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Healing the Earth through "Ayni" - an Interview with Dayana Blanco-Quiroga




Interview with Dayana Blanco-Quiroga

Incomindios UN Indigenous Youth Delegate

UNPFII 2024

 

Dayana Blanco-Quiroga is a native Aymara woman from Bolivia. She is a climate activist who advocates for Indigenous rights. She and her Uru Uru Team recently won the Equator Prize (UNDP) for their environmental work with her Aymaran community.  Incomindios is honoured to support Dayana at the upcoming United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN headquarters in New York in April.  There she hopes to connect with other Indigenous brothers and sisters, as well as decision-makers, to advocate for her community and learn what other Indigenous communities are doing to prevent climate change. She has demonstrated creatively through her work in the Uru Uru Team and advocates that we do not need a large budget to make significant changes for the environment.


The Uru Uru Team

Dayana co-founded an organisation called the Uru Uru Team who uses traditional knowledge to find ways to depollute the Uru Uru lake. Nestled within the Oruro Department of Bolivia lies the stunning Uru Uru Lake, a natural marvel fed by the Desaguadero River and the Jach'a Jawira. Situated at an impressive elevation of 3,686 meters, this expansive waterbody spans approximately 214 square kilometers. The genesis of Uru Uru Lake dates back to the confluence of the Desaguadero River, as it meanders from Lake Titicaca to Lake Poopó. This union, occurring over the extensive sedimentation known as "Santo Tomás," gave rise to the lake's formation in 1962. Once a thriving ecosystem teeming with aquatic life, Uru Uru Lake was pristine and home to a thriving ecosystem. 


However, the tranquility of Uru Uru Lake was shattered by pollution and climate change. The prolonged drought of 2016 exacted a devastating toll, causing the lake to nearly evaporate entirely. Local media and experts decried this event as an environmental calamity, attributing its root causes to a combination of climate change and excessive water consumption from mining operations.  Prior to Dayana and her teams’ efforts, the once-pristine waters were obscured by a sea of trash, predominantly consisting of plastic waste, and suffered heavy metal toxic contamination from cadium, zinc, and arsenic from mining industries near Oruro. 


Young totoras, otherwise called “tepes,” planted into the polluted waters of the Uru Uru Lake. They are tinged with dark colours due to the acid waters coming from mining activities. (Blanco-Quiroga, 2023)


Be the Change

Enter Dayana and her community - where the spirit of resilience endures among those committed to restoring the legacy of Uru Uru Lake. The Uru Uru Team was birthed from a dream that Dayana and the other founders had: to restore the lake and the landscape of their childhood to their former glory. They wished to give the next generation the opportunity to create the same happy memories that they each shared from their childhood when the lake was a source of life for the ecosystem.


To accomplish this, Dayana and her team used an aquatic plant called totora. Their ancestors used it to build houses and many kinds of handicraft. The totora has the extraordinary ability to withstand multiple pollutants and over time can naturally cleanse water.  The Team began by building a floating raft with recycled bottles and plastic, and started planting totoras again, unsure whether their idea would work. After only 3 weeks, the totoras had grown, and looked green, a sign of healthy plants.


Their community, seeing that this experience had worked felt hopeful again, thinking that they could save their community and way of life. An Indigenous sister of Dayana had the idea of starting a community garden to raise funds to support the Uru Uru Team so they could purchase more floating rafts and plants. This is how, as a community, they are actively reviving the lake and bringing the landscape back to life.

 


The totoras have adapted to the polluted waters of the Uru Uru Lake, and they have now turned green. (Blanco-Quiroga,2023)



Mother Earth

The Uru Uru Team was created with the hope to recover harmony with nature, or in Dayana’s words “Mother Earth.” Mother Earth is very powerful and able to restore herself, when given the chance. This is why Dayana, and her team replanted the totoras, so that the aquatic plants would depollute the lake, in the natural process of Mother Earth. This way, Mother Earth is nurturing herself back to life, with the help of Dayana’s community.

Today, around what remains of the lake, you can still see some remaining flocks of flamingos. Their presence represents the hope for the restoration of the lake. They have suffered greatly from the pollution. Dayana feels there is a duty to protect those without a voice suffering from the consequences of climate change, and that includes animals who cannot advocate for themselves. The earth is a home for everyone. Indigenous people may be at the front line of these changes, but climate change affects all parts of the world, and everyone, including humans, animals, and ecosystems are being endangered by it. Fighting for and with her community gave Dayana and her team hope to achieve a better future, not only for them, but for everyone.

 

Community as pillar of Indigenous living and a solution against climate change

Dayana lives by a principle, she calls “Ayni.” This word means reciprocity. She uses her education to create ‘bridges of opportunity’ for her community. For example, she gave English lessons to women who did not have access to education. English is the language of advocacy. Women are usually the first to suffer from climate change in Indigenous communities, as without education their only choices are getting married young or migrating away from their communities. Education opens doors to advocate for themselves through English. For Dayana, living by “Ayni” through the Uru Uru Team means to restore the lake and use her education to advocate for her community. In the face of climate change, this principle is fundamental as it is learning to share and give to one another, working together toward the same goal: restoring Mother Earth.


The community is a fundamental component of the Uru Uru Team, even the children are welcome to participate and share their ideas. Through the project, they learn how to take care of the earth. The team is restoring the lake with this next generation in mind, so that these children will have the opportunity to learn ancestral knowledge and live in their Indigenous community. They want the children to be able to enjoy the lake, observe the flamingos, and see the breathtaking sunsets.


A problem Dayana is hoping to resolve through her organisation is the migration of Indigenous youth due to a lack of opportunities in their communities. This migration leads to a loss of cultural identity for many Indigenous people, who feel they cannot speak their own language and should only speak Spanish because of prejudices against Indigenous languages. This also leads to a loss of ancestral knowledge such as understanding the fantastic properties of the totora plants.  Through the restoration of the Uru Uru lake and its environment, the organisation is hoping to give a future to their youths, children and the future generations.



The Uru Uru Team after the first plantation of totoras (Tronconi, 2023)

 

Continuing the Work through International Advocacy

Through this address at the UN Indigenous conference, Dayana is hoping to connect with other Indigenous communities and organisations. She hopes to unify different communities and advocate together to secure support from the government. Currently, there is no specific platform in Bolivia for Indigenous people to participate civically as Indigenous communities. Her hope is that Indigenous communities will be invited to join the decision-making process when the government makes recommendations concerning Indigenous human rights and their territory. She hopes that they will gain the right to voice their concerns. In the meantime, they are using traditional knowledge to depollute the lake on which depends the survival of an entire ecosystem.


To learn more about Dayana Quiroga- Blanco and the Uru Uru Team, click here : https://www.equatorinitiative.org/2023/07/06/uru-uru-team/

Follow and support Dayana here: @blancoquirogadayana

Follow our social media channels to support Dayanas work at the UN: @incomindios and @incomindiosUK


Interviewer and Author: Mégane Warren

Editorial: Alicia Kroemer

Communications: Natasha Peters

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