Sajama National Park

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Sajama National Park
IUCN category II (national park)
Nevado Sajama.jpg
Nevado Sajama
Location Bolivia
Oruro Department
Coordinates18°05′0″S 68°55′0″W / 18.08333°S 68.91667°W / -18.08333; -68.91667Coordinates: 18°05′0″S 68°55′0″W / 18.08333°S 68.91667°W / -18.08333; -68.91667
Area1,002 km²
Governing bodyServicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas

Sajama National Park is a national park located in the Oruro Department, Bolivia. It borders Lauca National Park in Chile. The park is home to indigenous people, known as the Aymara, whose influential ancient culture can be seen in various aspects throughout the park. The park contains unique cultural artifacts and ecological wonders, making it an exemplary location for ecotourism. Many different indigenous plants and animals are exclusive to this area; therefore, its continued conservation is of great ecological importance. Management of the park operates under a co-administrative approach, with local people and park conservationists engaging in a constant dialogue regarding park upkeep and policy.


Sajama National Park is Bolivia's oldest national park.[1] The park lies within the Central Andean dry puna ecoregion.[2] It features a spectacular Andean landscape, with elevations ranging from 4,200 to 6,542 meters (13,780 to 21,463 ft). It contains the snowy cone of the volcano Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia at 6542 meters.[1] The park also includes the Payachata volcanic group.

The area was declared a nature reserve in 1939 because of the native Queñoa De Altura (Polylepis tarapacana) that grows on the hillsides of this region.[3] This shrub-like tree has adapted to the high elevations and harsh climate of the Andes.[4] At the time that the area was declared a national park, rampant harvesting of this tree was taking place to create charcoal to supply Bolivian mines.[1]

On July 1, 2003, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List due to its universal cultural and natural significance.[3]

Aymara people[edit]

The Aymara people are indigenous to the Bolivian and Peruvian altiplano, and make up a quarter of Bolivia's population.[5] Latest estimates predict about 300 families in the affluence zone of the park and about 100 in the park's interior.[3] Much of the Aymara population participates in llama and alpaca herding and yarn spinning. Circular houses, traditional to the Aymara, can still be found today. The Aymara people also have the unique tradition of handing down historic textiles through the generations as inherited wealth.[6] Because the Aymara people rely so heavily on the natural environment, they take on a protectoral role regarding its use. For example, the Aymara recently protested the Dakar Rally, an off-road race taking place through Bolivia's salt flats for the first time. The Aymara cited fears of environmental damage from litter and ruts in the white landscape from the vehicles as cause for concern.[7]

The Aymara have traditionally been an underrepresented group since the times of colonialism. Therefore, they fought alongside the victorious liberal party during Bolivia's Civil War of 1899.[8] However, the Aymara are still being targeted. One current example of the struggle between the Aymara and the Bolivian government is the use of the coca plant by the Aymara. The Aymara have grown coca plants for centuries, using the leaves in traditional medicines and rituals. Over the last century, the Bolivian government has done its best to restrict this process due to fears of cocaine production. While coca cultivation for traditional practices is legal in Bolivia, there has still been strife and conflict between the government and the Aymara people due to this plant.[9] When the practices of poor, disenfranchised, or indigenous people is demonized or condemned, there is often heavy dispute and strife between the two sides.[10] By targeting the Aymara's use of the coca plant, the Bolivian government could be helping to create an even bigger problem and contributing to unrest. Small populations with little political power are often viewed as “inferior”, and can easily be blamed for an array of different problems, from political, to social, to environmental.[11]

The plight of the Aymara people has further been complicated with the election of Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, in 2006. Morales was born into an Aymara family of subsistence farmers. In some senses, one would say that this election helped give the indigenous an extremely loud voice in Bolivian politics. In 2009, Morales helped enact a new constitution. The new constitution names Bolivia as a secular state, rather than a Catholic one as the previous constitution stated. It also recognizes a variety of autonomies at the local and departmental level, which many argue gives people like the Aymara more freedom. However, there has been some backlash against the constitution. Many opposed to it claim that it is "Aymara-centric", and not applicable or appropriate for all Bolivian citizens and is actually ostracizing.[12]


The Sajama National Park includes geological natural wonders like volcanoes, diverse organisms, and thermal springs, and also cultural wonders such as ancient burial buildings, cave paintings, and colonial architecture and art.

Queñoa trees located in Sajama National Park

The Queñoa (sometimes seen as keñua) forests that rise along the slope of the Sajama Mountain in the park are regarded as some of the highest forests in the world.[1] There are numerous geysers and hot springs (Aguas Termales) which are about an hour walk from the village of Sajama.

This area of Bolivia also features the Sajama Lines, mysterious lines covering the altiplano, etched into ground over thousands of years by the ancient ancestors of the Aymara people. The lines are estimated to be about 16,000 kilometers in length, roughly three times the breadth of the United States. The lines are thought to have been used as ancient pilgrimage routes.

The park is also scattered with cultural treasures and remnants of the Aymara's ancient culture. Chullpas, tall funerary towers devoted to noble Aymara families, dot the landscape. These shrines are thought to have been deliberately placed in visible areas to ensure reverence and remembrance for the dead.[13] Pucaras, ancient fortifications, can also be found.

In terms of wildlife, Sajama is home to a unique set of organisms particular to the alpine regions of the Andes. Plants and animals must be able to handle high altitudes with less available oxygen, cold nightly temperatures and frosts well into the spring, little shade or protection from the elements, and arid, dry conditions. One example of unique wildlife in the park is the vicuña, a species of camelid related to the llama and the alpaca. These animals are prized because of their soft and warm, but extremely lightweight fur. Historically, only Incan emperors were allowed to wear their wool. Indigenous populations in the area still continue a rich cultural tradition of myths, legends, and rituals involving the vicuña.[14] Once poached to near extinction because their fine, valuable wool, they are now protected in the area and their numbers are rebounding.[15] The area is also home to armadillos, viscachas, bears, Andean cats, pumas, condors, pink flamingos, coots (black ducks), hummingbirds, rheas, and many more unique creatures.


Ecotourism can be defined in a variety of ways, but broadly it is travel that has the object of enjoying features of what is seen as the natural, beautiful, and exotic environment. Main themes of ecotourism also involve sustainable activities and behavior that results in minimal negative consequences for the environment.[16] Until recently, tourist activity in the park has been relatively nonexistent. The park is located far from any urban centers, and surrounded by mostly undeveloped land lacking infrastructure. However, a focus area for the co-administrative management committee is the creation of sustainable and responsible income-generating practices. For example, the Tomarapi eco-lodge opened in 2003, and provides local food and lodging for between 2000 and 3000 visitors a year. The lodge is currently managed entirely by native Aymara villagers.[1]

The climate in the Bolivian altiplano is not very conducive to productive agriculture. The area is typically very dry, receiving less rainfall than half the climactic demand. There are also very cold nights in this arid region, with frosts occurring well into the typical growing season. Only hearty crops like tubers and grains such as quinoa can grow in this area, and even then they are not extremely successful.[17] Because agriculture would not be a viable source of income for many of the people in this region, they have been forced to look for other income options. Ecotourism can significantly aid natural places with weak economies, and help to generate an economical way to promote preservation. However, certain elements should be provided in order to ensure profitable and safe ecotourism. These elements, which are not exclusive or explicitly limiting, include culturally appropriate opportunities for local people, secure land tenure, and a focus on themes broader than simply provided economic opportunity.[18] Arrangements between the Aymara people and the rest of the management committee for the park have helped to ensure excessive planning and local participation in decisions is taking place, but admittedly plans are not always perfect. Even when using the most optimistic of scenarios, SERNAP concedes that a fair number of indigenous people will have to leave this region in order to assure a minimum livelihood.[1] In situations like these, every cost and benefit of ecotourism must be carefully weighed.


Bolivian law defines protected areas as “natural areas with or without human intervention, declared under state protection by law, in order to protect and preserve the flora and fauna, genetic resources, natural ecosystems, watersheds and values of scientific, esthetic, historical, economic, and social interest, in order to conserve and protect natural and cultural heritage of the country.”[19] As all protected areas in Bolivia are inhabited, nature conservation is not possible against the will of the local people. It is necessary to take their traditional rights, existing value systems and social organization into account.

The reserve is jointly administered by park service officials and the indigenous people, the Aymara. However, the collaborative efforts between the Aymara and the Bolivian national parks authority (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, SERNAP) did not begin until 1998, when SERNAP was formed. Sajama National Park did not have a formal administration nor park rangers until 1995, and relations between the Aymara people and this early park administration was essentially nonexistent due to top-down approaches and policies.[1] Sajama's co-administrative Management Committee now includes representatives from each of the communities, the sub-alcaldía (local administration's decentralized office in Sajama village), the mayor of Curahuara de Carangas, a representative of the prefectural administration, and delegates from different NGOs active in the area.[1]

From the beginning, this diverse committee laid out fairly detailed plans to ensure that their economic and conservational goals were met. The original committee members believed that the success of the park depended upon the incorporation of three things: planning, participation, and projects. Planning regulations and developing a "horizon" for the park was a long and arduous process, but it brought the diverse group of people closer together. The planning and discussion helped to eradicate previously held prejudices between the Aymara people and the newly instated park rangers. Through dialogue, often new ideas and techniques for management and conservation can surface. From the aspect of planning, municipal, regional, and traditional authorities, as well as community members are required to participate in the management of Bolivia's national parks. This ensures that the voices and views of all stakeholders are clearly acknowledged. This process also increases trust between the different inhabitants of the area, because they know that they are playing a role in the process. Finally, projects are aimed to generate income while offering alternative livelihoods that employ a more sustainable use of biodiversity resources.[1]

Besides ecotourism, there have been arrangements to create initiatives for the sustainable management of the park's vicuñas.[1] Vicuña fur is extremely valuable, with scarves of their wool costing well over $1,000. However, it is slow growing and may take anywhere from 2–3 years to regrow to a commercially viable length after shearing.[20] By caring for the vicuñas, the Aymara deepen their connection to their environment and create a continuing means for income. However, the trade of vicuña fur is highly regulated, causing slow trade and sometimes even an inability to trade.[1]

While a local management co-administrative approach may seem like a very useful and effective means to protect this land, it also has its detriments. Some challenges to management systems like the one in place in this park are unclear roles, distrust, and poor communication, which has been seen in Sajama.[21]


The icy cap of Mount Sajama, Bolivia's highest point, has enabled a variety of scientific endeavors. The recovery of ice cores from the summit in 1998 offered a unique look at historic South American climactic and atmospheric conditions, and marked the first time that this information of this kind has been available for a location with a tropical latitude.[22] Data from these cores indicates an increase in many atmospheric heavy metals, likely caused by anthropogenic sources.[23] The presence of these metals could be due to the production of non-ferrous metal. Significant in countries such as Chile or Peru, the emissions from this industry have decreased in recent times.[24]

The Aymara people who have lived in this region since before colonial times have a special bond with the environment and landscape of the park. However, some may question the effectiveness of protected areas when considering socioeconomic impacts on surrounding communities. Regulating the use of protected land may harm the livelihoods and cultures of those people who cherish it the most. However, recent studies in Bolivia have shown no evidence that the establishment of protected areas has exacerbated poverty. If anything, these studies conclude, estimates indicate that communities that are affected by protected areas have experienced greater levels of poverty reduction when compared to similar unaffected communities.[19] Therefore, the presence of Sajama National Park and its management committee may help the Aymara people, giving them power to protect their environment and the organisms that inhabit it.

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Olson, D. M, E. Dinerstein; et al. (2001). "Terrestrial Ecoregions of the World: A New Map of Life on Earth". BioScience. 51 (11): 933–938. doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2001)051[0933:TEOTWA]2.0.CO;2. Archived from the original on 2011-10-14.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ a b c Sajama National Park - UNESCO World Heritage Centre
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  10. ^ Kosek, Jake (2006). Understories (1 ed.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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