EL CARMEN, Bolivia – The fire took the visual gift provided by orchids in Bolivia’s Chiquitania region, but the indigenous communities that make their living from the area’s natural wealth and beauty are not resigning themselves to the loss of their livelihoods.
El Carmen is one of the villages that lives from ecotourism, one of the first to suffer in the forest fires that beset Bolivia a month ago, but now it’s trying to recover from the disaster that destroyed – temporarily, at least – a good portion of its natural wealth.
The fire surprised local residents on Aug. 6, Bolivia’s Independence Day, just as they were holding a small parade at the town’s school, a celebration they had to halt to deal with the emergency.
“We don’t know how (it happened) because this fire came from far away,” local leader Javier Mencari told EFE pausing on the path leading to the Garden of the Orchids, which is located half an hour’s walk from the village.
At the spot are the ashes and stubble left by the aggressive flames, along with downed branches and the remnants of countless orchids that formerly bloomed with an intense lilac color along the route.
The plants are known to grow on the stones in this hilly area and they need only a little bit of soil in the crevices of the bounders to put down their roots, transforming the area into a visual wonderland.
“We lost about 14 species in this garden,” Mencari said, emphasizing the efforts of the community in restoring the site to the point where tourists will once again find it attractive in the coming weeks.
Also growing in this protected forest area several dozen hectares in size is the “copaiba” tree, from which an oil is extracted that is used to treat colds and joint pain.
In addition, there are other medicinal plants in the area which Mencari said can be used to treat kidney ailments and which are an antidote for snakebites.
The copaiba oil “sustains” the community and is collected by local residents once a month and sold for a good price at a nearby market, he said.
Something that stands out when one arrives at the site on a normal day is seeing the village school’s students in their typical outfits, the women wearing their “tipoys” – a type of white, decorated tunic – and the men in their sleeveless shirts adorned in typical Chiquitania style.
The aim is to “reassert Chiquitania identity” by means of their traditional dress, teacher Maribel Sanchez told EFE.
This woman, along with her students, has taken over organizing trips along the path to the orchids and that has led to many people cooperating in helping restore the site.
The fires in the Chiquitania region, a transitional area between the Chaco and Amazonia, have affected more than two million hectares (five million acres) in the eastern province of Santa Cruz.