For many generations, the homeland of the Uru people was not the land at all: it was the salty waters of Lake Poopo.

The Uru – “the people of the water” – would build a kind of family island using plants when they got married. They would live off what they could take off, shallow lake in the highlands of southwestern Bolivia.

“They collected eggs, fished, hunted flamingos and birds. When they fell in love, the couple built their own raft,” said Abdón Choque, chief of Punaca, a town of about 180 inhabitants.

Now what was the second largest lake in Bolivia is gone. It dried up about five years ago, due to shrinking mountain glaciers and the use of water for agricultural and mining operations.

During the rainy season, small bodies of water reappear in areas of the old lake.

Today, the Uru of Lake Poopo live near the ancient salt crusted shore of the lake in three small villages. About 600 people are looking for ways to make a living and even trying to save their culture.

Luis Valero is the leader of the Uru communities around the lake. He said: “Our grandfathers thought the lake would last their entire lives, and now my people are near. extinction because our source of life has been lost. “

Residents walk along a dirt road in the Urus del Lago Poopo indigenous community, which lies along the ancient salt-crusted shore of Lake Poopo, in Punaca, Bolivia on Monday, May 24, 2021.

Shortly before the lake was lost, the Uru-Cholo language died. The younger generations learned Spanish at school. At work, they use other more common indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechua.

To save their identity, communities are trying to revive their language – or at least its closest language. Helped by the government and a local foundation, they invited teachers from a group related to the Uru, the Uru-Chipaya near the Chilean border in the west, to teach the language to their children. It is one of the 36 officially recognized Bolivian languages.

“In these times everything is changing. But we are making efforts to maintain our culture,” said Valero. “Our children must recover the language to to distinguish us from our neighbors. “

Jose Choque stands next to his work he wrote on a dry-erase board during a Uru language class, in a classroom in the Urus del Lago Poopo indigenous community, in Punaca, Bolivia, on Monday 24 May 2021.

Jose Choque stands next to his work he wrote on a dry-erase board during a Uru language class, in a classroom in the Urus del Lago Poopo indigenous community, in Punaca, Bolivia, on Monday 24 May 2021.

Avelina Choque is a 21-year-old student who would one day like to teach mathematics. She said Uru-Chipaya teachers use numbers, songs and common phrases to teach the language.

“It’s a bit difficult to pronounce,” she added.

The pandemic has made learning the language even more difficult. Teachers were unable to organize face-to-face classes during the pandemic, leaving students to learn from texts, videos and radio broadcasts.

Abelina Choque stands in her classroom next to her work, on the left, she wrote on a dry-erase board, during a Uru language class in the Urus del Lago Poopo indigenous community in Punaca, in Bolivia, Monday, May 24, 2021.

Abelina Choque stands in her classroom next to her work, on the left, she wrote on a dry-erase board, during a Uru language class in the Urus del Lago Poopo indigenous community in Punaca, in Bolivia, Monday, May 24, 2021.

Punaca’s mayor, Rufino Choque, said the Uru had started to settle on the shores of the lake over the past 30 years, as the lake began to shrink. However, there were already people living on most of the land around the lake.

“We are old, but we have no territory. Now we have no source of work, nothing,” said the 61-year-old mayor. Punaca’s round houses are lined up along a dirt road.

Without land to cultivate, the young people work as laborers, shepherds or minors in nearby towns or more distant towns. “They see the money and they don’t come back,” says Abdón. Some women make handicrafts out of straw.

Handmade dolls of a Uru family rest on a woven fabric at the home of Evarista Flores, in the indigenous community of Urus del Lago Poopo, Punaca, Bolivia, on Monday, May 24, 2021.

Handmade dolls of a Uru family rest on a woven fabric at the home of Evarista Flores, in the indigenous community of Urus del Lago Poopo, Punaca, Bolivia, on Monday, May 24, 2021.

The Uru people at large once controlled much of the region. There are still branches around Peru and Lake Titicaca in the north, around the Chilean border, and near the Argentine border.

I am Jill Robbins.

Carlos Valdez wrote this story for the Associated Press. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learn English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in this story

shallow – adj. having a small distance to the bottom of the surface or the highest point

extinction nm the condition or situation that occurs when something (such as a plant or animal species) dies completely

to distinguishv. notice or recognize a difference between people or things

herd v. gather and move a group of animals

What do you think of the situation in Bolivia? How is this similar or different to the changes happening where you live? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the comments section.



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