Life on Uros Islands

A unique way of life on islands of dried reeds.

By Ephemera documentary

Entering the Uros (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Lake Titicaca, on the border of Bolivia and Peru, is the highest navigable lake in the world and the site of a unique and ancient lifestyle. 

For thousands of years, the pre-Inca Uros community has inhabited floating, manmade islands on the surface of the lake. Their culture developed in relative isolation until tourists began arriving in the early 2000’s.  The Uros have since experienced a rise in their standard of living, but the constant contact with foreigners may ultimately test their commitment to their way of life. 




Uros islands from above (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

In October 2018, photographer Angelo Chiacchio - in his journey to the world's most fragile places and cultures - was a guest of a Uros family near Puno.  

Aerial view of Uros islands (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Nearly 8 kilometers from the city of Puno, Peru, you can observe peculiar floating patches on Lake Titicaca. 

Uros man on a boat (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Juan takes his boat out on a sunny day, hoping to catch fish. 

Uros man and child on a boat (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Juan belongs to the Uros. They have lived on the lake since the rise of the Inca empire.  

Today, Juan brings his 5-year old grandson with him to continue teaching him how to catch fish. 

Uros man fishing (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The Uros are skillful and patient fishermen. They place their nets in strategic spots throughout the lake, and return the following morning to retrieve their catch. 

Detail of uros boat (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

A closer look at Juan’s boat reveals that it is made entirely of reeds. Juan and his family built the boat in about 3 weeks. Since the plant slowly decomposes in water, the boat itself is not expected to last for more than a year.

Totora reed on Lake Titikaka (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The plant is known as “Totora.” It is abundant in the lake’s shallow parts.   Totora’s distinct properties have been critical to the survival of the Uros for thousands of years. 

Aerial view of Uros island (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Soundscape of Uros islands
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Such is their mastery in the use of Totora that the Uros create entire floating islands composed of reeds. 

Uros huts (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

An island is typically not more than 3 meters thick and needs continuous maintenance. Nonetheless, it is structurally sound and can support several small Totora huts. 

Uros family (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Juan returns to his net to recover his catch with the help of family members.

Portrait of Uros woman (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Juan's wife takes on most of the cooking and she will prepare the fish. She talks about her people with great pride."When the Inca expanded their empire, they wanted to impose the Quechua language on the Uros people. But our ancestors resisted and escaped to Lake Titikaka to preserve our heritage."

Old Uros cooking cookware (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Cooking food used to be quite a delicate and risky proposition. To prevent accidental fires, the Uros learned how to cook with fires lit on piles of stones. Today, they take advantage of modern stoves.

Portrait of Uros man (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Juan's son, Felix, was born on a floating island and has watched the local region’s recent transformation.

Foreigners began to visit the floating islands 20 years ago, and the locals developed a tourism industry. The influx of tourists has allowed Juan to stay on the lake instead of moving to Puno for work.

Uros child in a cabin (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Even the children play a role in welcoming guests. Growing up on the lake has allowed him to learn the ways of the Uros before him. "If you don't anchor the boat to the island, it won't be there when you wake up in the morning." 

Puno from a Uros island (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

As late afternoon unfolds,  it looks as though Uros heritage has stayed afloat for yet one more day. The bustling city of Puno provides a modern contrast in the background. 

Uros island in the evening (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Conclusion

In a world threatened by unsustainable development, the clever heritage of the Uros is an example of how humans can thrive while using renewable resources.   The growth of a tourist industry has brought new economic stability to the community.  Will this new economic lifeline help them keep their unique culture afloat or will it set them adrift toward assimilation and modernity? 

Terra by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Partnership by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

This story was created with the support of Art Works for Change, a nonprofit organization that creates contemporary art exhibitions and storytelling projects to address critical social and environmental issues.

Credits: Story

Written, shot and produced by Angelo Chiacchio
Copy editing: Al Grumet, Rajesh Fotedar

With the support of: Google Arts & Culture, Art Works for Change

Thanks to: Julisa Guillermo Jacinto, Juan Del Puerto, Felix Del Puerto, Axl Del Puerto

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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