It was last August, at around three in the morning when my phone rang. I lay in bed and listened, the darkness spreading around me. Through the phone, Tania ‘Nena’ Baltazar wept. Our home is on fire. “Nuestra casa se está quemando.” I could hear the crackling of flames. I could smell it, feel the memory of heat on my face.
Nena was calling from Ambue Ari, a 1000-hectare jungle sanctuary for rescued wild animals in the Amazon. She is one of the founders and the president of Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY), a Bolivian NGO that fights the illegal wildlife trade and who, over 25 years ago, set up Bolivia’s first ever wildlife sanctuary, Parque Machía. CIWY manages three sanctuaries now; Machía, Jacj Cuisi, and Ambue Ari. They are all under Nena’s care.
Ambue Ari is right in the path of the annual wildfires that rip through the continent. It is home to almost a hundred animals rescued from illegal trafficking and the pet trade. Big cats like jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, and Geoffroy’s cats. As well as birds, coatis, peccaries, rhea, and tapirs, amongst others. And these are the animals we know by name. Ambue Ari also provides homes to countless others too, whose names we do not know. Wild animals that find refuge in the primary and secondary rainforest, an island of jungle that has, over the years, been aggressively destroyed. Ambue Ari is home to the staff, both Bolivian and foreign, who work tirelessly to keep that land safe. It is also my home.
I’m crying too through the phone, as Nena stumbles through what should be a night-dark forest, lit by stars. But it isn’t night dark. It is red and burning. The air is full of smoke. And huge parts of it are dying.
I first went to Ambue Ari when I was twenty-four years old. That was over a decade ago. Fourteen years. I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think I was expecting anything, most definitely not what I found, which was a place and kinship that would change my life, my entire being, and the fabric of my dreams. I was assigned to work with a small female puma, whose name was Wayra. She had been a pet, beaten and abused, and CIWY had rescued her when she was ten months old. I thought I’d quit within a few weeks. Wayra was terrifying, distraught and angry. The jungle was terrible and I quite frankly didn’t think I was equipped for the kind of wilderness I suddenly found myself in.
But I fell in love. With Wayra, the jungle, and the community. Alongside and with that, there was rage, panic, and heartbreak. Animals would arrive, just like Wayra – abused and traumatised – and we wouldn’t have the space, money or manpower to look after them. People, myself included, would crumble and then somehow, pick themselves up again. The flooding got worse. The annual fires, caused by massive deforestation, climate change and unregulated slash and burn agriculture, got worse. CIWY’s staff, and the creatures and lands in their care, were already well versed in this. Nena had been living and breathing catastrophe for as long as I had known her and, indeed, much longer.
She was eighteen years old, studying biology at university in La Paz, the mountainous capital of Bolivia, when she started volunteering with disadvantaged young people, teaching them trade skills when they weren’t able to go to school. Nena, the other volunteers and the young people started going on nature trips, and it was the devastation that they witnessed that was the spark that created CIWY. On one such trip, Nena met a critically endangered spider monkey who was being kept as a pet. They tried to release that monkey, but quickly realised it wasn’t as easy as all that. They couldn’t just open the cage doors and expect things to be ok. The monkey just came back to the village, because he didn’t know anything else, and was recaptured. Later, back in the city, Nena came across another monkey, again, a pet. This one (also named Nena, a diminutive for baby girl), Nena was able to help. She rescued her, or perhaps, they rescued each other. Nena left her degree, her city, and her family, to help this monkey find a home in the jungle. Along with some friends and five other rescued monkeys, she helped create the ground-breaking Sanctuary Machía. A place to dream of freedom and kinship. Where Nena, those first monkeys, and those young people she had met in the city could settle and do battle, withstanding and weathering the apocalypses that threatened them.
Nena, and CIWY, are still weathering, every day. Every time I return, I see that more of the rainforest has been cut down. I see Nena’s exhaustion, ever starker against the plains of her face. I see more animals needing care, and less staff and volunteers to care for them. I personally don’t know anyone else who has learnt the “arts of living and dying on a damaged planet” more starkly than Nena has. Last year, thousands of hectares of land around and within Sanctuary Ambue Ari burnt to the ground. None of us know what will happen this year. CIWY was devastated by Covid-19, dependant as it is on volunteers for financial stability and labour. CIWY’s income plummeted by over 90%, whilst a core ten to twenty people have been doing the work for over a year now – caring for over five hundred animals – that what would normally be done by hundreds of committed volunteers.
That first sanctuary, Machía, has been a haven for Nena and countless others. Over the decades it has been a place where people (young and old, Bolivian and foreign) have pursued co-liberation, and where thousands of animals have found both freedom and safety in the jungle. However, this year CIWY’s land lease contract with the local municipality for Machia is not being renewed, and plans for the site are currently uncertain. Nena and the dedicated staff who live there now have the painful job of relocating hundreds of animals to Sanctuary Jacj Cuisi, on the far side of the country, with no financial support from the government. Not only will this cost up to and probably over $400,000, which CIWY does not have, but Nena is having to face the reality of leaving not only her memories and histories behind, but the land itself. There are thousands of animals who have been released there over the years and live freely in the cloud forest. While they are now able to fend for themselves, CIWY’s presence helped to ensure they always had food, even if the forest wasn’t providing. This will no longer be possible once CIWY leaves.
But in all the time that I’ve known her, Nena has found the strength to hope. Buoyed by looking in the eyes of a spider monkey who has just experienced the touch of the forest for the first time, or by an unexpected arrival of a new volunteer. Nena, along with the others who set up CIWY, shared a dream of creating a safe place for rescued animals, such as had never been done before. She helped a new vision of the future come into being and has been fighting for that vision her whole adult life.
But there’s another vision that runs alongside and through it. It is what, perhaps, enables Nena to pick up her heart from Machía and transplant it. That enables her to stand the ravages of battle, that chip away at her and her community. It is hope for a world not where CIWY exists, but where it does not. Where no wild animal is kept as a pet, where there is no need any more for fences or enclosures. Where the fight is no longer about redistribution and reparation, because that fight has been won. Twenty-five years ago, Nena looked into the brown eyes of a spider monkey and she had no idea what was going to happen.
At CIWY, more than any other place I have been lucky enough to encounter, I find it possible to think that on the other side of these current apocalypses, who knows what wild dreams might still be born? The fires rage, are raging across the Amazon, but, at CIWY, a puma who was found chained up in a backyard rests now on a riverbank where she loves to watch the reflections dance on coffee-coloured waves. A bird whose wings were broken sleeps under a lemon tree, and a monkey who used to be a pet dreams, as Nena does, of freedom between the roots of a thick and lush cacao tree.
Laura Coleman (she/her) is a writer and an artist. She has lived and worked in Bolivia for over a decade, caring for rescued wild animals, and this is the subject of her first book, a memoir, entitled The Puma Years. She is also the founder of ONCA, a Brighton-based arts charity that bridges social and environmental justice issues with creativity, and she lives by the sea on the Isle of Eigg with a dog called Nelo.
The Puma Years will be published by Little A on 1st June 2021. Proceeds are going to support Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi’s work fighting the illegal wildlife trade, supporting local communities and providing safe homes to those who need them. If you too would like to help, either by volunteering or making a donation, please visit CIWY’s website: www.intiwarayassi.org.
 Anna Tsing et al. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet