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Friday, November 28, 2014

Help trumps research during Bolivian floods

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By William Aranda / New Mexico Daily Lobo

Dr. Jonathan Stieglitz, left, a member of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project’s team, and graduate student Daniel Cummings talk about the work UNM’s team is doing to help those affected by the recent flooding in Bolivia. They met on Tuesday in Bandelier Hall.

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Researchers in UNM’s anthropology department are helping an indigenous group combat and overcome flood devastation in Bolivia.

Daniel Cummings, a graduate student pursuing his doctorate in anthropology at UNM, is part of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, whose primary purpose is to study the Tsimane people in order to supply data for health and anthropological research, he said.

But Cummings said that under current circumstances, the project has temporarily shifted toward bolstering relief efforts.

“At this point we have a medical team there, (originally) as part of our project, which can provide medical care,” Cummings said. “We also have another UNM graduate student, Matthew Schwartz, who is down there helping with the relief effort. He was doing research, but he has put that aside for the moment to help with all these displaced families and get them some basic necessities of life.”

On Feb. 4, the Bolivian government declared a state of emergency in order to secure aid efforts and funding in the face of the massive flooding that swept over the country. The Tsimane is an indigenous Amazonian tribe, many members of which live along the Maniqui River in the Beni Department of Bolivia. The flooding has destroyed entire villages along the river and in its vicinity.

Cummings said that the significance of the situation is not in scientific study and data collection, but in the personal sense of tragedy felt by the UNM research staff, many of whom have developed close relationships with the Tsimane people.

“Some (people) who I consider my best friends have lost their houses,” Cummings said. “Some of them are missing, and I haven’t heard about them or heard if they are okay. This is a huge, devastating flood that is affecting probably hundreds of thousands of people.”

Helen Davis, another graduate member of the research project, said in an email statement detailing the program’s relief plans that the recovery will be slow.

“We are waiting to get through the rainy season first, which isn’t slated to end until late March,” Davis said. “Once that happens, resources will be allocated to help settle the refugees back in their homes, though over 50 villages have been totally destroyed and thousands of people are without any resources at all. Rebuilding will be a long, arduous process.”

A relief fund has been set up to aid the efforts of those helping the Tsimane affected by the flooding, Davis said. She said that while UNM researchers have already received decent funding, there is still a lot of work to be done and money needed for the campaign to be a success.

“So far we have raised about $20,000,” Davis said. “Our goal is $50,000. Because we already have full-time medical and research staff with equipment in the field, 100 percent of the money is going to assistance, rather than salaries and supplies.”

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