An Uru community sits along the salt-crusted former shoreline of Lake Poopó, in Punaca, Bolivia. (AP/Juan Karita)

An Uru community sits along the salt-crusted former shoreline of Lake Poopó, in Punaca, Bolivia. (AP/Juan Karita)

The Uru people once lived on Lake Poopó on floating reed islands like these on Lake Titicaca.

The Uru people once lived on Lake Poopó on floating reed islands like these on Lake Titicaca.

An Uru man rides a motorcycle near the lake bed. Bolivia’s second-largest lake dried up about five years ago. (AP/Juan Karita)

An Uru man rides a motorcycle near the lake bed. Bolivia’s second-largest lake dried up about five years ago. (AP/Juan Karita)

Rufino Choque waits near the lake. He is the mayor of the Urus del Lago Poopó indigenous community. (AP/Juan Karita)

Rufino Choque waits near the lake. He is the mayor of the Urus del Lago Poopó indigenous community. (AP/Juan Karita)

Members of the Choque family, from left, Jose, Evarista Flores, Rufino, Abelina, and Abdon, pose for a photo. With no land for farming, the young men take jobs in other towns. (AP/Juan Karita)

Members of the Choque family, from left, Jose, Evarista Flores, Rufino, Abelina, and Abdon, pose for a photo. With no land for farming, the young men take jobs in other towns. (AP/Juan Karita)

People of the Water

Posted: September 1, 2021

Bolivia’s Uru—“People of the Water” —are at a loss. For many generations, their homeland wasn’t land at all. It was the waters of Lake Poopó. Five years ago, the lake dried up. Today, the Uru scramble to make a living. They’re also trying to save their culture.

The Uru built family islands made of reeds on Lake Poopó. They lived on the lake for decades. The Uru first settled on the water when surrounding lands were already occupied. They survived on what they could harvest from the large, shallow lake.

“They collected eggs, fished, hunted flamingos and birds,” says nearby town leader Abdón Choque. Even newlyweds stayed on the water for generations: “When they fell in love, the couple built their own raft,” he says.

Now that the lake is gone, the 635 remaining Uru feel displaced. “We are ancient (as a people), but we have no territory. Now we have no source of work, nothing,” says Mayor Rufino Choque.

“Our grandfathers thought the lake would last all their lives, and now my people are near extinction because our source of life has been lost,” explains Uru community leader Luis Valero.

The Bible reminds us that Jesus is life-giving. John 6:35 says, “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’”  

Bolivia’s “People of the Water” are doing what it takes to survive. The young men hire themselves out as laborers, herders, or miners in nearby towns. Some of the women make straw crafts. Meanwhile, families try to learn the spoken language of the Uru again. It faded out of use as the last native speakers gradually died.

Younger generations learn Spanish at school. Many speak more common native languages like Aymara and Quechua. So now Uru communities are trying to revive the Uru language. They’ve invited teachers of a similar language called Uru-Chipaya to come and teach it. “We are making efforts to maintain our culture,” says Mr. Valero. It gives them something of the past to cling to. They cannot restore the lake.

The Uru people once lived in a large part of the lake region. Today, some still live along Bolivia’s borders with Peru, Chili, and Argentina.