Exploring Bolivia's Biodiversity
Part of Curriculum Collections.
The country's location in the tropics combined with dramatic variations in topography and climate result in a wide range of ecosystems—from the spectacular mountain landscapes of the Andes to the dense rainforests of the Amazon to the unusual dry forests of the Chaco. Bolivia has designated more than 17 percent of its land as protected areas.
More than half of Bolivia's 8.7 million people are indigenous—descendants of those who lived there long before Spanish explorers arrived. The dozens of ethnic groups in Bolivia have adapted to the country's diverse landscapes and natural resources, and many continue traditions of weaving textiles and building homes from natural materials. While poverty in rural areas has fueled an ongoing migration to cities, many Bolivians still live a rural life, farming or raising livestock. Bolivians also play a key role in protecting biodiversity—more than 1.5 million live in or near the country's protected areas.
Snowmelt flowing down the eastern slopes of the Andes combines to form several of the major rivers of the Amazon basin. The high valleys where these rivers begin harbor startling numbers of unique bird and plant species. The biodiversity of these valleys is severely threatened by the expansion of agriculture, ranching, erosion, mining and damming of rivers for hydroelectric power. Conservationists working in Bolivia, including members of the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, are searching for development alternatives that will help to conserve both biological and cultural diversity.
Beautiful handwoven textiles have been a tradition in Bolivia for centuries. These intricate weavings serve as clothing, as carriers for babies and other valuables, as important parts of ceremonies and as products for sale. Most communities have their own distinctive designs and techniques that have been passed along for countless generations. Weavers in the lowlands weave cotton textiles and baskets from grasses and palm fronds, while those in the Andes use wool from alpacas, vicuñas and sheep. Alpacas and vicuñas have finer wool and cause less damage to the soil than sheep, which destroy grasses by uprooting them as they graze.
To construct their homes, many Bolivians use processed materials, such as concrete, metal and fiberglass, and urban architecture runs the gamut from Spanish Colonial cathedrals to modern skyscrapers. But many people in rural areas still build homes using more traditional methods and natural materials, such as palm fronds, sod, grasses, stone and wood. While these homes are inexpensive and well-suited to the local climate, they can take more time to build and maintain.
Food & Farming
Nearly half of Bolivians are farmers, and the country’s variety of elevations and climates support a great diversity of crops and farming practices. The majority of Bolivia’s farmers practice subsistence agriculture in the cold, dry Andean mountains, using terracing and other techniques to improve yields in this harsh environment. Yet the greatest crop production comes from valley and lowland farms where the climate is warmer and usually wetter. The fertile valleys on the eastern Andean slopes produce most of the fruits and vegetables eaten in Bolivia. Lowland farms produce cash crops for export, such as soybeans, cotton and rice.
The majority of Bolivians, and especially those in rural communities, identify themselves as indigenous people. In the Andes, most indigenous groups are descended from the Quechua-speaking Inka or from the Aymara speakers of the southern Andes. The Amazonian forest in eastern Bolivia is home to dozens of small, historically isolated communities of indigenous people.
Though most Bolivians are Roman Catholic—a legacy of the Spanish colonial era—many integrate Christianity with indigenous beliefs. Some people celebrate both Christian holidays and indigenous ceremonies and rituals. A spiritual connection to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, also informs some of the indigenous healing practices that persist alongside more modern medical treatments.
The diverse landscapes and climates of Bolivia range from high plateaus and snow-capped mountains as tall as 6,500 meters (21,500 feet) to low-lying wetlands and forests. These numerous habitats help make Bolivia one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Particularly notable is the diversity of birds—more than 1,400 species ranging from the macaws of the rainforest to the Andean condor.
Yet for all this diversity, biologists did relatively little research here until the 1980s; and much of Bolivia’s biodiversity remains unexplored. Researchers from the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation have helped to catalog and count the species in protected areas within the Amboró-Madidi corridor in the Bolivian Andes—an area both rich in species and vulnerable to threats.
Although vast areas of Bolivia remain undisturbed, a continuing commitment to conservation measures is essential to protecting the country’s rich biodiversity. Sustainable use of natural resources and management of national parks and protected areas become increasingly important as the population increases and strives for economic advancement.
Many people live within the boundaries of Bolivia’s protected areas, and the government is trying to balance the importance of ecological protection with the needs of the people. Researchers at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation have contributed to management efforts by surveying the biodiversity in protected areas, and by supporting community-based conservation projects, including the creation of community museums that interpret biological and cultural heritage for visitors.
Exploring Bolivia's Biodiversity was developed in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), and Bolivian partners. The CBC promotes the conservation of biological diversity through science and education.
Willy Kenning is a self-taught photographer, a pilot and the author of eight books on Bolivia. His photographs of Bolivia have been widely published in newspapers and magazines, including National Geographic, and exhibited in Bolivia, Argentina and the United States. He lives in Santa Cruz.
Hermes Justiniano has worked for more than 15 years in Bolivia's protected areas as a conservationist and nature photographer. He lives in Santa Cruz, and is the founder of Friends of Nature in Bolivia and the director of the Chiquitano Forest Conservation Foundation.
Peter McFarren, a photographer, film producer and author of numerous books on Bolivia, is also founder and president of the Quipus Cultural Foundation, a non-governmental organization that promotes and preserves Bolivian culture. He lives in La Paz.
Other photographs courtesy of Steffen Reichle, Hal Noss, Jim Sanderson, Maximo Liberman Cruz and the Bolivian Viceministry of Tourism. This exhibition is made possible by the generosity of the Arthur Ross Foundation.