Friday, July 28, 2006

Project Investigation for the people of Los Bia
BY: Collin Whelley of the Bolivia Project
University of Dayton

On the 24th of June, the Bolivia project consisting of Michael Vehar and myself, accompanied by Zach Steffens, Ruth Saavedra of Sobre la Roca and Miguel___ our guide and host, traveled to the pueblo of Los Bia (referred to as the Yuquis) well inside the Amazon Rain Forrest. This trip was designed as an investigation into whether or not we, the Bolivia project, Sobre la Roca, and the Cedesol foundation could in-fact establish a working relationship with a native people in dyer need. This particular project contained five major goals of investigation as follows: Establish Relations, Introduce Rocket stove concept, introduce retain heat cooking concept, introduce and examine feasibility of solar cooking, and evaluate the needs of this community in an attempt to decide weather a future working relationship would be worthwhile and effective for all parties.

Concerning what is worthwhile and effective for all parties:

The sole purpose of going deep into the Jungle to see the Tribe of Los Bia was with the intention of helping their people, culture, and way of life to survive. These tranquil people are on the verge of extinction; 56 families remain accounting for approximately 250 people. 80 % of the population is suffering from Tuberculosis and seldom do people live past the age of 40 years. Many suffer from fungus or mold in their lungs due impart by the humid climate of the Amazon coupled with the fact that many sleep on the damp ground and spend all day in damp clothing. Health complications are made worse by the tribe’s consumption of river water. The rivers of Chapare are polluted and with unboiled consumption cause diarrhea and support the spread of Tuberculosis. At first glance actions that need to be taken to help save these people become huge when one looks at the vast amount of need required. However, as true of a statement this might be it is important to use the word “save.” This is an old traditional culture that must control its own future. If help is to be given, it must be given with the understanding that these people will use it to control their own destiny. Now the question that remains is whether or not funding and donating cookers to this community will be worth it for them? Will it help? Do they want to change from there traditional ways to using stoves, houses, wells, etc? How expensive and or difficult is it to transport all necessary materials deep into the rainforest via, bus, taxi, canoe, and foot? Though there is a great worldly obligation to help los Bia’s people this trip was designed to investigate if in fact it would be possible for the three organizations to do so.

How the investigation was made possible:

Zach, Michael and I took it upon ourselves to fund the trip out of our own pocket in order to save more money for the Bolivia Project courses. The Cedesol Foundation generously donated five Rocket stoves (very efficient wood cookers) and one retain heat cooker. Dave Whitfield, of the Cedesol foundation, spent time setting up preliminary contact with Los Bia. In addition he spent time with the Bolivia project and Clayton Rohman planning and organizing the trip goals and plans. Ruth Saaverda donated her time and experience in teaching and planning cooker courses. Miguel______ and his mission donated space and the canoe to help with a mode of transportation. He also served as a translator and an informer. From various medical studies and many informal surveys he had compiled a wealth of knowledge about the Los Bia tribe. He has been living with them for over one year and his partner for nearly four years. All statistics in this paper come from a structured interview and a guided tour with Miguel. Visual observation was also compiled.

Los Bia:

The name “Yuqui” is a nickname that was assigned to these people by outsiders. It is the most common and recognized name that people use and associate with this tribe. Unfortunately, the word “Yuqui” caries negative connotations that are offensive and degrading to the people who are associated with it. These people are not barbarians, savages, or cannibals. They are people who are not attached to civilization. In other words they are not civilized, but even uncivilized people have names and culture. If they choose not to be called wild people they should have that right. They are “Los Bia” or “The People.” The word “Bia,” means “people” in their native tongue of Biaye; “the voice of the people.” There land is named “Bia-Rewate”, “lugar de la gente”, or “the place of the people.” Los Bia want to be recognized as people, not as wild animals. It seems to them that they have been captured in this negative light by much of the outside world; however, few Los Bia travel to town and those who do have found they have no money to spend making the cost of the journey a waist. In turn from those who travel to them, they construct their concept of the outside world. It was not until 1967-69 that these people first made contact with those outside there world. In the not so distant past they were natural, naked, nomadic, and some claim that they ate the dead. However, learning about their intense fear of death and of those who have died creates great doubt in my mind for cannibalism as a social trend throughout their history.

Researching the history of Los Bia is sensitive and challenging. Today the children and some grown men and women speak some Spanish. It was these people whom we could best communicate with. As well as we could communicate often times these people do not remember As difficult as communication was, often times it proved unfruitful because many people simply do not remember the events that have shaped their past. We had to rely Miguel to learn about Los Bia history. They work to forget the past. When one remembers the past they must remember those who have passed before them, the dead. This action is forbidden and foreign to them. No person will share a name with an ancestor and no grave stones signify the remembrance of tribe members. We were instructed not to bring up the past because they could become offended and possibly aggressive. I observed no signs of aggression only the apprehension of foreign interests and faces.

Traditional Los Bia’s believe that the body has two spirits. The first is good and the second is bad. The bad spirit has a symbol of a black bird with a red breast. When someone dies both spirits are released. The good spirit is free to wander the world or ascends to a place where all other good spirits return to while the bad remains and tortures the living like ghosts. In the recent past, if one person dies in one family, an additional family member must be sacrificed to counterbalance the first bad spirit. Two bad spirits will only torment each other and leave the rest of the community alone. Today there still remains an intense fear of death and those who have died. People do not bury the dead, but reveal the cold faces to the stars so the spirits may be released. The community comes to touch the face of the person who is dead and then them selves. This action is not out of sadness but out of fear. Each participant in this ritual is trying to please the bad spirit and protect themselves. This cultural phenomenon remains regardless if a person has converted to Christianity.

Miguel who works as a Christion missionary seemed to be very respected by the community. Some families that we had the privilege to meet had converted some of their beliefs into the Christian belief system and tried to adapt this change to their culture. Others felt that the missionaries were trying to trick and take advantage of Los Bia. Regardless of which family we talked too, they were all equally respectful, caring, needing, and helpful. After all, society and religion do not make up the life of a person only their perceptions of it and in it. Life and creation from the jungle creates a different perception of the world and how it was formed than anywhere else on earth.

Los Bia have no written Myth of origin or the beginning of time. Historically they believe in myths similar to other Native American (north south and central) peoples. There is a belief that the first woman was cooking. The sparks of the fire lit up the sky with stars and the food that she cooked became people. Men are signified by the Jungle and Women by the river or water witch gives life to the jungle. The jungle and river symbolism seemed to resemble if not parallel Yin and Yang partnership of forces.

Current family partnerships are consistent with many other traditional models. Men and boys hunt and fish while the women raise infants and children while gathering and making crafts. However it was visibly apparent that the family spent a good deal of time together - eating, sleeping, and making crafts. Perhaps statements that accent gender trends are only trends and not complete truths. The family unit and tribal bond is an interesting and accent phenomena which I would like to spend more time studying.

The marriage ritual is another interesting cultural phenomenon. It is not clear who must grant permission or who must ask whom, but when Marriage does occur the man must prove his worth and devotion to the woman and the tribe. If the marriage is within the tribe, the male must go in to the jungle and kill a wild boar. He must bring it back to his area where he lives and cook it. He then invites the woman into his area to eat with him. This communal meal signifies that the mane has the ability to provide and take care of a family. For an outside male to marry in to the Tribe there is an additional task. He must travel deep in the jungle and stay for three months. On his return he must provide the same meal for the female.

The practice of something similar to voodoo was discovered some time ago. We were told a replica or doll of an individual who had suffered a tragic death was found with sticks driven through it shortly after the individuals’ passing. This is a practice that is supposed to have been originated from Africa and there is no way for that culture to reach these people. This is unless there had been contact with other civilization prior to sixty nine. There is so much to learn about Los Bia. However it is important to be respectful.

Many of the first people they met were drug traffickers who killed and displaced native peoples of the Bolivia jungles. Los Bia were forced to move in fear of cocaine cartels and not for traditional nomadic migratory signals. From the late sixties Civilization has been creeping in on them, and now it seems the only way that they can save there people is by creating a pueblo or town and make several steps toward civilizing their culture. There is an inbuilt skepticism of the outside world. Many of the people who come to see Los Bias are tourists. They come to see wild people. They come to take pictures to show their families they saw real “Yuqui Indians.” I had the pleasure to meet real people. Though they were hesitant at first, not understanding my intentions, they quickly relaxed and accepted us as friends. One of the most amazing gifts one could receive.

Immediate and future needs of the people:

As a list: Health clinics, Medicine, food, clean water, (rain water collection devices or a well dug deeper), cooking-efficient method to cook with low smoke and quick to boil water, houses- need to be raised off the muddy ground, education- more explanation about health and hygiene, school- books, teachers, to be stationary not nomadic, etc)
To begin the Bolivia project must return to what it can accomplish and how it can help. We can provide cooking devices and ask for donations from the surrounding communities. We can donate our labor to help reconstruct water collectors, build green houses, and bring needed supplies to the people. However we have less control over the success of our implementation of new cooking technologies.

-Introducing Technologies and Establishing Working Relations:

Acceptance of the technology is the biggest question and the biggest problem. Traditionally in this community, due to the humidity and quantity of rain fall, each family has a fire burning at all times. If that fire were to be extinguished, it would be a large hassle to relight. We experienced this first hand as we had trouble starting our own Rocket stove. In addition, the rocket stove may use much less wood, but it also uses small and dry pieces. Whether people will be willing to put work in to chopping wood smaller is yet to be determined. One question that arises if there needs to be a fire burning everyday is - how much healthier will people be living with a rocket stove. Though it will be easier to boil and purify water, Indoor air pollution will not be addressed with these people for many years. The possibility of making retain heat cookers with them is realistic, but weather they will use them is also a huge question. Solar cooking in the Jungle is a challenge. Clouds cover the sky for a majority of the year decreasing the effectiveness and value of the technology. Regardless of how well the community uses the technology we must qualify and quantify the success of our last visit prior to our return. Perhaps our time and effort will be better spent in other areas besides cooking technologies.


If the implementation of the rocket stove is a success we can begin to manufacture stoves with them. Clay is in abundance in the area and with their new bread oven they have the ability to fire bricks and create the foundations of their own rocket stoves.
If the implementation of the rocket stove is a success then we can further introduce the retain heat cooker. Los Bian people can weave baskets and use banana leaves as insulation.
Miguel and the rest of the mission are doing some great things by attempting to build houses with them. This will create a desire to ignore nomadic habits, and encourage personal hygiene and cleanliness. With the construction of houses the implementation of toilets, efficient stoves, and water collectors will be much easier. Medication, education, green houses, and health clinics would still remain unaddressed needs. How long will it take to make houses for every family in the tribe? Too long, much too long. So we arrive back at the beginning not knowing exactly where to begin to help. There is only one option that we have. Return with some donations and plans while surveying the needs in further detail.

What we will, can, and hope to do when we return:

The Bolivia project plans to bring cloths, everlasting flashlights, tooth brushes and any medication that we can get donated. We will give Miguel all medical supplies for safe keeping and place him in charge of distribution if so needed. We must investigate the successes and failures of our implementation and survey how well the mission’s housing project is working.

Just a personal note:
The hardest part about writing the last three sections of this paper is the feeling that I have in my gut. I feel lazy. I feel like I can not help these people. I feel like I am not doing enough. I am only writing and not doing anything. What should I do? Someone tell me what I should do. I was on fire when I left that village. I had more energy than I new what to do with, but know it is hard to tap in to that reservoir of energy. Perhaps by returning, my fire will return and give me the power to once again act. I wanted to write a reflection about what it felt like to visit these people, but I have forgotten so much. All I have is a short passage that I wrote in my diary which looks useless to me know. I need to return to work in general.

To Be Continued


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