Rosa Ruiz

Fellow Ashoka
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1996
This description of Rosa Ruiz's work was prepared when Rosa Ruiz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Rosa María Ruiz enlarges the concept of a national park to accommodate human settlement. In her work to protect Bolivia's new Madidi National Park, she has convinced governments, national and international agencies and scientific organizations that the Tacana Indians, who live on the land now proclaimed as national park, should be seen as a key asset for the Park and must be allowed to remain on their traditional lands.

A nova ideia

The Tambopata Candamo Reserved Zone of Bolivia, on the Peruvian border, has long been recognized by scientists as one of the world's most biologically diverse areas. But it took Rosa María Ruiz, an internationally trained Bolivian expert on community development and indigenous rights, to carry out the work necessary to define and legally establish a two million-hectare park there in 1995. She exploited the possibilities of a particular political moment in Bolivia, when the Natural Resources ministry had expressed a plan to create a park and the government had passed a law that allowed indigenous people to secure title to lands held in common. Mechanisms to implement either of these possibilities did not yet exist, but Rosa María created a model that implemented both. Its most remarkable accomplishment was that it included all the remote communities of Tacana Indians who were immediately affected by the creation of the park. Rosa María Ruiz understands that unless neighboring communities benefit from parks and conservation areas, there can be no just and sustainable way to operate them. Aided by a dedicated group of technical assistants, community workers and scientists, Rosa María Ruiz is organizing and training the indigenous Tacana people in the planning and administration of the new Madidi National Park. She helps them to secure title to their land in order to discourage colonization and create a protective buffer zone. She is creating health and adult education centers and promoting economic opportunities created by the park itself.
With the momentum of the Madidi experience, Rosa María is now working to unify five other protected areas in Bolivia and Peru to form a six-million-hectare chain of protected areas on the South American continent.

O problema

The new Madidi park lies along the border between Bolivia and Peru. The bio-diversity of the area is exuberantly rich, reflected in the advertisements on the Internet for birding and nature tours there to explore cloud forests and plants as well as wildlife, butterflies and birds. It is also the most threatened ecosystem in the tropics and one of the five most important in the world to protect, according to Conservation International. The main threats are from proposed road building with resulting colonization, mining of tin and other minerals and logging, especially of mahogany. The area is extremely attractive to outside commercial interests. Historically, in Bolivia, the establishment of a park doesn't necessarily mean that anything will change: the park can be created by the passage of a law and then forgotten. There is no administration trained to manage it, no infrastructure facilities including planned transportation to and within a park. Pervasive corruption means that, even after a park is set aside, the government may still simply go ahead and sell contracts to corporations to extract resources. Where park areas cross national borders there are no coordinated international protective strategies.
The Madidi park includes historical settlements of Tacana Indians. The land that they depend on for their historic subsistence livelihood has been eroded by mining and logging and its rivers by dynamite fishing. Because they are an untrained labor pool, until Rosa María included them in her idea, they had no alternatives but to earn money from the very companies that were damaging their land. Because they had no understanding of the country's law or how to use it, they were unable by themselves to leverage a provision that held promise for them. Bolivian law is very progressive in several areas related to ethnicity and provides measures by which groups who have historically held land in common can acquire community title to the land, but the government did not provide information or a process for the Tacana to do so.

A estratégia

The first step in Rosa María 's plan was to gain community support and to give communities a stake in the park's success. She formed a nonprofit organization, Eco-Bolivia, dedicated to community and indigenous rights and to environmental protection. Then, on foot, on balsa raft and by mule, she visited even remote hamlets to obtain support for creating the park. No community refused. She also organized communities to begin to establish schools and health centers; she showed them how to use the legal system and government programs to get title to their land. Beyond building political support for the creation of the park, with its protection of key areas from future loggers and hunters, Rosa María was extending a culture of respect for the value of the law. Over the years of international attention to the richness of the Madidi's bio-diversity, other organizations had done research on the wildlife and vegetation within the park and contributed their findings to Rosa María . She added three years of research on how the people lived and used the land. Eventually she took to the Natural Resources Ministry the tools the government needed to create the park: censuses, maps of resources, hydrology reports, detailed maps with proposed boundaries, signed petitions and a management plan. The years of tireless lobbying finally paid off: the President of Bolivia signed legislation to form the Madidi National Park on September 22, 1995.
During her fieldwork, Rosa María kept firm to her conviction that the relationship between the park and the local population must be mutually beneficial. Because of her work, the more than 2,000 Tacana families now hold title to sizeable tracts of land within the park, where they continue traditional practices. She has established local centers to train citizens in sustainable uses of the area's natural resources. As a result, communities are building wildlife refuges, camping facilities, trails and interpretive centers. Sometimes they supply lodging in their own homes and use their own boats. Local residents are being trained as guides and rangers. Even practitioners of traditional medicine are assisting by planting medicinal gardens and opening up community health centers. Unlike the custom in many other new parks, where outside consultants are contracted by the government to manage the parks, the Tacana manage the eco-tourism and related conservation activities themselves in "their" parks, relying on the new skills developed through Rosa María 's intervention.
The international scientific community has long supported the establishment of the park and continues to be involved in it. Scientists from all over the world are coming to study its unsurpassed diversity of flora and fauna from the research and observation centers set up in strategic areas throughout the park. Local residents work in the centers along with the researchers and share their knowledge. Local schools benefit from exhibits provided by the centers and from the distribution of environmental educational materials. Within the schools the children of the timber and mine workers learn about the environment and encourage their families in sustainable alternatives.
Now that the park is established, Rosa María plans to use her community involvement strategy to protect the park itself and to ensure that the Madidi National Park and the five other national parks on the Peru/Bolivia border continue to be protected and supported by the people. Her original community participation techniques serve as a model to guide other communities who wish to secure land titles and organize themselves. Rosa María has designed curriculum materials and a training system that is replicated by the people she has trained.
The international community acclaims Rosa María 's creation of the Madidi National Park as a model for creating and protecting national parks. She is currently working with Peruvian Ashoka Fellow Víctor Zambrano to secure an international agreement for regional park management between Bolivia and Peru; during a recent Ashoka panel meeting, they discussed bi-national management of this world treasure with the President of Bolivia.

A pessoa

In the 1950s, Rosa María's widowed mother rose to the task of supporting herself and her two daughters. She took a job selling mining equipment, which required her and the girls to travel all over Bolivia. Eventually she settled in the Bolivian jungle. Thus Rosa María's love affair with the magical world of the jungle began when she was a child and a teenager, living in and exploring the rivers, valleys and mountains of what is now the Madidi National Park. Even as a little girl, she felt that her life's work would include the protection of this vulnerable jungle area. Her life was also shaped by experience abroad. Fleeing Bolivia during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, Rosa María was exposed to social action in the United States. She was the co-founder and coordinator of the Washington Free Clinic and also analyzed global economic policies. Influenced by her mother's life (selling mining equipment is not a typical woman's work in Latin America) Rosa María developed an interest in women in development and women in the economy.
Returning to Bolivia, Rosa María founded women's rights organizations and worked with communities and organizations to plan and secure funds for infrastructure development. But all the various threads of her life came together in creating the Madidi National Park and an internationally acclaimed management plan to administer the park and other parks in the region.