Back to the Basics in Bolivia

A 6.653Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Before we delve into the survey particulars, a little background information is in order, as there may be those among you wondering how I came to be holding a plumb bob in the remote village of San Jose de Uchupiamonas, in the middle of the Madidi National Park in Bolivia.

July 2013 was my third trip to this area, in support of the Rio Beni Health Foundation and its associated medical clinic, based in the town of Rurrenabaque. Rurre is the second largest town in the Beni Department and is the only town of any significant size in the region. It is a popular tourist destination, being near the boundary of the Madidi National Park. The Rio Beni is a major tributary of the Amazon, and is the main means of transportation in the area, the roads often being impassable even in the "dry" season.

Dry is a relative term in this Upper Amazon rainforest environment. The clinic and outreach travel along the rivers began as an idea by a retired Santa Barbara doctor, Louis Netzer, who was traveling through the area in 1997 and recognized the dire need for health care. He obviously took his Hippocratic oath seriously, evidenced by the fact he decided his retirement could wait. His operation began modestly, himself and a boat driver, traveling up and down the Rio Beni to visit the many small villages scattered about the area. As with most tropical areas, here one encounters all those exotic diseases virtually unknown in the US–yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, leishmaniasis, and all manner of parasites and things that love to bite. The warm, moist climate is the perfect medium for infections, and even a seemingly-innocent small cut can develop into something much worse, quickly. As one of the only doctors in the area, and the only one traveling to outlying villages, Dr. Lou certainly had plenty to do.

Dr. Lou’s initial idea quickly developed into a project after he contacted his close friend, Christopher Brady, to assist him. Christopher was working in Mozambique at the time, but also had 6 years prior experience in Latin America. The two worked together for three years, Dr. Lou living in a couple huts along the river and becoming a beloved local fixture. He unfortunately was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and succumbed to it quite rapidly.

Christopher Brady and his brother, Jim, both from Santa Barbara, were not only good friends of the doctor, but also former patients when he practiced in the Santa Ynez Valley, and they decided to fill the vacuum created by his untimely departure. Christopher has kept the project, now a Bolivian non-profit, going for 15 years now, aided by fund-raising in Santa Barbara, and doctors who volunteer to work there. Most of the visiting doctors sign on for one or two years. Jim Brady is assistant headmaster of Santa Barbara Middle School, and a good proportion of the fund-raising is done via this school. Every year he and Christopher take a group of interested students and adults down to the region to see the clinic in action, work there, and also visit some of the communities it serves. The brothers call their venture "El Puente", the bridge, and it is very aptly-named, as there is a lot of friendship, understanding, trust and gratitude crossing in both directions.

It has been my good fortune and honor to be able to accompany this group, the first time being 2004, again in 2006, and now this latest visit. This year it was proposed that, in addition to doing a bit of clinic work, I work on something using my professional skills, i.e., drawing a map. I wondered what preparing a map had to do with health care. After a bit of thought I realized that the map itself wasn’t the main point–it was the camaraderie, the sharing of knowledge and skills, and having fun together. Bridge building, if you will.

The designated survey area was in San Jose de Uchupiamonas (let’s just call it SJU), a very special community within the Madidi National Park, the only village within the immense park, and one that the El Puente group visits every year. It is somewhat removed from Rurrenabaque, reached by boat, first up the Rio Beni, and then the Rio Tuichi. Usually the trip takes about 8 hours, although this year the medical team took 11 hours to get there. The El Puente group takes the more traditional route, which the locals frequent far more often, as it is much less expensive than a boat trip. It is much more strenuous however, involving a 20-mile hike from Tumupasa, on the main "highway" from Rurrenabaque. This highway, Bolivia Route 16, is still a dirt and gravel road and the journey from Rurre to Tumupasa is about 3.5 hours by car. It needs to be a sturdy car.

Obviously I didn’t want, or need, to heft sophisticated survey equipment to this remote area, and I also did not know the scope of my exact task until discussing it with the villagers. I took the basics–a plumb bob (could’ve used two!), metric rag tape, hand level, compass, Disto D5 laser distance meter, which proved very useful. Ray Flores, at Lewis and Lewis in Ventura, showed me a few tricks with it before I left, an invaluable one being its camera feature for use outside in the bright sunlight. I’m very grateful to him, as the sunlight in SJU, when it is not raining of course, is most decidedly bright. I also had an iPhone and GPS-equipped camera, but neither proved too useful here. I did get a rough fix from one photo and used it to put our map in the ballpark, as it were. No matter–junior/senior rights, or adjoiners (there are none) are not an issue here! The iPhone was helpful in one respect. Its compass feature helped assure me that I had entered the magnetic declination for that area correctly in my non-digital compass, as it is a specialty of mine to dial that in backwards. I don’t tend to make little mistakes; I like to make big bloopers! That both instruments agreed within reason was heartwarming.

After our group had been welcomed to the village, we set up camp and I spoke with two of our guides, Sandro and Ricardo, who had decided to be among my students. Ricardo told me there had been discussion about improving the central plaza area near the town meeting hall. This is as close to a Central Business District "downtown" area as the village has, and so it was settled–a topo of the town square, about 300 ft x 300 ft. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering the lack of more standard gear, the training time, and also the afternoon siestas, soccer games and volleyball matches, our three days there would be busy. Along with Sandro and Ricardo I had several more students, Felipe, Lorena and Ximena. Ximena is studying to be an attorney in La Paz, but was home on summer break. Lorena has just finished high school and wants to be a Civil Engineer. Perfect. Let’s at least get her started with some practical knowledge and field experience before, well, never mind…

We set our basic control net so that it would form a series of triangles, close enough together so that we could double-check our Disto measurements fairly accurately with the rag tape. For the Disto I employed a lightweight camera tripod, and the "glass" consisted of a clipboard with a glossy sheet of photo paper on it. We tried a couple different approaches, one being the blue plastic side of the clipboard instead of a more reflective surface, but the photo paper did the trick the best. Also, the extremely powerful tropical sun, combined with high humidity, made noontime shots problematic. We were a lot more successful in the early morning or under cloudy conditions. The control points were set on hardwood posts left up about 12 inches so that they’d be easily visible for the Disto. All of the sides of e
ach triangle needed to be measured, as we had no means of turning angles. I was very happy with our results, which unadjusted calculated to about 1:4100. I had estimated an accuracy of about 1.5-2 cm for each of the longer distances, so this result seemed about right, all things considered. Once our basic control was established and we were confident, we took all our topo shots, measuring each from a least two points. I performed enough calculations there, longhand with the calculator, to know there were no major bloopers, but the modern surveyor in me just couldn’t resist subjecting the control to a StarNet adjustment upon our return.

I mentioned earlier that the SJU community is quite special. This is well illustrated graphically in Google Earth. Do a search for Rurrenabaque, Bolivia and this amazing program will find it. Next, head out on an azimuth of 294 degrees for 38.5 miles and you will be in the SJU "town square". To Google Earth’s credit, they do have the town name listed, though it is missing the tongue-twisting "de Uchupiamonas" part, and it is written on the wrong side of the Tuichi River. The fact that the name is there at all, though, is most impressive indeed. Now direct your attention to a small cleared area SE of "downtown". The resolution is not great, but you’ve probably guessed correctly that this is the soccer field. But what are those two "fingers" extending from either end? In addition to their traditional subsistence agriculture, hunting and fishing, the village also supports itself by owning and operating the Chalalan Ecolodge, located several hours down the Tuichi from SJU. At one time a rival business interest (there are several ecolodges within the Madidi National Park) blocked the river so that SJU could not boat their visitors into Chalalan. The entire village participated and extended the soccer field to create a "runway" large enough to land a small plane. Using only machetes the work was completed in three days! Now it has grown back in and no longer used, as the cost to bring clients in this way is too great. But the new different-colored vegetation replacing the old makes the former runway quite visible in the aerial photo.

Born and raised in San Diego, I have traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America, also Colombia and Ecuador, and I’ve lived for a couple years in Costa Rica. Never though have I experienced a village quite like this one, where the community spirit is so united and strong. Another example is the building of their water system in the 90’s. Again, the whole village participated–from little children to grandmothers–hauling sand and gravel from the river (the first hill is better described as a cliff) 7 km up to the spring where large concrete tanks could be constructed. Then there was the placement of the piping, 5 km down to the village. The whole process took them over a year. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in this hemisphere, second only to Haiti, and the temptation to tap the enormous resource potential within the Madidi Park is great. The villagers have successfully fought off several onslaughts and are dedicated to keeping their way of life, and the Madidi the pristine wilderness for which it is famous. The creation of the Madidi National Park in 1995, the building of Chalalan, and the Bolivian government’s recognition of SJU’s right to continue their traditional way of life within the park is another wonderful story, and a tangent upon which I shall not embark.

All in all this survey experience, though not employing any Earth-shattering new technology, was one of the most rewarding of my career. It was admittedly a humble project, but it was such an honor to assist this wonderful village in the manner in which we’ve all been trained as surveyors, and to pass on a little knowledge to the next generation as well. Speaking of the next generation, during my first visit in 2004 Sandro’s wife and I were talking about our respective families. It turned out we both had one daughter. I asked her daughter’s name–"Selva", she answered. It means rainforest.

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Kenneth Hughes began surveying in 1981, working for the US Forest Service for several seasons, and then working for a private surveyor, Hugh Simpson (LS 3146) from 1985-1994. From 1994 to 2013 he worked for Penfield and Smith, retiring in February of this year to pursue other interests. Similar to the doctor in this article, though retired, he will always be involved with his chosen profession.

A 6.653Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE