The Uros People: Floating Toward Sustainable Development

By Abby Neiser

The Uros Islands float atop Lake Titicaca, the highest altitude lake in the world, off the coast of Puno, Peru.  These islands are not a natural wonder but rather are an engineering marvel built by the very people who live on them.  In total, there are 87 islands that hold 551 households, nearly two thousand inhabitants, and 17 different communities (Fernandez, 2018 & Implementan paneles solares en Puno, 2018).  The Uros are among the oldest Andean Indigenous cultures.  In fact, they began inhabiting these islands long before Spanish colonization, when Incan conquest forced them off the land (Yeo, 2014).  Living on these islands, the people and culture have persisted through multiple colonization attempts and are still alive and well today.

Much of Uros life revolves around the totora reed, a plant that is abundant in the area, making it a renewable and sustainable resource (Otis, 2018).  The reed is the main component of the islands themselves, as well as their homes and boats (Otis, 2018).  The island’s inhabitants also use totora for medicine and food, as well as artisan items to sell to tourists (Otis, 2018).  The islands are built with bricks made of mud and totora reed, which are then bound together and layered with more totora (Otis, 2018).  The final dimensions of the islands are about 90 feet wide and four to eight feet thick (Otis, 2018).  To keep them from floating away, the Uros tie the islands to eucalyptus trees with rope, and they must be regularly maintained with more totora to prevent the islands from disintegrating into the lake (Otis, 2018).

Even as they have maintained their culture and lifestyle over centuries, the Uros have also been leaders in implementing solar energy in Peru.  The Peruvian government has sought to electrify rural areas, but the remote location and flammable nature of totora made traditional fossil fuels impossible to bring to the Uros (Yeo, 2014).  Atop a sunny lake, solar energy was a much better solution.  The Uros were quick adopters of solar energy when the European Union and Peruvian Energy Ministry provided funds and supplies for this technology (Cabitza, 2011 & Fernandez, 2018).  In total, nearly five hundred solar panels have been installed on the islands (Fernandez, 2018).  The access to electricity has also allowed for internet access (Cabitza, 2011).  The goal of these initiatives was not to impede on the lives of the Uros but rather to improve the quality of rural life so that they can continue to live on the islands and not have to abandon their home and lifestyle by going to urban centers (Cabitza, 2011).  Many inhabitants welcomed the solar power and internet, such as a school director, Santos Pineda, who said that internet and computer use provided new educational opportunities for his students (Cabitza, 2011).  Further, as much of the economy of the Uros Islands relies on tourism, these services will make them more competitive in this sector (Implementan paneles solares en Puno, 2018).

In Peru, as of 2019, only 0.58% of electricity comes from solar power (Share of primary energy from solar, 2020).  While renewables, particularly hydropower, are steadily growing, the vast majority of Peruvian energy still comes from fossil fuels (Ritchie & Roser, 2020).  Just as in the rest of the world, the shift away from fossil fuels toward more sustainable energy sources must happen much faster than it is right now.  The effects of climate change are already evident in Lake Titicaca, and the unfettered continuation of this trend threatens the livelihoods of the Uros people and the habitants of many fish, plants, and animals.  Lake Titicaca reached its lowest water level in 60 years in 2009, and low water levels have consistently been an issue since (Yeo, 2018).  The receding water levels, primarily caused by solar radiation and a decrease in rainfall, are particularly detrimental to fish spawning, an important food source for the Uros and many other groups (Yeo, 2018).  One paper even suggested that the lake could be reduced by 85% if the planet warms by 2°C, which would almost certainly make life on the Uros Islands impossible (Yeo, 2018).

The Uros represent the kind of thinking and innovation that is needed going forward if we are to combat climate change while still promoting sustainable development.  Their use of solar energy is merely the latest example of this creativity, as evidenced by their ingenious integration of a local, abundant plant into all aspects of life.  The Uros prove that development does not have to be a choice between two extremes.  Investments in development can be made without being patronizing or white saviorism.  People can have access to the amenities of modern life without having to sacrifice their land and traditions.  Development does not necessitate urbanization or the burning of fossil fuels.  In this case, technology that fit the wants and needs of the people and the demands of the location was implemented, and it was ultimately successful.  Replicating this process will likely be much more effective going forward than having an outside party decide what people need and then spending exorbitant amounts of money forcing it.  Our planet is not in a position where we can afford to be wasteful and have our heads in the clouds.  Pragmatic solutions are urgently needed, and the use of solar energy by the Uros people is a textbook case of how to do it.

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.


References

Cabitza, M. (2011, December 23). Energía solar como motor de desarrollo en Perú. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2011/12/111223_peru_energia_solar_rural

Distributed Solar Photovoltaics. (n.d.). Project Drawdown. https://drawdown.org/solutions/distributed-solar-photovoltaics

Fernandez, J.P. (2018, November 12). Puno: MEM lleva energía eléctrica para 800 familias de islas flotantes de los Uros. Energiminas. https://energiminas.com/puno-mem-lleva-energia-electrica-para-800-famili...

Implementan paneles solares en Puno e impulsan el desarrollo de sus actividades productivas. (2018, November 23). RPP. https://rpp.pe/campanas/contenido-patrocinado/implementan-paneles-solare...

Otis, C. (2018, June 6). The Magical and Mysterious Floating Uros Islands of Peru. The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-magical-and-mysterious-floating-uros-i...

Ritchie, H. & M. Roser. (2020). Peru: Energy Country Profile. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/energy/country/peru

Share of primary energy from solar. (2020). Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/solar-share-energy?tab=chart&country=...

Yeo, S. (2014, December 29). Peru’s indigenous Uros people turn to solar power. Climate Home News. https://www.climatechangenews.com/2014/12/29/perus-indigenous-uros-peopl...

 

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