Uru had decided to leave the lake's floating islands made of reeds and mud and settle on its edge. They wore shoes for the first time and gave up dresses made of feathers or wool for Western clothes. After centuries of eating only fish, they tried lamb, Flores recalled being told, and "it was tough".

A century later, the Uru have hit a crossroads again, but one not of their choosing.

"I want to teach my child to fish," Mr Flores said, stopping on the dirt road that leads to the cemetery filled with his forebears, "but I can't."

Another day, Mr Haner and I followed Mr Felix Condori, Llapallapani's mayor, to a city market to buy vegetables for the first time. He used to barter with the Aymara Indians, whose pastures lie north of the village, trading fish for potatoes and quinoa straight from his boat.

Now, instead, he counted out bills from a wad with his wife and mother, the three looking confused.

The mayor, who carries a cane used to punish village delinquents, reached out with his other hand to buy a bottle of Axe deodorant spray.

"This is all new to us," he said.

On the highway back from the salt flat with Mr Quispe one day, we saw a flamingo perched on the side of the road, by a stream 160km from Lake Poopo. It made him suddenly remember the soup his mother used to make.

We stopped the car, got out and walked into a watery landscape with snowcapped mountains in the distance and birds in front of us.

"This is what Lake Poopo once looked like," Mr Quispe said.

An hour before, I had been in the salt mill with Mr Flores, the former Puaka mayor who moved to Colchani with his wife and two young children two years ago.

When he last took them back to Llapallapani for a visit, his six-year-old daughter said something that gave him chills. She was staring at what used to be the lake, having never really known it not to be dry.

"Let's go to Colchani," she said. "Let's go home." NEW YORK TIMES